Saki Naka is easily one the most congested places in Mumbai (read earth). If you have never been exposed to the noise, human / animal / vehicular traffic and pollution of this place, get ready to easily go into rapid shock or hyperventilation, even. And don’t bother calling 911 here, the ambulance will arrive after you are washed, attired and put down. Six feet.
In the bewildering chaos of this place, right outside of the newly commissioned, ultra modern Mumbai Metro service station, a Holiday Inn stands contemporary and mighty, offering cool and quiet sanctuary to those who can afford the hotel’s upper lip price. Since I have nothing better to do to recover from nasty jetlag than watch silly Bollywood movies or listen to repeated BBC / CNN lies, I decide to venture out of my room refuge and go for a brisk walk; get to feel the neighborhood perhaps. The best people in any city with their ears to the ground, in my opinion, are taxi drivers or people who live in the area. I do not mean the rich, pompous ones, mind you. These observe their own business and will not look past the tip of their noses. Uniformed chauffeurs drive them around air-conditioned cars, unmindful of the heat, grime, flies, traffic, smell or noise outside. I mean the poor(er) ones, who live in shanty homes, without air conditioners or permanent running water, where the stinking nulla runs right outside their homes, where more than three hours of running water a day is a considered a miracle (or BMC incompetence) and not having flies bothering them is a tall blessing indeed. So I wear my comfortable running gear and am off.
The stifling heat and mugginess feels like a brick wall as soon as I pass through the swishing glass doors of the hotel, and almost turn back to return to the icy air inside. Turning right past the hotel, an uneven brick lane narrows towards a shantytown that fringes the swanky new Chakrapatty Shivaji International Airport. This lane continues almost towards the boundary wall where one end of the runway begins. I can see the fuselages of various aircrafts lined up for takeoff, from puny ones to a giant, towering Airbus 380.
Sticky and bothered by the pollution, both from the noise and the air I am breathing, I decide to return to the hotel and continue jogging in the luxury of the air-conditioned gym instead. But I lose the way back instead, in my haste, since the lanes in and out of this shantytown look all the same. So I find myself in a maze of alleyways crammed on either side by hole-in-the-wall homes. There is a pungent odor of cooking onion, garlic and ginger in the air, punctuated by the inevitable wafts of shit from the raw sewage that flows in the open nulla. Most homes are screened by a simple tired, soiled purda, drawn across the open door, but I can hear Bollywood songs from blaring TV sets within. People, mostly women and children, loiter around; the adult’s gawk at me with suspicious eyes, instinctively, defensively adjust their sliding dupattas. I see some children poring over textbooks, homework perhaps, while others, younger, some almost naked, carefree, play in the filth outside, unmindful of the flies that swarm over them. I come upon two women in an intense argument about errant garbage and who is responsible, heedless of a wailing child nearby, whose bawls get shriller with every uttered argument or cuss. I pass by an elderly woman sweating over a vat of dubious looking bubbling cooking oil, with balls of yellow pakooras sizzling and dancing away in agony within. Several customers wait for the painful process to end, so the fritters can be purchased and consumed, with loads of emli sauce and fiery red chutney; my mouth waters instinctively.
When I am eventually guided towards my hotel, I pass by an even poorer alley. A filthy boy sits on the lap of his apparent sister, and they both watch me approach their way. The boy must not be more than five years old and the sister, ten or twelve perhaps.
Nanghe Uncle, quips the kid, pointing at my bare legs, Nanghe Uncle.
Shush, admonishes the sister in a huff and clamps her hand over the boy’s mouth. But the boy is adamant and repeats the accusation as soon as he breaks his lips free from his sister’s grasp. I smile and hurry along but suddenly feel as naked as Katrina Kaif caught with a swimsuit bikini a size too small. Not that my running shorts are not sharia-compliant, they are, well below my knees.
Sorry Uncle, says the girl coyly as I pass them. I glance at the girl. She has a thin pinched face of an underfed child, but her eyes are bright and intelligent – alive. I stop. The boy, fearing a retribution perhaps, scrambles to the safety of their house and disappears inside, but the girl stays put and regards me with frank curious eyes.
I assure her there is nothing to be sorry for, that I am not mad at her or her brother, that it is my fault and that I should have worn long pants. Her name is Sanaa, she tells me, that she lives with her parents and younger brother and a grandma, who is visiting relatives in Banaras, UP. Sanaa changes to Hinglish as soon as I say I am visiting from the US.
Oh, yes! I knew from the start only, that you are not from India. She wags her head excitedly, gathers wayward hair, ties them into a ponytail knot and passes hands over her rumpled clothes in an attempt to improve her standing in my eyes. Since I am from Amrika. Makes me feel immediately sad. She has a lot of questions for me, about Amrika. I try and answer them without making her feel small. I tell her I like India better, more than Amrika. She giggles profusely, covering her mouth with petite unkempt hands.
Jhoot Uncle! I have seen Amrika in movies. It is much, much nicer than India.
But I am happy I have made her laugh. I ask her if she goes to school. Her face clouds over in sadness. Instantly. She gets up and retreats into the house a few steps, cocks her elf-like head to one side and listens intently, then returns and takes her place where she was just seated.
No, Abbu cannot afford the fees. He says. But it’s not the fees that are the problem. It is his drinking. Sanaa jerks a thumb towards her thin lips. She begins whispering so I have to strain my ears to hear her. He drinks too much, so the money he earns is not enough for food, clothes and other stuff, let alone school fees. A local NGO paid my fees until recently, but now, they will pay only half since I am promoted to a higher class and the fees are much more. Abbu says he does not have the money, but that is not true. He spends it on sharaab and then sleeps it off all day. He is an electrician, but nobody wants to hire him because his hands are unsteady. Too much booze. Sanaa makes an unpleasant face and jerks a thumb up her lips once again. She leans forward. He is inside now, sleeping it off. She makes a face again.
I become promptly wary. I ask her about her mother.
Ammi washes dishes and cleans people’s homes. She is at work now. She prefers working and staying away from Abbu because they fight when they are together. Ammi screams for him to stop drinking, but that makes Abbu madder, so they fight. Fight all the time. Do you have children Uncle? Do you drink also? Do you and Auntie fight?
Babre, what a forthright girl! The little brother returns before I can answer, halts at a safe distance from where I am and tells Sanaa to come inside, Abbu is calling her. A look of fear crosses her face. She gets up in a hurry, waves a quick goodbye my way and sister and brother retreat into the gloomy interior.
Dismayed, I sigh and make my way back to the Holiday Inn, my head full of Sanaa’s troubles. Perhaps I’ll go get a massage; the hotel is running a summer special. Maybe it’ll cure my jetlag and prepare me for ten tough days ahead. And forget the intense hole in my heart Sanaa has seared.