Ok so I had written out and was editing this ode to Bombay, and then someone who is a way better writer than I am JUST came out with the same thing in the NYT. Read whichever one you want – whatever.
At my recent endpoint conference for my fellowship, someone asked the question, “How can we learn to trust men again after what we’ve been through?”
Where did that come from?
Everyone joined in and nodded knowingly. I did too but then I realised I kind of didn’t know what they were talking about. The other Fellows opened up about how miserable Indian men were in their placements – and I fully recognised what a blessing Bombay is. Every day in pretty much every other part of India, men completely violate the personal space, privacy, human decency, sexuality, and mental wellbeing of women.
I think it’s incomprehensible if you haven’t been here – having dozens of men standing around on the street turn, stare at you… and maybe it stops there and maybe it gets worse. Maybe one looks you up and down. Maybe one says something. Maybe one grabs at you. There are endless variations on this scenario but for many women in India, this is a daily reality. Delhi, Chennai, cities, rural areas, all are plagued with massive gender inequalities that present themselves on the street every single day for everyone with eyes or ears.
At our endpoint conference, female Clinton Fellows reported feeling “broken” and male Fellows reported their disgust at how they had to be over-protective of women to the point of violence. Being in Bombay is the only thing that saves me.
It’s nowhere near gender balanced, but Bombay is leagues ahead. I know that the men here, for the most part, feel very protective of me. My building guards do not let delivery people up to my flat without calling me first, men on the street hail rickshaws for me in the rain before getting their own, and no one at work has treated me any differently because of my gender. I have had serious conversations with men while I’m wearing a skirt, and buy whatever I want at the pharmacy. I buy alcohol myself and walk home alone the same as I would in America.
Bombay is so gender balanced I get called “Sir” a lot.
When the recent terror attacks happened, Bombay’s spirit showed up all over Twitter. #Heretohelp became a hot topic worldwide, and using that omnipresent tech-savvy Indian ingenuity, a spreadsheet with help numbers and people offering rides and places to stay travelled across millions of smartphones. I contributed in my own way but I think the experience has given more to me than I could ever give. Bombay lets me do what I love. Now that my fellowship is officially over, I will be staying another year in India – a decision I made almost entirely based on my love for Bombay. The city is filthy, overcrowded, dangerous, and frustrating, but I’ve made it my home.
My high school has a programme called Niswarth, which sends a group of students and teachers to Bombay to explore the education scene and get to know India. I went on the trip in its pilot stage in 2004 and clearly it had a lasting impact. I have stayed in touch with the programme director, and was honoured to help out with the trip when they visited in June.
Watching these 16 year olds jump right in to one of the scariest, complicated, dirtiest, and diverse communities in the world and come out on the other side asking for more was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in India. I remember making that jump myself. I sometimes forget how much I love India. I don’t like it sometimes, and I wish more people used deodorant, waited in neat lines, and the food didn’t try to poison me, but I really do love it.