Monday, November 21, 2005

Boundary-Breakers: Belonging in Bombay

This weekend I visited Bombay, an impromptu trip planned when I received an invite late last week from Anjali’s cousin Seema – she and a friend were planning to explore the city. So I hopped on the overnight Gujarat Mail train towards Mumbai Central; due to my late ticket purchase, I did not have my own sleeping berth, but rather had to share one with an aunty. Yes, that’s right…I shared a small 6 foot by 2.5 foot sleeper bench with some random aunty, my entire body pressed against the mercilessly vibrating metal wall of the train so as not to have any of it pressed against her. Needless to say, I got no sleep, due to discomfort and the fear of being pressed with charges should I so much as move a limb.

Eight eternal hours later, we arrived at Dadar station; I peeled myself from the cabin wall and flopped into the mess of rickshawallas and beggars greeting the train’s arrival. Seema and her friend Inith met me there, and we took a cab over to the Queen’s Necklace area of Worli Seaface, where Seema had managed to score a flat with a sea view.

As we went sightseeing, Seema and I discovered that being American carries a price. When we tried to enter a museum, the doorman peered suspiciously at us, and asked Inith (an Indian native) in Hindi where Seema and I were from. We replied in Gujarati that we were from Ahmedabad, but he flung our flimsy performance away, and marched us over to a police officer standing next to a special ticket booth. Here they asked us for 300 rupees each (the regular ticket price, which we had already paid, was 10 rupees). We refused, and were denied entrance…non-Indians had to pay 30 times the regular cost.

Indignant, we left. The loud and clear implication, later voiced explicitly by Seema’s aunt, was that “no matter how much of the language you speak, you will never be Indian.” Just as I learned when first entering Hong Kong over two months ago, red white and blue somehow emanates from my brown skin like the smell of dollar bills. Everyone wants a sniff. When vendors see an American, even one whose genes have assured him an Indian face and whose ideologies have sprung from the subcontinent, they catch the odor and happily hike their prices. Well-trained beggar children trail behind an American like a tail on a slow-moving comet. We’re not seen as Indian-Americans looking to reconnect with our culture of heritage – in the eyes of the Indian tourism industry, we’re oversized wallets. Belonging only to a global economy. Not really American, not really Indian, but vehicles of currency.

The specious flip side of this coin showed itself the next evening, when we decided to explore Bombay’s nightlife. Inith had other plans, so Seema and I started off with dinner at Indigo, a restaurant in Colaba that caters to a posh crowd. We walked in, and the first person our eyes met was Bollywood actor Rahul Bose, whom I recognized from the recent Hindi film Silsilay. Like the harmonica before an a capella performance, that note set the tone for the rest of the night.

We ate our dinner in the midst of tables of plastic people. The kind who are driven everywhere so they don’t have to step on the filthy street. The kind who use laughter as a social device. The kind whose company we would never be fit to have in our own country. Though the caste system doesn’t operate in the States, the economy operates everywhere, and it was startling to note that the converted dollars in our pockets meant that we were suddenly Upper Class in Bombay. Our dinner menus were personalized with our names. We were called “Sir” and “Madame.” Though the working class of the tourism industry refused to admit us as Indian, this new credit card class was happily accepting us as its own. Of course, the premise behind it was the same – both groups did not see us as people, but smelled our currency.

After a pricey dinner, we walked to the Taj Hotel to go to Insomnia, reputed to be the hottest new dance club in Bombay. Wandering around inside to find the club’s entrance, we spotted a spillage of fancy people through a glass doorway. Checking to see what the hubbub was about, we wandered into their midst, and suddenly Seema was paralyzed. I followed the gaze of her widened eyes, and saw Anil Kapoor, another Bollywood film star, walking away from a guarded door. Seema was shaking with nervous excitement by this point, but since I’m not much of a Bollywood fan, I was only overcome with curiosity – where was he coming from, and how could we get inside?

Now, here’s where our earlier experiences gave me a boost. I somehow became absolutely certain that if we were to try and break our way through the boundaries and into the place Anil Kapoor had just left, no one would stop us. In fact, people would welcome us. Not because movie stars normally welcome random people into their parties, but because the boundaries had already been broken for us by the color of our passports. We had been informed definitively on the streets that we were not Indian, but dollar bills in human form…and the smell of money knows no boundaries.

