Connecting across Continents: Reflections on Mumbai

Matthew Busch, a 2012 University of Missouri School of Journalism photojournalism graduate, received a Fulbright research grant in 2017 to document migrant communities in the city of Mumbai and its surrounding satellite cities. As stated in his Fulbright application, Matthew documented “the societal, communal and personal stories of those who move from rural regions to urban centers.” To view a sampling of Matthew’s work in India, see his photos and accompanying commentary on his website. Below is Matthew’s reflection on his time in India, especially on the connections he has made with people across the world through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and the University of Missouri.

In Austin, Texas, recently, I found myself in a quiet taqueria on South Lamar. I love it when my friends take it upon themselves to introduce me to a new one. This time it was Papalote Taco House. It’s the type of place with an every-night special of four tacos and a drink, enjoyed with an ambiance of fluorescent lights reflecting off the stainless steel tables and chairs, the low din of refrigerators providing background noise to the conversation I was having with two friends, Vivian and Catalin (both Missouri alums). It was our first time seeing each other since I’d returned from India, having just finished a year photographing urban migration in Mumbai, my work funded by a Fulbright Grant.

It so happens that Catalin also received a Fulbright grant years ago, but his was to the U.S. and from Romania. They are both photographers and graduates of Missouri’s J-School, and I distinctly remember us all sitting around similarly at places like Shakespeare’s, Ragtag and Quintons some years ago. Anyway, as we sat down to enjoy our alambres, adobada, and pescado a las brasas tacos along with aguas frescas and our choice of tomatillo or verde salsa, our conversation turned to India and my experiences there. I thought that our following conversation reflected generally the types of questions people ask me when they do ask about India, and that remembering our conversation here would be a fitting way to describe my Fulbright year.

As we started in on our various tacos, Catalin asked, “What kind of smells stood out to you there?” Strange question at first but continuing with his line of thought he explained that when he first came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, he noticed the difference in aromas immediately. They were smells of American foods being cooked in greasy oils at nearby fast-food restaurants. Burgers, fries, barbecue … all the smells that locals were accustomed to and which he was very much not accustomed to. I had two thoughts after his question. The first was of my friend and teacher Kuldeep, a Punjabi woman in her 60s, who had lived her whole life in what was first Bombay and only later Mumbai, and the time she took me to a flower market in the heart of what used to be the city’s old suburban district in Chembur. We walked past busy streets with men sitting on their wooden tables, stringing together the most fragrant flowers of jasmine, champa, marigold, daisies and delphiniums into garlands. As we walked, she would speak a little to them and they would laugh knowingly; my Hindi wasn’t and probably still isn’t good enough to understand what they were discussing. She bought a little strand of jasmine flowers and tied them in a small ring around her hair, which was situated in a loose bun. That smell of jasmine, especially in the fresh rain, after a heavy monsoon, when it spills over the concrete walls of tightly packed neighborhood streets, is one I can never forget.

The other smell that I unfortunately remembered was one that greeted me outside my front door most mornings, that of a public urinal. Those stale fumes can penetrate any amount of concentrated breathing when passing over a sewer grate. With Mumbai’s chronic lack of public bathrooms, that is a smell I will be hard-pressed to forget as well.

As I often find it difficult to express myself verbally and as I tend to be long-winded in my replies, Vivian stopped my rambling and asked me to discuss the best and the worst parts of India. My answer to these prompts is instinctually the people, and the pollution, respectively. Oftentimes whoever has asked a question such as this has already begun to imagine their version of India, “Oh, the colors must be SO beautiful!” I stifle my own answer which will inevitably fall on deaf ears. Vivian and Catalin, however, were interested, so I started talking about Rinku.

Rinku is a friend of mine from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, studying for his Ph.D. in labor and statistics. I had the privilege of picking his brain on a number of issues including but not limited to the trends of generational labor models and the best place to find Lucknowee-style Tunday Kebabs in the city. These soft kebabs cooked in the tradition of his hometown, outside of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, have the texture of a meat puree, but you would be lucky to find a more savory dish. Rinku is a tall guy with broad shoulders, a neat flop of dark black hair and one who commands a presence on the cricket pitch. We would often sit outside, surrounded by Tata campus’s excess of lush greenery.  It was during one of our impromptu lunches in this setting that he produced a bunch of mangoes from his pack. He handed them to me and I noticed how cold they were, as if they’d been sitting on ice in his bag. He told me that they were Dasheri mangoes and that his mother had sent them frozen from home, on the train. Four of these frozen mangoes, he said, had been earmarked for me to try. The thought of someone’s mother sending fruit to me, a stranger, and by train no less, was heartwarming, and so simple an act of kindness that it took me completely by surprise.

