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.

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