First contact

This piece was part of a collection of work I completed while in Mumbai, India. I was selected for the New Colombo Scholarship program, which allowed me to work as a foreign correspondent and funded my trip to India in September 2016.

Mumbai is where chaos comes to meet its maker.

Twenty million people rattle through narrow streets. They pile into buses, taxis, rickshaws, onto bicycles, into shops no bigger than a toilet cubicle; they crush through markets and shopping centres; they ascend what seems like hundreds of floors to huddle on balconies, surrounded by multicoloured clothes on washing lines. They rely heavily on their car horns. They smile unconditionally when I catch their eye.

It’s a city that embraces you so tightly, it’s your job to choose whether to accommodate or suffocate. The skyline is apocalyptic, framed by austere and long orphaned concrete skyscrapers. Slums stretch for miles around, lined with stripped cars and piles of garbage, as if every morsel of comfortability has been sucked from the outside world and injected into a smaller, harder one. The city is unpredictable, suddenly giving way to lush, expansive vegetation or converging into insane intersections, where every man and his dog are trying to cross a gridlocked road. The wealthiest man in Mumbai, whose home boasts a room full of artificial snow, leaves his mansion abandoned on instruction from his spiritual advisor, who felt the feng shui was somewhat off. At the top of a tower around the city centre, vultures pick apart the corpses of the Parsi community who wish to give back their earthly bodies to nature. It’s an entangled mess of culture and custom, both bewitching and utterly terrifying.

The tiniest soupçon of this in Australia would drive us all to madness. We would be constantly irritable, rigorously unfriendly and prone to road-rage or spontaneous fits of tears. We would probably all have extremely high blood pressure. Yet, in Mumbai, people ease around the city’s many contrasts, navigating potholes with uncompromising kindness. Every nervous smile doled out by a foreigner is returned with an amicable waggle of the head or a beaming grin. This is by no means to say that life here is easy, nor that the hardest parts are lived out with the cheerful, hard-knock-life peppiness of the stoic (and imaginary) second-world citizen. From the fifteenth floor of a fancy hotel, it’s easy to forget the stench of reality outside.

Even so, the warmth I found today struck me harder than the mud or noise. It takes a potent mixture of strength and generosity for a city like Mumbai to welcome twenty prying journalists with open eyes and curious hearts. I only hope I can give back as much to them.

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