Intoxicating Contentment in the Maximum City

Words and Pictures by Ariana Dickson

Mumbai, India – a sanctuary for noise, built on organized chaos, style, and compassion. A city that should be remembered for its kindheartedness is far too often recognized for its unattractive underbelly. Hip eateries are edged with beggars and swanky shopping malls fringe slums. It is dirty and congested. Rent is ungodly and the traffic can be crippling. It’s not exactly the prettiest of them all. It’s people, though, are striking.

The souls that inhabit a place are the living breathing testimony to its true vigor. Being squeezed from each soul of Mumbai is an overwhelming sense of ease. Smiles and a helping hand can be found at the end of every frustration. Concealed by pollution and dizzying traffic patterns is tremendous kindness, empathy, and open-minded depth.

Seven times out of ten my decision to uproot life in New York and move to the other side of the world was greeted with backlash. I would be exchanging comfort with pandemonium. Brash and dodgy, they say. The sprawling and chaotic city can appear soulless from the outside in.

Generalizations and apprehension seemed to overpower all else. It wasn’t until I wandered the streets myself that I learned of the truth. When the smog begins to settle and you choose to look past the dysfunction it becomes clear that this is a city you’ll only ever learn to love when you live in it.

72 hours into exploring the sprawling metropolis I now call home, every fear of the unfamiliar was squashed by the oozing delight around me. Acts of kindness quickly began to pile up.

With or without language barriers, corners of mouths turned upward and infectious laughter caught on like wildfire. I sensed a necessary reminder of how unfathomably similar we all are at our core. It became a vibrant lesson in how easy and unfortunate it is to misjudge and mistake.

Welcomed into homes, cars, and lives after just seconds of knowing me, or not knowing me at all. Americans call these instants unsettling. My mom certainly did when she heard of the stories via Face Time. What would make most shiver where I come from instantly felt comforting. In Mumbai, this is simply commonplace. It’s an energy all its own. That was my best elucidation.

Without an Indian SIM card, Indian bank account, or working sense of direction – I was lost, confused, and running low on rupees. My initial brush with kindness came in this time of defeat. Discouraged but hopeful, I asked the nearest face to be a guiding light to the nearest bank.

Not only was I greeted with a route but the assistance of the man’s car. I know what you’re thinking…Why would a young expat in a new city get into a car with a local she doesn’t know any better than she knows Hindi? I was with my father and as it goes in love, it goes in Bombay. When you know, you know. So, we took the ride.

The final destination was a bank, which would not accept my card. A sweet woman near the ATM overheard the foiling and presumably saw it all over my face. She spent the next 15 minutes scribbling down the nearest banks that would accept my card. After crafting lists and doodling mini maps on scrap pieces of paper, she handed me two hundred rupees for a rickshaw ride so that I wouldn’t have to walk twenty minutes down the road. I refused. She insisted and shrugged it off with, “It’s nothing”.

As the days passed I found myself being invited into people’s homes for coffee and tea. Coffee would turn into full-blown breakfast with three-egg omelets and four pieces of toast paired with an hour of phone-calls to schedule a plumber to visit my apartment for repairs. Tea became two beers, a three-course lunch, and an offer to spend a weekend with their family at their farmhouse. I was invited to dinners that were graciously paid for as my welcome to the city. Engagement parties, house parties, drinks.

Translating Hindi to English and English to Hindi, negotiating prices with electricians, offering their doctors help when you wake up with an unidentifiable face rash, their MacBook chargers when yours splits in two, and guidance like candy. To smooth out my transition or help me check another item off of the to-do list. People happily offered me every resource their brain had stored and welcomed me into every little corner that their hearts had room for.

Rickshaw drivers laugh with me even though they don’t quite understand what my words mean and happily oblige my requests to capture their bliss. Families passing by giggle with me at their children’s wonderment and excitedly allow me to seize their beauty with my lens.

There’s never been a time that my inquisitiveness or need for support was met with a closed hand. Soon these little passing moments that I considered lucky at the time became understood as inherent kindness. Smile and you’ll get a smile back. Ask for help and you will be received with an outpouring desire to assist without so much as a ‘thank you’ expected in return. Creating a mound of elixirs for every doubtful and unwitting comment, I have developed an arsenal that continues to grow.

Mumbai has never claimed to be pretty. It never pronounced itself as clean or superior. It has never pretended to be anything its not. The undying spirit does its own thing. It’s a little bit of everything and its people stand by that. To hide its own depredations of time, it’s a city painted garishly beside the rest of the worlds greatest.

Somewhere along the way, its painting became confused with its reality. The intoxicating contentment rests inside of everyone in this city. There’s pure pleasure found in the act of helping and the intrinsic joy is contagious. It isn’t until you roam and wrap yourself up in it that you develop the knack to harmonize alongside it. Mind-altering and inebriating it’s quite a bit of fun getting buzzed on Bombay’s energy.