The Unforgiving City

(Above photo by Marji Lang – http://www.flickr.com/photos/30120194@N02/

The daily commute from Dadar to Marine Lines was a tedious part of the year before I came to ICT. There is something weirdly calming about travelling alone in a sparsely crowded second class compartment in a Mumbai local, late in the evening. That 14-minute journey at 9:30 pm, six days a week never fails to make me nostalgic. The rhythmic, unchanging rumble, the unmistakable smell, the wind blowing in your face from the window seat, the absence of Mumbai’s famous jam-packed crowds.

By Jay Shah

S. Y. B. Chem

During one such trip home, the train stopped at Mumbai Central, like it did every day. A girl, no more than seven or eight years old, stepped in. Looking at her, you wouldn’t know she was a beggar. She had neatly combed hair tied up in a pony tail, clean (if old and worn) clothes, trimmed nails. She was plump and healthy, with a mischievous spark in her eye. She systematically worked her way from one end of the compartment to the other, tapping people on the knee and holding up a steel glass with some change in it. I have always considered it unethical to give alms to a beggar: isn’t the person who does small jobs like cleaning up your garbage or polishing your shoes more deserving of your altruism than the nothingness the beggar offers? This girl was no different. I stoically waved her away. She was used to such rejections.

That wasn’t the only time I saw her. Over the course of the year several times she got on the same compartment of the same train I was sitting in, always on at Mumbai Central and off at Grant Road. Her timing was perfect: it always took her exactly the same amount of time to traverse the length of the compartment as it took for the train to travel from Mumbai Central to Grant Road. Not a minute was wasted. This one time she brought another kid with her, half her age. The steel glass was in his hand. She guided him around the compartment while she sang ‘Shirdiwale Sai Baba’. He looked up pitifully at the passengers holding the glass aloft. One of the passengers put an apple in it.

Something about her bothered me. Here was a girl, who seemed well taken care of, spending her day begging in a train when she should have been in school. What a waste of a childhood. What struck me the most about her was that she wasn’t at all in low spirits; she seemed to think that this was all there was to life, that there was no world beyond her daily routine. I can only imagine a Slumdog Millionaire-esque mafia who brainwashed her, trained her and looked after her. There must be hundreds, probably thousands of children begging across the city. It is saddening to see all the potential that goes wasted.

I haven’t seen her since then. I can only imagine where she is now, whether she still follows the same routine, or she has moved on to better things. I am reminded of her when I see a beggar. I am reminded of how lucky and privileged we are to have had the opportunities we had. I am reminded of the fact that behind the veil of the “City of Dreams” lies the harsh reality of people struggling to survive, and how compartmentalized our minds are about them.

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