Thursday, September 6, 2018

IMPERFECT HUMANS OF MUMBAI


As I walked to work from Bandra station, I often slowed down to watch the boy. He waited at the main signal at Linking road, with a gaggle of others, for the lights to turn red. He was tiny but held his own amongst his peers of varying ages.

As I approached the lights I stopped to buy peanuts from a vendor who kept them hot and crisp under an earthenware sigri of sand on hot coal. As the man expertly twisted a piece of paper into a puda, for my peanuts, I couldn’t help listening in to what those kids were saying.

“They’re hosting a free lunch at Seva Sadan,” said one in Hindi.

“Let’s go and eat till our stomachs are good and full,” the young one, about seven, said. “Who knows when our next meal will be.”

He eyed his crowd, hoping they’d approve of his cool cynicism. They were all grinning indulgently. The oldest, a scrawny teenager, slightly hunched and as emaciated as the rest, gave him an affectionate swipe.

I couldn’t help an inward smile. 

When the lights turned red, the boy swiftly picked out a likely prospect and darted across to reach her before the others did. She was in an auto.

“Twenty rupees, madam,” I heard him say.

The woman ignored him, staring straight ahead. Undeterred, he repeated his plea, going as close as he dared. She pretended to look through him.

“Okay,” he said, as if acknowledging the hard bargain she drove. “Ten rupees. Only ten.” 

He smiled at her, face tilted to one side, coaxing her to agree that it was a reasonable compromise.
She continued to ignore him but her lips twitched.

The tension went out of his little body. He turned to look triumphantly at the older boy who was standing watchful, at the traffic lights. The teenager gave him a half wave of acknowledgement.

The lights were still red when a hundred engines revved and began edging forward. The boy started running ahead of the auto, knowing it would leap away within seconds. If she was going to cough up it would be at the last second. Any earlier and she’d be swamped by other beggars. He raised his voice.

Only ten, madam.” 

As she sped away, she leaned right out. Hands outstretched they completed the exchange. She was smiling broadly but he had already forgotten her. He looked down at his booty and hastily zigzagged between vehicles that had picked up speed. Reaching safety, he handed the coins over to his scrawny companion at the lights, who swiftly pocketed the cash.

Filled with resentment I watched, thinking typical uncharitable thoughts of a typical, privileged Mumbaikar. The man has perfectly good limbs. Why doesn’t he get himself a job? Earn his own ten rupees?

Slightly ashamed, I grudgingly conceded that nobody would give such an unkempt, unknown entity a job. I wouldn’t.

At least, he and his kind provided much needed protection to their tiny wards in exchange for controlling the cash, I thought.

#

That evening, at dinner, I told the family about the boy and how the lady in the auto had found him irresistible.

“The rascal could probably teach psychologists a thing or two,” dad said, amid laughter.

“What’s a psychologist?” said our six year old.

“Well,” said dad, “just as a doctor knows everything about our bodies, a psychologist knows about our minds.”

Our bright young daughter absorbed that with a serious face. She was our adopted child and couldn’t have been more loved had she been our own flesh and blood.

That’s who he reminds me of, I thought. He reminds me of Smita when we first saw her. She was ever willing to smile and laugh but her eyes remained haunted. All four of us were aware of that look and it broke our hearts. It had taken years of care and attention to get rid of it from her face.

#

A few days later, on my way from Bandra station, I saw the boy again. I was disturbed to see a change in that cheerful little face. He winced as he hobbled to a customer.

His heart was not in his begging, and the man in the taxi ignored him. As the taxi went off, the boy glanced fearfully at his scowling warden.

This time I kept mum at the table, hoping nobody would notice how disturbed I was feeling. After dinner, we played with Smita for a while before putting her to bed. We kissed her and bade our parents goodnight. Alone in our room at last, I told Ashraf about the boy.

“To me he looked like he’d been abused,” I said, my voice low, even if everyone had retired for the night.

When he did not respond, I said, “You know, sexually.”

“What?” Ashraf said in disbelief. “No. How could you tell?”

“He was walking awkwardly, for one.”

“Could be anything. A boil on his inner thigh.” Ashraf smiled in that annoyingly superior way he had.

I felt irritated. Why was he so keen to gloss over this? Didn’t he remember pictures of our new-born Smita? She looked like a large insect with thin, spindly limbs and a rib cage that looked like an exoskeleton. She had been left near a garbage dump. They told us bluntly, had they been a few minutes late she would have been eaten by rats. They'd rescued her and brought her to the orphanage. They had nurtured her back to health before putting her up for adoption. Our darling daughter, our healthy, intelligent and smart Smita. It still made me sick to think of those rats. How close we had come to not having her in our lives!

“Yes. Could be,” I said to Ashraf, “except, when he handed over the cash he did not meet the eyes of the older boy. And when that boy grabbed his hand and laughed, he flinched and snatched his hand away.”

This time Ashraf was silent.

“We can’t interfere,” he said at last.

When he saw I was about to protest, he amended that quickly to, “Okay, why don’t I come with you to Bandra tomorrow? See for myself?”

#



From the author: If you liked part I, please let me know at: khoty@aksa.co.nz. I'll send you part II.

Why do that? Why not just post the entire story here? It tells me how many of you enjoyed the story, and would like to read more. That gives me a distinct buzz.

This was Ashok Row Kavi's comment when I sent him the story, and I quote,

"Loved the short story. Intelligent and very compassionate." 

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