My first night in Mumbai, I woke, startled, at dawn by the echoed sounds of prayer calls. My preconceptions associated those throaty songs with fears and unknowns of the Middle East. I was staying in Agripada, on the 10th floor of an apartment building in a Muslim district, away from the cushioned tourist center of South Mumbai. I got myself out of bed and looked out the window. Orange lights glowed through the thick, hot tropical fog, and the city was beginning to bustle even though the sun had barely broken the horizon. I’ll always remember that anticipatory fear—a feeling that will may be hard to replicate. I thought of snowy New Hampshire: I am a long, long way from home. I felt a little bit like I was looking out over a movie set, out over a fantastical, fictional world.
My voyage to India from Argentina, via London, had reinforced the notion I was living within the bindings of a storybook. In the back of the British Airways 747, I looked out over the snowcapped mountains of Northern Afghanistan. It was the land of Al Qaida I’d seen only on CNN, the mountainous pass that Hosseini describes crossing in The Kite Runner. The landscape was stunning: snow capped ridges were dark in shadow besides pink triangles of lights on their peaks, lit by the setting sun. A few hours later, at midnight, the plane landed in Mumbai, then taxied along the gate of an airport wall. From my perch in the plane, I could see over the wall and into the Annawadi Slum, an underground world of poverty, police brutality, conflict, and tension that I had been introduced to a few weeks before when I started Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There it was. Right in front of my eyes. I could even look right inside some of the corrugated metal shacks and see the life going on, as it had for decades before, and as it will for the rest of my life.
Before I had arrived, what was in books, on television or in movies was all I knew of India. Three months ago, India existed only in my mind and it was only a small, distilled idea. It was ‘the over there’ country with more than a billion people living in crowded un-environmentally friendly cities. In the past weeks, India has become real. I’ve unlocked a box.
My conscience has swelled with the sights, smells, sounds, stories and feelings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Islamic architecture, slums, the history of the East India Company and the British colonization, the history of the Mughal Empire, Indian traffic rules (or lack there of), new economies, labor pools, and unthinkable jobs and so much more. I’ve tapped into a country that’s as rich in culture, language and history as the entirety of Europe. As Dr. Anurag Danda, the head of Climate Adaptation for the World Wildlife Fund, India put it to me: “People were amazed and excited when the EU happened, but hold on, we in India did that 50 years earlier. There are changes as big as national differences every 200 miles as you travel by ground across India.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the vulnerability of Mumbai. Water knocks on three sides of the Manhattan-shaped island city. Every square foot of the city is used for something, and the majority of it is paved over and built up. Then 20 million people are packed in. Building projects—often without proper permits or on environmentally sensitive land—dot the cityscape, growing up, up, up to combat the demand for space and subsequent expensive rent. “Lots of development projects,” I said, nodding at the cranes and walls of glass above me while talking casually to a wise, english-speaking old man on the street. “Development suggests progress,” he replied, “Lots of building.”
It’s not just large scale high-rise projects that make Bombay’s growth so obviously visible. Outside of the apartment I was staying in, shelters would grow daily on the sidewalks as migrants looking for opportunities in the city would drag traffic dividers from the roadways together to make three walls and cover the walls with a tarp to make a roof. Each day there would be a new conglomeration of people calling the sidewalk home. As you round the blocks, you can walk on a real-life timeline of these shelters. They change from barren walled shelters into homes, with two 5 foot floors, electricity, and re-wired cable television.
Land in between rail lines is farmed, sidewalks become foundations for temporary homes, and the homeless find shelter within concrete breakwater structures along the coastline. There’s an amazing resiliency to the urban poor in India. They make lives and homes for themselves in conditions that most in the Western world would give up on.
There’s a remarkable and innovative use of the lack of space, but there’s more space than there once was. Bombay was originally seven islands. The British reclaimed the land and filled in the bays between the swamps. The lowest lying land (what was once sea) floods each year during the monsoon, sometimes with devastating consequences to the urban poor who live there. Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, is one of those areas.
Among the most pressing problems that Mumbai must address—navigating through the corruption of the city and national government—sea level rise doesn’t make the list, The Energy and Resource Institute’s (TERI) associate director, Dr. Anjali Parasnis told me. To her, sea level rise is a problem of plenty, left for rich countries like the Netherlands, United States or Singapore to deal with. If an earthquake or a tidal wave hits, what will Mumbai do, she said, there’s nothing we can do when disaster strikes.
But I disagree with her point of view, respectfully of course. Sea level rise isn’t like those other disasters. It’s characterized by a slow onset. There are low-cost measures and initiatives that the city can undertake today to save money and protect human lives in the future. Climate adaptation doesn’t mean building a Dutch-style Maeslant Barrier. For example, there’s huge value to knowing what areas are susceptible to flooding and distributing that information to people who live in those areas.
Mumbai seems to have this thrusting growth, an energy of its own. It gives off an essence that it is impossible to tame, plan, direct, or control. It’s a disheartening place in which to be environmentally conscious. Trash fills every nook and cranny; the river is an open sewer. It’s a dense and complicated system that’s described, by many I’ve met all over the country, as a jungle.