Buoyed by Plastic Confidence, I convinced Seema that we weren’t going to be dishonorably dishoomed by security guards, and we strolled through three patrolled glass doorways with our heads held high and our noses in the air. Inside at last, we were greeted by two rows of servers with silver platters, offering us fine wines and hors d’oeuvres, calling us “Sir” and “Madame.” We haughtily stepped past them, and into a lush room where the people were as polished as the furniture. Gorgeous people, many of them models of the two classic varieties: Beautiful and Disturbingly Skinny. The media was there, filming their plastic conversations. Full of purposeful laughter, and full of Bollywood (I didn’t recognize anyone, but Seema told me Mini Mathur was there, and a couple of others whose names I don’t remember).

Seema’s nervousness finally turned into a need to go to the bathroom, so she left while I tried to figure out who to mingle with. I decided on a harmless-looking photographer, who told me we were at a Mont Blanc fashion show for the Indian designer Shahab Durazi. Next I spoke with a random guy on a couch, who told me he owns a fashion store (not a clothing store…a fashion store). He asked me who I was, and I told him I was some invitee’s friend from America, and that we had arrived late and had missed the show. His eyes exploded into white. “You missed the show??? You missed EVERYTHING IN LIFE!! How could you miss the show? Shahab Durazi is the best yah, simply the best designer…his colors, his style…last year Aishwarya Rai closed out the show, man…YOU MISSED EVERYTHING IN LIFE!!” The man was obsessed, so I left him. I was just working up the courage to talk to a couple of models sitting at the bar, when Seema came back and said, “you’ll never guess what just happened.”

On her way back from the bathroom, she had accidentally entered the dance club Insomnia from the back door, and gotten in free (it’s usually a 1200 rupee cover charge). She then made sure the doormen recognized her face, and told them she would be back in one minute with her friend. We went back to the hotel’s main lobby, and just then Anil Kapoor walked by again, so we introduced ourselves and I took a picture of him and Seema (I’ll post these pics once she emails them to me).

We searched for and found Insomnia. A sign outside said “Closed To Public For Private Party,” and four doormen stood guard with a large guestlist, checking everyone’s name. But Seema’s ploy worked perfectly, and the two of us walked straight through with confidence, giving a knowing nod to one of the doormen and not deeming to look at any of the others. People with the smell of money on them, getting in for free where they shouldn’t be.

Inside, we discovered it was a pre-wedding dance party for a young couple and all their friends. Now it was my turn to be nervous…pretending to be someone important to get into a celebrity party was one thing, but pretending to be someone’s relative or friend in a close-knit crowd was far trickier. Everyone was greeting long-lost friends with hugs and knowing slaps on the back. We could make up a story, but would it work? I searched my memory of the movie “Wedding Crashers” for inspiration.

But this time, it was Seema’s turn to take the position of confidence. She mingled effortlessly, telling people we had been invited to an exclusive fashion show upstairs and now had the hotel’s permission to check out its other private parties. I left her and wandered around the party. I decided to use a different story, and took the identity of “Samir’s cousin from America”…firstly because it’s a true statement, and secondly because in a crowd that large, there was bound to be more than one Samir, and I could take advantage of the resulting confusion. People believed it, and when they asked whether I was bride’s side or groom’s side, I answered randomly. But late into the night I had grown tired of creating new identities, and I finally told a close friend of the groom, “I’m no one. I crashed your party. It’s fun.” He was too drunk to make much of it, so I left him stumbling and enjoyed some chocolate mousse served in a crystal glass. I still didn’t know who was getting married, but they had to be pretty wealthy to be able to rent out Bombay’s hottest new club in a 5 star hotel on a Saturday night, and pay for everybody’s drinks.

I savored the mousse, and marveled at what had taken place. In one crazy weekend, we had managed to do what many people who live their entire lives in Bombay never get to do. We crossed boundaries. We went from markets on the street to parties with movie stars, and the wealthiest of wedding functions. (In fact, Seema’s mingling at Insomnia had been so successful, that by the end of the night she got us both invited to the actual wedding!) The next day, Inith was speechless as we told her the story, and she rightly commented that most Indian youth who dream of meeting the stars never do. But we, scented human dollar bills, had the right-priced ticket to get wherever we wanted to go.

I asked myself – what am I? The entire weekend, I had pretended to be different things, trying not to be an NRI for the sake of museum tickets, gladly being an NRI for the sake of upper class parties. I’ve never felt truly American in the U.S., and now on the other side of the globe I find no one believes I’m truly Indian. I wondered…as I dance between my two cultures, will I ever get the steps right, or will I continue to be off-beat in both America and India? And does my perceived culture change internationally, owing to the inequalities of the global economy? Bombay’s lower and middle classes didn’t accept me as one of their own, because NRIs are not “true Indians.” Bombay’s upper class let me in not because of the color of my skin, or the hue of my spirit, but because of the green in my wallet and the white in my lies. Perhaps being able to easily cross boundaries brings with it a price…where do you really belong?

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