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  • Marie Trout

How Mumbai Changed My World

“Oh my God, what is that SMELL?”

The words popped out of my mouth, as we were being transported back to our 5 star hotel well into the wee hours after having played a gig in the City of Mumbai, India. We were going by one of the poorer areas of the city, and of course I knew what the smell was… it was the smell of people living with limited access to running water and little in the way of sanitation facilities. It was the smell of poverty, it was the smell of sewage, of human beings existing crammed into tiny spaces, piled on top of each other. It was the smell of people making a living from sorting through garbage, begging, or if lucky working low-paying jobs.

In Mumbai over 20 million people live side by side. Middle class, rich and poor areas are intermixed in ways that are very foreign for a consummate Westerner such as myself.

Having lived my life equally split between Western Europe and California, there was much about how Mumbai looks, sounds, feels, and – smells – that I found to be so very different from what I am used to from our world of organization and rule-abiding comfort.

There were women with small naked and skinny children draped over their shoulders walking around the busy streets of town begging for alms. There were children, deformed, disfigured or burned reaching out their little hands to you, beggars with legs that do not function pushing themselves around on little square boards under their bottoms as they reach out their eyes and hands to you begging for money.

This is the framework of Mumbai. It is estimated that about half of the 20 million people in Mumbai live in slums. And this is the story many of us feel compelled to tell, when we visit places like Mumbai or the Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 70 million people are squashed in similar (or worse) squalor: We cannot believe that this kind of obvious human suffering really goes on. It is jarring, shocking and devastating for us to come face to face with real, deep and devastating problems as they exist in so many places in our world.

The slum rates are on the rise – as people leave rural areas and flock to the cities – and it is a serious problem for our world. A problem that begs comprehensive and international attention, and for which there seem to be few good ideas and fewer sustainable solutions.

Yet I have to admit that I am tired of being faced with touristy photos of the suffering. I am tired of hearing of how Western people’s hearts got broken, when they visited the slums, and their minds were blown by witnessing what they saw in places like this. I am tired of yet another travel blog where Western tourists point their probing photo lenses at the poverty they witness, and then head off to the hotel to upload the pictures and write from a place of emotional paralysis about the sense of powerlessness they feel, the sense of guilt, the sense of injustice, etc.

We all know the story. We have many opportunities to have the images of human suffering blasted onto our awareness if we care to look. And many of us when we come face to face with it, feel a jolt of adrenaline fueled sensationalism at the root of our curiosity. We thank our lucky stars for what we have, we donate a few bucks and get on with our lives.

Yet the guilt, the sense of powerlessness, and ultimately the sense of not being able to help in a meaningful way often lingers. We talk with other people about what we saw, smelled and heard on our “Reality Tours” through the poor areas of the world, where our travel takes us, and we somehow believe that our stories will help change things.

And somehow, knowing this – being confronted with it up close and personal – does nothing to affect any kind of change. Hopefully the sense of powerlessness can lead to a willingness to volunteer for organizations that work to improve such conditions, or at least can spur us on to give some cash to worthy organizations, of which there are many. Maybe some of us can go deeper in and actually work directly and affect real change. IF so – great. This is a great outcome of such Reality Tourism.

However, I suspect many of us simply feel a sense of powerlessness and retreat into a sense of despair.

I decided that in my four days in Mumbai, I would not do this. It seemed so obvious to go into the slum areas and take pictures or videos of the suffering, and to try to tell that story – yet I could not bring myself to do it. Maybe I was afraid of the images that I would point my lens at. Maybe I was scared at being mobbed or being robbed. Maybe I did not want to feel the powerlessness of being unable to even begin to aid these people.

These are all elements that undoubtedly played a part in my avoidance of direct contact with the slums. I drove past them, and saw some things, but I just did not feel like walking in there with my camera cocked.

If we want to take a look at suffering in our world, we can youtube “Mumbai slums” and find it, we can see images, we can google statistics. And although the sensory overload of coming face to face with this kind of human detriment is disturbing, in ways that seeing images on a screen or reading facts cannot convey, I still believe that this is a story that is well told. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that our world is bogged down by a level of poverty, suffering and inequality that is beyond our capacity to even begin to fathom.

You know that – I know that.

However, there was another story that emerged for me to tell. A deep level of gratitude for the opportunity to experience a tiny bit of what the Indian people are like. And oh, how limited my vision and my experience really is. India has 28 states and 7 union territories. These states and territories are further subdivided into districts that all have different languages, different cooking styles, different ways of tying the saris, different levels of economic and cultural development, etc. India is a huge place of 1.2 billion people – and so my vision is per definition extremely limited, as my entire encounter with Indian culture was my brief stay in Mumbai.

