Lessons from an unnamed dog in Mumbai

Happiness is making the most of what’s presented to you.

 

©2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

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If you go there, you’ll sit on your ass and you won’t come back

It’s a grocery store not far from where I live in Juhu, a suburb of Mumbai. I’m there for a short afternoon trip, just eggplant and lettuce. Oh, cashewnuts, and almonds. Yes, please. By the vegetable section, two store employees, stocking the shelves. One perched on a ladder, stocking the upper shelves, the other hands him stuff from a big cardboard box below. Yogurt is on sale, sir. Two for the price of one, he tells me. I’m all set, though, and head to the checkout register.

A short, older man is behind the counter. Slim built, in his late fifties, glasses, a slender salt and pepper mustache, salt and pepper hair combed to the side. He’s in a back and forth with an employee who calls him mama (uncle – mother’s brother) out of respect, deference, salary. Maybe he’s one of the store owners.

Mama, I’ll just go fifteen minutes on my bicycle, just fifteen minutes, the employee says in Hindi. A taller man, in his early to mid forties, average built with a belly, longish, wavy, black hair, thick black mustache, stubble, tired eyes. Here only I’m going to see my uncle. I just need to talk to him for a few minutes.

No, you’ll stay here. No deliveries for you today. You work till 8 pm and then you can leave. 

But, mama, I won’t take that long. Please understand. My uncle needs to talk to me.

No means no, beta (son). If you go there, you’ll sit on your ass and you won’t come back. Why don’t you tell your uncle to come here to see you? I want to see who this mysterious man is, for whom you have to leave in the middle of the day everyday. Bring him here. 

But, mama, you know how it is.

Yes, I know all of how it is. I know everything about your afternoon trips to your uncle. You go and god knows what happens. No, you stay here. Now step aside, I need to ring this man up.

The employee moves away from the counter, a bewildered look on his face. I’m rung up. As I leave the store, the attempted negotiation resumes.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Abhi, sab theek hai – everything is fine now

IMG_7728.JPG It’s a quiet ride in the rickshaw this morning, relatively quiet on the way from Juhu to Bandra, my daily routine for a week now. Suddenly, horns blaring all over. A red Mercedes is causing a traffic jam on this one way road, going in the opposite direction. I’m reminded of the words of a rickshaw driver from a few days ago – For the rich people, they can do anything and nothing happens. I make one wrong turn and I’ll have to pay a policeman.

Looking forward, I notice my current driver has agarbattis – incense sticks lit at the front of his rickshaw. And an arm-sized fire extinguisher behind him. I wonder if the one has ever had to meet the other. It’s a very brief ride, not much traffic outside of the traffic jam earlier. As I pay the man, I notice his right hand has two thumbs fused together. I ask him if it’s an inconvenience, and how was it as a child. He says he’s right-handed, it’s not a problem. As a child, he would be upset, but now this is normal.

Abhi, sab theek hai – everything is fine now,he says with a smile.

As I take a picture of him, I learn his name is Saroj Nair, from Bihar in eastern India. His  next fare arrives before I can learn more.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Old places, new memories

img_7650-e1554568974654.jpgI’m done with the yoga class in Bandra, Mumbai. I’m hungry now, even though I ate breakfast not two hours ago. I walk a few minutes down Perry Cross Road, in the direction of a bakery, past St. Paul’s Road where my long dead grandfather used to live in his big bungalow. In front of a low-rise building is a man in a security guard’s uniform, with a big red tikka on his forehead, the marking Hindu men wear after a puja. In his right hand is a bright red handkerchief. He’s mumbling something, it seems, until I realize he’s chanting prayers as he stands outside the gate of the building where he’s employed. I smile at him, he smiles back, eyes twinkling, hands folded in a namaste. I keep smiling and I keep walking. India is a land of colorful people with fascinating sights everywhere. I keep walking but I’m riveted by this man, his colors, his smile, his kind eyes. I’m compelled to turn back.

