Tag Archives: streets of India

The sounds we make, the stories we share…

The sound carries from the street below in this suburb of Mumbai, all the way to the top of the sports club, to the second-floor men’s locker room where I am. The rhythm of a one-sided conversation traveling upward – something about a car – reveals an aural pattern rich in its display of class and status. Little boys in the locker room, intrigued by the events unfolding outside, head to the window to watch. A woman of high social standing is loudly berating a lower-class man – a parking attendant with the club. His voice can barely be heard , the woman will not let him get a word in. He’s subservient, patient and accommodating. Patience with the rich is the key to his future.

In the locker room above, an older man tells a little boy, “See there? See what’s happening? Women always create tamasha (drama). Always.” His voice gets throttled when he says the word always, as though another part of his anatomy is being throttled. A couple of other men in the locker room laugh and nod in agreement.

The woman’s arms are gesticulating, her right index finger accusing the man. She’s furious that the valet wasn’t able to retrieve her car in less than five minutes. She yells at him in Hindi, “I almost missed my appointment because of you. You know how long I had to wait for this appointment?! I’m telling you for the last time, you keep this up, we’ll see if you have a job tomorrow. Understood?!”

Fifteen minutes later, the public scolding continues. The often hostile, sometimes matter of fact condescension of the upper classes in India does not shock me anymore. Growing up in India, I’d seen it close at hand – in family, extended family and in the well-to-do middle-class society I once believed was the entire world. But the condescension of the upper classes is universal – it’s the same no matter what country I’m in, no matter the races involved, no matter the ethnicities, no matter the religion.

It’s the same in America and the rest of the West, once the much-touted facade of dignity of labor, diversity and inclusiveness are discarded – when no one who really matters is looking. It’s there in New York, that liberal bastion where corporate America and start ups have monetized newly discovered pretend equality. In London, in Paris, in Germany, and also in the foothills of the Himalayas – in the tourist lodges owned by rich Indians and foreigners. And in the villages of India where village elders hold the power. Power and money talk, bullshit and lower standing walks, or so the saying goes.

It’s also quite likely the same in the numerous parts of the world I’ve never been – the rich and the well-to-do talk down to the poor, the poor keep quiet in their silent, resentful contempt of the upper classes, the poor aspire to become rich, the newly rich repeat what they learned when they were poor. While everyone cannot stop talking about inclusiveness and diversity.

As I step out of the building, I see the woman, unrelenting. A doorman looks at me, smiles and says, “Yeh roz ka story hai, saab. Mian hai, aur kya bolega – This is the daily story, sir. She’s a Muslim, what else is there to say?” He grins at the wisdom he’s sharing with me. I’ve seen this kind of grin before.

I calmly correct him in my not-very-proper Hindi, “Yeh mussalman ka baat nahin. Hindu log aisa bhi hai, Christian log aisa bhi hai, Sikh aur Parsi log bhi aisa hai – this has nothing to do with being Muslim. Hindus are also like this, Christians are also like this, Sikhs and Parsis, too.”

It’s not the commiserating response he was expecting. He looks away sheepishly but doesn’t really care for my perspective – there will be someone else who’ll agree with him. This is not new for me, either – I saw this growing up in India, as a little boy and also as a teenager, when the grown ups around me, grown ups of all religions, disparaged other religions with completely malicious lies. All who belonged were special, all others were the cause of the world’s problems.

Today, India, like much of the world, has moved extremely rightward. Over the past fifteen to twenty years, the politics of religion and unwanted people – the other – has become a powerful driver for big corporations that align themselves with the forces of ignorance and hate. And people are poisoned and made to look away from the active role that class plays in controlling it all from behind the scenes, with just a little bit of a nod and a wink.

In America, too, where big corporations and politicians across the political spectrum manipulate people in the name of religion, race and victimhood. And Europe. And Asia. And Africa. And South America. And on, and on. Can’t eliminate it totally, I don’t think, or at all.