Yet the story I want to tell, the story that blew my mind, is centered around what the camera cannot convey. I do believe there is much for us to learn – cross-culturally – and we in the West miss the point, if we think that we can come riding in with the cavalry to save “those less fortunate” in the “developing countries” by applying our standards of living and our definitions of human contentment, which is often defined by our cultural measure. In fact, there might be a real possibility that we are ourselves poorer in many ways than some of the people I observed out on the sidewalk cooking potatoes and working on the trash heaps. We might be richer in economic, organizational and social terms, yet our souls and our spirits often wither in the dry desert heat of galloping egocentricity.

In India I encountered an amazing level of kindness and a gentleness of spirit. Our group of musicians was the recipient of a hospitality that was so beyond what I have ever experienced. Our hosts were beyond generous to us. To the point that I would lay awake at night worrying about how I could ever repay them – how I could ever match that level of kindness. And resigning myself to the fact that I couldn’t, was eye-opening. I think many times we venture into the world with a missionary mindset. We want to help other nations improve. This is a pure thought that is often polluted by a mindset that has a good measure of arrogance to it. Often we venture out only to be met with a culture so vastly different from our own that applying our standards and expectations to it might do more harm than good. And in fact, if we open our minds, we might discover that those other cultures has as much to teach us in the West as the other way around.

Here are some of what I noticed during my stay in Mumbai. These are things that are not easily conveyed in photos. And just as it is true that a picture can say more than a million words, I also believe that there are subtle things that are impossible to show in images. Many of these stories are overlooked and indeed missed, when we just point the camera and shoot. Please note that Mumbai is the “New York City of India”, and so very progressive compared to some of the more rural areas. Here are some of the things I noticed:

  • A sense of being happy with what is. Even when this means living in a tiny one-room shack with 9 other people. It is what it is. And yes, it is hard – but there is no sense of shame or a feeling that this is bad. Guests are happily invited in and are offered the best they have to offer. Material wealth is only a part of the equation – and the joy of being alive permeates in spite of what we consider “dreadful living conditions”. There is a sense that happiness is not necessarily found in material wealth. One can be happy without it. How might our sense of happiness be affected by such a mindset? We westerners often say that happiness cannot be bought, yet how often do we actually believe it? How much of our time goes into wishing we had what we don’t? The video below seems to be filmed at what I would call the “high-end” of the slum. The real destitute areas are much worse. However, it does a good job at showing how people live fairly happily in conditions so very different from what we consider a bare minimum in the West.


  • The awareness of the “other”. As exemplified in driving on the roads of Mumbai. Lanes, traffic lights and rules of the road are mere suggestions. For someone brought up in the West – this seems like chaos. Everybody are beeping their horn incessantly to signify that they are coming through. Yet it is all about being tuned completely into what is going on around you – it is about an awareness of where each other are – and what their intentions are. No judgment is applied. There is no road rage. People are as relaxed as they can be – and having someone go ahead of you or squeeze you out of “your lane” is not seen as an aggressive act. It is simply a matter of getting things moving along – a matter of co-existing on the road. Is this the most efficient way of driving? Probably not. Yet, if we only look at the chaotic elements, I believe we miss the point of a consciousness that gives space for each other. White knuckle driving does not seem to exist here. I am normally someone who sits at the edge of my seat when I am a passenger in freeway traffic. Yet in Mumbai, where traffic seemed to come from all directions at once at times, and only millimeters separated the cars more than once, I was relaxed and at ease. I think the fact that everybody are so completely tuned in to each other is what made it less scary for me. Charmaine, one of the amazing women I met there, told me that driving was very much about constantly looking at the other drivers around you, establishing eye contact and sensing the intentions of each other. The accident rate is also quite low. Surprisingly low. In fact the mortality rate from driving in India is a bit lower per 100,000 inhabitants per year than it is in the USA. And that is even with motorcycles with 3 or even 4 people on them edging in and out of freeway traffic, between trucks and median barriers, or with a woman sitting side-saddle on the back…

  • I observed a sense of belonging that went far beyond what we experience in the West. People honor their ties to family and to community. There is a common identity in each family and in each group that is celebrated. We Westerners often look at this as a lack of potential for social mobility – that people are content to belong where they are. Yet, from my limited insight, this also might have a potential for deep joy and satisfaction. We in the West often focus our righteously outraged attention on the outcasts of Indian society. But it is important to also look at the other side of this: The majority of the Indian people live fully surrounded by family ties that sustain and keep them. And in this immersion of family connectedness, I also sensed effortless peace. These people are surrounded and defined by something greater than themselves.

