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.


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