I could, however, endeavor to continue to calmly decline to partake in the madness. Just as calmly as the Hindu doorman at the club slandered all the followers of Islam. Just as calmly as a Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or Jewish person in some other situation, some other part of the world might slander the followers of another religion. As calmly as a deeply racist person might make bigoted statements about other races just because he or she can. As calmly as an older man indoctrinates a young, impressionable boy with the belief that women create problems. And as calmly as the parking attendant observes the situation in silence and declines to add fuel to the self-righteous anger of the outraged person talking down to him.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

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Everyone wants

There’s a pigeon outside my kitchen window this rainy July morning in the monsoon. It’s soaked completely, its feathers striated and streaked by the rainwater that’s still dripping off its body as it sits under the ledge, sitting out there waiting to dry. Sitting and looking out at the darkened sky, wondering perhaps when the rain will stop so it can get on with gathering food – it’s still early in the morning. From inside the comfort of my kitchen, all I see is the pigeon’s back, its pinkish-red claws clutching the top grill of the plant nursery outside the window. There’s no movement from the pigeon, no bobbing this way or that, no sounds, no coo-cooing. Its head is pulled into its body as though it’s defending itself from the elements as it sits there on the grill, waiting to dry. Maybe it’s cold, maybe it’s conserving energy. I really have no idea. So little we know from within the comfort of our homes. On the right, below an air-conditioner casing is another pigeon, relatively drier, curious about its temporary surroundings. Is it inspecting the casing for a potential habitat for when things settle, a place to raise baby pigeons? Are these two a couple? How did they come to be on this parapet together, outside my window? Accidental? Two souls seeking shelter? I have not a clue. So little we know from behind the all knowingness of our human eyes. 

Everyone wants shelter
Everyone wants love
Every one wants peace and happiness
From a lion to a rain soaked dove

Monsoon dove

Everyone wants love

Everyone wants nurturing
Everyone wants love
Every one wants to be cared for
From the worms to the birds above

Everyone wants healing
Everyone wants love
Even the people who say they don’t
No one wants to starve

Everyone has little time
Little time on earth
Every one wants acceptance
Before they turn to dirt

Everyone you see will go
Every one, it’s true
Every one needs acceptance, for
Every one is you.

©2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Happy are the sailors

IMG_7755.JPGI walk down to Juhu Beach, Mumbai, down the back road to the entrance that leads to fewer cricket and football games on the beach, the area where there are more fishing boats offshore, where the shore is less beach and more rock. I walk past the usual traffic, dodging a vehicle coming from behind me and over here, a motorcyclist coming straight at me until he turns away at the very last moment. It’s fairly busy for an evening, this back road. Someone behind me taps me lightly but just as I guessed, he doesn’t need anything from me, he’s just trying to quickly walk past. By now, after a few months in India and after having lived in New York for half my life, I’ve realized that it’s not that a sense of personal space doesn’t exist in India. It’s simply that the sense of personal space, or distance, is different in India compared to the United States. Neither ones trumps the other, it just depends on one’s accustomed level of cultural and spatial comfort.

The back road has a couple of vegetable carts, a general store with numerous cats snoozing on the porch, crows cawing loudly above, and a man on a bicycle with about fifteen empty, commercial-sized water bottles strapped to the bicycle’s carrier. On the left, by a vegetable stand, I see a man raising his hand, a stone in it, toward a medium-sized, black dog not far from him. The dog is cowering. It backs away from the man – a sixty-something year old man, big forehead, beady eyes, a black, dyed mustache and dyed black hair combed back with enough oil to make his forehead shine. The man raises the stone again, the dog backs away again, continuing to cower. It appears to be a game for the man, an amused look on his face. I’m bothered by it but I keep walking. I’m concerned he’s going to strike the dog, not sure if he’ll do it or what the story is over here. It makes me want to stay and see what he’s going to do.

As the man moves close to the dog, his hand raised and the stone in it, I realize I have to say or do something if he strikes the dog. The dog backs away from the man again. The man notices I’ve stopped to look and smiles at me with amusement. A bizarre spectacle. I decide I’m not going to wait and see if he’s going to strike the dog. I go up to him and ask him, politely,

“You’re not going to throw that stone on the dog, are you?”

“No, it’s my dog. I’m going to church and he follows me to church until I give him a biscuit. This is our daily game, man,” he says to me in English, in a Koli Catholic accent punctuated with a lisp. Kolis, both Hindu and Christian, are a fishing community and the original inhabitants of Mumbai. “Holy Cross Church I’m going to. Same story every day with him.”

