The first time I came to Mumbai three years ago I was here for less than 24 hours for a very confusing fusion performance of ballet and kathak at a corporate gala in a huge hotel. The MC for the event was Hrithik Roshan who told me he liked my “outfit” before jumping on a motorcycle he then rode onto stage. The “outfit” he was referring to was my costume- a white Swan Lake tutu, complete with sparkles, tights, pointe shoes, and feathers in my hair. After my star-struck vision cleared I performed in front of an extremely large crowd of wealthy men eating dinner. To say the least, it was absurd.
The best part of the evening though was after the show came to a close at around midnight. The rest of the dancers and I were Delhi-ites of sorts so we all decided to pile into a car that would drive us around the city for an evening tour. It was late and completely dark so I expected the city to be sound asleep (like the other 99% of India after dark). But as we began driving south the city came to life. We passed Juhu Beach where even at 1am you could see rowdy boys partying in the sand and young couples dining in a nearby café. We drove through Colaba and past the Gateway of India and watched a group of girls leaving a nearby restaurant flaunting flowing summer dresses. The city seemed to be filled with laughter and music that leaked from the windows and rooftops of its nightlife.
At the end of our tour we stopped the car at the recently grief stricken Taj Hotel which was then in the process of repair. In the mood for reflection we decided to walk along the ocean walkway. The bay breeze, smells of the salty water, and the sound of the water hitting the walls below relieved me. The vast space open in front of me leading to the horizon of the waterline gave me a much-needed feeling of freedom. It calmed my soul.
Walking along this seafront for the first time looking out across the water at the rest of the city skyline loads of questions popped into my head. What was this city? How could a city like this, so vastly different from anywhere in northern India I had seen, boast the same national identity as its diverse counterparts? How was it that this extravagant Taj Hotel was part of the same cosmopolis as the vast slums I had seen engulfing Mumbai from my plane’s window the day before? How was it that this city, the largest in India with approximately 20 million people, almost crowded to the point of suffocation seemed to be welcoming me with open arms?
The energy of the city tantalized me with romance. Romance of an India, or maybe a million Indias, I did not yet know. Then and there I fell deeper in love with India but also with this city I knew nothing about. And after leaving Mumbai the next morning, shaking the sparkles and feathers from my hair, I knew I would have to return one day.
Fast forward three years to May 3, 2012, five months ago. I opened an email sitting at work in New York and literally began to cry with joy (cheesy I know, but its true) when I read that I had been accepted to the AIF Fellowship. Beyond the pure joy and exhilaration of being accepted to the fellowship I was overcome with excitement that I had been placed in Mumbai.
Now sitting in my apartment in Bandra West (which I now understand as the coolest neighborhood ever) listening to the drums of a Ganpati parade passing by my window I tip my hat in thanks to AIF for reuniting me with the beautiful and infinitely crazy Mumbai. I can now bask in my old romanticized memories of this city and create new ones as I wander the streets once more with rejuvenated excitement.
Mumbai is a cacophony of sights, smells, sounds, animals, and people unlike anything else in India (and therefore probably anything else in the world). To try and explain to someone who has never been to India just how different each city within India is seems impossible. Even beginning to explain one city in India to someone is difficult enough.
Mumbai is a world, nay universe, in its entirety.
For example only three weeks in and already I feel like Mumbai has dragged me through every range of emotion humanly possible.
That everything I eat- every single thing- might make me sick.
That an auto-walla only speaks Marati and takes me for a three hour tour of Andheri after work to pick up his mom and take her to the tailor before finally bringing me home in the opposite direction.
That you are covered in others’ sweat getting off the Mumbai public train during rush hour and encounter a heard of sheep walking down the up stairs that lead to your exit.
Knowing that you look really strange in your salwar kameez walking into the canteen at your office (as the only American amongst some 3000 employees in the Bank’s building) and not really caring cause you’re enjoying the conversation with your hilarious coworkers.
That somehow Mumbai exists. Everything in Mumbai can leave you awestruck- its size, its population, its diversity, its youth, its poverty, its wealth, and its culture.
For the internet-walla you called while you were stuck in traffic who is still waiting for you when you get home three hours later, patiently.
For the man across the street from my apartment who built an entire 10 foot brick wall meticulously, carefully and quietly yesterday.
For when I venture out into the depths of the city with my fellow Mumbaikar fellows looking to find new friends. We all enjoy each others’ company even if/when the night goes terribly wrong.
For India. And realizing that during all the anticipation and nervousness involved in my process of moving here I had forgotten all along what had drawn me here in the first place- My love for India.
Now that I’m back in India for the first time since my 4-month stint while studying abroad in Delhi, everything is equally familiar and unfamiliar. I feel as though I have never left and have never been here before simultaneously. And now after a few weeks of getting settled into my apartment, my neighborhood and my work I feel like I’ve been here forever but also just got here.
