Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The city of hills and the sea - II

16 Jyotsna

My experiences with Mumbai have always been fodder for contemplation and debate whilst sitting at the narrow kitchen window of my apartment we now famously call ‘16Jyotsna’. 

‘16Jyotsna’ is so popular now that it’s a landmark for the delivery boys of my area. They happily deliver whatsoever, ever since my roommate has taught me to tip them adequately and I might add deservingly – given they religiously deliver the parcel all drenched in the heavy rains -- though we still debate whether tipping off waiters/delivery boys is a bribe or not.

‘16 Jyotsna’ is a one-BHK apartment (as per Mumbai’s standards of space, I can firmly say it’s luxuriously spacious). The abode of four young (well if you still consider 25+ to be young age, or else my next argument would be… we are young at heart!!!) bachelors. But this experience is not about my apartment or its residents. It’s about people -- endless in number and excitingly varied in behavior -- who ring our doorbell (annoyingly sometimes bang the door).

That Saturday evening had a perfect story-like setting…

The drizzling rain was falling to the ground in ever changing frequency. I was at home on a weekend - which was rare - even more so…Alone. After extending my afternoon nap into a full-fledged sleep, I was still lying in bed, lights switched off; looking out the window at the fading sunlight going off completely.
Such evenings at ‘16 Jyotsna’ have been utilized by me, to make those long weekend phone calls to my beloved family members scattered all across the country. I had just finished speaking with Maa. She informed me that her knee problem had re-aggravated and had been taken to a doctor. Sometimes it feels sad that despite all the love you have for your parents, you cannot actually do much, beyond sending them a few gifts once in a while. In my heart, I thanked my cousins who are there with my parents to help them out in such situations.

 With these thoughts on my mind, I was tossing in bed when the doorbell rang. Replying to hundreds (Ok… that’s an exaggeration!) of courier boys and bill collectors throughout the day, I was fed up of answering the doorbell.

“Not now, yaar!!” I groaned, as I dragged myself to the door when bell rang again.

Standing behind the grills of my door was an old lady. She looked caged, not though by the grills of my door but her own world of worries. She was carrying a few papers in her right hand and some money, clutched in her left. When I opened the grills, she felt assured that I would listen and so she said hopefully “I need help.” This was followed by silence, lasting for almost thirty seconds.

Finally I asked “How?”

“My husband is hospitalized in Rajawadi. Doctor says I need to buy these medicines,” she said extending the medical transcripts to me “as soon as possible. I don’t have sufficient money. Please help.”

No pretense. No blessings. No formalities of begging.

In the midst, of the festive Ganesh Pooja -- the biggest religio-cultural extravaganza of Mumbai -- which operates mostly on the money collected as “Chanda” from residents and donations received from various legal/illegal funds; here was this old lady at my door, trying to collect some “Chanda” for herself and not the Almighty Lord. How do I decide whether her case was genuine or she was just another thug who had mastered her art so well that it appeared real?

 I gave her long stare and then asked a few routine questions to appear as if I was inquiring about the case in detail.

She informed me that she had visited over a 100 houses since afternoon and could arrange for Rs. 850. The total cost of medicine was approximately Rs. 1500. She had Rs. 500 with herself. So she needed only Rs. 150.

Hmmm… not a great amount when you book a Multiplex ticket. But, when it has to go as pure alms and when you doubt the intentions of the recipient, it appears too much. I wasn’t sure what to do. It took almost 5 minutes of an intense internal conflict reflected through myriad facial expressions to reach that decision. Well, the decision was made, I asked her to wait there and returned to my room. Now the question was, how much? Looking into my wallet I calculated --

Assuming that her every word was true, I began carefully debating over the following --

She has been going around collecting money since afternoon which meant for almost six hours by then.
She has covered almost a 100 houses and managed to collect 850 bucks. That meant she will have to visit at least 20 more houses to gather the remaining Rs 150.Judging by her looks, she must have been over 50 years. All buildings in the vicinity have at least 3-4 floors. If she was climbing up and down all these buildings to get this money – considering her age also - can I believe that her problem is genuine?

I recalled what
 Maa once told me that she would only visit me in Mumbai when I change my residence since it’s very problematic for her to climb up to the third floor.

 And with this thought, all efforts towards any further reasoning vanished. I pulled out two hundred rupee notes and gave it to her. I tried to smile at her but since it didn’t come naturally so I scrapped the attempt. Just as I was about to close the door, she took out a fifty rupee note from her bag and extended it towards me, “Son, I need only 150 rupees. This will suffice. Thank you.”

I didn’t say anything and shut the door. But I stood there, behind the closed door, just for a while, feeling guilt and shame. I could hear the loud speakers playing “Bollywood-ised” prayers at the pandals of Lord Ganesh.

As I stood there, I recalled a similar evening from the recent past.

There were 4-5 teenage boys standing in front of me; the tallest and probably the oldest, with a checkbook; the shortest holding a miniature of the Lord Ganesh. I gave them a questioning look, to which the tallest guy replied, “We are from Navyuvak Ganesh Pooja Mandili. Like every year, this year too, we are organizing Ganesh Pooja in the society. We are here to collect funds from all residents.”

“But I don’t come for

“You can always come. It’s in your area. You should come. After all, almost every resident in this lane, and even some from lane no. 3 have given us funds,” he paused for a while to study if there was any
change in my expression. Finding none, he continued his list of justifications, “moreover…we don’t just take money from you, we also give you a receipt. So it’s very authentic. See!” He flashed his receipt book at me. I gestured my disinterest in the book.

This time, the kid with the Ganesh idol tried his luck, “You see sir… if you don’t support us… how will we be able to celebrate this festival, which is for no one but the Lord Ganesh? If we don’t, the Lord will be angry with the residents of this area.”

And then, all of them took turns to persuade me.

I smiled, amused by their attempt, went inside and took out a 50 rupee note from my wallet.

When I handed them the note, there was grimace on their faces. Something they wanted to say, but couldn’t. They took the money and wrote me a receipt. While handing the receipt to me, the tallest guy finally spoke his mind, “No one gives such small amounts. We generally don’t take less than Rs. 101. Anyways, come and collect your prasad for sure.”

 A few days later, while returning from work, I saw a few of those same boys, all drunk, dancing to the tunes of modernized “aartis”.

Sitting at my kitchen window, I am still trying to figure out…

 “What decides genuineness? The receipt or refund?”

P.S.: This blog was entered in the Scribe Hunt by The Youth Express ( and has been adjusted as the 2nd runner up in "Personal Experiences" Category. The top image is downloaded and cropped from the Facebook page of the same.

To read other posts from The City of Hills and the Sea, click below: