Though it may be a rather inauspicious beginning, my affection for India took root in a restaurant on the East Coast of the United States, where I went with friends, because they wanted me to try Indian food. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the menu, with its unfamiliar words like Rogan Josh and tandoori, naan and paneer, masala and biryani.
Well, I adored it, and still do, and still frequent that same restaurant once i can.
My dinner hosts during that first Indian culinary experience had been to India several times. They told me of places that they had seen and stayed, people they’d encountered, the weather, and various other details of their travels there. Particularly memorable to me was their comment that, for a visitor, India is a rustic you either love or hate. For me, it was love, though I acknowledge India’s many, many charms are accompanied by some difficult and harsh realities.
My first trip to India came in consequence of work and a company exhibition. Though I had listened to friends tell stories, I actually was not certain what to expect, or even how I’d react. So into Mumbai I flew, full of anticipation.
The primary impressions more likely to strike you’re the stark contrasts in almost everything you encounter. You arrive at a modern airport that’s fully air conditioned, clean and comfortable, and utterly teeming with people. Walk just outside the airport door, and you’re greeted with masses of people in absolutely stifling heat, and an almost palpable series of currents of motion.
Mumbai, also called Bombay, is chaotic, vibrant, dirty and dusty. It is probably the most populated city in India, the fourth most populated city in the world, and remains immensely important to India’s economy. It’s a very, very old port city, which began as a fishing community, and it is built on an archipelago of seven islands – so it’s pretty dense. Mumbai has a distinct air, and, in my opinion, reflects the character of an older India in that it has not changed lots over time.
Today, Mumbai, like so many cities in India, exhibits total luxury, alongside abject poverty. Practically next door to a sumptuous, well-appointed hotel boasting every modern convenience and an eager, capable serving staff, might be a shantytown, or a series of shacks propped up against the exterior wall of a home or garden.
In India’s larger cities, roads are paved and traffic moves with a frenetic, unpredictable rhythm. Vehicles of every kind weave in and out of lanes. There are cars and cabs, trucks of all types (and a few which probably shouldn’t be on the road!), many, many motorcycles with goodness knows how many people on them, and carts pulled by animals. All share the road with the occasional cow or buffalo, that are viewed as sacred, and so allowed to roam freely where they choose.
Outside the larger cities, there appear to be no rules of the road, and so it’s every man, bike, car, truck, motorcycle and animal for himself. Accidents are accepted as a part of life. I don’t recommend watching through the front window whilst driving.
Mumbai is critical historically, important economically and commercially, and represents my first real impression of India. Of course, India is a very large country, with a vast cultural, architectural and culinary landscape, and a veritable wealth of products, textiles and artisan quality crafts.