5 marriage proposals in 5 days: My first week in Mumbai.
“So, how do you like Indian girls?” the taxi driver asked.
I was a little thrown. “Everyone in India has been incredibly nice so far,” I offered, hoping to move the conversation in a different direction — preferably towards a companionable silence, actually.
No such luck. “Indian girls are the most beautiful in the world,” he said, twisting around to stare me down. “Right?”
Conscious that his eyes had left the road and his hands had all but left the wheel, I quickly replied: “Yes sir, the most beautiful.” Marine Drive isn’t a place for drivers to be distracted.
Satisfied, he turned back towards the road, just in time to avoid a bus that had suddenly merged in front of us. I exhaled.
It was only my first day in the city, but I was discovering that love was on the mind of just about every Mumbaikar I met. Or at least lust.
As we drove towards my friend’s apartment on Malabar Hill, I noticed the couples who had come to share a private moment along the scenic coast. Unfortunately, so did the driver.
Coming to a complete stop next to one poor couple, he leaned across the seat and pointed. “She is so beautiful, no?” he demanded, as I shielded my face in embarrassment.
“Sure. Yes. Please keep driving,” I begged. It was a futile request.
The entire journey was punctuated by stops as we spooked unsuspecting couples who had come to the waterfront hoping for a few brief moments of intimacy in a city of 36 million prying eyes.
But today was not their day. Every pair of lovers on Marine Drive was interrupted by a rickety kaali peeli screeching to a halt in front of them so that its driver could proclaim to a mortified passenger that each girl was more beautiful than the last.
At first, I tried to resist, maintaining that we were making girls uncomfortable, pointing out boyfriends giving us dirty looks, and arguing that I couldn’t see their faces properly. But he wouldn’t drive on until I agreed each time that yes, in fact, this particular girl was the most beautiful yet. In the end, he turned the meter off and told me that I would have to get an Indian girlfriend soon.
“Maybe,” I said. “What about you? Are you single?”
He most assuredly was not. In fact, as he proudly told me, he had been married for 15 years, and fathered 4 children. But this fact clearly hadn’t dulled his voyeuristic tendencies. When I handed him the money for the fare, I mentioned that his wife might not appreciate it if she knew he constantly ogled girls along the road.
“Secret!” He smiled, put his finger to his lips, and drove off.
I’ve been living in Mumbai for a week now, and if you’re reading this, Mr. Taxi Driver, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but no, I don’t have an Indian girlfriend yet. I do, however, have 5 marriage proposals in my back pocket. Not bad, considering I’ve been proposed to a grand total of 0 times during my 22 years living in the United States. I know, I know, I’m working on it.
Still, call me cynical, but I just haven’t felt the spark when a father proposes on behalf of his daughter.
The first time it happened, I was caught off guard. I had just stepped into a (different) taxi, directing the driver to the Hanging Gardens in broken Hindi, when the question came: “Aapki shaadi ho gayi hai?”
“No,” I replied. After my encounter with the first cab driver, I should have understood what was happening, but I was too busy taking in the sights and sounds of the city to think anything of it. The question was fairly personal, but maybe this was just shop talk: family, work, interests.
He asked how old I was, and I told him 22, thinking that I’d be let off the hook. But, with a sinking feeling of déjà vu, I realized I was in for another uncomfortable conversation.
“My daughter is 20,” he said. “You should marry her.”
At first, I laughed, thinking it was a joke. But as he turned around to wait for my answer, I realized he was completely serious.“Um,” I hesitated. “Thank you. Really, it’s very kind. But I’m not looking for a wife at the moment.”
The silence was uncomfortable. It stretched out between us, somehow more powerful than the horns, brakes and general cacophony of the Mumbai roads.
“It’s not her. It’s me,” I ventured.
He smiled, and the ice broke. Maybe there’s a reason that clichéd excuse still has traction.
In a way, I was glad of the proposal. It made for interesting conversation as we maneuvered our way in and out of traffic. We debated about the appropriate age for marriage, and the relative merits of arranged marriages versus love marriages. In the end, we agreed to disagree. As I got out of the cab, he gave me a missed call so that I would have his number in my phone.
“Just in case you change your mind.”
What I told the taxi driver — that everyone in India has been perfectly nice to me — is certainly true. People have tolerated my broken Hindi, been generous with their time, and been kind with their advice. Mumbai is too big to explore properly in a couple years, let alone a few months, but I’m going to do my best. I’m already getting to know my own Mumbai through the people I meet, the food I try, and the places I go.
A hungrier, less horny cab driver promised to show me the best places to eat on Mohammed Ali Road during Ramadan. A Parsi chef gave me a crash course in Zoroastrianism when we sat next to one another on the metro. I spent a lovely couple of hours reading in Priyadarshini Park, and even found a little lane behind Hanging Gardens, flanked by banyan trees, that has become an oasis of calm in this hectic city.
While I know I won’t be able to shine a light over every nook and cranny of Mumbai, what I do end up seeing and learning will be good enough for me. I’m not engaged just yet — I don’t even have an Indian girlfriend — but my love for Mumbai is growing day by day.