Chapter 2 – Survival
After a while Kaua arose and looked around. He was hungry, tired and his muscles ached from holding on desperately all night. As he progressed back toward the station entrance and the usual cluster of barrows selling a variety of trinkets and foods his eyes focused on a stall where a young girl was frying bonda and selling it. Her parents lay asleep to the side of the stall. He looked furtively around to judge his prospects of snatching a hot breakfast and speeding off to enjoy it miles away. His stomach growled to encourage him. But at that precise moment as he was about to spring into action the father woke and stood stretching in front of his stall shouting at his daughter in a language Kaua didn’t understand. The daughter shouted back at him and continued frying bonda.
For a moment Kaua and the girl locked eyes and she smiled coyly. Kaua’s jaw dropped in amazement. No one smiled at Kaua! He was used to curses and blows but not to smiles. He smiled back uncertainly and involuntarily made the hand motion of mouth to stomach which indicated he was hungry. The girl glanced at her father who was busy clearing his throat and performing his morning puja, then returned to frying and selling. Now and then she’d glance his way and then taking a final look at her father she indicated for him to come closer. She quickly and expertly tossed a bonda in his direction which he caught and felt the pain of hot oil from this freshly fried delicacy. He wolfed it down and made namaste in grateful acknowledgement. She glanced to see her father was not looking and another whizzed in his direction which he caught knowing it would further cause him pain. He bent low toward the ground and made an imitation of touching her feet in gratitude. She laughed and resumed her cooking. Her father glanced around in irritation then scanned the crowd to see what had amused his daughter. Kaua melted into the crowd and feeling full and happy looked around to see how he might make a living. Perhaps the city was not so frightening after all?
Kaua began a systematic inspection of the streets around the station. Most of them were buildings originally created to house a family during colonial times, but colonialists had long gone, and these buildings now housed multiple families in parts of each building divided and sub-divided over time to earn more and more in rent for their rich owners. Quarters were so cramped it was common during dry season to sleep out in the streets rather than endure confined airless humid atmosphere. Kaua noticed that out of upstairs apartments long rods had been attached so that clothes could be washed and hung high above the street to dry. Selecting an alley way between buildings which seemed to have little human traffic he contemplated the selection hanging on those poles above the alley way. Then he remembered a few streets back was a discarded pole with hook attached to the top. He retraced his steps and claimed the pole, then with care he returned to the alley and hooked men’s clothing before dropping the stick and running away with his prize. By this time main streets were crowded with hand carts, honking auto rikshaws and crowds of people intent on their business. No one paid him attention.
As Kaua smelled the clothes and their freshness be became aware of the accumulated dirt on his body and the shabbiness of clothing he’d stolen from his own village. He stopped a coolie and made the motion of washing his body. The coolie shrugged and pointed to the huge pipes that protruded above ground in this area carrying water to the heart of the city, Then, he pointed in the direction of the water source. While the coolie’s language was similar in tone to his village tongue he had to strain to catch words and understand their meaning. He decided to try his luck anyway.
After walking streets for an hour and trying to keep his eye on pipes which would disappear behind high rises then re-emerge Kaua understood the reason the coolie had directed him this way. Spurting from a seal between pipes where hutment residents had patiently chipped away at the seal for weeks was all the water he could ever dream of. Hundreds were washing bodies and clothes and storing water before the water supply engineers came to repair the seal and police moved them to the fringes of the city again.
Kaua found a discarded sliver of soap on the ground and picked it up. He stripped naked as many around him did discarding village clothes as he did and clutching his treasured new clothing in one hand he soaped his body on one side and allowed the spurting water to wash it off, then changing hands he soaped the other side of his body luxuriating in the cold water. He repeated the performance and even soaped his hair which yielded much of the dust of his village. After some time, he emerged and stood naked drying off before putting his new wet clothing on and lazing in the sun until both body and clothing were dry. Then feeling refreshed he made the long trek back to the station he’d ended his journey at in the early morning.
He was feeling hungry again. The clean body and new clothes made him feel a different person and for the first time in his life he didn’t want to steal to make his way. But what would he do? As he was thinking of these things he found himself opposite the stall where a kind-hearted girl had fed him that morning. He looked hopefully in that direction but this time it was the father plying his trade.
On impulse Kaua strode up to him and in his best attempt at the language of the city coolie who’d directed him that morning he asked for work. The stall owner looked at him in surprise. The language was rural and to the north of the state. In this city you knew the rudiments of all major languages of India. The stall owner Dass looked at the clothing of a more prosperous denizen of Mumbai but the language was that of a peasant. He smiled knowingly “Chor hai?” You’re a thief, he smirked knowingly.
He was about to wave him on his way then paused. That morning his wife had absconded with one of the rail coolies and they were nowhere to be found. He needed his daughter to run the business when he felt like taking a rest, so this fellow could run errands his wife used to do but he’d receive no money for it, only his meals twice a day. So laboriously Dass explained it to Kaua and Kaua shrugged and agreed. His new employee could use his wife’s bedding left behind but sleep outside the shelter. As Dass had an account with his supplier and settled personally in cash there was no need to trust this thief with his money. When the daughter returned from washing their clothes and bathing she stared at Kaua in amazement at the transformation from the sight of him that morning which had prompted her sympathetic supply of breakfast. He had obviously changed his circumstances. The father explained the arrangement and she shrugged in response. The unusual was the norm in Mumbai.
Next morning the girl rose at four am and began preparing ingredients for bonda to be fried and sold that day. Kaua had not slept well in his new surroundings with noises of human enterprise at work all night so he arose from his mat and stood stretching. Then shyly asked if he could help. She glanced at him trying to interpret his dialect and shook her head. It was one thing to be sympathetic to a human being in need, but now this fellow was in a different situation there needed to be an understanding between them. She curtly motioned him to go back to his mat and he obeyed instantly.
She watched him go with interest, perhaps she could trust him after all, so she called him back and set him to work scolding him if he didn’t prepare the makings according to her instructions properly. He learned quickly and eagerly, and she noted this with approval. Her life had been a hard one with an overbearing and sometimes abusive father. It had been because of constant beatings while drunk her mother had left and she longed for the time when she could say good riddance to that man too. While she went through the motions of respect as was expected from her, she hated her father with a passion but knew she’d never make it by herself in a city like Mumbai.
To be continued.
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