Out of the City and into the Heart
I have been wanting to tell some version of this story for a while, starting with my confession: before I arrived to India, I harbored a preconception about what capoeira would be like there. As a novice, I found solace in my fabricated world. It was basic and populated with human stereotypes, clones of studious South Asian kids I went to high school with, reserved and academic with button-down shirts neatly tucked in. Definitely non-athletes. I know what this sounds like. I know. But I would be lying if I denied that in my imagination, those kids made up most of the Indian capoeira community.
And not that one demographic majority is better than another, but I was wrong. The capoeira I found in India was stunning. Aerial and fluid, robust and strong, creative and unexpected. Embodied with utter abandon and in transcendental mergence with the pulse of the berimbau. Breathtaking. Perhaps it's obvious, but I didn't know at the time that India has a rich history of movement. Kalaripayattu, often cited as the world's first martial art, hails from Kerala. Regional dances flood the streets during festival season. And here I was, transfixed, wanting desperately to know how I could move so freely, too.
I want to take you with me somewhere, deep in the harbor side. East of the glitzy Bollywood neighborhoods, well into suburban Mumbai that -- geographically, anyway -- is no longer within the wild heart of the city. But Bainganwadi is still Bombay. After all, the seaside city of twenty-one million is to India what NYC is to the United States. The City of Dreams. Opportunities. This is the place for which the bravest pioneers leave their natal lands; the place they come to make it. If one thing is palpable about beloved Bombay, it is that she is moved by creativity and entrepreneurship. But she's also taxed. There is only so much milk to go around.
So people stay close enough to the caldera, even if they didn't master the fire-walk. The proximal heat is enough. And here is where we find ourselves, in Bainganwadi. The neighborhood is secluded enough from the economic hub of the city that you have to haggle with the rickshaw drivers -- a vestigial quality closer to town, since rickshaw drivers there must run a meter. We exit our rickshaw and the driver speeds off. Immediately, we are the center of attention.
We start down a wide avenue which quickly runs parallel to a dumping ground. I ask about it, and learn that it is the largest and oldest of Mumbai's dumping grounds.
"Do people live there?" I ask, motioning to the alpinists scaling the mound.
"Some of them do," my friend nods.
We turn down a narrow lane, walking by open doors inside which people are cooking or resting or reading the paper in Hindi or Arabic. If I reach out my arms, I can almost touch both walls at once. An older woman in a magnificent fuchsia sari is perched on her haunches, blowing on her steaming, milky chai to cool it off. I catch her eye and we share a smile. As happens sometimes with simple exchanges like this, I feel a knot form in my throat. The beauty of the human interface catches me off guard. Nonetheless, I have not yet gotten used to this, the cramped, forcibly intimate inner life of Bombay. I was raised in a place with expansive green lawns and disgruntled neighbors who shooed kids away when they cut through their backyards.
Two little boys walk by us, arms swung over one another's shoulders. They look up at us, pointing and giggling. I smile back.
And then, finally, over the honking and the hustle, I hear it. The heartbeat. chit-chit-ding-dong. The berimbau.
This is why we came. We head up a narrow staircase, beckoned by the music. My friend Armelle is one of a handful of teachers working with the kids who are known as Familia de Ouro. Rumor has it that their community inspired the capoeira song of the same name. After all, Armelle, as well as some of the other teachers (many of whom are from Capoeira Mumbai), are students of Mestre Chicote's. It was he who penned the lyrics to that now famous song.
Eu sou capoeira sim senhor
I am capoeira, yes sir
Like the kids, the instructors who come to share their skills are diverse. Some teach English. Others teach art. There's a breakdance class, a reading class, and of course, there's capoeira. It keeps them off the streets -- Bainganwadi can be a rough neighborhood. And these kids are amazing. The class is full of laughs and movement. They are practicing their performance pieces for the upcoming batizado. Mestre Chicote will be arriving to India soon. They don't just want to be good; they want to be damn good.
It's obvious that the students love Armelle, but I'm still a novelty. We laugh a lot. These kids and I do not share a common tongue. Though English is an official language of the subcontinent, it's more often heard in the well-to-do parts of the city, like Bandra or South Bombay. I hear nary a word of it in Bainganwadi.
But there is one language that we share. Capoeira.
We have a roda at the end of class. Because I am a guest, all of the kids want to play me. By the fourth or fifth game, I know I'm growing tired, yet one thing is clear: in the game, we speak. Some of them adapt to my level (as I've said, they are damn good). When it is clear that I am running out of steam, we walk around the roda so that I can catch my breath.
But the game doesn't end.
"Teacher," my partner says with a luminous smile. "Come on."
This is SO beautifully written and such a pleasure to read. One of the best things about travel in general, and particularly about living in different countries is how the experiences shakes any of our preconceptions and or misconceptions.
It is great to see and read about where you found the capoeira connection in India. Terrific photos too. Love the one of the guy in the street on one arm with his balloons.
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