Tag Archives: Himachal Pradesh

Lakhan the traveling bamboo chair seller

 

© 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.

img_7494

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.

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.