I walk back to where the man is standing. We begin talking and I extend my hand in a handshake. He shakes my hand, then takes it in both his hands and bows down slightly, touching his forehead to the back of my hand. I, in turn, take his hand in mine, bow down slightly and touch my forehead to the back of his hand. Then he folds his hands in a second namaste, which I return, while he’s looking kindly at me all this time. Harihar Prasad Borthiya. From Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian state, the most populous, a state from where millions of villagers arrive in Mumbai every year in search of work. Most of them find work as laborers, rickshaw drivers, watchmen – security guards, and often, as jacks of all trades.

Harihar Prasad Borthiya has been coming to Mumbai for almost thirty years now, since 1990, a few months, a few years at a time.

“I come, I go, I come for a few months, then I go for a month to the Ganga river. Now, in this building now, I am working for three years,” he says. “I just came back again two months ago. Then I’ll leave next January to go to the Ganga river.”

He’s seventy-two years, he tells me in Hindi. Seven two, he repeats in English to make sure I got it right.

He has two sons in Mumbai, both drive cars, chauffeurs for well-to-do people. One lives and works on Mount Mary Road, near Bandra Bandstand, the other works near Bandra talab, the big pond near Bandra train station.

He has a small room at Bazaar Road, the road that goes through Bandra’s main food market, winding its way through the fruit, vegetable, meat, poultry and fish markets. The room at Bazaar Road has a small stove to cook food. So you live on Bazaar Road, I ask, to confirm.

“Yes, that’s where I do my night duty.”

Aren’t you working here during the day, sir? Day shift here and night shift there?

Yes, I go there in the evenings, do night duty there. There’s a young man who brings food there. 8 am to 8 pm here, 8 pm to 8 am at Bazaar Road.”

I enjoy my sleep and don’t function well without a good night’s rest. I wonder aloud how and when he manages to sleep.

“Well, the night duty is not so stressful, I can take it a little easy, everyone’s asleep, not many visitors to that building, so I get some rest.”

No home in Mumbai, then?

Home? No home in Mumbai. Day shift here, night shift at Bazaar Road. A working man works all the time. The small room I have there is enough.”

Shower? Toilets?

Oh, there’s one there, there’s one here. I can go anywhere. I spend the night there, I take a shower at 5 in the morning, I give thanks to God, do my morning puja and I leave there around 7:30 am. That way, I’m here for my day duty by 8 am. I eat lunch here, dinner there. Lunch is daal chawal (rice and lentils), night is rotis (whole wheat flat bread) and vegetables.”

“But I have a home in Lucknow,” he adds, coming back to my earlier query. “I go to the Ganga river every few months. My wife is there, I have three daughters-in-law there. Two sons are here, one son is in the village. One daughter-in-law came here to take care of her husband, my son. But she left after three months,” he says with a laugh.

“It wasn’t working out for her. Dehaat ke rehne waale log shahar ko kam pasand karte hai – country people don’t care for city living that much. That’s why even my own wife came here and after two, three months, she said, chalo, main ghar ja raha hoon – okay then, I’m going home to the village.”

He tells me that when he goes to the village, he stays there for at least a month, sometimes two. Job security is not an issue, he’s been coming to Mumbai for thirty years, and even in this place, when he comes back after two months, they remove the temporary watchman and he’s back at his job.

I ask him if I can click his photo.

“My photo? Saab, I’m not a movie star, sir. I’m just a working man. Who will want to see my photo?” he says with a laugh.

Photos clicked, selfies done, we part ways with another namaste, another taking each other’s hand to our foreheads with regard.

