Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bilked in Mumbai and loving it

Day 4 in Mumbai. The intense May heat had spilled over in to June. The first two days had been a challenge, a baptism by fiery pre-monsoon temperatures. The benevolent early morning sun quickly surrendered to a glowering, merciless inferno; the soothing early glow supplanted by unforgiving, scorching rays. The water steamed, the earth baked, the dust filled air sizzled, and yet, the hardened, sweaty souls of Mumbai braved on.

Ensconced behind air-conditioned windows, I watched with fascination, admiration and horror, the dance of the city that bore me, raised me and watched me leave its shores to seek fortunes in distant lands. I felt the city dote over me each time I returned; a forlorn mother at once reunited with its estranged cherished cherub. Each time I disembarked at Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport, I felt the city’s warm embrace: a unique, captivating, miasmic blend of humidity, pollution, disinfectants, cigarette smoke, sweat and the uplifting, endearing reminiscence of childhood. The embrace usually lasted till I was united with my loving family, my doting parents, my beloved sister, my adorable nieces and the cool comforting cover of air-conditioning.

Each day in Mumbai is usually a surprise and a different challenge. Day 2 did not buck the trend either. As I sat contemplating about the heat and the warm people of Mumbai, the A/C died. I looked around in puzzlement only to realize that a banished devil had returned: power shedding. Just the day before, I was elated to learn that for the past month, the dreaded and inconvenient electric load shedding had been brought under control. The Honorable Prime Minister himself had alluded to Mumbai’s problems and had promised away the problem to oblivion. And for over a month, I was told, his will had been done. Till 3 p.m. on Day 2, that is.

Without any AC or ceiling fans, I now sat in an encased house, with the cool air stagnating and the merciless heat clawing at the windows. As the paucity of electricity continued, the citadel of coolness was breached. The household help, under the expert direction of a concerned mother, tried valiantly to cool the floors by sprinkling water in strategic spots, but the inexorable heat was dominating the protracted battle. The rising temperatures changed the water to humid vapor and turned our defense against us. We were forced to abandon fort, brave the elements and seek refuge in the controlled climes of a neighboring mall.

In true Mumbai fashion, Day 3 brought surprise and relief. Mid-morning, the clouds gathered, masked the harsh Sun and rained relief. The dust settled, rivulets of joy streaked across the slaked earth and the thankful denizens of Mumbai scampered to enjoy the rain and avoid the muck filled puddles. I stayed at home, despite the power shedding.

Day 4, today, was much like yesterday. A sanguine sun, bustling bodies, croaking crows and honking horns welcomed cloudy skies and warm balmy showers. Only today, I was outside. By mid-day, I was headed to my destination in the South of the City. South Bombay: the bastion of the hep and the clueless, the parvenus and the paupers, the aboriginals and the immigrants, the Lords and the peons, the Mistry’s and the Joshi’s. I was a suburbanite, a “’burbie” on an excursion in to town, the heartland of the “townies”.

An hour and a half into my trek, I was still in a cab, staring at the overcast skies. I had the windows partially raised to keep the drizzle out, but cracked enough to let fresh air, mingled with the exhaust from a million vehicles, prevent the air from stagnating in the cab. I was not protected by air-conditioning here, only the hardy resolve of the Mumbai middle-class. The road ran parallel to the shore of the Arabian Sea here at Haji Ali and the sea breeze added a salty, misty flavor to the drizzle. The cabbie honked vigorously to voice his disapproval of the sea of traffic which mirrored the waters by the shore. A million stagnant vehicles, from every direction, petulantly concurred.

Presently, an entreating face appeared outside my window. The earnest, beseeching countenance of one of Mumbai’s many squalid impecunious hapless, I thought. Heart wrenching. It reminded me of a time when I gave generously, when I felt that every little bit helped, when I both thanked God for my parents and their providence and questioned the justice of a purportedly caring, magnanimous God. Ironic that one witnessed God’s injustice in such propinquity to a shrine of one his most celebrated disciples. That the enshrined was a Muslim and I a Hindu didn’t matter. A benevolent and just God cared for all, equally. Perhaps this was a test, I used to think. Perhaps I’m supposed to give, I would reason.

The face also reminded me of a later time; when I argued with my date, at the very same location, about giving to the needy. Only she gave and I argued against it. She reasoned that every little bit helped and that a few Rupees hardly mattered to us, but meant several meals to the outstretched hand. I contested in her, my own erstwhile stand. I channeled Jacob Riis when I reasoned about the moral hazard of giving to the poor “perpetuating the problem it sought to solve, by attracting still greater swarms.” I told her that had the almswoman been selling merchandize, and not just cadging, I would have bought her wares. Even overpaid for it. Because then she would be self-reliant, adding value to her labor and might actually have a faster way out of poverty. Needless to say, her noble emotions disagreed with my Draconian capitalistic logic. Was she dismayed because her beau didn’t echo her feelings or because she failed to discern this side of her beau earlier? I never bothered to find out.

