Going home to Bombay is always a thrill, and I try to do it every year. My impressions piece together to form a living mosaic - crowds and colors and dirt; and then more crowds, more colors, and more dirt.
Staying in America has not been entirely good for me. My mother notices that I am decidedly uncomfortable when servants do my work. Perhaps the servants notice it, too. They look shocked when I volunteer to make my own tea. They giggle when I tell them I make my own bed.
In India inequality and poverty are natural and accepted. It's only the pretentious who affect shock when seeing them - the pretentious, the foreign, and the foreign-returned. There are quite a few Indians who would like to see things changed, but few Indians discuss poverty.
One really has to get out of the frame to see the picture. Indian delegates are very good at talking about poverty, especially when it involves going to a conference in a foreign country. Indian politicians are no less eloquent around election time, when they are always promising to banish poverty altogether. Everybody knows that the only poverty these politicians are going to eliminate is their own, but they are voted back to office anyway.
The rich certainly don't give credence to that story about exterminating poverty. They know that destitution has always been around in India, and so has immense wealth. Why, that is is the Indian way. So the rich go back to their imported video sets and their smuggled tapes of ''Dallas'' and ''Mork and Mindy, '' comfortable in the knowledge of their con-tinuity.
I am in the chauffeur-driven Mercedes of one of the richer women of Bombay and we are traveling through Worli, a suburb infested with slums. She screws up her face, rolls up the window and sprays some French perfume into the air around to reassure us. It does not work for me. My mind is fermenting with awkward thoughts which I try, unsuccessfully, to squash.
My companion is looking through the glass, her eyes glazed as if a not-too-interesting documentary were unfolding before her. I make a futile effort to dispel my guilt by asking her when she thinks the burden of poverty will be removed from India. She looks understanding, then faintly amused.
''Come now,'' she says, ''surely you don't expect us to help them. We try to but they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.'' She pauses and then gets animated. ''Besides, they're really sly and wicked these poor people. Always trying to get something from you.''
We've stopped at a traffic light, and I look at the ramshackle dwellings - no more than single rooms formed by three walls, surrounded by open gutters, human and animal feces, and little squealing children. I remark that ''they'' couldn't be getting much from ''us'' as they don't look too prosperous. She does not hear me.
I notice a white horse with festering open wounds wandering near a garbage dump and mention this to a politician friend. He says he will inform the SPCA but there is no trace of outrage in his voice. After all, there are people in a worse condition than that on the streets of Bombay. We lapse back into a topic we all feel very comfortable expressing our offended sensibilities over - the arrogance and insensitivity of the rich countries, and particularly America, when it comes to dealings with the poor countries.
Going back to Bombay is always exciting. I suppose in a sense, though, one can never go home.