By Natalie Lever

20 April 2017 - 15:00

'If I were to move back to India, I wouldn't choose to live anywhere else'. Image (c) stephaniemonot, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.
'If I were to move back to India, I wouldn't choose to live anywhere else'. Image ©

stephaniemonot, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

Teaching assistant Natalie Lever gives her advice on how to thrive in one of the world's biggest cities. 

When I heard I had been offered a teaching placement in Mumbai, my brain played a mixture of colliding memories. An uneasy one of an eight-year-old me with a sore stomach, crossing over to Elephanta Island in a swaying wooden boat, and a more recent, joyful one of drinking sweet lassis with friends in Colaba.

This would be my third time in India. I would join almost 20 million people in the same city for five months. I would teach in Juhu in the centre of the city, close to the ocean, and live in a suburb north of that, Malad.

Whether through naivety or optimism, before I left, I didn't really think about Mumbai as a megacity, a city with more than ten million inhabitants. But once I arrived, it sometimes seemed like most of them were on the rush-hour train with me, ensuring I missed my stop due to lack of space inside the carriages.

The daily commute in Mumbai

Travelling to work by rickshaw, I loved to poke my head out of its open sides (whilst clinging onto piles of school books) to see as much as I could. There were men pulling along huge wooden carts piled high with bananas; an infinite number of chai stalls serving cups of sweet tea to their daily customers; and 'Mumbaikars' (the affectionate name given to residents of Mumbai) squatting on the roadside reading the morning paper printed in bold Hindi typeface.

This journey allowed me to relish a quiet moment each day, and practise a few basic Hindi phrases. There was something about the city that seemed structured like a film set, with props and extras. One morning, I picked up a coffee and noticed a small crowd gathering around a muscular man, who was practising his cricket swing and chatting to those all around him. Was he a sportsman? A film star? I never found out, but it made me smile to think about the intertwined lives of the actors and the audience here.

The school day

At school I had a timetable to follow, peppered with moments that became mental checkpoints. India is centred in spirituality, and religion filters into life at work too. Each morning, I sat and prayed with peers and students to ask for ‘help, at work and at play’. This ritual was calming, no matter who or what I was directing it at.

In the afternoons, the lovely kitchen staff passed us, reviving cups of chai. We smiled and sipped together in between teaching responsibilities, knowing that we had almost completed the day. The staff's ability to teach through every obstacle (including the sound of loud wedding marches on the street outside) assured me that I could succeed too. A hundred calls of 'Goodbye, Miss!' would echo in my ear as I piled into another rickshaw to return home.

Weekends are colourful 

Living in Mumbai, I could travel to other parts of India relatively easily during school holidays, by train, by bus or by plane. But a week at work was tiring, and I looked forward to weekends in Mumbai without wanting to escape. I loved walking around Malad, greeting others in the community, picking up vegetables, or buying new kurtis for work (traditional loose-fitting long shirts). Whenever I needed clothes altered or holes sewed up, I'd go to the same local tailor in his regular spot. I'd haul my marking to the café a few steps down from my apartment, where the barista knew my order and asked about my day. An extra handful of fresh, exotic vegetables from the grocer who knew I was a loyal customer became a lovely perk.

Sometimes I’d wander down to the Pritvi Theatre, a performing arts space which was at walking distance from school, to watch poetry performed or a comedy play. The café attached to it was littered with coloured lights and fabric lanterns, and packed with tables of young professionals and Bollywood types. It was the perfect people-watching perch. A handful of bars became places to escape to in the evening, where I met people who became close friends. They introduced me to Indian singers I still play in my car, and swapped ideas about what it means to be a young person living in Mumbai.

One Sunday towards the end, a friend showed me the way to a hidden Hindu temple, dedicated to Shiva, in the south of the city, a place I might have never discovered alone, where I tried the delicious South-Indian dish Uttapam for the first time over lunch. Completely silent and almost empty, I was grateful to have been led to a peaceful spot in the chaotic metropolis.

Mumbai creates vivid memories

When I replay the low, devotional Sufi music that was played out of every Mumbai shopfront, I see girls with neat, pinned-back braids walking in troupes to school, and kitchen ladies in their boldly printed saris saving sweet bananas for me to keep me going in my warm classroom. I taste the three o'clock chai with my fellow teachers and hear the constant honking and barking during the humid nights.

This city is far from simple. In fact, it thrives on disparities. The economic and social gap between rich and poor is wide, although slum and non-slum dwellers share towns, movie-stars and chaiwallahs share roads, and extravagant wealth shares a space with those struggling to access basic services.

But if I were to move back to India, I wouldn't choose to live anywhere else. Its people still seem to live together peacefully, working tirelessly and creating a cinematic collection of festivals, languages and religions. As I poked my head out of the daily rickshaw to collect some much-needed breeze, I often thought, ‘I want to be a Mumbaikar, too’.

Join our cultural events during the UK/India 2017 Year of Culture or become a teaching assistant in India.

Find out more about the UK-India relationship in our India Matters report.

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