Namaskar Y'all - 2017

Finding Mumbai in New York

By Shyama Parui

A familiar excitement was building and I felt a knot in my stomach as the plane began its descent towards La Guardia airport. Looking out through the tiny window, my children squeezed my hand. Bright lights appeared to invite us to a gleaming and festive zone, but I knew that it was just an illusion. I was simply projecting my own sentiment. Weary travelers didn't notice the allure of the Big Apple. Most heads were buried in their tablets or phones and some were solely focused on grabbing their belongings, ready to execute their exit strategy. When the plane finally touched down, I was eager to see what New York City had in store for me this time.

At the turn of the century when this Mumbai Girl had made her way to Charlotte, she had felt lost in the city's open spaces and empty roads. In all fairness, Charlotte has grown exponentially since then and has the swagger of its big city cousins. However, when I was terribly homesick, my first trip to New York City, with its grit and grime, was oddly comforting as it was reminiscent of Mumbai. I liked it for the very reasons that others hated the city.

Unlike Charlotte, you were not expected to greet or make small talk with everyone you met. That was such a relief to me and I realized how much time I would save if I didn't have to say, “Hello, how are you doing?" several times a day to folks I barely knew. More than a decade has passed and I wondered if things would be different. Over the years, our family has put down roots in North Carolina, and it is the only place my children know as home. Besides, I don't miss the headaches associated with crowds, heavy traffic, and a high crime rate.

Our travel-loving family always has an eye open for trips, so, when my husband won the lottery to participate in November's TCS New York City Marathon, we felt like we hit the jackpot. To non-runners (if there is such a term) it may not seem like a big deal because every marathon is 26.2 miles and finishing the distance is hard, no matter what. To get a runner's perspective, you can think of it this way, you may have seen many tall buildings and rooftop views, but the Empire State Building is still special due to its iconic reputation and because it had the honor of being the World's Tallest Building for 40 years.

Once we stepped outside the airport, I was reminded of Mumbai without much effort. The good, bad, and the ugly aspects revealed themselves in the short span of the cab ride to the hotel. To begin with, the taxi driver nearly drove off without me, and once I got in I muttered some angry comments in Bengali, my mother tongue. Within seconds the cabbie revealed that he was Bangladeshi and chatted away in the same language. Great! At least, he realized I was mad. That was hardly surprising since New York is a melting pot that holds people from across the globe, just like Mumbai is a magnet that attracts people from all over India.

The liveliness of large metropolitan cities can be energizing as well as maddening. The snail's pace at which we moved was frustrating but it also gave us the time to gawk. Mesmerized by the displays in the trendy stores of 5th Avenue, I gaped until my senses were assaulted by the stench on the street. Lined with black trash bags outside restaurants and businesses, the garbage deliberately betrayed the trail of waste that consumers left behind.

After the deadly attack in Lower Manhattan, just a week before the marathon, I expected anxiety and an eerie control over the proceedings of the world's biggest race. What I found instead was confidence and enthusiasm. Fear did not slow the people down and it was amazing to see thousands on the sidelines, encouraging and supporting the marathon participants from start to finish. Beneath the top layer of cheeriness, I sensed with deep admiration the resilience of the city.

Another common thread that it shares with Mumbai, which sadly, has been the target of several terror attacks. Mumbai may take a blow, but it refuses to be knocked out of the game. It was also great to see Tata, a historically Mumbai company, in its global avatar - TCS, as the title sponsor of the event.

So, while my husband aimed at running 26.2 miles on a rainy day, my children and I set out for more trivial pursuits. We spent the morning exploring the streets and avenues of Manhattan, spotting famous landmarks and window shopping. Tall buildings and endless entertainment options rarely help you in making a connection with the city, it is always the people.

For me, it was reconnecting with my childhood friend. Spending a few hours with her, as we laughed about the old days and shared stories, made my weekend in New York extra special. People in this mega city may be labeled rude, but they also take the time to help. The subway cuts barriers that may otherwise segregate people by class. A society that seemingly doesn't care also liberates you from caring too much about what others think.

Unexpectedly, at the end of the day, when friends and family members attempted to meet 50,000 exhausted runners, I had the strongest flashbacks of Mumbai's overcrowded trains. At an intersection near Central Park, between the finish line and family reunion, a tsunami of humans descended in our direction as we tried to make our way to the opposite side. My kids and I tightly linked our arms, terrified at the thought of being separated.

The fact that we passed through the jam-packed area unscathed and were able to find my favorite runner, (i.e. my husband) was a miracle.

I've realized that, unlike the first time, when I yearned to find Mumbai in New York, this time around, Mumbai found me.