I wanted to be a writer after college, as the overwrought prose of my diary suggests, but as graduation neared, I saw no easy way into the profession. With the memory of my visit still fresh, an alternative idea came to me: I could move to India. On a whim, I applied to work at the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where my father had gotten his first job in America. I was offered a position and chose the Bombay office because I loved the city and because I had fewer relatives there. I was determined once in India to escape the cocoon of extended family and pave my own road, to discover my roots on my own terms.
When I landed in Bombay on that orange night, a driver dressed in white was waiting at the airport, holding a placard with my name. He was to bring me to the Peregrine, the McKinsey "guesthouse" for out-of-town consultants, where, to save money on hotel bills, the company made employees who worked together by day share apartments by night.
It is frightening to land in a city at night and see it lifeless just when you need proof of its life. The cars had mostly deserted the streets; the workaday ruckus of buying and selling stood suspended; not a restaurant or bar was serving. But I woke up the next morning and gazed down on a heaving, boiling, maximal Bombay. The city was like one of those meals so intricately arrayed on the plate, so intimidating that you hesitate to bite into it: millions of human creatures moving by train, bus, car, and foot through their morning routines, opening shops, sweeping sidewalks, giving money, takingmoney, stopping for a jolt of morning tea. At first, I enjoyed the smallmercies of India from the safety of my room at the Peregrine: cooks who made me omelets and processed my laundry, servants who made my bed. Slowly, it became my base for brief incursions into Bombay. I learned the city through small tasks. I had two suits made at Raymond. I met the few people I knew in town for dinner. I went to see my future office, opened a bank account, and bought a cell phone from a traveling salesman with Nokias stashed in a gray briefcase.
Later I began making my forays into the Bombay throng. The instant I left my home, a glaze of sweat coated me. I dissolved into the city's layers of humanity: the frantic bees of the new middle class, tethered by hands-free devices to their just-bought phones, streaking through the crowd faster than the crowd was willing to move; the lowly but securely employed office clerks, known to their bosses as "peons" or "boys," men carrying plastic bags instead of briefcases, bush shirts untucked, feet spilling out of rubber sandals; the impoverished flotsam of the city who moved slower than the common speed, their black hair rendered brown by a lack of nutrients, begging sometimes but mostly just drifting; the hawkers of fruits and vibrators and books; the touts and the vagabonds; the striving and the resigned; the migrants and the deeply entrenched; the weather-beaten and the freshly perfumed.
As I neared the end of my three comfortable weeks at the Peregrine, granted by McKinsey to help me settle in, I was thrust into reality, which always begins with house hunting. A mustachioed, motorcycle-mounted broker named Salim found me a place within my budget. It was a "PG," a paying-guest apartment, which meant that it was a room in someone's house, sealed off and rented on the black market. It was the size of a spacious bathroom, located in the Churchgate area, and made for a humble home, with its fluorescent light, its plastic counters, its too-small bed, its gritty cockroaches.
But I wouldn't be spending much time in the room anyway. McKinsey's business model is to send young people like me, barely aware of what a business model even is, to work with clients in their far-flung headquarters. You can transform a company, they say, only by inhabiting it, dining with its employees, weaving yourself into its fabric. This was a polite way of saying that I now had to live during the week in Ahmedabad, a textile-weaving industrial city in the state of Gujarat, and return to Bombay (where I knew nobody and had nothing to return to) on weekends. This might have seemed a fair deal to anyone unfamiliar with Ahmedabad. It is the leading city in a puritanical, overwhelmingly vegetarian, prohibition-dry state whose most recent bout of fame was for a days-long extravaganza of religious violence that had killed some two thousand Muslims and scores of Hindus the year before my arrival. To make matters worse, my client was a drug maker whose managers spoke in an indecipherable pharmaceuticalese of APIs and NDAs and DTC marketing and whose mission was about as inspiring as Ahmedabad's nightlife.
In my first days at work in Ahmedabad, I used to go to the restroom as often as possible, just to escape. People spoke a variant of English that I didn't understand: they said they were "on tour" when you called to arrange a meeting (they had not joined the Rolling Stones but were traveling); they pressed three fingers together and asked you to wait "two minutes" (they meant an hour); "Please do the needful," they would say when they wanted you to take care of something; there would be "an S & M meeting with PRP in second half" (an afternoon sales-and-marketing meeting with the chairman, identified by his initials). Further, the man in charge of "S & M" was a tall, razor-bald man named Ganesh, after the Hindu elephant god, who was rumored to wear a pistol tucked into his sock. In meetings, you thought twice before questioning his numbers.