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My First Visit To India: A Whole New World

by Carl Shusterman

After practicing immigration law for over twenty-five years and helping thousands of Indian clients obtain visas and green cards, I decided that it was time to visit India.

My wife and I booked flights and made hotel reservations for November, one of the coolest months. I read "Freedom at Midnight," a book about the departure of the British from India and, on September 10th, my wife and I rented and watched the movie "Gandhi," which we had seen and enjoyed several years before. The next morning the world changed in an ugly and violent way, and we cancelled our vacation to India.

That was in 2001.

A few years later, my son married a lovely and intelligent young woman whose parents had immigrated to the U.S. from India many years before. In late 2005, my wife and I decided to join my daughter-in-law's family for our long-delayed vacation to India. In addition, we planned to take a week to ourselves to take a luxury train ride through Rajasthan.

We flew to San Francisco where we received visitor's visas valid for ten years. We read CDC reports, got multiple injections against a variety of diseases and purchased a plethora of pills just in case.

Midnight In Mumbai

Our flight lasted all through Christmas Day. I watched an Indian-made love story. Little did I know that the male lead in the film, Shah Rukh Khan, was the Tom Cruise of India. I saw his face on numerous billboards and newspaper articles throughout our stay.

We landed in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) where a driver met us at the airport and navigated through traffic that made the 405 freeway in Los Angeles seem like a drag strip in comparison.

Car, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and even animals and intrepid pedestrians jostled for position at every light. Unless jet lag was causing me to hallucinate, I could swear that the vehicles were "talking" to each other. Beep, beep, I'm passing you on the right. Beep, beep, I'm squeezing in with less than six inches to spare between you and the bus on your left. Where were the lanes? Where were the police? In Mumbai, I was told, all you needed to drive were "good brakes, a good horn and good luck."

On our way to the hotel, we passed families living in hovels just inches from the highway. We also passed thousands upon thousands of men asleep on the sidewalks. I later read that the homeless population of Mumbai numbers over 2 million, and that the total population is over 26 million and climbing rapidly. Mumbai is well on its way to becoming the largest city in the world. Los Angeles is tiny in comparison.

Finally (and fortunately) we arrived at our hotel located near the "Gate of India," which was built early in the 20th Century for a visit by the Prince of Wales, and which was where the British left India when the country became independent in 1947.

At our hotel we were met by a huge man wearing a fabulous red outfit, a black turban and neatly-cropped whiskers. In my half-slumbering state, I imagined that I was in the presence of royalty. In fact, almost every upscale hotel in Mumbai has a similar looking man to control traffic in front of the hotel.

My wife and I registered, took the elevator to a high floor, opened the door to our room, headed for the bed and sank into a well-deserved sleep.

Due to the change in time zones, we went to sleep in our Mumbai hotel after midnight, and awoke at 6:00am. I opened the curtains and saw, through the smog (The Mumbai smog makes Los Angeles look like a tropical paradise!) and the high rise buildings, a bright red sun beginning to dominate the sky. Every few seconds, the sun expanded and, although I was busy snapping photos from our air-conditioned room, I could literally see how the sun was beginning to take over the city. Here we were, in the dead of winter, and the Sun God was already letting us know who the boss was. Well before noon, the temperature was in the 90's.

Our hotel featured a sumptuous buffet with an ever-present background of American songs from the 1960s and 1970s. I had expected to listen to ragas a la Ravi Shankar or soundtracks from Bollywood films, but as I munched on my omelette, speakers around the room sang in unison: "I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes..." It was a bit surreal. I couldn't change the music, but by day number two, I had forsaken the omelettes for dal, garlic nan, chaipatha, mattar, masala and vindaloo.

After breakfast, I ventured out of the hotel, and roamed the streets by myself. It was a neighborhood of small shops selling everything from clothes to vegetables. Everyone was quite friendly and I spent an hour or so meandering through the bustling streets and along the bay.

Later, we accompanied the Indian side of our family to a clothing store which on the outside looked fairly plain, but on the inside, looked like we had suddenly been transported to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Hour after hour, the women looked at one beautiful sari after another. I filmed some of the action with my newly- purchased camcorder. I tried on an Indian suit for my daughter-in-law's brother's wedding. It was charcoal black with a collar and a strip down the front in gold. Later in the day, I saw a photo of former President Bill Clinton in Mumbai wearing the exact same outfit - good taste, Bill!

