Monday 29 July 2013

The Mumbai Expat : Being A Better Half

WARNING: Long Blog Alert!

I mentioned in my last blog introducing you to my upcoming Mumbai Expat Series that I would write a post entitled 'Coping as a Trailing Spouse'.  I don't know what I was thinking really because I despise that term - a term for someone who joins their partner in another city where they have a work assignment.  It is so derogatory and implies that the other person has nothing to offer or nothing better to do with their time than merely 'trail' a snail.

When we came to Mumbai last year, Mr Jules was concerned that I would soon become bored. No doubt, you will have the same concerns if you are reading this. And it is true to say that without a work visa, your options can be very limited in this city.  Especially if, like me, you have given up a full time job and salary in making the transition - or you are a mum whose kids will soon spend the better parts of their day at school.

Mumbai, from what I can gather (having never been an expat before), is one of the most challenging cities in the world in which an expat can reside.  From the climate, to hygiene worries, to the general ugliness of the city (sorry Mumbaikars!) to the roadside beggars; to the bad traffic and poor infrastructure; having to haggle for fair prices and battling with Hinglish miscommunication. As a Westerner - every conceivable difficulty is thrown your way and a lot of people can become isolated and find it very hard to settle.

That is when you have to dig a little deeper and think laterally about how you can pass your time in a meaningful, enjoyable and satisfying way.  I honestly believe that coming to India is a wonderful opportunity for anyone - even the most unadventurous, nervous or jobless of us.  I am also of the view that time waits for no-(wo)man and I do not personally want to exist in someone else's wake.  There are opportunities to be had, sights to be seen, experiences to be....experienced. So here I list below ways in which we can become 'Better Halves' and make new alliances (women and men - as it is not uncommon for the role to be reversed).

Wondering what to do with your time?  Then read on!

Join an Expat Group

There is a good support network for expatriates in Mumbai, and the quickest and easiest way to make new friends is to join Mumbai Connexions or the American Women's Club.  You don't have to be American to join the latter - both groups welcome every nationality - using English as the common language.  The majority of members are women and most of the activities are aimed at women.  The weekly meeting platform is the good old coffee morning where you will be able to chat to like-minded people, share experiences, get advice and generally have a very sociable time.  Once you join, you will have access to further weekly groups such as Mahjong, bridge, crafting, book clubs, golfing etc.  If you don't find something to interest you there, you are encouraged to set up groups that may be of interest to others. There are also monthly and annual events to enjoy where you can bring your partner - such as dinner clubs, Christmas parties or fundraising events.

Both groups do an enormous amount of work for their chosen charities and it is possible to get involved with volunteering for those as well.  In addition to that, if you have a particular skill set (perhaps you are a good organiser, have IT or administration skills) there is usually an opening for members to volunteer in various positions.  Positions such as 'Coffee Morning Co-ordinator' or 'Website Administrator'. These roles will bring focus and routine to your month and I recommend getting involved if you can.

Annual membership fees range between 800-1,000 Rs and you are usually expected to make a 100 Rs donation at each coffee morning - which goes to charity.  With Mumbai Connexions, you also get a monthly newsletter - written by members for members - detailing all upcoming events, as well as interesting information and articles. Again, you are invited to write for the magazine if you have a talent in that area.

If you are looking for a younger and more eclectic vibe, then you should look into joining Internations, Bombay Expats Club or The Cigar Club.  These groups regularly organise events (mostly drinking events!) but you need to either join a mailing list/Facebook Page/website in order to get invites.  I know lots of people who have made lasting friendships through such groups.

Get Acquainted with Mumbai

Before I even moved out to Mumbai, I was researching everything - from restaurants to shops to tourist sites. I read Mumbai Boss avidly everyday and was soon advising Mr Jules where to go to eat and shop (he came to Mumbai four months before me).  Every restaurant and shop opening, cultural happening and sale is mentioned on this site.  You will find very useful reviews and also guides - such as this one for Chor Bazaar where we love to buy antiques. The site Brown Paper Bag is in the same vein (but not as good in my opinion) and you can also find the out what the latest goings-ons will be by checking out Time Out Mumbai.

Get Cultured

Mumbai is a very cultured city and you will surely find something to fulfil your more inquisitive side.  There's the Asiatic Society, The Bombay Natural History Society, the Art Society of India and many more.  There are museums and art galleries to visit and Bollywood movies to be discovered and enjoyed. Google is your oyster!

Learn Something New

When was the last time you had some time on your hands?  Even if you have children, you've probably got a maid and driver to help out, leaving you free part of the day.  So now's your chance to take up that cookery course, dance class or learn how to use that camera. I learnt how to cook Mughlai curries at Foodwhizz Cookery School and I found out how to use my new Nikon on a Toehold weekend course. Perhaps I will experiment with Indian embroidery next....

If I was good at languages (and I am ashamed to say that I am not), I would be learning Hindi.  Having a basic knowledge of India's 'official' language will empower you - with rickshaw drivers, market vendors and locals in general.  Indian people are always delighted when you can speak a few words of the lingo.  If you can learn Marathi too (the state language), you will be all powerful.....

A recommended Hindi teacher is Pallavi Singh - find her here.

Start a Group

If you have a musical or artistic specialism or you are interested in something and can't find a group to join then start one yourself!  Once you start posting on noticeboards and Facebook pages, you will soon find that there are other like minded people out there (whether other expats or Indians).  For example, I started a 'PhotoLunch' group that takes a bunch of us out once a month to a place of interest.  We take snaps, have lunch then go home and upload our efforts to a closed facebook page for critique.  We are all amateurs but it doesn't matter - it gets us out, it makes us learn about our city and it helps us to improve what skills we have.  And of course, it helps us to make new friends.   The website 'Meetup' is also a good place to start a group in Mumbai.

Buy a Camera & Write a Blog!

If I can do it - anyone can do it.  My background is in accountancy and I've never written anything creative in my life (except for badly composed essays at school and business reports).  I'm never going to be JK Rowling or Annie Liebovitz, but writing a blog is a time-consuming pastime that forces you out to do research and take photographs.  You can start by just using your blog to communicate with loved ones and then see where it takes you.  The Blogger platform - which I use - is very simple and is free.  You can also use Wordpress (which is also free) if you are a bit more tech-savvy - which I am not!

You will be amazed by how many friends and contacts you can make in India through blogging.  And don't worry if you're no good with a camera - your friends and family just want a snapshot of your life - not an award winning photo-documentary.  I can honestly say that blogging has opened up a whole new world to me - and really connected me to the locals of Mumbai.

Get Socially Networked

It is easy to assume that everyone has a Facebook page or Twitter or Skype account these days.  But it's not always so.  Keeping in touch with friends and family back home helps you to stay sane. Sign up today - it will also help you keep abreast of expat groups in Mumbai.

Do a Slum Tour

OK - this is slightly controversial. I am not promoting 'poverty porn' or anything - but once you've been to Dharavi, it all becomes very clear.

To a lot of outsiders, Mumbai can be defined by Dharavi - everyone has seen the film Slumdog Millionaire (a film hated by the majority of Mumbaikars co-incidentally). Foreigners therefore have their preconceptions about the city.  But once you trail through the narrow (and admittedly sometimes smelly) industrial and residential lanes of Dharavi, you will see that people are working hard, making money, organising their homes, cooking their food and generally being content with life. Getting on with it - like you should. Get over your squeamishness (after all, I have done the tour on several occasions - and there was a time I wouldn't even walk in a country lane for fear of getting cow-dung on my stiletto heels!) and make a visit.

I recommend going through Reality Tours & Travel.  Here is my blog about it too.  I have since taken my husband, my best friend from the UK and my husband's boss from the UK on the tour.  They were all enlightened by the experience - Mr Jules's boss so much so that he wants to come back later in the year to give a class on Life Skills to the slum kids.

Stay Fit...or Get Fit

And this is where I fall down.  If you are like me, you will have access to your husband's car and driver during the day when he isn't using it.  You may even have your own allocated driver.  Therefore, it is very easy to drive everywhere without hardly putting a foot on Mumbai's badly maintained pavements.  Coupled with nice greasy curries, copious amounts of Sula wine or Kingfisher beer you will soon start to see the pounds pile on. And taking a nice country walk or jog around Mumbai is not really an option.  Unless you live near Aarey Milk Colony where it is possible to stroll, it takes a couple of hours (minimum) to get out of the city.  Not only that, but open spaces are few in this city and even if you find somewhere to walk, it's usually too hot or humid to bother.

