After seeing off the first assault of jet lag, bereft of any basic supplies and with ‘first-day explorer syndrome’ pulsing through my veins, I decided to extend my knowledge of Bandra beyond the cramped window of a taxi. A prestigious member of the ‘burbs, it had grown northward from the historic centre of Mumbai and was to be my haunting spot for the next month.
It took only a few chaotic minutes and a barrage from the local fruit-selling, Armani-wielding populous to convince me that, despite my best efforts, I could not go it alone and would need to recruit the aid of a local. Not only to help with general navigation, but also to sift through the hundreds of street vendors to find the most reputable source of food in an area where KFC was the landmark culinary establishment pointed out to me by my landlord.
Such a bill-fitter came in the unlikely form of Ravi, a novelty map seller who, still ruing the day he had given the finger to his waiter friends in favour of the alternative market for illustrated maps, was more than happy to throw off their laminated shackles. If nothing else then to placate the voice in his head, on a continuous loop saying “you should’ve slept on it mate…”
As a guide he was one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve met, despite that fact that he had the misfortune to look like an Indian version of Gareth from The Office. His voice filled with unadulterated regret when he spoke of the squalor which many of the locals lived in. Pointing out small patches by the road with only a dusty sheet to qualify them as houses.
Having never been to any form of school, Ravi had picked up Englishfrom his time in Delhi. Something which had proved an invaluable asset in the face of a merciless job market that did not look fondly on his lack of educational credentials. It also had its use in luring foreign dickheads to their demise at the hands of an over-friendly tailor. Dickheads like me.
But today was not such a day and, having escorted me to one of the few restaurants with roofs in the area and refusing any financial embellishment, he pledged to return in an hour to take me to his house. Although I didn’t know what to expect, I had an inkling that I could put my call to MTV cribs on hold.
As promised, he returned with minutes to spare and we set off on the long walk to the West side of Bandra. An area, I would later discover, that had a formidable slum population and was separated from its Eastern equivalent by a long railway bridge that was a hub of activity for beggars, hawkers and commuters alike. Crossing onto the other side I could detect no noticeable difference from the roads I had walked down before and it was only when we parted company with the main road into terra incognita that the stakes were raised.
Furnished by an alleyway that would be stretched to fit a well-sized American, the houses were intimately spaced to say the least. As particularly graphic scenes from City of God raced through my head, I reached into my pocket to fashion a home-made knuckle duster out of my flat keys, should the need arise. I also inched slightly closer to my guide, but without partaking in the exercise of ‘bromance’ that saw a number of Indian men holding pinkies through the streets, oblivious to any homosexual connotations.
My fears were, of course, unfounded and the only threats came in the form of passive women washing their clothes outside and the walls of smiles from the children who rushed to shake my hand and wish me a happy new year.
After a few minutes of walking we arrived at his pad, which distinguished itself from its neighbours only by the crackling din of a device that barely scraped the definition of a television. Apart from the fan, this was the only electrical device in the single-roomed house, and the only other furnishing was a tottering shelf with piles of metal pots balanced on top.
In one corner, the concrete wall bore the mark of a younger member of the family, who had tacked up any stickers he could find. Unfortunately for him, this meant that the corner was covered by a horde of lesser-successful Disney characters, and, for some reason, Tom Jones. If I returned, I resolved to bring a true ambassador of the Westside to the dilapidated walls, Tupac Shakur.
Eclipsing all of these features, and on the wall opposite the entrance, a plaster shrine to the Hindu God Ganesh revelled in its modest surroundings. Besides it, and sitting comfortable on a thin rug that also seemed to double as the bed, was the older brother who was intently watching a fuzzy screen which occasionally resembled a game of cricket.
Finally, as I removed my shoes, I was also greeted by the mother, who paused from washing the family’s clothes in one of the pots to offer the traditional Hindu greeting of pressed hands and a bowed head. Other than that, she was seemingly oblivious and treated the situation as if it were a daily occurrence.
Drawn in by the black and white cricket, I took my seat on the rug and watched as the two brothers had a quiet conversation which ended abruptly in the older one getting up to leave. As he did so I immediately regretted my decision to accept the offer of the communal cushion from behind his back, thinking that this was the cause of his departure. But, waving away any apologies, he left with a knowing smile.
During his departure, the hospitality of the family was made evident to me by the increasing array of offers poured on me, from drinks to full-on meals. I politely declined, conscious of the how little the family had. A crowd of young children had also gathered around the window and door and, despite the best efforts of my host to get rid of them, persevered, desperate to know what I thought of MS Dhoni or if I liked their trainers.
I answered the crowd as best I could and it was only the return of the older brother that ceased the question time, he had brought a coke with him from the local convenience store. Relatively, it was quite a small token, but the fact that Ravi told me, with a hint of regret in his usually passive voice, that his mother was going out begging soon made it seem like one of the most generous offering I’ve had, Any of my protests were resolutely dismissed and, reminding me that I was a guest in his house, he passed it over.
I spent another couple of hours in the room, in which I was also persuaded to have some of the bread, but eventually the time came to leave. Promising to come for a game of cricket later in the week, I started off on the long walk home, humbled by the kindness and good will of a slum-dweller.