This World – Indian Winter, Part I

It’s chilly in Canada! Home after a five-week trip to India to visit my husband’s family, I’ve found the return here definitely shocking to my system. And it’s not only the contrast between 30-degree days and unseasonable snow. The palm trees, the street life, the roaming chickens and cows, the dust blowing in the windows, and the myriads of people: India is truly a different world. In this next series of articles, I’ll attempt to paint a small portrait of some of our experiences in India’s largest city, Mumbai.

At Home

Our Mumbai apartment (apartments are called “flats” in India) was in the popular Vakola area, where some of my husband’s relatives also live. Housing costs have appreciated so extensively in India that in Vakola, a one-bedroom flat costs over $350,000 in Canadian dollars The flat we stayed in was relatively luxurious: about 800 square feet, with a small bedroom, shower room (no hot water unless you preheat the gas-powered water heater in the bathroom), washroom with toilet (a luxury, since many apartment dwellers share communal washrooms), sitting room, and kitchen.

The kitchen in particular was something I had to get used to. There was a washing line strung across the room to hang clothes to dry; otherwise they dry in the sun outside the window. The stove wasn’t your typical North American four-burner stove, complete with an oven. Instead, it’s a two-burner countertop stove, powered by gas, not electricity. Unlike gas stoves here, in India it’s rare to have a gas line from outside connecting automatically to such appliances; you have to purchase gas cylinders (a similar size to what you’d use to fuel your propane BBQ). The gas vendor is seen frequently about the neighbourhood, pushing his hand-cart filled with the large cylinders, and he’ll bring them up to your flat. He has to carry the cylinders up and down hundreds of stairs, since elevators are not a usual commodity. A typical gas cylinder for a family of four lasts just under a month, and the government subsidizes the purchase of a quota of cylinders per year.

Down on the street below our flat, there was a lot of activity. There was a convent across the road, operating one of the most popular Catholic girls’schools in the area. In fact, when admission time rolled around, the streets filled with hundreds of parents, anxious to secure school admission for their daughters. These lineups start outside the school several days in advance, with parents sleeping nights on the dusty pavement in order to hold their spot in line. This ordeal doesn’t guarantee school admission, however; rather, the lineups are merely to gain the coveted admission forms.

At the Market

One of the hallmarks of India is its myriads of tiny shops. A weekly grocery expedition at a major chain store isn’t necessary, and definitely isn’t the norm; instead, a one-minute walk down the road (or, in some cases, the lower outdoor level of your apartment building) yields hundreds of shops selling everything from fresh fruits to meats to candies to juice to made-on-the-spot lassi (sweet milk-and-yogurt shake). Although fridges are common in many homes now, daily shopping for fresh food is still a high priority; there’s always someone shopping the market for ingredients for that night’s dinner. In addition to standing shops, come-and-go vendors also display their goods at certain locations and key times. Indian entrepreneurship amazes me! The well-travelled church path near our flat was a popular vendor spot; as hundreds exited the church on Sundays and weekday evenings, vendors appeared like magic, selling coconuts, fresh fruits, and seafood, or dress goods and religious items.

Most of the market produce–fruits, vegetables, fish, seafood–is pick your own style; either you or the vendor handpicks the pieces you select. Pre-packaged produce isn’t considered fresh (although in my opinion, it keeps the flies off). Even eggs are handpicked, carefully slid into a plastic bag, and then wrapped with newspaper. It still amazes me that not one egg ever broke in transport to our flat.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Indian market without bargaining. If you’re looking for fixed price items, don’t visit your local market shops. Most shops carry items with no marked price, and haggling is an accepted (and fun) way to shop.

Around the City

Mumbai is a city with 20.5 million inhabitants, but in some parts there’s still a refreshing rural air. The neighbour a block away had goats and chickens wandering freely outside his house, and in the early mornings his rooster could be heard crowing loudly. In the fresh mornings, some of his more adventurous hens did the neighbourhood rounds, spending luxurious afternoons relaxing in the roadside dust. Every once in a while, a captive elephant would sway down the main street, pulling a load.

But lest you gain the impression that Mumbai is exclusively tiny shops, wandering chickens, and people everywhere, think again! Goregaon West, an up-and-coming section of Mumbai, is home to some of the most fashionable malls you’ll find. The prestigious HyperCity and Infinity make downtown Toronto’s Eaton Centre look humble. The floors are marble, the shops exclusive, expensive, and spotless, and the food courts are superb. The larger department-style stores have children’s play areas, where children can amuse themselves with all manner of large toys while their mothers shop. Additionally, modern strollers (a treat, since strollers are not common in India) are available for your complimentary use while shopping.

Next week, we’ll take a peek at some of the Mumbai inhabitants. From local customs to refreshing attitudes, our Indian experience was one to remember!