I left the jungle and took a train down the east coast of India to Kochi, a port city in the South Indian state of Kerala. Water tapers on the edge of the whole place; it has a Venetian aesthetic. Serendipitously, I stumbled into an artist residency there while desperately searching for a bathroom to tend to a stomach virus. Once relieved, I spoke to the young woman working there and I found myself a nice place to stay and paint for the next week. It was a good warmup for spending the next three weeks in Varanasi at Kriti Gallery.
I vastly enjoyed spending March in Varanasi; it was great to have personal space, build a temporary nest, and make some artwork reflecting on the first two-thirds of my year. Varanasi, although not a coastal city, has astonishing flood problems during the monsoon season. The river level rises 20 feet at its record height. You can see plastic debris and vegetation along the telephone wires overhead when walking along the riverfront.
Varanasi is one of the holiest Hindu cities and the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It’s a cultural marvel, unlike any other place I’ve ever known. I will never think that a place is crowded, loud, dirty, violent or hectic ever again. Herds of buffalo start traffic jams on the dusty streets, where symphonic waves of bikes, motorcycles, cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and the occasional car mesh into one. It feels like everybody is dying in Varanasi. The public cremation fires constantly burn along the riverfront. Death isn’t hidden like it is in the rest of the world, and I felt that personally. While resident, a dear friend lost her father and my grandmother’s life ended after 104 well-lived years.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been in Kolkata. A 76-year-old professor, Dr. Asish Ghosh, who is deemed India’s forefather of environmentalism, has taken an interest in my project and has invited me to do research out of a center he started called the Center for Environment and Development. I’ve explored the Sundarban mangrove forest, the largest of its kind in the world. The Sundarban plays a crucial role in protecting Kolkata—and Dhaka—against cyclones. It’s a buffer, a natural storm wall, that absorbs the power of hundred and fifty km/hr winds and 40 foot waves.
In the afternoons, I go to the Maidan, the green space in the middle of the city, and play rugby with the Kolkata Jungle Crows. The Crows have started an incredibly admirable foundation to use rugby to give structure and motivation to impoverished kids. In an environment found nowhere else in the city, the very rich and the very poor interact as friends and teammates. The foundation, funded by donors in the U.K., runs camps and clinics every week in villages. It’s been a pleasure taking part in the program, if only briefly. I get the sense that it means a lot to the players to have a Westerner around who really believes that what they’re doing is important. Rugby is an incredible game. A foundation like the Jungle Crows wouldn’t work with many other sports.
I feel like I’m doing exactly what I proposed I’d set out to do in Kolkata. It’s a good feeling.
For all the marvel of the past three months in India, it has been an incredibly isolating place. It’s an amazing irony that in one of the most populated countries in the world, I feel most alone. I really enjoy meals alone to a book or writing down reflections and thoughts, but I’ve largely—with the exception of a few coffee or lunch meet-ups—spent the past three months without the comfort of a peer or a friend my age. I have met fantastic people and become good friends with such people two decades or older than me, but that’s different.
It’s all part of the experience, though. I travel back to my guesthouse from Crows rugby with a big burly 33-year-old Fijian man who moved to Kolkata to work for an NGO with his wife. (Please appreciate the head-turning caused by the sight of a 23-year-old white man and a big, strong islander both clad in dusty rugby apparel as we go on the Kolkata metro during rush hour). We were chatting about my experience and my life before. You’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices for this year, he said. Yeah, but it’s worth it, I thought without hesitation.
In India, the poverty and destitution have taken an emotional toll. Seeing kids sitting around a fire at night underneath a freeway. A baby lying on a blanket on a sidewalk with no sign of parental care in sight. A featureless burned man sitting begging, shielded from the sun underneath an umbrella. A man with tumors covering every inch of his body following me home on his bicycle. These are things you can’t un-see, and at times I wish I had company to grab ahold of or to just debrief with. Before shifting gears and moving to Kolkata, I had a rejuvenating visit from my Dad, one of my top fans and friends.
Last weekend, I had a bout of Delhi belly that I described in a blog post: “my body decided to rearrange interior decorations and put everything inside, outside in the most violent and abrupt means possible.”
That was life changing.
Due to the state department travel warning for Thailand, I’ve changed my itinerary, I’m avoiding Bangkok. Due to the geographical proximity of Dhaka, I inquired about a visa to Bangladesh and was offered a week to quickly visit the country that will produce millions of climate-related refugees. I’ve set up some contacts, and the visit should be a huge value-added addition to my quarter in India. After, I decided to replace Bangkok with Shanghai, the #1 most vulnerable city in the world based off all studies about population and infrastructure there. With only a month-long China visa, I’m going to purchase a round trip ticket through Singapore and maybe I can set up an arrangement in Ho Chi Minh, another delta city in a similar situation to Bangkok.
So surprised that three reports have come and gone.
I’m just as excited and thankful as I was on March 15th. I very much look forward to meeting you. Best, David.