So I recommend that you either utilise the gym in your apartment building if you are lucky enough to have one (we are but I've only ever shown guests in there!) or join a gym or club. Examples of gyms are Gold's Gym (where you can do some Bollywood celeb spotting!) or C'est La Vie with its nice big pool. Clubs favoured by expats are Waterstones in Andheri or the Breach Candy Club.  Both have giant swimming pools, fitness facilities, restaurants and bars. These clubs are what you call pretty 'exclusive' with exorbitant joining and annual fees.  Some expats are lucky enough to have their companies pay these fees.  Needless to say - I am not a member! Again, such clubs are good places to hook up with new friends, have lunch and relax by the pool (but I like to save that for my holidays).

Of course, as this is India, everyone should be doing Yoga and getting all Zen-like. Here, learning yoga is such good value that it is possible to get private tuition in the privacy of your own home or you can practice it at places such as the Yoga House (where you can also get delicious salads) or Temperanceboth of which are in Bandra - or at the above mentioned clubs and gyms.

Be a Volunteer

I have already mentioned above that you can volunteer indirectly for charity through women's expat groups. But if you want a more meaningful experience, where you can utilise your by-now-almost-forgotten skills then it is possible to really get stuck in by directly helping one of countless, needy NGOs that exist in Mumbai.  I did this full time for three months when I first arrived - and it is one of the best things I've ever done.  I now sit on the Executive Council of that NGO and contribute knowledge from my past career to help develop the organisation - two to three days a week.  These activities help to take me away from what can be an inward looking expat world - where I can meet ordinary cityfolk with their own, interesting stories to tell.

What many NGOs need in this city, is help with their organisational structure, HR, accounts, fundraising, marketing and social networking.  These are areas where women who have just left their jobs can easily assist with.  And stay-at-home-mums can also find ways of making a contribution - perhaps by teaching English or helping with art lessons once a week.

I am going to write a lengthier post on how to do this at a later date so please come back again.

Organise Travel

You are in one of the most beautiful and culturally diverse countries in the world.  But you may need to get out of Mumbai to find that out. I have honestly met some women through expat groups who have lived here for some time and have not been outside the city (sometimes, the confines of their own apartment!).  There is no excuse for this!  Travel and accommodation is cheap in India and each and every state has its own personality, its own cuisine and its own people.  From the backwaters of Kerala to the royal palaces of Rajasthan to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas; animal safaris, frenetic cities and peaceful, rural India. There is a reason it's called 'Incredible India'!

Most internal flights - on Jet, SpiceJet or Indigo - cost an average of £70/$100 and if you are really brave, you can try the train which is a real adventure.   Closer to Mumbai, you've got hill stations and coastal resorts including Matheran, Alibaug, Lonavala and more.  You don't have to take a flight to get away.

Please read my travel posts for ideas on where to go and what to see. Your other half will be delighted that you've organised something for them after a stressful week at work.

Invite Guests

Admittedly, I've only had two visitors come to stay in the last year - but it is a long way to come from the UK (even longer from the US!).  People generally want to stay for at least two to three weeks to make the journey worthwhile - so it can be quite a commitment for both sides.

Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to show them my new city in detail and arrange onward travel to other parts of India.  I hope for them, that a lasting and unforgettable impression was made. It's good for people to put you in your new context and report to the rest of your friends and family that you really are doing OK!

So I think that's enough to be getting on with for now. I am not going to state the obvious things such as 'doing' lunch, having your nails done or going shopping - there is already enough material on my blog about that!

I will be back soon with some more advice for Mumbai Expats.


  1. Check out the Museum Society of Bombay if you are interested in the arts and architecture which is housed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum of Western India) and the Bombay Local History Society at Saint Xavier's College if you want to know more about the history of Mumbai.

  2. "Who is Beanbag" post was truely a revelation! Must have solved the mystery for thousands who never had the drive to go beyond!

    Do check out this new store "Pondicherry", opened on 27th March, very interesting, old antique pieces like 14th Century marble panels originally used at the entrance of a Jain temple sanctum - now repurposed as these beautiful side tables. Do check out their FB page, .



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