Ghosts of Bombay

Ghosts of Bombay
A blurry view of Juhu Beach from my parent's apartment. Bombay, December 2009.

Katherine shared an irksomely amusing observation with me recently. A number of people have corrected her when she uses the name Bombay instead of Mumbai. My suggestion to her was to respond to such feedback with, "Sorry but I know more than you."

Of course, the reason she uses Bombay and not the temporally accurate Mumbai is because I do. We were having this conversation with our friend Shuba, another Detroiter from Bombay, while she was on a break during her Sunday shift at Coriander Kitchen when she responded with the phrase, "Mumbai is the city, Bombay is the emotion." In the weeks since that conversation, in my head this somehow morphed to, "Mumbai is a place, Bombay is an idea."

My relationship with Bombay has changed over the years. This will come as no surprise to anyone if for no better reason than I haven't been back in many years. My parents moved to Chennai some years ago. My last visit to Bombay consisted of a strange and wonderful 18 hours in the city in 2018 when I missed a connecting flight on my way back home(!) to Detroit from Chennai. (I wonder if there are people who are intent on still calling it Madras?)

When I first moved to the U.S. in 2007 I was convinced I would go back home. "Home" to Bombay. I was convinced for a couple more years before that perception started to fade. Over time it faded almost entirely to where it has been many, many years since I've called the city home.

That is due to no fault of the city. The things I appreciate now and the life I have been creating for myself are very different than what 21-year-old Rahul would have imagined back when I first made that 8000-mile trip over to these United States in 2007. And I am proud of this life I have created. As I write this I'm looking out at a wonderfully centering view of the green tops of many maple and oak trees, the Detroit river, and the beautiful and confusing local gem that is Belle Isle. My cat is lounging not far from me. My partner is enjoying a walk by the riverfront while I enjoy this time of reflection and writing.

Yes, the sentiment of Bombay being home has long faded. I don't miss the idea of the city like I once did maybe a decade ago. But the ghosts of Bombay live on within me.

I reflected to myself recently how nostalgia, insidious in its charm, can really mess with you. Once you see it, it's hard to miss the many examples of nostalgia preventing people from living their best lives. But for the most part, the ghosts of Bombay that continue to reside within me, are not the ghosts that bring with them those stifling aspects of nostalgia.

I must concede that as I write this I'm realizing this is a complicated sentiment to articulate.

As is tradition in these days when the next few dinner popups are always on my mind, food might offer me one way to make sense of I'm what I'm trying to say. A momentary aside – I have to remind myself that I'm not being lazy when I come back to food and cooking as a frequent reference point or contributor to metaphors. Food is a pillar on which culture is built. Fire, food, stories, songs, and so on.

Not just a pillar of culture, but also a bridge between cultures.

A strange thing about cooking Indian food here in America is that it feels like cooking guided by a memory. But what's often more true for me is that I'm cooking guided by the memory of a memory. That's approximately how I make sense of the ghosts of Bombay. A memory of a memory. Conjured spirits from the past, not always clear in their communication.

The ghosts of Bombay. Nostalgia, some confounded yet resilient sense of cultural pride and identity, some resentment at past realities of being tethered between two worlds, and many fond memories, that knock on my shoulder occasionally. But perhaps more importantly, creative inspiration, a sense of movement and change, and progress, usually.

I was trying to wrap this up with some neat conclusion, but this is not a subject I expect will get to resolution anytime soon. So I pause here for now. I suspect I will continue to explore this through the medium that makes the most sense to me these days, food. So, especially for those of you in Detroit, more to come.

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