Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bombay in a Day

I'm writing this on a grueling 25-hour train journey from Mumbai to Udaipur (in the northern state of Rajastan).

After a few weeks wandering the south, I met up again with Avia and her new Israeli friend, Ya'ara in Mumbai. Though they weren't keen on sticking around this polluted, overcrowded city long, one day was all I needed to see the city that had yet only existed in my imagination as the setting of countless Indian novels.

A 13-hour sleeper train from Gokarna, where I left a lovely beach, village and friends from all over the world, took me straight to Mumbai. As soon as I stepped onto the streets of Mumbai, a naked toddler who couldn't have been more than two years old, nearly ran into the street. I was alarmed to find her alone, but soon realized the rest of her family was sprawled on blankets just behind the concrete post. Welcome to Bombay.

With the Israelis in my company, our first day as a threesome left me feeling positive about our upcoming travels together. We explored Bombay by foot and an older Indian gentlemen pointed out some sights and brought us right to a totally awesome outdoor art exhibit on display for it's final day.
Avia, myself and Ya'ara at the dance festival
After some Indian grub and watching a local dance performance, I persuaded the girls to see a Bollywood film with me. After all – we were in Bombay – how could we not?!

In Bombay, unlike the rest of India, Bollywood films are not shown with English subtitles. Lucky for us, the feature film, “A B C D,” was a dance movie that left little up for interpretation.

Outside of the theater, we happened upon a conversation with a shoe polisher, Raju. We told him of our excitement for our first Bollywood experience, and he explained the 100 rupee (less than 2 USD) price in Mumbai is much too expensive for him compared to the 20 rs ticket cost in his home village. His exceptional English made it hard for us to believe that he, along with millions of homeless people young and old, found his rest each night on the seemingly disease-infested streets of Bombay.

Raju is just a young man of 24 years old, no different than us, except with unlucky circumstances. He has a wife of 20 years old, a son of two and a half, and a widowed mother who he left back in his home village. After his father passed, he came to Mumbai in the hopes of finding better opportunity to support his family.

I'd read Raju's story in books so many times. But here was this young man, sitting right in front of me, telling it himself. With very decent English, we had to wonder how could he not find a better job? Oh, he had been trying at every corner of the city, but without an address, he could not get a legitimate job. And without money, he could not get an address.

Raju makes 2-4 rupees per shoe polishing. Some days he makes just enough to feed himself, and other days, he isn't as fortunate. He hasn't seen or talked to his family in half a year, as he hasn't been able to afford it.

We brought Raju into the film with us and pampered him with snacks. Our first Bollywood film was magical. The audience comes alive in a Bollywood cinema, which is half of the fun of the experience – standing, shouting, crying, laughing – the energy is contagious. Bollywood films are unrealistic and overly dramatic, but so full of life next to Hollywood.

While I enjoyed the film immensely, I kept peeking over to make sure Raju was, too. I had a feeling of sadness in my gut for Raju that I just couldn't, and still cannot, shake.

I wanted to help him. I want to help all the children who spend their childhood on the streets, not knowing anything different and not having an opportunity to be children, but instead fighting for their survival. Raju's story was just one of millions. I don't have a lot of money, but next to these people, I have the universe.

Again and again and again, India teaches me to count my blessings ten times over. Witnessing the slums, stepping over the resting bodies sleeping on the sidewalks and seeing children who are robbed of a childhood - my heart aches.

We might have given Raju couple hours to get lost in a dance story, to watch the beautiful Bollywood dancers, to be a 24 year old as everyone should deserve at our age, but as soon as the film ended, he'd find a vacant spot on the street to spend the night alone.

I can spread my wealth here and there in India, maybe feed a child now and again, or even just make them laugh by blowing bubbles, but I cannot single-handedly fix the problems of this country. I can't take them off the streets. I can't change their lives, and that hurts.

I ask myself, what did I do to deserve my fortune?

“You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” -From one of my favorite Indian novels, A Fine Balance
Getting cozy on the train
A packed sleeper class

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