In the only Jewish studies class I ever took, my professor told me that the Hebrew Testament is full of the distrust of cities. I can see why. Cities have a mind of their own. They eat things and dissolve things, and turn people and buildings and trees and oceans into things they weren’t before. Life is more difficult in a city, but it is also so much more interesting. There are things you forget and things you learn, and once you are consumed by a city its pretty hard to fight your way out again.
I can’t imagine what these people would say if they came to Mumbai now. Actually, there was once a strong Jewish population here in Mumbai, one of the oldest and least accosted Jewish communities in the world. They were said to have come here after the destruction of one of the temples by Rome (first or second is undecided upon), and since then lived here in relative peace, absorbed by the world of many-faced gods. Now, or so my Holy Cow book tells me, most have moved to Israel, and the population here is almost none.
Mumbai is definitely one of those cities with a power to consume, absorb, elevate, and permanently change. The local trains are grated tin cans that shudder down the tracks, and people hang out the doors (that are never closed) and jump off as it is still moving. They fight to get on, and it is common to be blooded by entering and exiting the train. It’s like the new version of a child’s coming of age even–the day the boy enters the Men’s car on the Mumbai local train, he is no longer in the world of women, where they push and yell, but understand–now he is in the world of men, where you fight and maim and rage just to get on and off and ride along the tracks–he is in the world of men as he travels with thousands of people in the tide of the city.
Women, luckily, we get to stay in the ladies car our whole life, and never have to go through the jarring experience of that violent ride. Though, the fisherwomen and the commuters, and the sellers and everyone else, wearing full saris and dressed like flowers, these women can throw a good punch, catch you at the door of the train, sling a good curse word in your direction, and–as I discovered–steal your phone out of your bag without you even noticing. There’s less blood for sure, but probably just as much madness.
There’s something carnal yet warped about living in this kind of city. Like it’s full of ancient brutishness, but also a shrine to the mad god, part of a trance that the shaman goes on–part of a vision that makes no sense, yet somehow belongs in the grand scheme of a larger, less insane picture.
I was supposed to go to Bandstand today, just to go walking and exploring in my neighborhood. But I got busy with writing. I’ve been quite bad about blogging, but the internet comes in and out, and there are six of us sharing it. But I have been writing on my own computer. I’m preparing for Nano, and I’m journaling a lot there. I’ve also been playing an embarrassing amount of videogames, which make my neck hurt, but carry me far far away from this world for hours, and that makes me feel good when I need it. Doing this work is hard. It’s hard in a different way from Korea, and it’s easy in some ways–I don’t always have to be on my toes teaching. But it is hard, and it taxes you. I take so long to get acclimated to a place, and I don’t have much longer here. Twenty days, most of which will be working. I do have a couple weekend trips in mind, so I’m hoping to complete them, but I spend most of my energy on engaging with the students at the Khar school. Some of them have amazing stories.
Marc,one of our volunteers, is now working out at a gym that cost him five dollars for 3 months. He works out with Malesh, one of our students and construction/handy staff. Malesh lives, with his little sister, Parvati, at the school. He’s learning how to cook. There used to be a group of orphans at the school. One of them cooked, but something happened, and he’s disappeared. (I think it was something dishonorable, but it’s not my business.) So now Malesh is learning to cook. He cooks good Maggi noodles, and he tells me so. (Like in every country I go to, I am a kind of food. This time, I’m noodles, of the same brand from whence Maggi-cube came). Malesh was found living under a boat a few years back, with Parvati, who was dying of TB. He survived by begging. They were in and out of homes of family, orphanages, hospitals, everything, until they settled in the school. Now he works out with a Canadian man who, at mid life, quit his banking job to follow his passions, and cooks ramen noodles for his little sister, who is no longer dying, and can cling to your shoulders for hours on end.
It’s a pretty spectacular story, if you sit down to think about it. But these days, all the stories are like that, and in order not to be overwhelmed, I don’t think about it too terribly much. It’s odd, and kind of amazing, how people just become people as soon as they’re right in front of you. Once you enter into a certain kind of relationship with someone, their story can fade into the background, and you are person to person. When it’s teacher to student, or peer to peer, that’s spectacular. But sometimes that’s done on class lines, or racial lines, or other things–beggar to white girl, or man to woman (not always bad), or servant to master, or sometimes parent to child–you forget certain stories when you shouldn’t. Interesting, how humanity can do that, and how much it can sway in either direction.