I was waiting outside an ATM. The white kurta-ed man inside seemed to be taking an eternity to come out. I started humming, tapping my foot lightly, looking around, till my eyes caught hold of my reflection on the glass doors of the ATM. I stopped humming and tapping my foot. My breath quickened. Calm down, I desperately told myself. They can smell fear. Did I have any food on me, I thought; no. For right behind me, were two street dogs, cream-coloured – you know, the typical street dog kind. One was slowly trotting, coming close to me. The other stopped, and lay on the floor, stretching itself (yes, ‘it,’ not ‘he’ or ‘she’), as if it knew I wasn’t anything interesting.

Do dogs know if we pretend? I put on a calm face, started to whistle (only to quickly stop – what if they think I’m being friendly!) and stared up at the sky and around, all the while keeping an eye on the reflection to see what the canine beast was up to. It came close to me, but suddenly had a change of mind, and thought it would be better to go back to its friend (who in the meantime, was performing athlete-type warm-up stretches – despite my horrific fear, I had to laugh), and started to sniff about it. White-kurta man came out at this opportune moment, and I made a dash in to the ATM and shut the door.

Despite everything I missed about India while in Singapore – the lack of crows (making me cry ‘OH MY GOD, THAT’S A CROW’ the rare moments I spotted one there), the whole cows-on-the-road feeling, the proud ‘Oh yes, I’ve sat on an elephant’ that I told my astonished classmates in college – I had no regrets about dogs, especially the street variety. You have stray cats in Singapore (they terrified me too: I’ve written about them here and here), but dogs in Singapore are all pretty, adored, on leash, with owners who groomed them to their best ability, collecting their poo (dogwalkers always carry a plastic bag) and taking their runs with them, and stuff. Pampered.

Fast forward to Mumbai, India. Street dogs abound in my area, and not only do you have to maneuver about them, but their turds too (it only got worse with the rains – many a time, I’d step on something to hear a squelch: whether it was mush, some tiny animal that I’d just killed, or dog poo, I’d never know). Hours after moving here, I had to shriek to my dog-loving friends to keep the street dogs away. Don’t play with them while I’m there (dogs on leash were ok!). They get into barking matches (thankfully, no howls – street dogs in Ahmedabad would howl through the night, not letting you catch a wink). They pee on the tyres of good-looking Skoda cars. They gang up and threaten the more scared among us by following us about. They taunt the pet dogs tied up inside their homes. As happy as I am that they lap up the leftover food I leave for them, I don’t like the fact that I have to take a particularly difficult way to enter a shop because they have spread themselves royally at the entrance.

Compared to these vagrants, the pet dogs seem like mellow creatures. It’s especially hilarious to see (when you’re at a safe distance, that is) a street dog tease a pet dog; the funniest of all was a large black dog that responded to the calls of a street dog but angrily jumping past every window in the wall of the house it was in, following the street dog that was gaily trotting past, basking in its secure position well away from the barking beast inside the house.

Oh well, what would life be without a bit of spice. Till the ATM incident yesterday, I was thinking I have become a little better at handling my fear of dogs. Unfortunately, no, I do have a long way to go. Maybe by the time I’m done with my studies in Mumbai, besides being able to speak Hindi fluently (that would be the day!), I’d be better with dogs – not to the extent of being able to pet them, but at least not walk away swiftly in terror? Only time will tell.

Dated 9 Aug 2011 and posted today because, hey, two months on and I still don’t have internet at home

It’s been two months since my massive move back to India, to Mumbai for the first time. And in this short span, I have seen so much: seasons (hot-humid-summer to horrible-rain to current-pleasant-weather), bomb blasts in the city, had endless permutations of pavs (vada-, misal-, bhajia-, etc.), jumped past dog poo, spoken Hindi that makes my new friends laugh in good-natured (I hope!) amusement, among other things. 