  • Lack of judgment of others. Curiosity about others was one thing, but judgment was not prevalent in my experience. People would observe you curiously (and since I stand six feet tall with blond hair I was stared at plenty), but I never felt that I was being judged. Just observed curiously.

  • Less sense of privacy. India is a very populous nation and so per default, there are people everywhere. Lots of them. Going through the security measures at our hotel, the security officer would make conversation about what she saw in my bags. In America this kind of curiosity would be considered an “invasion of privacy”. In India it is just about being social. I suspect it ties in with the lack of judgment as well – so when we don’t feel judged by other people – we don’t mind sharing openly of who we are. The more we feel judged (and the more we judge ourselves) the more sensitive we are to others making observations about us.

  • Many faiths exist side by side. In fact many marriages are across religious borders. All religious faiths seems to exist inter-mingled and seamless. Whatever the history of religious tolerance in India has been, and whether religion was at the root of the recent bombing in Hyderabad, there seem to be a broad acceptance of other faiths that is unique. This is also reflected in who is forming the government. Although about 80% of the population are Hindu, there is a real variation in who represents them in government: There is a Hindu President, a Muslim Vice President, a Sikh Prime Minister, an Atheist Defense Minister, the leader of the largest political party is a Catholic Christian, etc. A sincere and full sense of religious tolerance seems prevalent. In many countries in the West we aspire to such religious tolerance, yet find it impossible to imagine our elected officials to be from such diverse traditions. And having marriages between people of different faiths is seen as an anomaly here in the West.

  • The young people contribute to the well-being of their families. They are not considered a separate race of people, who should be waited on hand and foot, allowed to only do activities that make them care-less and care-free. Even among the wealthy – the young people are groomed to take part in the family business without much fanfare. It is just a natural expectation. Obviously among the poor, the young need to work to help the family survive. We often look at this as a detriment, and when it means the kids are not able to get an education because they have to work, obviously this notion goes too far. Yet I do believe there is something to be said for a society in which young people are valued for their contribution. Not just in pseudo events and fundraisers, but as real and necessary contributors to the family.

  • The whole is more than the sum of its parts. This understanding seem to be in the Indian notion of teamwork. Tips at the hotel go into a common box, and all benefit gladly. The notion that we are better when we all work together is prevalent. When someone on the team does poorly, it reflects on all, and so each member is encouraged to be the best they can be at whatever level they are on. Teamwork in the Scandinavian sense, where a flat leadership structure is possible, would not work in India though. Here the success of the team seem to rely on being defined by a hierarchical structure. Yet the notion, so prevalent in the USA, of competition, glorification of conflict, the belief that it is through individual ingenuity that all progress is made, does not really seem to be a part of the Indian mindset.

We have much to learn from other cultures – as they have much to learn from us. However, we often we venture out into the world with a proselytizing mindset. And thus we miss the huge learning opportunities that are mutually available to us in our evermore accessible world.

We in the West do not have it all figured out, and neither do the people of Southeast Asia – or in any place I know of. However, it seems to me that when cultures inter-mingle and openly share of their experiences, there is much to be learned. And I stand humbled by what I observed on my brief visit to India. I am curious about learning more – and to figure out how this inter-cultural exchange might open doors of awareness that I didn’t even know existed.

Charmaine’s kitchen where the chapatti and daal are amazing!

On my last day there, I was taught how to put on a sari by Charmaine. She invited me into her home, and shared the secrets of putting on this mysterious piece of clothing. She helped me pin the fabric in the right places and do the pleats just right. Her maid came in and watched as this Western girl was battling the fabric. Charmaine offered to Skype with me, if I forgot how to put it on. She would then put on her sari and I could watch and duplicate on my end.

Our world is indeed getting smaller, and feeling like I made friends on the opposite side of the earth in a vastly different culture from my own, was a beautiful experience for me.

Finally, I stood there clothed in this traditional Indian dress. I believe I might gather the courage to wear it on occasion. And it dawned on me, how natural it is for us to see people from Asia walk around in jeans, yet how strange we still might find a European-American girl dressed in an Indian sari. Namaste…

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Jun 14, 2022


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