Further down, on the road to the bakery, I pass Theresa, the Catholic woman from my erstwhile parish who used to talk to herself on the street, back when I was a little boy. I remember the words of my aunt back then, stay away from the mad people, who knows what trouble they’ll bring. Theresa is older now, gray-haired and several wrinkles, still talking to herself and cursing out anyone who dares to make eye contact. I look at Theresa and I don’t see anyone bad, just a person muttering to herself out loud, while many of us mutter to ourselves in the apparent privacy of our minds.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Good morning, Juhu

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Tree-lined streets, people in wind-blown auto-rickshaws, people in air-conditioned run of the mill and high-end cars, pedestrian traffic, banks and ATMs every few minutes, restaurants catering to the appetites of the middle-class, a well-worn road and a laborer pushing his well-worn handcart to his next job.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

My friend, I live in Mumbai, now step out of the way

IMG_7619He picks me up in Juhu in his yellow and black rickshaw, bringing me to Bandra, both suburbs of Mumbai. Turns out he lives not far away, in a one room hut in Juhu, he says. Also turns out I’m his first fare of the day and so he didn’t ask where I was going before I got into his rickshaw. The first fare, the first incoming cash is treated with a sort of sacred regard by several Indian business communities and by the working man – don’t block it or you’ll block the flow of wealth, or something like that. Raghuvendra Singh Thakur, from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, north India. I hope I bring him luck, and immense wealth after my rickshaw ride. He has a serious look that disappears when he smiles his shy smile.

I inquire about his life, his lifestyle. He’s forty-three years old and came to Mumbai in 1999, at the age of twenty-three. He brought with him a young son, a year old at the time, now grown, and there were two more later, a girl and a boy, both born in the village and still living there. The daughter is married, he says. And his wife? His wife was in the village when he first came to Mumbai, still is. I refrain from asking why his infant son was with him when his wife was in the village. Maybe there was more to it. Still…

It’s my second day back in Mumbai, my perspective on many things quite altered from a trip up north in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. A month in the hills has put me in touch with the energy of hard-working villagers who can, it seems, often appreciate more what cities have to offer than natives of cities themselves. Like Raghuvendra Singh. On this ride, Mumbai feels vital, buzzing with energy. As if on cue, he says,

“Sir, if someone is willing to work hard, if he is a mehanati aadmi, Mumbai is a good city for it. Mumbai shahar mehanati log ka shahar hai – this is the city for the hardworking, for the enterprising. Work hard and you’ll be rewarded.”

A street cat darts in front of the rickshaw. Raghuvendra Singh blasts his horn and swerves sideways. The cat is unharmed, continuing across the street without missing a beat. Like Raghuvendra Singh, who continues,

“I have a friend in Bangalore. He keeps telling me Come to Bangalore, come to Bangalore. You’ll save more money there.”

“I tell him, you come to Mumbai. You’ll understand why I’m here. Come and meet the people. See the life here, see the situation. Yes, Mumbai is expensive. If I make ten thousand rupees a month in Mumbai, you know this, sir, at least half of that will go in rent and expenses. But with what little I save I can have any experience in Mumbai, I can eat whatever type of food I feel like having. To be able to spend my meager savings in Mumbai, ten thousand rupees I make every month, that feels like I have fifty thousand rupees.”

We navigate a busy intersection, rickshaws on all sides and a truck, a “lorry” in British Indian English parlance, has blocked the middle of the road. Loud horns, numerous drivers coaching numerous other drivers into moving ahead. Just a little, just a little. Raghuvendra Singh keeps moving, a couple of feet at a time. Eyes on the road, the story has stopped.

A turn here, a turn there, past the lorry, then to the other side of the intersection.

“First class!” he exclaims self-congratulatingly with a smile. And as if navigating the intersection was part of his story, he resumes.

“And when someone from Bangalore or any other city feels bad for me and they tell me What you are doing in Mumbai? I feel sorry for you, I don’t feel bad, I don’t feel inferior. No, no, instead, I feel like their senior, I feel superior to them. Main Mumbai mein rehta hoon, yaar, chalo baju hut – I live in Mumbai, my friend, now step out of the way,” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve been to Delhi, I’ve been to Ludhiana, I found work there, but it didn’t feel right. The thing is, in Mumbai if you cannot find work driving a rickshaw, you can always do something else, you can work as a porter and push a handcart. And if you cannot find that work, there’s something to do, some work you can find one way or the other.”