The day I landed was a hard-hitting lesson in back-to-India-ness. I had all but stepped out after a shower for two minutes, that I was covered with sweat that was mingling with dust from the roads (yes, it sounds revolting, but you can imagine. I wonder how students on exchange from Europe/the US handle it, but perhaps they have conditioned themselves to the I’m-coming-to-India experience?) Some five minutes after this, I had to cross perhaps the most dangerous road of all times. I patiently waited for the pedestrian crossing signal to turn green, realized vehicles don’t give a damn about it, and ended up running in terror, in between honking vehicles that screeched to a halt so they don’t kill me. I walked around the college campus, somewhat let down by the size of it (the whole campus was as big as the South Wing of NTU), but still happy at how green it was. I was surprised that every girl was in a kurta and chudidar. I found the canteen food good, but it was in a smelly place; I wanted to avoid having to walk over to the other side to wash my hands as far as possible. Two hours outside and I was craving to get into a mall for the air-conditioning (after being frisked and getting my bag checked at the mall entrance). I was disoriented and upset at the enormity of my move. 

Two months on, things have changed. The rains have begun, and the umbrella-hater me has had to walk everywhere with on in hand. Through the slush, into the auto rickshaw, sitting on wet seats, stepping into slush, and the like. Opening the cupboard to find fungus all over my black pair of jeans. Worms in the bathroom, leading the way to other kinds of worms and now, snails. I have gone from the phase of aversion to acceptance to now cold-hearted brutal murder. I have gotten used to saying Rupees and Paise, and not dollars and cents, and the fact that the 50 paise has no value today. I don’t run away from dogs anymore, just stand by and admire the gutsy mongrel doing his business by the tyre of a Honda City. I rattle away in crappy Hindi, know that kulta is a ‘bad’ word, swear more than I ever did, order Indian dishes I’d never heard (zhunka bhakri!), and enjoy my only non-Indian food at McDonald’s, having the McVeggie burger with fries. I negotiate the risky crossing with ease, shouting out the choicest of abuses at sedan drivers, sometimes even in Tamil. I’m used to the delays associated with Indian-ness, and although it gets the better of me very often (and it spirals into a whole hour of grumpiness and Singapore-sickness), I can recover with the help of Amul ice cream, Dairy Milk or Cadbury’s Bourbon. Drinking a can of beer that I queued up and bought at a ‘wine shop’ while the owner threw dirty looks at ‘girls these days,’ was a big achievement. NRI-ness has on the whole gone down, I think. 

And yet, it all feels so weird. I sink in nostalgia when I see Facebook updates on anything to do with Singapore; miss the fact that it’s National Day today and the crazy ads they have for the NDP. I spent a good ten minutes explaining the ‘We must be vigilant’ video they show in the MRTs. I look out for Singapore in charts showing statistics on different countries in class (though they mostly drop it out – either it’s too small or too developed ;)), and ‘lah’ and ‘sian’ have been taught to roommates and anyone else who bothers to hear me rant. I still say ‘I’m going to India’ when I mean ‘I’m going home.’ I miss wearing nice clothes – I’ve been wearing my pretty clothes to school because I don’t know what else to do with them. In a class where pretty much everyone is in a kurta/leggings or pretty tops and jeans, I go with my best workwear, and even dresses, and soon everyone is going to tire of asking where it’s from (and sometimes I feel weird; it feels a little show-offy to say that this dress is from Bandung, a hill station near Jakarta). Terribly miss the variety in food, the outside-of-work life, the endless movies, fast internet and God, the desserts (brownies here are terrible, and cakes, I’d rather not have). 

As I still negotiate the space between ‘I love India and it’s so much fun’ and ‘Ugh, why did I come here’ I guess the brain has already started leaning towards the former, and the heart is slowly following too – a sense of acceptance that one good life’s done and another has begun, and the optimistic self tells me I have to give things in India a fair chance. Thanks to the besties who still call/email from Singapore and keep me in the loop – so much so that sometimes I feel like I’m just on extended holiday in India – and the new ones here in Mumbai who make it so much fun – I guess I’ll survive.