Bombay can make you feel like shit most of the time. But every once in a while it can bestow upon you that mother of all feelings - Smugness.
I was on my way back from town and every time I pass through Mahim, I do something that makes me feel rather smug. If you’re headed from Shivaji Park to Bandra, chances are you’ll have one of two routes. Past Bombay Scottish, you can either go straight (if the roads open) or take the right at Hari Om and slug through Mahim causeway. If you do get a chance to go straight and you’re not excitedly chatting on your cell phone and you happen to look on your left, you would probably notice a line of impoverished roadside eateries. Except no one’s eating. There are just groups and groups of squatters. Thin, emaciated, filthy, sewage and soot covered men, teenagers and boys squatting. Not eating.
Four months back, it had started off simply enough. My mother was visiting and I took her for a mandatory visit to that wonderful edifice of religious commercialization – Siddhivinayak. On our way back, the squatter road was open and jammed. Jammed for so long that I finished chatting excitedly on my cell phone and proceeded to look on my left. And then I saw them.
I can’t remember who had told me about the phenomenon. But at that moment I remembered it well. Ten rupees for a plate of food. For a plate of rice, roti and dal. I motioned to my mother, pointed in their direction and passed on the story. She was amazed. She suddenly felt what every Mumbaikar has felt when they hear the story. Goose pimple pride.
My mother proceeded to rake her bag around searching for money. She pulled out a tenner and looked my way. I looked at her disparagingly and bestowing on her a smile that a royal would to a waving plebian, I took out a 500 note and held it out of the window. A man materialized. Taking the note out of my hand, he screamed across the road ‘Pachaas’ and was gone.
Abdina?’ my mother looked puzzled.
’50 people amma. 50 people will sleep with a full stomach tonight’ I replied.
The cabbie turned around and smiled at me – “madam aap bahut acche hain”.
Yesterday, I passed through squatter land again. Except I forgot to stop. Somewhere near the signal, I remembered. Battling between whether to stop and call for someone or just keep going because the signal was green (such a rarity no?). I suddenly asked the cabbie to stop and reverse for half the length of the road till the last eatery. I didn’t have to give him an explanation. He knew.
Again I took out another 500 and it was inhaled before my hand got out of the window. As the cabbie shifted to forward gear, he remarked “madam aap bahut acche hain”
The feeling came soon enough. Like liquid heroine driving up a clean embossed vein. It lasted for most of the day.
Until everything went horribly wrong that is.
After a boring trip to the neighbourhood cyber café. Checking mails, checking orkut, sending mails, checking facebook, I trudged past the adjoining McDonalds in an attempt to walk home to make up for missing the gym. I was hungry. As hell. In my fat days, I enjoyed a nice medium strawberry milkshake every evening thinking that one small liquid delight does not a fat woman make. But when I joined the new job and had to work around size zero women in double zero fits (it stopped their circulation but did everything for their circulation, if you know what I mean), I took an active step and eliminated all traces of sweet milky substances. But today was different. Today I was 7 kgs lighter, today I was walking home and could burn off the calories I would consume. Above all, today, I had fed 50 poor people. I was an annadatta. Annapoorna herself. And Goddesses don’t put on weight now do they?
I happily bought my treat and stepped out. Except I was feeling so cosmically blessed and guilt free that I decided I shouldn’t taint my pretty legs. I should take an auto. I slurped with glee and felt the fresh evening breeze relax me. We soon hit the four bungalows/lokhandwala signal. As the auto was slowing down aligning itself in the middle lane, a beggar girl caught a glimpse of me slurping away to glory. I immediately knew she would run up to me. Sure enough in a trice she was hanging onto the railing of my auto. She couldn’t have been older than 7-8.
“Didi milkshake do naa…”
“Please Didi, subah se kuch nahin khaya didi”
“Didi, thodi hi baaki hai. Dedo naa Didi”
I was furious by then. My Milkshake. My prized milkshake. And I couldn’t even drink it in peace. Why did I have to give it to this little wretch, who like a zoo monkey had gotten used to the expensive titbits the crowd threw at her and wouldn’t eat anything else. She was tugging furiously at my pants now.
“Kya samajthe ho tum log. Kisi ko khate dekho to uspe toot padthe ho. Logon ko chain se khane bhi nahin dete. Mere paas paise hain ka ye matlab nahin ki main har waqt kuch na kuch deti rahun” I screamed at her with sheer frustration. With repressed anger that I never thought I had. I was close to tears and yanked her vice grip off my pants. The automan looked at me a little taken aback. “aap kya dekh rahen hain, aage chalo” I spat.
I hated that I felt so much hate for this child. I hated that I was so zen and smarmy in the morning and now a wicked witch depriving a child of a few meager sips of milk. I hated that I still refused to give her the milkshake. I hated that I was a hypocrite.
She was scared and stepped off the flanking “thik hai didi, main samajthi hun, gussa mat ho, koi baat nahin, aap hi pi lo…..next time naa didi…?” she waved sadly.
And I hated above all that she didn’t hate me back.