Blasting horns and angry shouts unnerve me; men are scratching their balls and hocking on the path where I walk in my flip flops. My feet are filthy from the grime. There are fast colourful movements in my periphery. Even the colours feel volatile. Lepers wiggle their deformities in my eye line. One of them sits, waving his misfortune at me, at the foot of the steps that lead to the golden M. That’s where the privileged scoff their burgers. Another offers me a lucky charm.
‘No charge, No charge’, he cries in monotone as I speed up.
Keep your head down. Keep your head down. Don’t catch anyone’s eye.
This is beautiful India.
‘Oh you’ve been to India too’, someone once said to me.
‘Isn’t it just the most beautiful place on earth? I remember passing a tea plantation, during a train journey. I watched the beautiful saris blow with the breeze while the women picked tea. It was a sight to behold’
They hadn’t seen their hollow faces up close, nor their shadowed eyes.
Starving girls with other women’s sleepy babies on their hips; hands out with their ‘sad faces’ on as they call.
‘Please, madaaaam, my baybee milk’.
They gesture to their mouths with the tips of there fingers bunched together. What a paradox. They are hungry and they are sad, yet this automated act is for me to believe that they are hungry and sad. Later their owners will check in and count their takings.
I had gotten to know two young girls on my first trip to Mumbai: Lakshmi and Pari. Every day I left the hostel and headed straight for the internet cafe, just minutes away from the Gate of India. After catching up with friends and letting my family know I was still OK, I usually took a stroll down to the gateway. That’s where I met the girls. They were sweet and I was very innocent. Pari was the eldest, maybe fourteen years old. Her hard eyes showed fear but she was street wise. I observed her when she thought I wasn’t looking later on. With her hand on her hip, flicking her scarf around her shoulders like a pro, she fluttered her eyelids at tourists like she meant it. Her light skin was clean and blemish free, and she had the smile of a beauty. Lakshmi was different. She was still a little girl. Her frock told me so. Her dark ponytail was messy and low at the nape of her neck. The wisps from the sides clung to her smiling lips. She followed Pari in an obedient manner, always watching from the sidelines, mimicking her.
‘My name is Lakshmi, Laki for short, but for the tourists I am Lucky’
This was always followed by a huge adorable grin. She told me this repeatedly, as if practicing the line. I was sure she had been given it by her teachers; she didn’t have much English. I met them for a few days in a row. I gave them some money, just once, and invited them to come on a trip with me over to Elephant Island, ten minutes away in a ferry. They smiled at each other. They thought I was a rich fool. I think I was too.
After a few days of not seeing them they showed up one morning outside the internet cafe. Pari walked towards me as I hit the stinking street from the door of the internet cafe.
‘Baby sister very sick. Please help.’
She gestured to her mouth.
‘She need milk’
She put her hand out for money. I shook my head firmly told and them I wasn’t giving them any cash. I continued to walk the daily route and the girls followed me imploring me, begging for help in such exaggerated tones I cringed.
‘You have money. My sister is sick. My sister needs milk’
What if it was true? What can I do? Say no for the sake of 300 rupees?
I offered to buy milk for the baby so they walked me to the shop of their preference. The doorway dripped with small plastic packets, each containing a mouthful of paan. They streamed down like a pretty beaded curtain. I stepped in and found myself in a dark little hovel. The girls spoke to the man behind the counter. He nodded without looking up, and then reached up to take a tin of baby food from a shelf on high.
‘No, no, theees one, pleeeease’
Pari was pointing to a bigger tin. The shopkeeper glared at me, his eyebrows tilted inwards, waiting for my response. I nodded. I heard Lakshmi giggle behind me, and then her groan after receiving a thump. As I handed over the money to him his lips narrowed as if he was holding back insults. I took the tin of food and handed it to Pari. Turning to walk out of the shop, I realised a small group had gathered at the door laughing, some scowling. Some were shaking their head in a disgust that I didn’t understand. Me , a silent stressed disgrace, marched out past them with my head down. I felt ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed that they had managed to trick me. I was ashamed that this was all they had. I never saw those girls again.
Families are setting up homes around a tree on a pavement. Some have canvas and even a pot or pan. Toddlers with swollen bellies wander a little too far away. Their angry young mothers call them back from under their thick brows.
‘And then we went on a cruise, the boat had a glass floor. The service was exceptional and the food was to die for’
The food, to die for.