Rude Awakenings


Every morning I wake up, grateful for what I have in my life: a cozy bed to snuggle in, a roof over my head, a job that I love doing, a home that feels like my sanctuary, caring friends, family, and my cat! There is gratitude for all that I have and all that I continue to have. And I wish it were the same for some of the people that surround me.

It’s a tough life, for some folks in this city, especially for the children….I mean the street children. They beg all day, do not get any schooling or education, have to deal with the elements (all types – from human to environmental), and at the end of the day, are not guaranteed a warm meal and cozy home to return to. Yes, these are the street children of Mumbai, who will perhaps never know what a “normal” life is. This thought hits home, every time I see my own child, how he plays in the comfort of his mother’s lap, when he rolls around in his crib at night, and how he will never know what it is like to beg for your own supper.

It gets even tougher in the monsoons, when children are still begging, day in and day out, even in the harsh rains. Some of them do try to make an honest living by selling little trinkets, or books, or even fancy umbrellas. But how many of those can one buy to help these little souls out? Heartbreaking and pathetic.

This evening I was out in the neighborhood and I chanced upon this 4 year old boy, who’s home was clearly the sidewalks of Mumbai. I noticed him kicking something around, and on close inspection, saw that he was trying to play footsie with the branches of a tree (that had probably crashed to the ground because of the heavy rains). I took a picture of him, and as I was leaving, he flashed such a haunting smile, I was almost in tears:

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As I was walking along, I came across another sight that moved me. It was an old, decrepit man, sleeping on the sidewalk, a dog for his companion. Both were in deep slumber, oblivious to the noise and foot traffic during peak hours. What is this man’s story? How did he end up this way? Perhaps he is better of in this situation than in some home?

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It was a tough walk, going back home. These two sights reminded me of the importance of gratitude and appreciation. When it rains, I run into the comfort of my home, shut all the windows, and slip into a hot bath or make myself a warm cup of tea. What do the little boy and old man do when the heavens belt out a storm? What is their comfort? Who is their comfort?

Sometimes I think this city can kill my spirit, when I am faced with these glaring situations and existential challenges. I hope it does not harden me more than I have been, in the last 3 years. I suppose it is only natural that, on some level, you learn to develop a thick skin; you learn to look the other way and thank your stars that you did, because sometimes, it is a cruel city that I live in. And on the other hand, you pray that Mumbai does not kill your humanity and kindness, for what are we if we without them?

So tonight when you go to bed, you may want to give a hug to the person sleeping next to you and be grateful for all the you have.

Hafta


Hafta is  a Hindi term that literally means “a week”. In Hindi slang, hafta also denotes “protection money”, money that is collected by the mafia or corrupt police on a “weekly basis”. Hafta is commonly practiced in India, and Mumbai is no stranger to this malevolent tradition where cops blatantly demand a weekly ransom for illegal stalls to operate on the
bustling and commercial streets of Mumbai.

If you did not know already, the streets of Mumbai are

homes and businesses to many legal and illegal vendors such as the man who sells fresh coconut water, the barber who will give you a clean shaven face for Rs. 25 ($0.50), the person who sells rubber slippers, the book seller, the fast food stalls, the man who will clean the wax out of your ears, the cobbler….you name it! There is always someone setting shop on the busy streets of Mumbai, streets that are frequented by thousands of people a day. I was witness to a case of hafta last week, when I was indulging in my favorite sin, eating road side food. Against all good advice, right from my husband to my grandmother, I indulge in chaat,the Indian version of fast food, from time to time. Give me my favorite chaat dish and you have made my day!
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A few weeks ago, I stopped on the corner side of my building and was waiting for my food. I saw this police officer approach the stall that was next to the chaat wala (person who sells chaat) and demand that he cough up Rs. 50 (about $1). I thought it odd that the officer donned dark shades when the sun was sinking and there was barely any sunlight left. I did not think much of it because, this is Mumbai, a city where anything goes. I had no idea what was going on and just watched the show. It finally dawned on me, when the cop approached the stall that I was at, what he was doing. I froze, not knowing how to react. But it appeared that it did not matter to the cop who was around or who was watching him. He was just doing what’s been done for hundreds of years: prey on the week to get bigger and stronger. Initially, I did not think much of the fact that he was asking the chaat wala to give him some money. The vendor refused and said he had only just started his “dchandar” (business ) and requested that the cop return later in the evening . I am sure the cop realized this was the oldest trick in the book and was hell bent on getting his money. I thought to myself, ‘What is this fool hankering for a measly Rs. 50? Does he not have anything better to do?’ Then it occurred to me that if the corrupt copped collected Rs. 50 from every bloody vendor on just that street, he would probably be a very happy man by the end of his rounds.

The cop refused to leave the stall until the vendor gave into his demands, even it it meant borrowing money from the other stall and paying the cop. I was even more surprised when the vendor whipped out a little notebook and made a note of the date and amount, and the cop was checking the book to ensure that all facts and figures were in order. Clearly, this practice was the norm.

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There is a clear “circle of life” in Mumbai, where the strong dominate the week, ensuring the strong remain stronger, and the weak, weaker. Modern day evidence of this trend can be seen by the hundreds of grossly expensive residential towers that stand tall every year and line the very streets that house the hundreds of hutments that are stacked side by side, overflowing with rickety looking people and malnourished children. This idea of mumbai’s circle of life was driven home to me when i was walking to a cafe last Sunday and chanced upon this magnificent sight:
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A crow claiming it’s find, a brutal symbol of the circle of life…. life is an illusion and we are all prey to the ones who are stronger and bigger than us, in one form or the other.