The knocking at the window snapped me out of my reverie. I looked again at the face and noticed a bundle of books next to it. The books were wrapped in cheap cellophane to keep the rain out and the book titles visible. Mumbai had pleasantly surprised me yet again. “Saab, which book do you want Saab?” the adolescent face asked earnestly. In English!

“What do you have?”

“Jack Welch, Saab, Winning”

“What else?”

At which point the bedraggled boy pressed 5 wet, but cellophane protected, books to the window. None of the books were super interesting. Plus I hadn’t kept up on my reading, so didn’t know the latest fare.

“Salman Rushdie, Saab”, the boy offered

“Salman Rushdie, Enchantress of Florence… how much?”

“500 Rupees, Saab

I loved it. Mumbai, my hats off to you. I couldn’t help smiling at the boy.

“That’s about $10”, a part of my brain computed. “No way is that cheap-printed paperback worth that much. Even in an upscale store like Strand or Cross-Roads”, I counseled myself. “But he is performing a service. You know you will have to wait where you are going and you were thinking to yourself about brining a book from home. He’s saving you the boredom and the trouble of trying to find reading material. What do you value that service at?”

The lights had apparently changed and the ocean of vehicles surged ahead. As my cab gathered steam, the face kept pace with it, the Salman Rushdie sticking to the window.

Saab, it won’t be more than twenty rupees, Saab”, the cabbie advised. “Let it be.”

The traffic was speeding and the boy kept through it. “This is a risky service! Risk must have reward”, a voice echoed in my head.

“Give whatever you want to give Saab. Haven’t sold a book all day,” the determined boy implored as the drizzle and the sea spray sprinkled down his face.

I asked the cabbie to slow down and lowered the window. The boy, now panting, caught up with the cab and thrust his drenched arm through the window, holding on to the bottom half of the soaked book. I held out two Rs. 100 bills. In a smooth practiced motion, he dropped the book in my lap, snatched the bills and was on the embankment out of the traffic with a smile on his face.

Cab ride to the city: $5

Wet copy of a cheap print Salman Rushdie: $4

Smile on that kid’s face: priceless


Chaula said...

Not bilked, dude! You paid for honest labor (and stuck to your principles in the process). A win-win in my book.

kage said...

moi likes to think so too... :) Free enterprise, free markets, freedom and upliftment

kanta said...

You helped the true labour. One must appreciate the labour and give whatever one feels o'k. But never help the begging child. Instead tell him/her work and earn.

Mumbai is still without electricity for 4-6 hrs daily.

Anonymous said...

The conetent is marvellous, the story is universal many people go through the same experience, their emotions are similarly evoked but very few can give words to the experience.

This piece has the idiom of old Dickensonian charm, the desription of the protogonist (face) makes him an Olver Twist. Ending is very contemporary.



Anonymous said...

Aww. Your going soft!
Methinks that's a good thing. ;)

I was not protected by air-conditioning here, only the hardy resolve of the Mumbai middle-class.

That line communicates so many things at once. Actually the whole thing was very nicely written. In the midst of all your staunchly analytical inquiry, there's quite a bit of heart.

I haven't (yet) had to face the poverty of street beggars but the questions you raised are so valid.

Arjun said...

Keen, and amusing observations of the Mumbai scene. Good and funny narration. Should continue with the experience of the jouney back to the land of hope and glory.

Vrinda said...

Your narration left me with a tear in the eye. This is a struggle that I keep with on a daily basis.While I fully commend your action of supporting the boy, the cynical mumbaikar in me responds to you in two ways.

First, buddy, you overpaid for the books. These probaly are avialble for 100 rupees. Second, on a more serious note, is the question whether a society like ours needs to bank upon inclusive growth or pure capitalism? If the money is going for the welfare of his own and his family's life, then the cause is noble. Of this I am not too sure. Business in this society or for matter any other has strong socio-political linkages. Whose aims was the boy trying to fulfill?

Well, I have no answers, only questions, which vanish at the sight of the arriving 10.17 to VT...

incomparable said...

hahah..... u havent lost ur sense of belonging to he city!! everytime in the city is a diff exp!!

kage said...

@incomparable... you can take me out of Mumbai, but you won't be able to Mumbai out of me ;)