I was dazed as the train ground to a halt at the station. It was 4:40 AM. I had slept on and off since we pulled out of Margao, Goa at 2200. Once off the rail platform I was assaulted by cab drivers – even at this ungodly hour. They were all attempting to undercut the pre-paid taxi service. I appreciated their enterprising nature, but I still wasn’t interested in the rates they were offering.
I left the Victoria Terminus compound walking and emerged onto the quiet street. Rats scuttling in the shadows were the only signs of life. A cab driver pulled up and I agreed to a discounted fare.
He dropped me at the Salvation Army guesthouse in the heart of Colaba, kittycorner to the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As I rapped on the wooden door, the disgruntled night ji informed me that I wasn’t welcome inside the guesthouse doors for another four hours. Hmmmm…
To pass the time, I laid out my multi-purpose yoga mat out on the Marine Dr promenade in front of the Taj and dozed.
Towards 0600 I winced as a bamboo stick thumped my unassuming hamstring. I craned my neck to see two police officers in cream uniforms. I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. Sleeping on the curb in front of a landmark hotel and site of past terrorist attacks isn’t the brightest idea.
I reluctantly surrendered my passport and sat on the back of a civilian motorbike as per the skinny one`s instructions. We zoomed off, unsure of our destination – well at least one of us was. He cut the motor outside a guesthouse blocks away. As his intentions became clearer, my heart rate decreased. Now at ease, I continually repeated that I would check-in to the Salvation Army, like a non-rogue citizen, once the doors were open. Finally the message was accepted. As he deposited me out front of SA, the cop made a half-hearted demand for baksheesh in exchange for my passport. I stood my ground and regained title of my most precious possession.
I still had some hours to kill before I could enter the hostel, but I knew how to put them to good use. I wanted to book a rush train ticket for the following day out of town (pre-planned, not as a result of my run-in with Bombay’s finest) and would have to venture back to the railway station by 0800 in order to do it. Now was the time to go. As the early morning sun slowly shed light on the streets, I set off walking. I arrived some time later, got my reservation and set off once again in the direction of the Salvation Army guesthouse, again walking.
Part II - Bed Bugs & A Little Life Advice
On my way back from the train station I stopped to chat with an older man who greeted me with a warm smile. Within minutes, I knew that Eric had some good stories and a valuable perspective on life. I proposed that we chat over chai once I had settled into the Salvation Army hostel and he had completed his morning errands.
Eric explained directions for a rendezvous point an hour hence.
I was very much looking forward to a cool shower upon my arrival at the hostel; however, I would have to wait. Once I had signed the hostel register I climbed the neo-gothic staircase to dormitory Number 15. It was a scene of calm confusion. A newly arrived guest announced that there was a bed bug infestation. His testimonial was supported by a series of fresh bites on his torso.
Flashbacks of bed bugs scares two years earlier in Guatemala flashed in my mind as I saddled my pack and descended the staircase to seek alternatives. The receptionist shouted in Hindi at an attendant several floors above before conceding the truth. ‘Yes, I could switch dormitories but it would be in vain – there was indeed a bed bug problem at the hotel.’
He wasn’t finished confirming my concern before I was out the door. I walked to meet Eric. His verbal directions had been exquisitely relayed and I arrived early at our meeting place. I had a quick breakfast of idlys and vadais on the streets. Smiles of businessman and young students spread with amusement as I, the foreign kid, mashed bits of boiled rice cake together with coconut chutney, sambar (vegetable soup) and tika (chilli).
When Eric arrived, I was engaged in conversation with another a young dude out front of Oxford bookstore; our pre-agreed meeting spot. Eric joined our discussion and set about offering advice to the aspiring journalist. Eric was convinced in his duty to impart wisdom and delivered his opinions effectively.
Eventually we left Vishnudewas with a look of inspired confusion on his face and posted up at a chai stall on an adjacent street corner. Before either of us could take a test sip of the steaming hot milk tea we were lost in conversation. As minutes passed we shared deeper experiences and asked more challenging questions. The relationship assumed a topically natural dynamic. As the middle-aged accomplished businessman turned devoted family man, Eric was the teacher archetype. To add to his CV, he had lost almost everything 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, the grasps of life-sucking legal battles continue to prevent him from joining his wife and three sons in California five years on. As the young Canadian backpacker with a supple mind, I was the student. But I challenged him. Although I listened intently, I cut in when he began to ramble. As if engaged in a silent contract of vulnerability, Eric allowed me to probe deeper and ask some tough questions. It was a wonderful couple of hours leaning against a stone wall as the bustle of the Churchgate neighborhood carried out its daily business.
As the sun grew hotter, we came back to earth. I needed to find a place to sleep, or at least store my pack. Eric and I walked. We agreed that I would crash at his place for the night. I was grateful and it would prove to be a wonderful experience.
I spent that afternoon exploring the Dharavi slum and the evening cruising the oceanfront of Chowpatty beach.
Part III - Time Travel
The following morning, I set out from Eric’s run-down, but cosy squat pad in Colaba (remember: legal battles) headed towards the emblematic Gateway to India. After passing through the lax security I strolled around under the arch fending off vendors and exchanging head waggles with domestic tourists. I soon took refuge in a corner of shade. I reflected.
