I can’t see the district names painted on the rear windows of taxis. I can’t make out the expressions on people’s faces as they bargain relentlessly with the shopkeepers. I have no idea where I am in the city, or how to get back to where we’re staying. I am in an air-conditioned bus ten feet off the ground, physically above the citizens of a city I call myself familiar with. I’m seeing and doing things I’ve never come close to seeing and doing before. I am a foreigner.
Whenever I’ve visited Mumbai before Niswarth, I’ve been picked up by my family in a windows-down taxi, free to smell the air and able to hear the horns blaring outside. I reach our home, dragging our suitcases up three flights of stairs, and fall on a cot-like bed, praying that jetlag will let me go to sleep for once. Comfortable and content, I never feel like an outsider. I’m Indian! I come here every few years! I go shopping, eat out, and borrow library books like any other citizen, although I’m always accompanied by my family. I know how to react when I see a beggar sticking her hand through our taxi window when we are stopped at a signal; I know to stare straight ahead when a stranger tries to get my attention. I’m even somewhat familiar with politics. Nothing is unfamiliar, nothing is out of place. I am home.
I expected to feel the same way when we arrived in Mumbai a few days ago, but that was not the case. As we entered Dharavi, it dawned on me that I was grossly unfamiliar with certain parts of the city.
Yes, I had walked down many a street in Bombay, seeing, hearing and smelling the tarp-covered homes on the side of the road that people reside in. The spectrum of incomes are displayed almost in full on the streets; just twenty feet from the bungalow of a movie star is a shanty, home to at least five people. Between the two, other Mumbai citizens walk to vegetable stalls or fabric stores to complete their daily tasks. Just past this sight, a thin man with dirty clothes and tattered shoes pushes a cow around with a bamboo staff. I felt like I had seen a lot of Mumbai just from walking around with my grandmother, but I never considered what I hadn’t seen until Dharavi.
Dharavi did not shock me or even surprise me. It did, however, manage to clearly differentiate my Niswarth experience from any of my prior trips to India. I was a foreigner, touring Asia’s biggest slum with eighteen other foreigners. Although I understand Hindi and Tamil, I can’t read or write either, and hence, I could not know exactly what any of the stores or signs we passed by said. Certain smells threw me off balance; I couldn’t place them, and certain people did the same. I was most definitely not at home.
There were a few things on that tour that I knew, and many others that I did not. It taught me the importance of perspective and surroundings; my idea of Bombay was filtered and sheltered by my family members for good reason. As a young child, I didn’t need to know absolutely everything about the city where my mother grew up. I just needed the happy memories of home and heart. But on Niswarth, I enter every situation only slightly more prepared than everyone else, which is not nearly enough to make a difference in my perspective. I’m an outsider, but that’s why I’m on Niswarth: to learn, absorb, and reflect on things I didn’t before. I need to be at least a little foreign to understand things I don’t already: I need to be uncomfortable. And I’m okay with doing that for another week and a half.