Mumbai – In the Air; On the Ground

We hover in the sky for twenty minutes. Below the city is twinkling orange; her unplanned madness is surprisingly beautiful, at least it is from up here.

In Europe the lights arrange themselves in careful squares and rectangles, all connected by long straight highways or prim roundabouts. Little dots of cars follow lanes, one behind the other, at speeds that must be impressive, but don’t seem much from up here. Mumbai resembles a fire cracker; rather a thousand fire crackers lit simultaneously during Diwali or after a cricket match; bright lights fizzing in a million different directions creating moving patterns and shape, a hallucination created by 15 million people.

Heads rest slightly on windows; when they move away, a small moist patch will remain. Whether this is a first glimpse of the city or a homecoming, the effect is the same: TV screens play out leftover reels of film to an absent audience, novels are bookmarked and abandoned. There is a far more intriguing story playing out down there.

The PA system crackles. The pilot apologies for the delay, the sentence takes longer than it should as he searches through his exhaustion for the right words.

Mumbai airport is in its usual frenzy; the renovations have got more aggressive since my last trip. The tarmac has been stripped and broken. Everything is turned upside down. Trucks and construction vehicles scurry around like ants around an anthill. Giant planes stand still in the gaps in between like large misplaced toys on a miniature construction set.

I watch men in shabby vests chip away the ends of one day into another. They work hard, pausing at intervals, maybe to catch a breath or to wipe their brow. In all probability these men will never travel by air; they won’t take my seat in the plane; look out of its small rectangular window with rounded edges and watch the ground they are laying disappear beneath soft white clouds. But they don’t give up. There is plenty of labour available in the city. They won’t be hard to replace. I move through in my giant cocoon, crossing over from the plane to the terminal, escaping the cacophony and grime of modernization.

I tick all the right boxes today, crossing the many lines, past the many officials without any trouble; I even spot my purple suitcase with ease. I move forward to claim it, and as I struggle, an airport employee appears. He pulls the bag off the belt and props it on a trolley. He asks if I need more assistance. I thank him and decline. He vanishes. I make my way out. It seems strange, this passing through an airport without having my blood boil.

Outside, the city’s 36 degrees hits me in the face. I’m sweating even before I get off the curb. My dad waves, my brother breaks into a smile. I shuffle my trolley faster. Around me families reunite with joyous hugs and entourages, at times flowers are also involved; touts latch on to business opportunities; and strangers hold up name cards wondering what will emerge at the other end. Already, I can hear multiple car horns screaming and see traffic jams building. It’s good to be home.

24 thoughts on “Mumbai – In the Air; On the Ground

  1. You describe in such unique and beautiful words landing at an airport. The workers who will probably never be able to fly on one of the planes they’re so close to all day every day, that’s very sad. I think this is another great piece, Neha.

    • Thanks Sabina! It was a little crazy (and sad) watching people toil away on the runway at 1am, and it looked like the work would go on for a while.

  2. Nice description … although, the best landing for me has been when u can see the sea. how long is the vacation? Mumbai is burning at the moment. 🙂

    • I can barely make it out in the dark, though it was awesome seeing the sea link! I’m in the city till the end of April, melting bit by bit. I really didn’t think it would get this warm – this feels like May!

  3. Great writing Neha! Landing in Mumbai has always always felt like arriving home. 🙂

    Btw, it would have been great to see a nice pic of the nightlights of Mumbai as seen from air.. esp if one’s able to capture the Queen’s necklace! 🙂

  4. You’ve got a great way of capturing these little seemingly mundane moments in travel and making them marvelous.

  5. I experienced something similar last year, when I visited India..the only difference being the Delhi Airport instead of mumbai…But the home coming feeling is the same everywhere:)

  6. This makes me incredibly nostalgic and confused (in my own mind, that is. The writing itself is very clear.) I’m a typical ABCD, neither here nor there. When I go to India, I’m home. When I come back to America, I’m home again. I’ve never known what it’s like to have one, definitive home. I imagine it must be very comforting.

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