Last night my car stopped at a traffic signal in south Bombay, very close to the impressive Gothic Indian Institute of Science buildings. An old, wizened, lady holding two half-used strips of medicines knocked at the window. I didn’t respond. The knocking got louder and more urgent. She would not give up. My colleague and friend sitting next to me ignored the lady too. Then the knocking got to her. She rolled down the window and handed over some change.
Elsewhere at the junction, young boys were peering into windows of other cars, waving stacks of Indian flags. The old thin wood strip and paper flags have given to durable plastic ones. And they come in far more sizes and shapes than before. You even get little, round plastic stands that you can affix a small pole on. And keep it on your desk as a reminder. That India is a Republic, in its 57th year. Though for many people, even that reminder will not change their lives.
Bombay is looking positively energetic. Next to the restored National Gallery of Modern Art near Regal Cinema, a long line of stalls are selling everything from handicrafts to food. The neatly appointed stalls are temporary and form part of the Mumbai Festival. A smartly attired boy manning one yells, “People, you won’t get anything cheaper than this.” His stall is hawking burgers and desserts. The stalls, the offerings are upper middle class India. So, the word cheap is relative.
Bright & Bankrupt
Later, I dine at The Dome, a restaurant on the roof of the Intercontinental, a eight-storey hotel bang on Marine Drive, also known as the Queen’s Necklace. From my vantage seat, I have sweeping views of the promenade to my right, all the way upto the subdued skyline of Malabar Hill. To my left is the business district of Nariman Point. A few buildings further up are lit up brightly, garishly but brightly. They would belong to the state government of Maharashtra. The state of course is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its been so for some time.
Bombay’s private prosperity has little to do with the state of its public finances. Most of the state’s income is spent on the salaries of its employees. Who obviously don’t work hard enough. Actually, its worse. Their existence serves to increase the hardship that comes with living in this city. Whether it’s the civic bodies’ utter indifference or the law and order machinery which is mostly seen protecting politicians from the electorate. Of course there are exceptions. But on days like this, with the rest of the nation, they are celebrating. If nothing else, its another holiday.
At The Dome, the menu is Continental. There is no dinner, just lots of snacks and fondue. We settle on the cheese fondue. The fondue arrives as the winds from the Arabian Sea get nippier. This is one of those rare nights in Bombay. Where the cold breeze and the lights all around make the city actually look desirable. Down Marine Drive, streams of colourful firecrackers light up the sky. The season of big marriages at the `gymkhana’ grounds, the Hindu Gymkhana and the Parsi Gymkhana, is still on.
Republic Day Sale
Republic Day is now another occasion to call a sale. Why not ? A big central Bombay discount store has promised fantastic deals. The road outside, I am told in the evening, was jammed with cars, all big fancy ones. The person who told me this spent half an hour waiting to get through. That’s Bombay. You may be headed out of town but can be held hostage anywhere. There are no exits into big roads or expressways which are moving all the time.
Later in the evening, I stop at a shop near my house to buy some provisions. As I am about to enter, an old man with a lady and a small boy come up. The man is dressed like a farmer from the interior, with white `kurta’, `dhoti’ and a cloth cap. He mumbles something about being stranded and not having money to return. My first instinct is to ignore and walk on. I do that. I go inside the shop and see the man standing, looking at other passers by, gesturing weakly.
I step out again, change my mind. “What do you want money for I,” I ask. “We want to go back home,” he says. “Where,” I ask. Nagpur,” he says. That’s a 15-hour train ride, I know. “How did you get here ?” I ask. He says they were called by someone who promised them a job. Then they were ditched, he says. The barefoot child and mother look on. I am still in two minds. “How much ?” I ask. “Three hundred and fifty rupees for all of us,” he says.
The figure sounded okay but one could hardly check. “Do you have enough money to get to the railway station,” I ask. He says he’s collected Rs 40 already by asking people. “Isn’t there a train now ?” I ask. The last train left in the evening, the next one is at 6 am tommorrow, comes the reply. I look at him. I think about the woman with the medicine strips last night. And the lavish dinner later. Something snaps. I take out my wallet and hand over Rs 300. Three crisp Rs 100 notes, fresh from the ATM. This is possibly the first time I’ve handed a largish amount like this. To a stranger.
I get into the car, start up and begin backing up. As I turn around, I see them squatting on the road next to the kerb. Maybe they will count the money before they get moving A friend calls on my mobile. I narrate the episode of the old man, the lady and the boy. And my generosity. “You’ve been had,” she says. “It’s the oldest, most sophisticated begging trick in the city. They tell you they need the money to go back to the village.” “Are you sure ?” I ask as I consider turning around. “Of course,” she says.
I reflect on my little encounter. Possibly, I did get taken for a ride. But then, Nagpur or not, they looked like they could do with the money. And they didn’t look like they would snort cocaine with it. Perhaps they would use it to buy a nice meal. Or to buy something else. I know my taxes mostly go up in thin air. This was better. At least the old man thanked me. Not too profusely, but he did.
More importantly, he reminded me where we, as a middle-aged Republic stand, in the larger scheme of things. Like the old lady the night before. For a Republic Day, it was not a bad deal, for both of us.
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