“How old is he? What’s his name?” I ask.

“He’s five, six years old. Shadow, because he follows me everywhere. You see? He always follows me.”

As we talk, the dog comes closer. I pet him, he’s enjoying the love. Five, six-year old Shadow. Nuzzling up against my leg. White paws, whitened from age. I introduce myself to the man. Clement Fernandes, he responds.

“Don’t pet him,” he cautions me. I continue petting Shadow, who’s now turning this way and that so I can get that spot. 

The street traffic continues unabated, most of it navigating away from us, except one red car that comes dangerously close. As I take hold of Shadow’s collar to guide him away from the street, he lightly mouths my hand, with perfectly managed bite control, not enough to tear skin or leave an imprint but just enough pressure to say Don’t touch my collar. Instinctively, I know that this dog has been hit or yanked before. I let go of Shadow, he moves to the side of the street to sniff a potted plant in front of a shop.

Clement Fernandes asks me if I’m going to church as well. I say no, I’m going to the beach. He apologizes for Shadow nipping me. Not a problem, I say. And, I’m on my way. And that’s that. Shadow and Clement.

The beach is not too busy, the sand is wet, suitable more for bare feet, not for the flip-flops I’m wearing. Planes taking off overhead, departing from the nearby Santacruz airport. Below me, tiny holes in the sand from where little crabs and other marine life emerge early morning and late at night, when humans aren’t around. Some garbage on the rocks, broken beer bottles. A small crab darts below a rock, into a pool of water, at the sound of approaching footsteps.

In the distance, the sun is setting. The sky is a mix of light blue and orange and purple, and the approach of dark. On the left, a fishing boat is moored not too far offshore. A white and red striped fishing boat with a couple of flags. Further away, another fishing boat, also moored, also with flags, painted in saffron, white and green – the colors of the Indian flag. And a blue and white striped fishing boat. Far off on the left, the most beautiful boat this evening – a solitary, tiny red boat rocking gently in the Arabian Sea, anchored to a bigger boat. Forward, way off on the horizon, the sun moves down, moving into someone else’s daylight.

On the right is a long, curved pier – families taking an evening stroll, a little girl showing off a cut paper flower to her big sister, a cyclist trying to navigate through the walking families and getting cursed out a couple of times. Designer puppies being walked by their working class handlers. Fawned over by the walking families, not getting cursed out. And people taking photos of each other against the departing sun.

By the edge of the water, where it’s craggy and there’s no sand, a young man is taking selfies with the sun. A couple of minutes here. The sun leaves. The young man leaves. Day ends here, a new day somewhere else. The sun is gone, all that’s left behind is the most beautiful force, the most beautiful thing. Waves of sea water, operating with an energy of their own, moving on a force of their own, touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Bigger than everything. Bigger than the rocks they touch, bigger than stones in men’s hands, bigger than people and dogs and animals on land and animals that live in the sea. Bigger than the experiences on the shore and far away from the shore, in cities and villages where people and other beings live. Bigger than all of human experience.

Waves of sea water, touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Uncontrolled. Beyond power, beyond free, beyond you and beyond me.

Beyond everything we feel, beyond everything we see.

Beyond everything we seek to be.

Waves of sea water, touching the shore and going back to where they came from. Back and forth and back again. Beyond you, and beyond me.

Happy are the sailors, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Refuge

It’s 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) on a sweltering Friday afternoon. Mumbai in May is more intense and humid than any other time of year. The monsoon next month will bring much needed relief. Even the birds in the trees seem to be saying so.

I’m early for my physiotherapy appointment – after years of sitting behind a desk for a living, I’ve recently exuberantly embraced a rather intense level of physical activity. My body is not fond of the enthusiastic embrace. “No thanks, buddy. What’s the hurry?” my body’s been telling me. “After being sedentary for so long, how about we ramp things up a little bit slowly, yes? Then we can get intense, okay?” But I didn’t pay much attention.

After a couple of months of sending fairly clear and polite signals, my body says, “That’s it! Enough.” And with all the clarity in the world, it pulls the slow the f*** down lever. It usually wins this exchange. I’d like to continue to be in a healthy relationship with my body for a long, long time. Rest of my life is what I’m thinking. So, here I am at the front door of the physiotherapy department at Holy Family Hospital in Bandra, Mumbai.

