A Layover in Mumbai: Thoughts on Humiliation

On my return journey to Germany from South Asia, I booked my flight from Kathmandu to Mumbai to Amsterdam to Hamburg. It was quite a journey, not to mention the eight-hour layover I had at Mumbai Airport. Luckily, I met some fellow travelers (humsafar) on the Kathmandu to Mumbai leg of the trip. One of them was my neighbor, whose name is Paurab. I heard him say hello to others with a similar style in dress and I figured out he was traveling in a group. He wore a simple unfashionable shirt and could not speak English. I had to admit that was surprised to see them traveling to India on a plane. Later on I learned that he and the others were migrant laborers on their way to Oman.

Paurab struck up a conversation with me after having some beer. We spoke in Hindi and he was surprised I could speak Hindi. On the plane, he shmumowed me pictures of his family in "Kathmandu." Later I learned that Paurab is actually Madhesi from the border area, but prefers to claim to be from the Kathmandu area for convenience's sake. He also had a few hours to kill at the Mumbai airport, so we decided to accompany each other a bit longer. I was unclear about how they ended up in Oman, and his future construction job would have nothing to do with his previous job where he worked as a driver in another Gulf country. He also learned to speak Arabic there and could orient himself around the metropolitan city. It sounded a bit of a waste of talent to me since he already learned so much about his first labor site and could use that to advance for himself as well as become of more use to the society. But as capitalism and middlemen dictates labor migration, he had to move on to the new place of Oman. 

He had only met the others he was traveling with in Kathmandu. It seems that they were lodged in the same room for some days prior to their departure. Another man, who seemed to act like their leader, was a Muslim and also made a point to talk with me in English. We shared bananas and a particularly hard cookie, which I was extremely grateful for, since I was out of Indian rupees and had an eight-hour layover to endure. Another one of the group showed me pictures of his wife in western clothing. She posed with a filmy self-consciousness that indicated these clothes were not meant for daily wearing, which I found quite intriguing.

Even though we did not have the means to purchase anything, we walked around the Mumbai airport window-shopping. Paurab dreamed about having a wife soon. We joked that we are practicing now for his future life, when he would buy things for his beloved. (Notice the actions of 'love' mediated through consumption). He pointed to a nearby area in Mumbai and said that he had also worked there before. I was surprised by how much he knew about India through his work experience. He joked that I should jump ship and go outside of the airport to roam around Mumbai. I said I wouldn't have a visa. He said you should just claim to be from Nepal! (Since people from Nepal do not need an ID or visa to cross the border. I thought that was an ingenious joke.)  He said he was 26 but looked a bit older. He asked if I could invite him to come to Germany; I warned him that he would have to learn German to survive. He said with a smile that he wouldn't worry-- he could easily learn it as he would settle there.  I admired his courage, flexibility and resourcefulness.

I wanted especially to share two moments of embarrassment and humiliation in this post experienced by him as seen through my eyes. We waited in an area right after landing in Mumbai, where we would have to be checked again for the visa validity and go through another security scan. The Jet Airways flight attendant called for each country of destination--"Dubai? Dubai? Aap dubai jaeenge?" Then a bit later, she asked for other destiations--"Qatar? Qatar? Aap?" She had to repeat such calls over and over and was impatient in her tone. The Nepali humsafars heading to Oman were also agitated and asked when Oman would be called. But since the attendant was busy she did not respond to their request about the order. It was the most chaotic transfer I have witnessed during my many trips in and out of different places. The other obviously European passengers were chauffeured to a seated area, while the other non-migrant laborer travelers who looked Asian had to figure that part out by themselves. I waited with them for some time and then I realized that I had to go to the restroom. I could not wait with them or pass the security check either, so I planned to meet up with Paurab after the check.

When I went through the checkpoint, the security guards from the Indian forces were extremely rude, regardless of their gender. They barked orders continuously with Hindi. One passenger from Nepal told one guard that he could not understand Hindi and requested him to speak in English. Another person who could speak Hindi acted as a go-between. The guard asked contemptuously, in Hindi, "Isn't he from Nepal?" Implying that everyone from there should understand Hindi. I was similarly expected to understand until some of the guards realized I was probably of another origin. It was quite a bothersome experience and I acutely felt the marginality of Nepal in the eyes of the big Indian sarkari fellows. 
I met up with Paurab, who was waiting for me. I complained to him immediately about the rough treatment. He brushed it off and didn't mind it as much. But I knew that he would have been treated in a similar way--the difference was that he could speak Hindi and avoid trouble. Later on, the second incident occurred when we would try to ask for the WiFi log-in code from the front desk. I never had any issues before, but for Paurab he hesitates to interact with the suited people of the Mumbai airport. He suggested that since my English is good, I should ask for both of us. I reluctantly agreed the first time. When the first WiFi code expired, we had to go the second time and I wanted him to ask for both of us. I stood next to him. The receptionist (which was a different person that the first time) clearly gave him much more trouble than when I asked, suggesting Paurab to log in with his SIM information. But we both did not have an Indian SIM, so we continued to wait for the code. The receptionist addressed me and asked what request did I have. I said I had the same issue, which is that I need the WiFi code. Only then did the receptionist give us both codes. 

I remembered these two incidents because I read a really enlightening paragraph from scholar Sanjay Srivastava on marginality:
"One way of thinking about 'humiliation' in the Indian context might be to consider it as a trope that serves to remind economically and culturally marginal men about their marginality. That, for men like them, the city is, indeed, a place of many dangers and repeated humiliations at the hands of others more powerful; that within the hierarchy of masculinities, theirs may stand at a precipice, teetering between feminisation and re-masculinisation, not always allowing of a stable, delimited sense of the masculine. This is the juncture of where the self-that-wants-to-be is mortified by the actual expereinces of being towards an anxious--fluctuating--subjectivity. It is also the moment where the masculine self may experience itself as a member of a class, its masculinity inscribed and restrained by the rules of inter-class intercourse." (quoted from The Masculinity of Dis-location, in South Asian Masculinities p215)

Although I did not hear the expressions of explicit experiences of humiliation from Paurab, I gained a sense of what it might feel like even within the region of his origin. I worry about the similar experiences he had abroad. While we have not talked since we departed from the airport, there is always the possibility of reconnecting as humsafars

Further academic reading on the subject of Nepalese migrant laborers in the Gulf region:

What Kind of Place is this?
Daily Life, Privacy and the Inmate Metaphor in a Nepalese Workers' Labour Camp (Qatar)