Up Front: November 2007

Culture shock

I couldn’t tell you the name of the road, but you can buy just about anything there — bootleg DVDs, marigold garlands, time with a prostitute, milk freshly squeezed from the teat of a buffalo. Navigating it demands vigilance, patience and courage. Nobody heeds lane markings. Cars, trucks, bicycles, scooters, men, women and children creep, veer and dart toward their destinations, often barely avoiding collisions and sometimes failing to. Mud, trash and filthy little streams line parts of the road’s edge, along with hole-in-the-wall shops, storefront factories, offices, homeless people, slums and an airport.

The road runs between my fiancée’s apartment and office in northern Mumbai, formerly Bombay. She’s there on a six-month assignment. I went to visit after reporting a story about out-of-state banks buying into the Charlotte market. Mumbai is an outpost for a couple of banks for whom Charlotte has long been home — Bank of America and Wachovia. Software maker Red Hat, drug tester Quintiles Transnational and other Tar Heel companies also have operations there. Many American businesses go to India to cop first-rate minds at cut-rate prices. In some cases, they send Americans over to play key roles.

In a global economy, that makes perfect sense, but some places require more of an adjustment than others. For me at least, Mumbai was the most overwhelming place I had ever been. This is hard to admit, because I had it easy there. Our lodging was posh, and our driver kept us safe from the scrum of big-city traffic.

Mumbai isn’t the first challenging city I’ve visited. Breathing in Shanghai and Beijing is about as enjoyable as huffing smokestack fumes. Cars, even bicycles, were less common in Yangon, so I suspect its population is even poorer. But somehow neither China nor Myanmar appeared so endlessly shabby as this city of 10 million — to use a conservative estimate — which also serves as the subcontinent’s financial center. To my eye, Mumbai consisted mainly of mile after mile of rotting buildings and sprawling slums. I even found the blue-tarp bungalows of squatters in a national park.

Its beggars are more aggressive. I don’t recall being bothered much in Myanmar or China. Maybe their laws treat begging more harshly. In Mumbai, children pressed against my window, even chased my car, looking for a handout. If you let it, the city will turn you into a flesh-and-blood ATM.

My fiancée prefers to focus on the bright side of life there. She finds it charming that motorists calmly steer around cows that plop down in the middle of the road or that you might just see an elephant walking down a city street. If I were to join her, she could probably live happily in Mumbai at least a few years.

It probably helps that she has a good job. That would give anyone a sense of purpose, leave less time to ponder the imponderables, introduce people with similar interests and soften the strangeness. It might be easier to appreciate Mumbai’s quirks and develop ways to cope with the harsher realities. But for me, two weeks was enough. I’ve seen some of what’s there, and I’m glad I’m here.