At the Gateway of India, Mumbai, which is arguably the country’s most valued structure, I was welcomed by this little girl of no more than ten years old. This all happened so many years ago. She was bare feet, (which is quite common in India), well-spoken, and impressed me by rattling off several phrases in different languages: German, Japanese, Spanish … you name it.
She then started to explain how she had to feed her little sister and hence she needed baby powder. “My sister is hungry, no food for many days,” she’d say while pointing at her mouth. She was cute and knew exactly how to touch the right strings. Within seconds she took my hand and dragged me into a convenience store.
However, hanging over the counter top I learned that the item she was after was expensive. It was like ten bucks a can.
So, going over my options, I sort of got this hunch that she’d sell the merchandise back to the store owner, (who sort of kept quiet for the most part). I figured that both would make a nice profit out of it. It was the way everything went down; call it sixth sense.
In the end I had her showing me around (the Gateway) and left her a small tip. I don’t think she was very satisfied with this; it was a lot less than ten bucks after all, but that’s life. You can’t make everyone happy. Funnily, a week later I saw her pulling the same stunt again (with a fresh load of noob tourists).
If you have ever seen slums – that is carton, asbestos, and plastic houses stacked together with no sewer system and as many people as possible per square mile – then perhaps you know what I am talking about. That’s where she was from; from the wrong side of the tracks. In 2005 the BBC wrote that more than 60% of Mumbai’s twelve million residents lived in a slum.
Back at my “hideout,” which was a shared apartment at Kemps Corner, (great location near some of the embassies and consulates), I had to step over dozens of bodies in order to get to the fifth floor. They all slept on the concrete stairs and even occupied the sidewalks just outside the building. All these faces never got me spooked though. They all seemed to radiate supportive vibes like those of Gandhi himself.
You see, folks from the countryside hear stories about how great everything is in the big city, how much money there is to be made, and decide to have a look for themselves. When they arrive, however, they see that they were misled – that there’s an acute shortage of low cost housing. So, they too end up in a carton house / box. Mumbai has become a massive city this way. You can clearly see the slums when you fly into Mumbai. Its runways are surrounded by shanty towns.
In order to turn Mumbai into the next “Shanghai of India” and to put fear of the consequences of migration into these “rural” people, the government demolishes and burns down slums from time to time. This might make you wonder why these illegal settlements were allowed in the first place, but that’s all because of … money. It’s business. The more often you can sell the same plot of land, the more you make.
As the BBC put it: “The slumlord grabs the land, pays off the police, municipal worker, and the local elected representative. Then he sells it to somebody for a hefty price, who in turn parcels it into lots and sells huts to the poor.” And then you press reset. The demolition crew shows up and a few days later the selling process starts all over again – all while the previous “owners” try to reclaim “their” land.
Not surprisingly perhaps, in India I quickly learned to wave away beggars and salespeople. “Hello mister,” they’d say over and over again. But … after a day in town … you block it out and simply start to make these get-out-of-my-way hand gestures. It sounds cruel, yet it’s a necessity. You just keep stepping and ignore them with your eyes glued to the street. When you give a rupee to one, you attract a crowd within no time.
I recall being in a cab one day and noticing an ungroomed drifter, a man of the street, bowing with both hands raised in front of a luxury Mercedes. It lasted a few minutes and he just wouldn’t move out of the way. It can’t get any more opposite than that; the haves and the have-nots.
Similarly, I once had this very embarrassing moment. I was at an intersection in Mumbai somewhere and got approached by this strange old guy who bugged white folks for a living. I had seen him before so I knew; I knew he was messed up in the head. He wanted to have a beer with me in this dark-lit bar. When I politely refused with a, “No thank you, maybe some other time?” he started to yell and bang his head with his fist. What’s up with that, right?
You can imagine that his act rapidly attracted a crowd. It had only been a minute or less but when I started to make my way out of there, hundreds of passersby had already witnessed the event. And it’s hard to hide when you’re so much taller than everybody else and have blond hair. Never again, please.
On that level, clearly, India is a bit hard for outsiders like me. But as with all things in life, you do get used to it. And even though you might not be able to give them what they ask for, you can still silently bless them.
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