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Mumbai meri jaan

My good friend John Simpson came visiting from London. I call him a self-styled cultural ambassador of the world because his travel exploits, writes Arif Zakaria.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2009 18:56 IST

My good friend John Simpson, all of 26, came visiting from London. I call him a self- styled cultural ambassador of the world because his travel exploits, at this tender age, read like a God’s angel on a mission to map the world.

Although a student at the prestigious London School of Economics, his varied interests in theatre, journalism, TV production and documentaries take him to places where the faint seldom venture.

As a rookie journalist, he covered the war in Serbia, organised music festivals in Zanzibar, made documentaries on the retro music clubs of Lebanon and travelled with my musical show in Australia as the company manager.

Culture curry
He’s also a co-curator of the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, undertook a filmmaking course in Pune, and lest I forget, he dreams in Sinhalese as his girlfriend is from Colombo!

He has oceans of stories and anecdotes about his interactions with people from diverse cultures, experiences in tackling different systems, and the lengths he invariably goes to get a spicy baigan ka bharta’, his favourite Indian dish.

He helps me to rediscover my street culture by feasting on pav bhaji, bhel and aloo chaat while I chew on his comments about Mumbai’s changing persona.

He loves shopping for quirks and oddities on the streets — these are peculiar habits and odd social behavior we display, which represents us as people. This time around, he shopped for two more of our quirks in his overflowing Indian shopping bag — one, we are extremely industrious, and second all Indians express them selves through food. While explaining his first statement, he opened my eyes to the hordes of people around.

Strangely, he draws a lot of energy from our teeming masses going about their daily grind and terms them as ‘mobs with a purpose’.

Spread unleashed
As I drive him around Mumbai, he sharply observes that we don’t waste a square inch. Every nook and corner of the city is bustling. Small shops, parked handcarts, people begging, shoeshine boys, newspaper vendors and young urchins willing to look after your vehicle — there are people all round to partake in this extreme form of entrepreneurship.

Every human form seems self-employed, absorbed by a self-styled quest to survive. This rawness fascinates him! Expanding on our food fetish, he often gets tired in India just by fending off offers of food and tea.

Five minutes into a serious conversation, he is asked if he is hungry! He fears visiting his friends and their families, being caught in this food revolution, where, in an instant, the entire spread is unleashed. And to refuse would mean an assault on the Indian sentiment.

Grass is greener
I listen to all this with interest, I know him well to know that he’s not mocking us, but perhaps holding a small mirror in which I look and understand my surroundings. Our debates are interesting.

Since a terrorist could attack us anywhere, I tell him that we can swap countries — I will move to London to live in a cleaner world with all its trappings.. and he will build his life in Mumbai with its systems and procedures, its chaos and diversity. “The grass is green on my side,” John says, agreeing instantly because he feels he can trade all his western finery for our humanism, our hospitality and Priyanka Chopra! I’m looking forward to this exchange. Keira Knightley here I come!

First Published: Mar 23, 2009 18:53 IST