Everything in India is relative. Concepts such as late vs. early, sweet vs. spicy, hot vs. cold, awkward vs. funny, and charming vs. creepy can only be measured by the beholder. And as any American who has spent time in India has figured out, I know that these relative correlatives should never be compared to seemingly similar concepts in the US or really anywhere else. Being in the present here is all about the process of slipping into the norm – allowing yourself to let go of all your pre-established notions, clocks, and compasses to establish new ones.
Striving to do this allows me to really enjoy India. And letting go of any sense of control of my surroundings is a challenging but phenomenally important opportunity for me to grow.
But I also know that I am not here to simply acclimate to India. I am not here to just enjoy India’s rich culture. Part of the reason AIF has sponsored the rest of the fellows and I to work at our various NGO’s is to allow us to contribute our fresh perspective to the challenges non-profit work in India brings. I therefore want to make sure I can incorporate my own reasoning and background into challenges I face at work and in daily life when they are appropriate and useful. Balancing these motivations- leaning back and pashing forward- is difficult. And my ability to act upon this type of cultural sensitivity will be what leads to the success of my work here. Wish me luck 🙂
So what exactly and I doing here and why? I am here as an American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellow for Service in India. I work for AIF who placed me with the ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth for the next 10 months to gain work experience in the development sector in India. ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth is part of ICICI Group, which stemmed from ICICI Limited, the former leader of infrastructure and industry development in India. Now the group also includes ICICI Bank- the second largest bank in India and ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth -ICICI’s Corporate Social Responsibility branch. I am working at ICICI Foundation with the communications and documentation team as essentially a communications assistant who aids the programme staff and the rest of the foundation staff in getting their voices heard and their work covered. My main project for ICICI Foundation will be working to create a centralized system of communications for the staff internally so that the foundation can be updated regularly with achievements, events, and initiatives the remote programmes have to share with the foundation when they’re out in the field. I will also be revitalizing their website content, social media, and print publications. Additionally my work in the office will be supplemented with site visits to as many of the foundation’s 10+ programs as possible where I will be learning about their work on the ground, writing case studies, and giving communications briefs to the staff to encourage them to hopefully write their own case studies as well.
Awkward Beginnings and Acceptance
On my first day of work I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. In the auto ride on the way there I was completely terrified. I kept asking myself, “Am I ready for this??” In my head I could only respond, “Ready for what? I don’t know what ‘this’ is….” As I approached Bandra Kurla Complex where I work which is a cluster of all of Mumbai’s highest sky rises that house India’s largest corporate headquarters I was completely dumbfounded by their scale, architecture, and cleanliness. By the time I actually reached the ICICI Bank building, my anxiety had built up far past any level of comfort.
When I got out of the rickshaw I was mentally paralyzed. Now what? I was awkwardly 15 minutes early so I stood outside the security gate pretending to text someone on my tiny Indian phone as bank employees passed by curiously observing my existence. Finally when it was time, I showed the security guard my passport, received an official guest badge, walked through a metal detector, got my bag searched, and wrote my laptop’s serial number in a log (similar procedures you might go through while boarding a plane).
All morning I met the foundation’s staff and after lunch I was put to work making phone calls to NGO’s we were inviting to participate in an initiative called Better Tomorrow. As I made the phone calls I was sitting in the office with everyone listening in on me. Fifteen minutes in I still had about 20 phone calls to make and I could tell my staff was beginning to listen closely to try and get to know me better. Some of the NGO reps I talked to on the phone were extremely short with me, some were unpleasant, some couldn’t even hear me cause they were out in the field, and others were extremely friendly and wanted to chat.
When one conversation went particularly badly my desk mate suggested I try and speak more slowly because my accent was too thick. I felt embarrassed- what if I was disappointing them because I couldn’t even make some phone calls?…. in English!
The one conversation went extremely well- perhaps too well. For some reason one rep was very excited I had called. He asked me where exactly I was from, where my family lived, why I was in India, what I was doing with AIF, what I was doing with ICICI Foundation, and finally tried to convince me to go join his NGO instead. Everyone in the office began to cry with laughter as they overheard this extravagant conversation progress. One of my coworkers even decided she should try and yell in background to tell him, “Katie is ours!” Ten minutes later when I finally wrapped up the conversation and hung up the phone everyone clapped.
“This was your initiation.” My boss said with a huge smirk on her face. “You have passed.” Finally after a day of awkward encounters, the ultimate success: acceptance.
Now when my rickshaw approaches ICICI’s towers I feel empowered. When I get walk to through security with my employee badge the guard says hello. And when I log in my laptop’s serial number the women who check my bag know my name….we even exchange friendly greetings in Hindi. And when I need to take care of a tricky phone call in the office in front of everyone I no longer need to worry about what my coworkers will think. They’re on my side- were a team.
Let the work begin. I’m back.