While the shopping marathon continued, my wife, my son and I hired a driver and an English-speaking guide to show us around Mumbai. We took a boat ride from the Gate of India to Elephanta Island where we toured fabulous cave temples carved out of stone and dedicated to Shiva. The temples were carved from a rocky cliff in the 6th Century.

Back on the mainland, we toured Hindu and Jain temples, mosques, churches and synagogues. We saw schools and hospitals established by the Parsis (Persians who follow the Zoroastrian faith and who migrated to India over a thousand years ago.) community. We saw the gated villas of Bollywood stars (including Shah Rukh Khan) and slums which stretched for miles and miles. I read a story about life in the slums where everyone knows everyone and tight communities are formed. One woman whose husband got a good job which enabled the couple to move out of the slums and into an apartment (Mumbai real estate prices are higher than those in New York and London!), became so depressed at the lack of community, that after a few months, she and her husband moved back to the slums.

Every afternoon, we escaped from the beggars and the hawkers who congregate around the tourist-congested Gate of India, and had lunch at the gorgeous Taj Mahal Hotel overlooking the Arabian Sea. I became somewhat of an expert in dodging in and out of the traffic in front of the hotel. Once inside the hotel, the heat, the traffic and the "hello, hello, hello" of the beggars disappeared, and we were transported into the lap of luxury. Well-dressed businessmen at adjoining tables regularly checked their Blackberries and negotiated multi-million dollar business deals. We could have been part of the Indian-version of the last days of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette except that the beggars showed no anger whatsoever and would have been delighted to "eat cake". I saved some of my lunch for them.

My son and I decided that the Mumbai traffic could only be abated by the creation of a rail transit system. However, when we visited the beautiful Victoria Terminus late in the day, we discovered that Mumbai is the home to one of the most extensive rail transit systems of any city in the world. As we stood in the middle of one of the platforms, commuter trains arrived and departed every couple of minutes. As each train arrived, thousands of men ran to secure a place standing on the train. The sari-clad women had separate cars where no men, except rifle-totting police guarding them were allowed to enter.

Mumbai is the home to many diverse groups of peoples who supply every kind of service imaginable. Among them are the Dabbawallahs who distribute lunches prepared at over 100,000 suburban homes to office workers who spend an average of four hours daily commuting to and from Mumbai. We visited the Dhobis, laundrymen, who collect your dirty clothes, wash them, and return them neatly pressed to your doorstep. Their "laundries" are called "ghats": row upon row of concrete wash pens, each fitted with its own flogging stone. The clothes are soaked in sudsy water, thrashed on the flogging stones, then tossed into huge vats of boiling starch and hung out to dry. Next, they are ironed, piled into neat bundles and returned to their owners for a small fee. The Mumbai skyline has more highrises than Manhattan but one piece of land along the sea is noticeably free of tall buildings. This is because the original inhabitants of Bombay sued in court to preserve their way of life. The Koli people are fisherman and their patron Goddess Mumbadevi has given Mumbai its modern name. (When we began our web site in 1995, Mumbai was known by its Portuguese name Bombay, a contraction of "Bom Bahia" or "Good Bay".) We walked through the Koli's single- story village on the Arabian Sea. Through narrow passageways, we could see well- maintained, small homes, some with marble floors and televisions. The men were busy building fishing boats while the women used exotic-looking knives to chop squid and shrimp.

In the evening, we drove down Marine Drive to Chowpatty Beach where we passed dozens of food stalls and politely declined offers of low-cost massages on the beach.

Mumbai is well on its way to becoming the largest and most expensive city in the world. It is certainly a lot to assimilate for an American tourist who has only a couple of days to experience the city. My memories of Mumbai will stay with me for a long time.

Late at night, we returned to our hotel, and prepared for our flight to Goa the next day. We had only been in India for two days, and already, my view of the world was beginning to change.

See a photograph of me and my fellow travelers at the Taj Mahal (near the end of my Indian adventure):

The laundrymen, or dhobis, at work:

About The Author

Carl Shusterman is a certified Specialist in Immigration Law, State Bar of California Former U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service Attorney (1976-82) Board of Governors, American Immigration Lawyers Association (1988-97).
Phone: (213) 623-4592 Fax: (213) 623-3720
Law Offices of Carl Shusterman, 624 So. Grand Ave., Suite 1608
Los Angeles, California 90017

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.