I had last stood under this arch nearly 12 years ago. On May 12th, 2001 to be exact. I was 11 years old and my brother 9 when our parents took us out of school to backpack through South Asia. The formative six months included six weeks in North India. ‘The long awaited return’ had been a theme since my new arrival in India. Following my only previous trip to the India, I left completely enamoured with every aspect of the country and its people. I knew nothing as sublimely exquisite as a day moving through Hindustan.
In the decade that followed, I spent countless conscious minutes during high school math classes, after late nights partying during college and on long triathlon training rides dreaming of again visiting India. When I crossed Wagah border into Indian Punjab from Pakistan this trip, I was obligated to manage expectations. Indeed it had been nearly twelve years since I last had any first-hand experience with the soil or the souls of the Subcontinent. After a decade shaped by rapid urbanisation, economic emergence and Islamic fundamentalism, India surely wasn’t the same place I could expect to know. And, even if miracles had prevented deep seated changes from spoiling my romantic memories, it was undeniable that I had changed. Wow – eleven year old me…Thanks to puberty, completion of a decent post-secondary education and with years of ‘India-dreaming’ under my belt I was a different person. To be sure, this ‘return to India’ was a big theme surrounding my entire trip. Standing under the Gateway to India in this moment, was the first instance of overlap between the two adventures. Every mile traveled thus far (with the exception of Istanbul) had been ground breaking territory for me personally – until now. And, one of my strongest memories of the 2001 India trip had been here, under the arch:
In the unforgiving May sun I distinctly remember a saggy-breasted, wrinkly-faced lady bending down to pinch my cheek. It was fairly common occurrence and I normally let it slide off my back, but I remember on this occasion how it actually hurt and how I slapped her hand away in response.
I smiled as I took all this in under the arch.
Next I wandered into the Taj. I didn’t know if I would be permitted entry as a non-guest in wake of the 2008 attack, but I would try. In a cynical sense, being a white-skinned foreigner in a developing nation often serves as an all access pass. Eye contact and a slight strut gave me no grief at security and I roamed the opulent, air-conditioned halls of the iconic hotel.
Attached the to backside of the hotel is one of two Starbucks locations in India. At home, a daily tall Americano is one of the few constants in my life. On the road, it is a guilty pleasure – especially when one cup is 10% of your daily budget. I indulged.
As I walked down the street with the cup I regretted leaving the café before having fully consumed the beverage. Not because I prematurely forfeited the comfort of the air conditioned room, nor because it defies local norms to walk while drinking, but because I felt embarrassed. I felt extra scrutiny from people I passed by on the street. I didn’t like it. I want to blend. To be accepted and respected.
Now, I can’t with full confidence conclude that these tinges of guilt inspired my subsequent conduct that afternoon, but more than likely they did.
Part IV - Looking In The Mirror
As I strolled down one of Colaba’s main thoroughfares a young guy carrying a plastic shopping bag offered me a shoeshine. I smiled as I declined his offer. He persisted. ‘Only 2 rupees,’ he appealed. To shake him I appealed - to logic. The day before in the slum I had a man repair a strap on my sandal. At that time he gave them a quick buff. The difference it reflected on my battered footwear was impossible to notice, but this detail was beside the point. I shared this small anecdote with the dude.
We continued in conversation without breaking stride. His comprehension registered on his scarred face and my surprise at his advanced spoken English was not lost on mine. I asked him about himself. The short background he recounted caught my interest. I was intrigued.
I was on my way to find a thali for lunch and invited for him to join me. I figured a free meal was more than decent consolation for rejecting his offer of a shoe shine.
We sat down in a hole-in-the-wall veg restaurant and ordered two meals. As the platters were placed in front of us, Babu informed me that he had never sat down to eat in a restaurant like this. We ate and chatted. I had my plate re-filled twice. Babu only managed to work his way through half of his meal.
As we ate, I learned more details about his history and circumstance.
Babu had relocated his widowed mother and two younger sisters to Mumbai from their hometown of Jaipur three months earlier. His Dad was a gambling drunk who had left the extended family saddled with debt when he died six years ago. As a result the family was very poor. Growing up, Babu had attended a Catholic school entirely funded by the church, hence his excellent English. Now in Mumbai, the family slept on the street in the Dadar slum. To earn money for the family, Babu tried to work as a shoeshine boy. The problem is that he isn’t legit. In order to officially operate as a shoeshine boy he first had to gain a licence to work a particular area of the city. In order to get a licence, he needed to first purchase and own the classic ‘shoeshine boy’ wooden box kit. His immediate obstacle was affording the box. It cost a whopping 1300 INR ($25). Now, operating without the box and thus without the necessary permits, he earned as fraction of his potential and received constant hassle from the police. Indeed, he told me that is average daily earnings were around 40 INR. With the box he could expect to net 200-300 INR daily.
So, before Babu could seriously begin making money and thus supporting his family he needed the box.
