Cat, rat, dog…cow, monkey, crow?
I’ve been getting a lot of interesting everyday wildlife here, including squirrels that dart like lizards and even wandering centipedes! In Mumbai, there are heaps of stray cats and dogs on the street (even tiny little grubby kittens!), and it was initially quite a change in mentality for me when we were instructed to avoid them because I would naturally go and say hi to any dogs or cats I saw at home. We’ve all been told to keep away from dogs because of rabies, and a friend of mine told me about being chased once by a stray dog, so I was a bit on edge about keeping away from them. I also felt really sad that we couldn’t help these strays – especially when seeing a cat with one eye or a dog curled up in the dust sleeping on its thin paws.
But now that a few days have passed, I’ve come to realise there’s a big difference between “stray” and “feral.” Funnily enough, the stray animals are far calmer and used to humans than the spoiled pets you occasionally see being walked on leashes! Rather than fear or pity, I’ve come to regard the strays of Mumbai with respect. They lead independent lives in the bowels of the city, navigate traffic and crowds better than I do, and still find time to curl up in the dust, under a car, or alongside a friendly street hawker.
Something else I did not expect about the local wildlife here is the crows. Crows! I feel like I’m trapped in an Edgar Allen Poe story. This is my first time seeing them in real life – or hearing them, actually, because I definitely heard them first. I guess every film soundtrack ever has soaked into my brain. They are slightly terrifying and also a bonus alarm clock, hooray.
We went to see the current biggest thing in India; the latest Bollywood film called Pathaan, which was released just before India Republic Day, and the first movie in a while from the king of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. And Pathaan was incredible. What a work of art. I went in with zero expectations because I don’t usually love actions, but wow. So good. Every single genre was in there – it was musical, funny, heartbreaking, dramatic, thrilling, ridiculous, beautiful…and so self-aware that the crazy shenanigans actually added to it. The plot was amazing, and the ads? You never know what’s coming! It’s also incredibly satisfying to have a movie hero that you just know is gonna succeed and make ridiculously impossible but super cool moves along the way, so you don’t have to worry and can just enjoy the ride. It was so patriotic that I’m starting to feel convinced to love India, and don’t get me started on the theatre experience. People cheer and whoop and whistle anytime a lead appears or does something cool, and you just get swept along with the fervour. I absolutely wish we had some of that theatre culture in New Zealand – it feels as though you’ve been part of an experience and a community rather than just watching a film!
We looked up all of the main actors in Pathaan and were surprised to note that Shah Rukh and Salman Khan are 57, Deepika Padukone is 37, and John Abraham is 47 – significantly older than I would have expected. When compared with Hollywood’s infamous ageism, especially for women, I was pleasantly surprised at the length of careers all four have enjoyed.
At the start of the film, everybody stood up for the national anthem, which absolutely set the tone for the rest of the experience. I found it interesting to think that we don’t really have the same levels of patriotism in NZ and are more cynical (imagine somebody saying “Fight for Mother NZ”??), which has advantages and disadvantages. I mean, I probably wouldn’t want to die for our country (and the villain in Pathaan had some pretty good reasons why not to) and have always been glad we don’t have cult-like pledges, but at the same time, there is something beautiful in that level of spirit.
The girls of Desire Society
It’s been fantastic getting to know everyone at Desire Society. The kids are so similar to kids anywhere in many ways, but on the other hand, I keep coming across small but significant differences in cultural knowledge bases that surprise me. They love BTS and Mukbang videos but have never heard of seaweed or sushi. One girl wears a T-shirt with Patrick Starfish on it, and another girl wears a T-shirt with The Beatles, but when I try to bond over these, they’ve never heard of SpongeBob or the Fab Four. Doraemon, Barbie, and Tom & Jerry are popular subjects, though! I guess there are many Indian subjects I am equally ignorant about (I had a thorough education on food and favourite Bollywood stars), but it still makes me realise how fortunate I am to have the ability to choose my own T-shirts according to subjects I know and like. In fact, I have so many clothes at home that it’s silly, whereas these girls have just enough to meet their needs – and that’s after being well cared for at an orphanage!
Another difference I’ve noticed between the girls at Desire Society and those at home is just how friendly, polite and hospitable they are. I’m used to kids being…well, kids! With all the brutal honesty, stroppiness and occasional temper tantrums built in. But these girls are always cleaning up and telling me to sit, and they even ask me to teach them English – a far cry from some of the reluctant tweens I’ve tutored back home! I’m not sure if this is due to the cultural difference since there’s definitely an appreciation for education and hospitality here, or if it’s because these girls have been dealt a trickier hand in life and are basically the opposite of spoiled. I’ve also read that kids tend to save their bad behaviour for when they feel totally safe and can ‘let loose’, so maybe being on edge from earlier hardships is a factor. Who knows!
We went to Lollapalooza the other night, and I kept thinking how this other “rich” section of my life is so alien and separated from the kids I’m working with and what they know and experience. At one point, I wanted to show them a picture of our next-door neighbour’s cat at home in NZ and was embarrassed to realise that our swimming pool was in the background. Compared to where I am now, it felt like showing off. I mean, who the hell owns a swimming pool? Or goes to music festivals? Working Emma and Sightseeing Emma are like two totally different people in terms of baselines and money. I really wish I could bring these kids into the other spheres of my life and show them NZ in person. They are such wonderful human beings, and I feel so lucky to have been given this job and the chance to get to know them!
Life as a Mumbaikar
I’m getting used to how things are here fairly quickly. When I first came to Desire Society, while there’s nothing wrong with the building, it’s definitely not a mansion and is fairly sparsely furnished. To my NZ eyes, the room surprised me – there’s one big communal room for playing/learning/eating, with a separate-off office space made with some big filing cabinets and some computer desks. One of my early thoughts was that it would probably look lovely with a lick of paint. But now it seems totally normal, and I don’t really notice it as anything out of the ordinary. Similarly, the enormous crows, crazy traffic, and shoddy buildings I walk past in the suburbs are just part of the scenery these days. It’s amazing how fast your baseline changes!
I still haven’t really gotten used to eating rice and curry with my hands, though. I try it for a bit at work; then, they take pity on me and offer me a spoon! I feel a bit disappointed in myself because I usually try to make an effort towards authenticity for the cuisine I’m eating if I can, but I really struggle here with the feeling of goopiness. Maybe I’ve found my cutlery end of the road! I did try to get around it by using roti to scoop my rice and sauce, but apparently, that’s even more sacrilegious…
Learning to speak and read basic Hindi definitely makes a difference. It’s lots of fun trying to work out the transliterations of English words on railway stations and shopfronts! I’d absolutely recommend anyone coming here to learn some Hindi, and I regret not doing more beforehand myself. A lot of people here speak Marathi, the state language, but most speak Hindi too. Another super important factor is being part of a group – that safety net and communal experience help so much.
Reading my book on the train today, I’m starting to feel like I’ve stopped sightseeing and started living here. I’m glad we get the chance to experience Mumbai more as locals rather than purely as tourists (although there’s been plenty of time for Tourist Emma to get ripped off, too)!