Just outside the front door, a dog is taking shelter in the shade provided by an overhanging construction canopy. I’ve seen this dog before on the hospital grounds – in the evenings, I’ve seen it hanging out in the parking lot. During the day, it takes refuge from the heat under a canopy like this, or below the trees near the main gate. It’s calmly asleep amidst the noise and bustle from the hospital grounds. Feet kicking slowly in a dream, peacefully asleep.

Unlike me, this dog will not be going through those doors for a physiotherapy session – it has already learned to listen to its body when it speaks. But I don’t feel hopeless. I’m actually feeling quite fortunate – here’s this dog showing me how to be long after I’ll be done with physiotherapy. It’s a very good day.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

The rickshaws of Kochi

Ashraf with his rickshaw on Princess Street in Fort Kochi

There’s Ashraf in the first picture. He’s been driving a rickshaw for thirty years. At first, he had his own rickshaw. Now, he rents – it’s cheaper and without having to handle all the hassle of maintenance, insurance and paperwork, he says. I met him in Fort Kochi my first morning there, on Princess Street. Ashraf greets me with his big, warm smile for no particular reason. He exudes ease, and calm. I’ve gotten many big, warm smiles in Kochi for no particular reason. I love it.

And then there are a multitude of other rickshaws this next morning, in Ernakulam, across the harbor from Fort Kochi. I’ll be taking a rickshaw from the ferry jetty in Ernakulam to the train station. From there I’ll catch the train to the backwaters of Allepey, south of Kochi.

The first guy at the ferry jetty at Ernakulam will not take any customers until he completes reading his morning paper. So I go with the next rickshaw. My homestay host in Fort Kochi told me it would be forty rupees to the train station.

Kochi rickshaws are wider and more comfortable than the ones in Mumbai. And more colorful. They drive slower too, even though traffic is light this morning.

All adding to the sense or illusion of peace and serenity…that old saying seems to be true – the outer world is a reflection of the inner world. I’m feeling generally very peaceful and happy here in Kerala, even though it’s been just two days.

I get to the train station in about ten minutes. My rickshaw driver tells me it’s sixty rupees – from my rucksack and my travel shorts, he must know I’m a traveler, not a local. I calmly and serenely tell him it’s forty rupees, which I hand to him. He calmly and with apparent serenity takes the money without any argument.

Off to Allepey now and to the backwaters.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

No red carpets here

A brown carpet made of jute fabric sort of says Welcome to My World on a road being dug up in Sherly Rajan, Bandra. Mumbai. Maybe all the digging is for a telephone or television cable, maybe it’s for a water main, maybe it’s for construction.

Or maybe it’s just because in Mumbai, utility companies and their contractors love to dig up roads perennially to keep themselves in business.

IMG_8983A steamroller is parked not far from the action, its driver engaged on his mobile phone. Maybe he’s chatting with his family, maybe he’s watching a movie, maybe he’s gossiping with other steamroller drivers.

Further down the street, a bunch of managerial level utility company employees debate the pros and cons of the ditches they’ve dug, after they’ve dug it. First dig, then discover. Life, unfiltered, in Mumbai.

 

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

To an unknown man wearing a blue shirt and a warm smile

Toll

Airoli bridge toll booth

It was a long, plodding ride in bumper to bumper traffic on a tropically hot Saturday afternoon. I was on my way to the Coastal & Marine Biodiversity Centre in Airoli, Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai), an hour and a half from Mumbai. To see flamingoes from a boat in the Thane creek. Before they head back to Gujarat, the state in western India where they will stay until winter.

The Thane creek is the largest in Asia, extending 26 kilometers and separating Mumbai from mainland India. Part of the creek has been declared an eco-sanctuary and is home to life-sustaining mangroves, and host to hundreds of migratory birds each year including the iconic flamingoes, which were lovely to watch from my boat.

Today though, I will not document the beautiful, graceful flamingoes or the egrets or the rare bird species I witnessed up close.

Today is dedicated to an unknown man, a working class toll-booth attendant in a blue shirt who stands in the hot Mumbai sun in the middle of May, readily offering his warm smile to motorists along with the change he dispenses.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.