What time does he start his day, I ask, what time does he finish?

“Depends on so many things, sir. Some days I can start at 7:30 am, like today, some days later. It depends. If there is no water, then you have to wait for it. If there is water and I decide to wash my clothes that day, I’ll start later. If I have guests visiting, then I’ll start even later in the day.”

He lives by himself in the one-room hut, but sometimes if he knows someone reliable, it’s possible to split the room and save some money. He must eat in a proper local restaurant at least once a day, and other meals maybe at a roadside stall.

We are now in Bandra, at the end of my ride. I tell Raghuvendra Singh I’ve enjoyed talking to him, and do I have his permission to print his picture and write about our interaction? Tentative at first, he says, “Yes, sir. I hope you won’t write anything bad about me. I’ve only spoken the truth.” I confirm to him that that’s exactly what I’m going to write, his perspective is honest and pure. “Yes, sir, yes, you can write about me. Only write the truth of what I said.” And he smiles at me and looks for his next fare.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

 

A ride in the dark

There’s a night sky outside my window, in the bus from the village of Chougan, Bir, Himachal Pradesh to Chandigarh. From Chandigarh I travel onward, back to Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. In the cloudless, darkened sky, I notice stars, the same arrangement I used to see as a little boy from my bedroom window back when it was called Bombay, back when there was no light pollution and slight air pollution. Now it’s known as Mumbai, has been known as Mumbai for a long time now, and now it has heavy pollution of every kind.

The ride from Bir has been just a couple of hours but a lot of ground has been covered. Through the hill town and village of Baijnath, with fruit vendors, vegetable vendors, small roadside dhabas and men having a meal or a late evening chai.

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A shop selling copper pots and utensils, next to a general store, next to a shoe salesman, next to a store selling the most tender chicken in the world, now closed for the day.

 

Next to all, the ubiquitous roadside mountain dogs that keep humans company in the hills though mostly not – they are here for the scraps and the random donations but very rarely allowed inside. Maybe they wouldn’t want to be inside always. Free to roam outside when they want to and food from humans when it appears.

Inside the bus, the conductor is cross-checking seat numbers with a couple of passengers, it’s going to be a full bus, no standees, he doesn’t want to have to ask anyone to leave when it gets full. The bus stops to pick up a couple of pre-booked passengers along the way. A man here on the road between Baijnath and Palampur, the next big town, a newly married couple at the next stop, she, visibly pregnant. At Palampur, a small send-off party of woman and child, her husband, his father, waving to a relative boarding the bus. Himachal music alternates with Bollywood inside the bus. Inside me, the music of tiredness is playing. 

Sudden tiredness, sadness to be leaving friends I’ve made in the last month at the Deer Park Institute in Bir, the hospitable and friendly villagers in the hills surrounding Bir, who’ve stopped to talk and engage, the Tibetan people in the Tibetan colony over there, those two little street dogs who weren’t afraid to ask for love.

Someone’s phone call on loudspeaker mode pulls me back into the bus. The night sky and the winding road pull me out. Outside, darkness. Not enough to ease the sadness, but does it really have to go away? Can it stay for as long as it does? The winding, downward road induces distracting churn. Constant. A sign saying zigzag road ahead. More than this? A child inside the bus begins crying, consoled by her father. She has woken up from a bad dream. The bus driver turns on the lights to make sure everything is okay. The music is turned off. The man, now self-conscious, tells his child, Be quiet, don’t cry, why are you crying? Turns out the child’s ears were blocked and popping – we are rapidly losing altitude down this road and the bus’s churn doesn’t help either. Now I see why there are throw-up bags in the seat pocket in front of me. Everything sorted, the conductor turns off the interior lights. The driver turns the music system back on. Punjabi music this time. With a drum beat to match the sharp turns on the road. 