The worst thing I always say about my experience in India was the pollution. From the moment I stepped out of Mumbai’s pristine and peacock-canopied Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj airport, until the moment I stepped back into any A/C’d building in the city, a thin black film would manifest itself in my nostrils, the result of a high concentration of particulate matter in the air, equivalent on some days to smoking a number of cigarettes. Unfortunately the air is inescapable. I noticed my headaches dissipate once I left the city, and it can’t be coincidence. Extreme pollution isn’t restricted to just the land in Mumbai. A few weeks before I left the city, I wound my way down Marine Drive in the backseat of a taxi. Facing out the window and toward the sea, I noticed the sidewalks along the ocean drive littered with trash. As I watched, waves carrying all manner of plastic bottles and bags would crash against the rocks and spew trash over the wall. City garbage workers stood back as more and more trash was quite literally thrown from the sea back onto the land.  I couldn’t believe my eyes. The huge amounts of trash piling up on city beaches had stretched themselves slowly into the sea, like a primordial evolution in reverse. This act of expulsion seemed at last some sort of futile protest.

At this point in our conversation the small room was beginning to fill up with locals getting their taco dinners to go, sitting down for a meal or simply enjoying the solitude. The comfortable atmosphere and the warm heater overhead kept us sitting there and chatting as the temperature slowly dropped outside.

“And the traffic there? How is that?” Vivian continued.

“It is honestly terrible,” I said, recalling the Elphinstone railway incident. During a morning commute in September 2017, a particularly heavy rain had forced waiting passengers onto the station’s foot-over-bridge, which contained a small awning. When a few particularly ill-timed trains arrived simultaneously, the shifting masses converged on this staircase and a crush ensued. Twenty-two people died, some suffocating under those pushing to get past. It was horrific, and rightly appeared on the local front pages for days. I had been riding the train that morning in a different part of town and had completely bypassed the Elphinstone station.  Videos of the event show people jumping over the railings in an attempt to escape, others crying out to the crowd around them, trying to alert them to the people trapped underneath. I remember going back sometime later and seeing new — and rather narrow — escalators being installed, the station’s name since changed to Prabhadevi. It was an uncommonly tragic incident, but a telling one nonetheless.

Our plates were by then empty and, as we sipped our agua frescas, Catalin considered the potability and general etiquette surrounding water in India. He had noticed the distinctive method of drinking water while not touching your lips to its container, instead tilting your head back and suspending it slightly above your mouth as water tips out.

I thought back to a small daytime bar in Chembur on one of the many “Holidays” that I was gladly asked to participate in by local researchers. A group of us were seated in a booth at the center of the room, possibly the only customers at the time, our waiters standing idly by. Water and drinks were ordered all around and naturally, as I learned, some items, such as the 1-liter water bottles, were for sharing among the four of us. I, also very naturally, waited for one of the bottles to be passed to me, and as I pressed my lips to the bottle’s lid, I felt the pressure of my neighbor’s eyes upon me. After setting it down and not fully realizing my blunder, another bottle appeared at the table and was passed around to the rest of our group, with not a single one of them putting their mouths fully to it. I had hogged the entire bottle to myself. I was embarrassed by my lack of social tact.

I’ve also been offered water that I absolutely knew was contaminated on a number of occasions. During one of my field work trips in the city, I found myself sitting in a small, single-room flat alongside the 15 or so men who lived there. These men, all migrant workers from Rajasthan, aged roughly 16 to 45, moved seasonally to the city for work. Some have been doing it for years, always coming back to the same room in a cramped industrial part of the city where they stay with family and friends from their village. These men specialize in tile-working, and noticeably their room had impeccably-laid tiles plastered to the floor and part-way up the walls. They offered me water, and not wanting to sound impolite I agreed. One of the men went over to a large water-drum in the room’s corner, removed the damp sheet of wood that was covering it, and dipped in a plastic measuring cup, those ubiquitous in Mumbai, offering it to me. I drank as much, knowing full well that within twelve hours I would be sick. Every morning, at 4 am, these fifteen or so men, one-by-one, rise and use the small, cordoned off bathing room in the corner. Because they reside on the upper floor of this compound and because the building’s water supply lasts only 4 hours, they moved with a necessary quickness so that their counterparts living in the room below would also have time to bathe and ready themselves for work. Along with bathing they need to collect all of their cooking and drinking water for the day in that short time. It was from this collected and subsequently sedentary water that they, and I, had been drinking. Sure enough I felt sick the next day.

At this point in our conversation and in our meal, Catalin, Vivian and I had all finished our tacos and agua frescas and were sitting around an empty table inside the taqueria, each of us full from the meal. We agreed to leave and meet again soon as friends do. A mother pushing a stroller came through the door, her child sleeping soundlessly. After ordering she sat down at a table across the room facing the exit, picked up her phone, and began scrolling through. We hugged each other and as we left to our cars and the cold outside, I noticed the woman put her phone down, her food untouched before her, staring blankly through the fogged windows, a tired and resigned expression on her face.

Matthew Busch, Fulbright ’17-‘18