Monday 27 August 2012

Welcome to Mumbai

The ‘Maximum City’ – Mumbai, is one of the most vibrant cities that you will come across. Everything about this city is so intense, from the overcrowded public transport system to your usual hangouts like Marine Drive and Chowpatty.  Every experience is magnified a hundred times - Mumbai, it’s always in your face! Life is fast paced; this is no place for the slow and laid back! Sights – seas of people, sounds – every driver is honking for no damn reason, even smells – you know you are in Mumbai the moment you step off that plane/train. Everything is extreme, to the max! If you are a tourist, there are too few places for sightseeing; but there are infinite unique experiences to be relished here. We love our city this way, we were born and raised this way and we don’t want it any other way. But what about foreigners who are planning to move to Mumbai? How must they handle the intensity and extremity of this city?
With this question in mind we set out in search of expats who have recently moved to Mumbai. As luck would have it, we didn’t need to travel far - we found some in blogosphere. Before long we were in a coffee shop having conversation with a British expat couple, Paul andJulia Smith. Paul has been managing a consumer magazine here since February and Julia joined him in June after giving up an accounting job in London. We were very excited to learn about their experiences of Mumbai so far.
Kids trying to make a human pyramid (all pictures are from Julia's blog - BombayJules)
Paul had first visited India in June 2011, on a weeklong business trip slap bang in the middle of monsoon. The heavy and unending downpour did not impress him and he looked forward to the day of his departure. Happily back at his home in London, Julia surprised him with a question, “What if your company asks you to move to India?” But that is exactly what happened - after a few more business trips to Mumbai, his company finally asked him to move to India for a yearlong project. By this point he had already grown to appreciate the city and its people and had started to really enjoy doing business here.  Paul and Julia discussed the move in depth and as they were seeking new life experiences, decided that they would take the plunge.
The first task was for Paul to find accommodation in a nice locality in Mumbai (as Julia was still back home in the UK finishing her contract). After having seen over 80 properties he finally settled for one in Bandra – a neighbourhood that came highly recommended. Even though there are many expats to be found in Bandra it was not this that was the deciding factor. Instead, it was the cosmopolitan atmosphere with the area’s many restaurants and services and the foods to be found on Pali Market that would help them mix a western lifestyle with the Indian experience. After Julia joined her husband in June on a spousal visa, she was determined that she did not want to spend her time dwelling only in the expat community.  So prior to coming out, she arranged a placement with an NGO that works to improve mother and child health and nutrition in underprivileged parts of the city. Julia admits that she doesn’t have any ‘save the world’ ambitions, but working for the NGO provides her with the opportunity to explore the city better, meet local people, understand Indian culture and traditions, whilst also giving something back to the community. “This gives me an insight into aspects of Indian life that you would not otherwise get”.
As a tourist there is not much to see in Mumbai. In London you could go to a new place every day of the year! I was worried that Julia would get bored in Mumbai if she did not work”, says Paul.  Both are very frank to admit that Mumbai was not the first place in the world that sprung to mind for places to relocate to. Maybe they would have preferred New York, Tokyo or Barcelona. However, they had been living in London for a long time and things were becoming a bit predictable. They were seeking change and that was the time that the opportunity to move to Mumbai came along. They did have some worries about climate and sanitation but they were nonetheless very excited to move to Mumbai.  Not only that, they have no regrets.
We were interested in knowing what perceptions they had about Mumbai prior to living here and so we put forth this question to them. “Horrendous!” was the prompt reply that came from Julia. A lot of western perceptions are borne out of the film ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’, (wrongly or rightly). When her friends learnt that she was moving to India, some were impressed but most thought she was crazy! But having been here for two months, she now realizes how wrong some of her perceptions and those of her counterparts back in London were. She now writes a blog called ‘BombayJules’ to change these perceptions. Through the blog she wants to let friends and family back home know about life in India. She says “Every day has something new to write about.  Every day I hear of something fascinating about Indian life or I see a hundred interesting things on the street as I pass by.  Really there is not enough time to write about all of it!”
For Julia, the abrupt change from being a Financial Controller in private sector to a volunteer at an NGO has been a very challenging transition.  The pace of work is different and there are many decision making processes that can delay progress.  However, she still enjoys every minute of it and has great respect for the people surrounding her.  Julia never thought that she would visit a slum after coming to Mumbai, yet due to her work at the NGO, she ended up on a tour of Dharavi on just her third day in the city! Calling it an eye-opener would be an understatement. The experience had a deep effect on her and helped her to realise and communicate to friends and family that Dharavi is a huge enterprise, not just an impoverished home for many thousands of people.
Paul on the other hand has had a completely different experience of work life:  a more modern, corporate and fast paced side of the city. Most of his time is spent at the office or travelling to meetings. Unlike his wife, he has had little time to explore the underbelly of the city and see how the majority lives.  Concerning corporate life, Paul remarks “The management structure here is so vertical, back in UK organizations tend to be more flat. Even though both countries are English speaking, some of the terms, phrases have a completely different meaning in India”. He opines that one has to be very sensitive about religion as it is such a big part of life here and people are so very sensitive about their faiths. Till now they have experienced only one festival – Janmashtmi . They found the experience truly enthralling and they are looking forward to the numerous other festivals lined up in the coming months.
Julia and Paul both already loved Indian food. “Being from Britain we are very much used to Indian food. In fact these days, Indian food is almost the national cuisine of Britain!” One thing that they have noted is that whenever they go out with locals, they will recommend dishes they feel will be suitable for the expat couple, the less spicy ones. “They don’t think we can take it!” says Julia. One of the things Julia loves is the way people come together during their lunch break and share their tiffin. “At lunch time in the UK I tended to go out, grab a sandwich, sit at my computer, have the food and carry on working” says Julia.  However, there is one thing about our eating habits that troubles them a little. They feel it can be difficult to host a dinner party for a group of Indians due to the many eating preferences that we have. “Some eat beef, some don’t. Some eat egg, some don’t. Some are strictly vegetarian. It seems the best thing to do is only eat with one couple at a time!
The fact that a large chunk of population in Mumbai speaks English makes their life a lot easier. However, they admit that is has made them lazy in trying to learn the local languages Hindi and Marathi. Instead they have read quite a few books about the city and Indian life, such as Maximum City, Shantaram, and A Fine Balance. “Mumbai is a very complex city. And I have decided that I will just enjoy it for what it is rather than trying to figure the city out!” says Paul. “It’s such an exciting place, there is so much happening contrary to my initial beliefs”, adds Julia.
Now that they have grown to love the city (the bad and the good parts) they are hoping that they can stay here for a longer duration than originally envisaged. In the meantime, they have plans to do as much travelling as possible, visiting places like Rajasthan, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and at least one tiger reserve. Paul is very keen to see the varied wildlife that India has to offer. They say that having spent time in Mumbai they now feel happy that they are here rather than in New York.  We too hope the couple gets to stay here longer so that they can explore and discover more of Mumbai and India.
You can follow Julia and Paul's journey on her blog - BombayJules

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