Duke University’s basketball team was under attack on the big screen television behind me. I gave my ticket to a bald, beefy guy, who, in return, he handed me a beer as I snacked on mixed nuts and Doritos. The party inside this carpeted room was chaperoned by George Washington (his image, that is). So, he couldn’t see the college revival happening on the veranda. Four pairs of new friends alternated between the “bump and grind” and the “junior high school slow dance” in the moonlight.
I was home.
It was a “chota America” on south Mumbai’s Altamount Road. Americans have periodically hosted parties for foreigners at this consulate residency aptly called The Washington House. But this American had not been on the list before.
(Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
I have been living in Mumbai for a year, and periodically dropping in for four years, but I still find that the various layers of Mumbai’s foreigner scene are elusive.
During my first lengthy stay in mid-2005, I didn’t want any foreign friends. I came to India to be in India. But, after two months, I realized Mumbaikars were difficult to befriend. Either they were with their families, with colleagues or with the circle of friends they have had since potty-training.
I thought about going to Colaba, tapping foreigners on the shoulder and asking, “Do you live here?” Instead, I did something I would have previously derided. I searched Yahoo chat groups. And I found the Bombay Expats.
I was one of the first members of the group that has swelled to 400. It was started by fellow American Karilyn Owen, who had been living here for 18 months by then. She wanted to find her own group, and also save others the difficulty of getting used to this city and the country alone. “To be long term, to be happy here, you also need a group of friends with a common connection, common values and a common way of being raised,” Owen says.
She wasn’t around when I nearly drank my first finger bowl at Trishna restaurant thinking it was soup, but once I knew Owen and was part of the group, culture shock became easier to face.
A month later, an Australian introduced herself to the Bombay Expats as a member of Mumbai Connexions (www.mumbaiconnexions.com)—a 30-year-old “support group for expatriates in Mumbai”.
I attended one of the group’s 10am coffee klatches, only to discover that I was the youngest in the group, which consisted mainly of diplomats’ wives, who spent much of their time doing charity and playing mah-jong. At this event, I also discovered the coveted Namaskar Guide to Mumbai. The thoroughness of this Rs800 book impresses even life-long Mumbaikars, and the social tips were invaluable:
u “Dinner is often eaten standing up. Once the meal is finished, people are rather quick to leave the function, which then comes to a rather abrupt end.”
u “Use your right hand for giving, receiving, eating or shaking hands, as the left hand is considered to be unclean, since it is associated with washing after using the toilet.”
I also learnt at that party that there was a group for all kinds of expats in Mumbai: There is the Aadhaar Support Group, meant for foreign women married to Indian men, and there is Hopping Bunnies for mothers and to-be mothers. But I never made close foreign friends through these groups, and none of them hooked me, except the Bombay Expats. It remained my window to life here, for the three years I moved around before settling in Mumbai. I would find weekly emails in my inbox with subjects such as “Just arrived” or “New here”. And, sitting in my apartment in Chicago or DC or New Delhi, those emails kept me connected to Mumbai and helped call me back here.
Increasingly, emails came from people across the world moving to India for work. A South African came to work in insurance. An American came to work in television. Two Brits came to launch careers in films.
As they came, the group was there for them in the most dire of situations. One woman living in Bandra begged, “If anyone has had a pest control round and it worked, and those bas**rd cockroaches disappeared forever, please let me know who you used.” And a New Yorker asked, “My fiancee would love to know if she can purchase...birth control pills in Mumbai when we get there next week. Any of you know?”
With no advertising, they have all somehow found the club. Many of these people, such as myself, have come to India for work opportunities, and not for an expat package that includes a “hardship bonus” and a great apartment by the sea. To me, this is a sign of changing India.
A couple of months ago, we got the consummate introduction: “I am about to move to India, and I had a few questions. I am a professional BDSM choreographer and photographer from the US, and I will be moving to India later this month to seek employment in Bollywood. I have never actually seen any Indian movies, but I dated a girl for a few weeks whose father was born here… —Sham”.
His email was more than a joke. Two days before Sham arrived, a mini civil war broke out within the Bombay Expats. Members debated whether newcomers should be allowed: “Can we start a new group for expats who are here for the long run and want to discuss the realities of life and help each other (with humour), and let newcomers with boring questions have their own group?”
Outrage and congratulations poured in. By March, a few people delisted, but the skirmish subsided.
Yet, the Bombay Expats is different now. Some members recently created a website for newcomers (bombayexpats.pbwiki.com/) and a LinkedIn group for networking. It seems we’re growing up.
I admit the increasing flow of clueless, happy newcomers does get on my nerves. But, the fact that it angers me also makes me happy. That means Mumbai is closer to home.