I paid for our food and we left the restaurant. As Babu led me across the street in search of a post-meal street chai, I was pretty churned up internally. His story and current circumstance would be judged tragic by most peoples’ interpretations. But, this is India. Indeed, this is the streets of Mumbai, in India. People live tear-jerking, tragic, fucked up existences all-day, every-day for lifetimes. Dismally harsh realities are everywhere and we can’t be heroes for all. I told myself this. But, I struggled to swallow it this day in this situation.
With Babu, it hit too close to home. I have had quasi-epiphanies before where the full circle realization that the only reason I can stroll and sip Starbucks before eventually returning home to the comfortable shelter of Calgary instead of fight day in and day out to feed my sisters in a Bombay slum is because the stars aligned on my birthday. Indeed I was born to amazing parents in a country of prosperity and freedom. Random luck is the only, the only, the only, variable that separated my reality and my proposed future from that of Babu’s.
That is, if he was telling the truth.
Certainly, this was an if. Scam artists with sob stories can and do roam the streets. I was aware of this and the only feeling that churns my gut more than a true story of tragic struggling is being cheated by a false one. I had been walking a line of broad-minded belief and critical skepticism since the moment I opened my ears to Babu’s story. I knew he would never ask me outright for the money to buy a box whether he was a cheat or not. Thus, I felt no external pressure whatsoever. It was all in my own head.
As I weighed it all out the chaiwalla poured a 2x1 (one serving of chai shared between two cups). By the time I had swallowed my first sip I had made up my mind. I would offer to buy the wooden box for Babu. True, I clung to the details of our past conversations and, going forward, envisioned constructing safeguards during the purchasing the shoeshine box to help reinforce my confidence in the deal’s legitimacy and therefore in my judgement. However, it was not this, but something else that triggered my conclusion. I came to terms with the possibility that I was be being cheated. And more importantly, that if I was in fact being cheated, that I was being cheated fairly. No one was forcing this decision upon me. It was my risk. But, it felt right. If it was the case, he would have pulled the wool firmly over my eyes.
I fought back tears of emotion as I made my offer to Babu. A faint smile lit his face. He thanked me. I continued to ramble on about how lucky I was, how similar we were, but how different our fates appeared and how it felt like the right thing to do. He was already in action mode.
I shared my plan. We would travel together to visit the wooden box selling man. He agreed. We set off to Churchgate train station. The ride to Bandra was a short 25 minutes. We sat mostly in silent contemplation on the way.
At one point I purposefully broke the silence. I turned my neck searching for his eyes and asked of Babu, “What are you thinking about?” Without hesitation he responded. He was contemplating the good that would come from having the wooden shoeshine box. Whether it was true or not, it was the right answer. I felt a pang of satisfaction.
We disembarked on the platform and crossed the tracks into the slum.
As we marched to Churchgate station I had suggested that, once close to the box seller’s shop, I surrender the 1300 INR cash to Babu and await his return in a nearby chai shop. As a foreigner, I am no stranger to price inflation (read: gouging) at the hands of Indian shopkeepers. The risk of appearing alongside Babu in front of the box seller only to learn that the box now cost 3000 INR due to a foreigner’s presence was too high. This plan may have been expedient to his scheme or he may have genuinely judged it a reasonable foresight, but regardless Babu agreed that it was best for him to complete the transaction alone.
Off the train and into the slum we navigated the throngs of women in burqas, boys in torn trousers, girls with matted hair and men with proud jaw lines to a line off rickshaws. Babu negotiated with the driver and we hopped in for a short ride. In the shelter of the rickshaw I handed over the 1300 INR I had promised. Again on foot Babu steered us to a chai shop and barked for the walla to pour me a cuppa. He told me the wooden box seller was just around the corner and that he would return in five minutes. As I sat, I supressed rising thoughts of ‘this is too methodical, too premeditated’. ‘Come on,’ I challenged myself, ‘You already came to terms with the fact that you may be playing the fool. Ride the wave.’ I ordered a biscuit from the glass jar beside the chai-pot flame. Upon deeper reflection I think the demand was an immature attempt to prove to myself that I remained an independent actor. Babu had ordered my chai. I could order my own biscuit! I wrote down my ‘in-the-moment’ reflections in the back of my journal as I awaited Babu’s return. Other men and boys lounging in the shop didn’t take their eyes off me. I was accustomed to this.
True to his word, Babu returned before I had finished my chai – box in hand and the same faint smile on his face. ‘All good?’ I inquired. He divulged the details. The man had sold him the box no problem and he had been instructed to return the next day to receive the shoe shining cloths, oils, pastes, etc. which were included in the price. In order to get the operator’s licence – valid for one year – he needed to have two photos taken of him wearing the customary blue shoe-shiners uniform. He also needed to own and wear the uniform during his working days. Also when we returned the next day to pick the rest of his supplies he would be told what section of the city he would be licenced to work in.
In all, he was happy. I was happy.
We strolled the main artery of the slum back to the intra-city rail station. Before Babu escorted me to the platform we snapped a couple of photos. We embraced as my ‘downtown’ train approached the station. He thanked me – 10% his words and the rest his eyes. I felt vindicated. I waved as the train pulled away.
What a very special 40 hours.