My mind goes back to Bir, wistful of the adventures there, mountain rides on scooters, traffic tickets from polite cops, hikes in the hills, friends from Bir, from India and from the world over. Wheat fields and mustard fields and sweet-smelling cherry blossoms. Himalayan rivers and herded mountain goats. And friends and warmth in cool weather. Outer journeys and inner journeys. Writing workshops and songs in languages from all over India. And the world. Listening circles. A celebration of the equinox in the haunting music of the forest. And a newly discovered desire to learn Marathi so I can practice with a new friend from Sawantwadi in southern Maharashtra.

The bus twists again. The music is loud again, another turn, another churn. There’s no straight road up a mountain, there’s no shortcut down. Down the mountains we are going. Rapidly losing altitude. Cars up ahead, tail lights, headlights. We are passing an ambulance, with an ill person inside being attended to carefully by family. An empty truck in front of us, a full one further ahead. Increasing traffic. Signs of a different kind of life. I am reminded of Mumbai, of city living. There’s a bit of dread, heaviness. What’s there for me there? As if on cue, the bus crosses a patch of rough road, unpaved. Rough road back to a city? Or in a city? I rest my head on the window to comfort myself. The relentlessly loud Punjabi music in the bus is giving me a headache. Mumbai and city living inside, loud Punjabi music outside. And bereft at leaving Bir behind. In this moment, there’s no escape. I chuckle inside and smile outside. This moment is perfect. No escape. I look out the windshield of the bus, headlights illuminating the dimly lit road, outlines of trees bordering. The headlights go only so far. The road further ahead is unlit. Another adventure awaits.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Letter to a sister

Happy birthday, my darling Cookie, my only sister, my friend. I am so grateful to know you, and for the love you have shared with me all your life – ever since you came into this world, you came out laughing, with smiles and with love for everyone. One could say that you were a camera hog, but I grew up with you and I know you and you are so loving, and always have been. And so kind, so kind that it hurts you to be unkind. I love that about you, even though I struggled to understand it in the past.

I’m even more grateful and inspired by the love you have given yourself, by going down your own path, never mind the doubters, never mind those that say be careful, be safe, don’t be too emotional, you have to be strong and all that bullshit. You have shown me with your courage to express your tears, that tears in a woman or a man are not a sign of weakness. You have shown me with your tentative openness to express your fears, you have shown me, my dear, dear, dear sister, you have shown me what loving oneself looks like.

When others have said, You have to be tough, just ignore the jerks and the meanness and the insanity, especially when it’s near at hand, you have let yourself be open and you have taught me openness and acceptance without judgement, and forgiveness, but how does forgiveness even come in when you accept people, and you accept yourself? I am just understanding this now and you have been showing this to me since you were a baby. Much younger than me in years you are, my sister, yet you have taught me with your wisdom and your kindness, and your madness, if madness is what it’s called when you indulge yourself in what makes you happy, whether it’s putting a tattoo, or five, on your skin, or loving who you love, freely, or having countless numbers of shoes.

Thank you, Cookie, my baby sister, my friend and guide, for allowing me to teach you how to be present for your dog, your fur-child, and for teaching me how to love my dog, my fur-child.

How could I ask for any other kind of sister when I have this beautiful, emotional, sensitive, matter-of-fact, contradictory woman that is you, you who are teaching me through your example and your being, when I’m awake to it, how to be loving to a woman, how to hear a woman, how to listen to a woman, how to see a woman. And, really, how to be there for someone you care deeply about, starting with oneself.

Happy birthday, Cookie, my darling sister. May your day and year and life be filled with love, with joy, with laughter and with acceptance.

I love you,

Marlon

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Where the light falls…

Choukling Monastery in Bir, Himachal Pradesh is serene and beautiful, with Buddhist prayer wheels, quiet prayer halls and colorful deities. What touched me most was a dewdrop nestled between the petals of this rose, outside in the garden.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Wild flower

You too, wild flower,
you who are resting on a fence in an unknown field
like a stray dog rests its head, tentatively at first,
on my leg,
then calmly,
knowing it will be loved
and not harmed –
you, too, are beautiful,
Even though I won’t know your name
or see you again,
it is enough that we have met today.
I have seen you, and you, me.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.