MUMBAI, India – After reading "The World Is Flat," I expected India to be a technological juggernaut, to be moving forward like a China, a Korea, or even a Vietnam, to see a population that was wired and coming on strong. But I should have recognized the deceit of generalization. The bulk of India is still so poor, so crowded, so illiterate, so filthy, so hopeless, so seemingly heartless that it grabs you by the ankles, turns you upside-down, and shakes every last nickel and dime of presumption out of your pockets. No one is ever the same after visiting India, which I guess is why so many people go there.
We are strolling in the Hanging Gardens just outside the city when our guide, Dhun, points to a whorl of crows in the distance. He explains that he is Parsi, so when he dies he cannot be buried in the ground, at sea, or cremated. Instead, in a final act of purification and charity, his body will be brought to these Malabar Hills, to the Tower of Silence, and laid out for those crows. And when his bones have been picked clean and bleached by the sun, they will be disintegrated and rain-swept to the Arabian Sea.
Not far from the Gardens is the Laundry. Dozens of men stand in troughs of water scrubbing clothes brought in sacks from across the city. They beat the clothes on rocks, then throw them on roofs or hang them to dry. It wouldn't be such a fascinating operation were it not for the fact that among all the trousers, shirts, and saris are rows of hospital greens and hotel sheets. Most of Mumbai is so poor, and its electrical system so faulty, that washing machines and dryers are an impractical commodity.
And then there is Falkland Road and an area known as the Cages. It is the red-light district of Mumbai—a decrepit, lawless place where women beckon from behind iron bars. They are not technically imprisoned, but they just as well could be. Anything you desire to have sex with is available here, even children. It is also the epicenter of the country's HIV/AIDS plague. Unfortunately, neither the monsoons nor the Laundry can scrub it clean.
We could have kept visiting places like these, but Mumbai beats you up like no other city. After a day of being jostled by seemingly all its 20 million people, you feel like you've been spit out of a bar fight. Your eyes burn from the pollution, your back aches from sliding in and out of tiny black cabs, your skin is gritty from the dust, and your stomach is in parasitic knots. So Paul and I head back to our five-star ship, where tonight we'll dress in tuxedos, eat seared fois gras, and sail toward the Mediterranean. Along with the dust, guilt is thick upon us.
When we exit our cab at the dock, beggar women and their skinny children pluck at us. Dhun shoos them away like flies. Part of me can't wait to wash all this off, but part of me also wants to stay immersed in it a little longer to ensure that it leaves an indelible dab upon my heart that will keep me forever open-minded and appreciative—Paul too. Women in cages, the Laundry, fat crows cawing—I'm so glad he has seen this.