Oscars. Red carpet. Elizabeth. Vanity Fair Party, squeezing through. Frenzied media. Who’s this guy in the Maharaja dress ? Better take his picture just in case someone pays for it. Elton John’s party. Excuse me, did I step on your Prada shoes ? Oops, sorry, did I spill my drink on your dress as I was trying to sqeeze past ? Where’s the bathroom please. Who am I ? What’s this attention all about ? How did I get lucky ? Did I get lucky ?
Ah, the peculiar pungent smell of Bombay at night. Hits you every time you step off the plane. Drying fish competing with the hot humid smell of of 15 million human beings.
I need to walk. I need to breathe. I need to be grounded. I need to squash the hype.
Walking alone 2 am. Down Marine Drive. Leaning over the railway bridge at Charni Road. Families huddled together, sleeping next to the tracks. Exhausted from the toils of the day’s labour. Or from beggng. No sleeping pills here.
Sound of laughter and singing, a few odd aggresive voices. The kind of threatening voices that send a slight shot of adranaline through your system. Your eyes impassive. Ready. There they were squatting in the middle of the road. Young men. Homeless. Drinking. Eating. Gambling. Laughing. And threatening. Like a tinder box. Knives would flash if ignited. Perhaps even country made revolvers.
Singing too, suprisingly haunting. Some rural voice, hoarse and full of pain peppered by laughter. Of loved ones left behind, never to be seen again.
And there she was. Young. Beautiful and graceful even in her torn and worn sari. . Even younger than some of the men. Unafraid of the supressed violence. Shouting at them sometimes. Digging her hand in the large worn alluminium pot, and bringing out handfuls of a mixture of rice and lentils. Slopping down the dripping contents on the days newspapers laid out directly on the tarred road. Even as she forcibly shoved handfuls of food into the protesting mouths of the young men far preffering to drink and gamble,
One of the the men looked at me.
Hey, You !
The observer suddenly became the observed. The stranger had been stripped naked. All eyes threateningly on me.
“I know who you are. You can either stand there and stare, or you can come and drink with us”.
An invitation or a threat ? I sat. Tasting the food. Watery. The odd vegetable and the crunch of not fully cooked lentils. But the warm familiar comfort of rice in the mouth.
Don’t drink the water ! Sip the country brew politely. It’s safer.
A young man arrived. So drunk he could barely walk. Thin and scrawny. His sparse clothes slipping off him. Drawn face, like the city had sucked life out of him. He sat down, eyes averted and downcast. Not daring to meet the young woman’s gaze. She stared directly at him. Eyes blazing.
And then she attacked him. Ferociously. Slapping him. Even as he went down, sobbing as he tried to avert her blows. His sobs turned into wails. They all watched the spectacle impassively. Not one interfered. The young man ams reached out to her, his wails coming now in pain racked sobs. The sounds of loneliness and abandonment.
She softened. Touched his cheek, and gently brought his head to her lap. He gave in and buried his head in her. Still wailing as she tried to pour some food in his mouth. Still chiding him, while she cradled him like a baby.
Dawn was breaking when I left. Less than sober.
She lived alone. In something that coud possibly pass as hut just under the bridge by the railway tracks. Young men re-built it every time the slum lords took it down. They protected her. She cooked for them. Worried about them. Fussed about them. She was the constant nagging presence that once was home. An eon ago for those that had migrated to the streets.
No one knew where she came from. Or even when. For no one stayed long enough to find out, moving from one street to another. I asked her what the name of the poor young man was. She did not know. She called all them all her ‘Baccha’s”. Her children. He came to this street two weeks ago, but spent all his time drinking. That made her angry.
‘Somebody has to look after him’
Not one of the young men called her by her name. They all called her ‘Maa”. Mother.
‘Accha Maa, ab main chalta hoon’ I had said as I was leaving.
(Ok, mother, I had better be going)
‘Phir zaroor ana’ Said the young woman” Tum bhi mere Bacche ho’
(‘Come agan, you are also my child’)