Just Another Mumbai Morning – by Poonam Chawla

A lethargic breeze rose and ebbed with the tide, not quite cooling my beaded neck. I lifted my hair and wrapped it in a tight knot, so it wouldn’t cling like sticky fingers on my bare shoulders. It was low tide. Beyond the rocky terrain, the ocean muttered darkly, withholding its customary exuberance; I walked as close to the retaining wall as possible, making room for the “real “walkers until I came upon a lone man seated on the wall, an open carton of food balanced between his legs. Discreetly I moved away, noting out of the corner of my eyes, it wasn’t actually food, but more than half of a very large, creamy cake, the frothing, chocolate and other unknown sugary stuff oozing out of the box and dribbling on to the sidewalk like dog feces.

I thought, “How weird!” and almost simultaneously and ashamedly realized he had foraged the half eaten cake from a garbage can outside the Taj Hotel looming over the ocean like a smirking underworld Don. I couldn’t help looking at him again. He didn’t really fit the ‘below the poverty line’ demographic. His hair was neatly combed, even slicked back with oil. His face was smooth and unmarked by the fury of time. His clothes were nondescript but not exactly threadbare – a full sleeves shirt, trousers and shoes, matching socks, albeit permanently impressed with dirt and debris. He was devouring the cake with his fingers not with the pleasure and greedy joyfulness associated with the consumption of a rich, cream filled cake but in the single minded way of one who is unsure he will be lucky enough to get another meal. “Eat!” He seemed to admonish himself. “This is important!”

A group of joggers whooshed past me just then, shaking me out of my reverie, acrylic shorts stuck to their thighs, damp patches on the pockets, tangled hair peeking out of chests like shy worms out of cracks of asphalt. Despite the casually put together attire, the shorts, the faded t-shirts, the 7 a.m. shadow and chest hair, despite the fact that no wallets bulged out of their pockets and no shiny watches gripped their wrists, it was obvious they were the upper crust, with time to run blithely, service their bodies and fuel their minds, before they drove off home in the Benz parked at the corner by the Fresh Juice stand, watched over by the homeless man they’d tip mechanically then part the motley bunch of bicyclists weaving their way to work, to peddle, hawk, serve and scrape for the day, not daring to look beyond Monday, Tuesday, as they, the joggers slid in the car keys and swept themselves off their own feet.

I would have liked to sit in a cafe with a solitary cup of tea and mull over the day still before me, but the cafes were not yet open for service. I peered past the CLOSED notice for signs of activity within, hoping a man with a dishcloth on his shoulder would see me, smile and welcome me in with the customary ingratiating grin reserved for tourists and foreigners. I saw no one; at least, no one that was up and about. Stretched out on a single thin sheet, in one corner was a boy, all limbs and black hair, dead to the world, an almost empty glass of water, on the floor, beside him. A second pair of legs, visible through a threadbare sheet, no bigger than a baby’s blanket, stuck out in another corner. I wondered idly, whether the owner let the bus boys lay their heads on his restaurant floor, or had they somehow managed to sneak back in to sleep in the privacy of the restaurant floor instead of rubbing shoulders with stray dogs on the open street.

Tea at the cafe not an option, I meandered with the path and arrived at the very tip of the ocean, appropriately named Lands End. I sat on the rocky ledge, surrounded by water, the flotsam and jetsam of the past rising up to meet and mingle with the present, so that for a few minutes I was quite confused, not sure if I was my ten year old self, nodding politely to its older body or the other way round.

By now, the sun, unruffled by wind, amused at the childish prattle of the waves flailing about in the ocean, poured a steady, indiscriminating stream of heat on the joggers, the homeless man, the bicyclists and all who walked below. Sweating profusely I decided it was time to take a rickshaw and ride back home. I paid the man his fare, a meager amount barely enough to buy a cup of tea or a couple of loose cigarettes; he took the notes, touched them prayerfully to his forehead, then to the image of the goddess Lakshmi seated precariously above his wheel, folded them and gently put them in his pocket.

“Thanks,” I muttered, immoderately moved. He looked at me unblinking, and without a word, revved up his epileptic engine and sputtered off into the blazing mouth of the sun. I went home to my omelet.

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