The Shoes

“The Reebok Crossfit Nano,” The salesman twirled the shoe in one hand with the consummate ease of someone who played this game a hundred times every day. “These are soft from inside and sturdy from outside.”
Rahul allowed the salesman to slip the shoe on his right foot, then the left. He flexed his toes, as the salesman tied the laces.
“Walk around and see how it feels, sir.”
Rahul went to the mirror, and peered at the shoe. It was a sleek black-and-grey piece with a flat sole.
“How is it, beta?” His mother called out. She was seated on the leather-cushioned stool, wiping the sweat from her brow with the ends of her dupatta. The a/c in the shoe shop provided scant relief from the muggy summer heat.
Rahul paced around the store.
“It’s looking very smart on you sir,” The salesman said.
“Are these durable?” Rahul asked. “How long do they last?”
“The soles are made from the latest high-abrasion rubber. They’ll last 4-5 years, no problems.”
Rahul touched the sides of the shoe.
“It’s our most popular model,” The salesman said. “I sold 10 pairs in the last two days only.”
Rahul sat down, and turned to his mother. “What do you think, mumma?”
“Looks-wise, it is nice. If you feel it’s comfortable, then take it.”
“The front feels kinda cramped,” Rahul said.
“That’s normal,” The salesman said. “It will automatically loosen up.”
“What do you mean automatically loosen??”
“Sir, in the beginning they feel tight, but after wearing it a few times, the shoe opens up.”
Rahul shot the salesman a suspicious look. He stood up and walked a few more paces. He shook his head. “No, I’m not comfortable.”
If the salesman was disappointed, he didn’t show it. “No problems, sir. I’ll show you something looser that you might find more comfortable.”
“This is the 4th shop and the 11th shoe you’ve tried,” Mumma said, after the salesman went off.
“What can I do?? None of them are good…”
“We left after lunch and now it’s dinner time.”
“There’s been some issue with all the shoes I’ve seen…and these people take so long to bring new shoes.”
Mumma shook her head, and went back to her phone.
Rahul’s eyes wandered to the street outside. The always-bustling Colaba Causeway teemed with pedestrians and footpath hawkers selling everything from cheap sunglasses and selfie sticks to food items like vada pav and samosas.
A short, dark boy walked with a steel bowl in hand. He wore a frayed t-shirt that extended to his knees. He tugged at passing shoppers, extending his bowl towards them with imploring eyes.
Rahul saw that the boy had no shoes on his feet. He didn’t seem to care though. His eyes continuously scanned for targets to approach.
“This is the Adidas Ultraboost,” The salesman reappeared, holding a blue shoe with a thick sole. Three purple lines ran down both sides of the shoe, signaling its brand.
Rahul put them on, and walked around.
“So?” Mom asked. “How’s this one?
“Umm….”
“Still not comfortable?”
“It’s better than the last one,” Rahul said. “But not good enough.”
Mom said nothing. Her fingers typed away on her phone.
The salesmen looked from Rahul to his mom, and then back to Rahul. Do something about this son of yours, his eyes seemed to say.
“I’ll show you one more shoe,” He said. “It’s very popular with our customers.”
He came back with a high, white shoe with gold and purple streaks around the heels, and a red tick on one side.
“Nike Air SuperMax,” He announced, and put them on Rahul’s feet. “There’s a mesh in front for ventilation, an extra layer of cushioning inside, and Nike’s patented ‘air’ technology to make it feel soft and flexible.”
Rahul walked another round. By now, the store was nearly empty.
“How does it feel sir?” The salesman asked, an undertone of resignation in his voice.
“Not bad,” Rahul said.
The salesman’s expression brightened. “Nike Air is a classic shoe, and this latest model has all their upgraded technology.”
Rahul pressed the toe-end with his fingers. The fit seemed just right. Not too loose, not too tight.
“You like it??” Mom asked.
Rahul nodded. “This one is fine.”
“Great, then buy it and finish it,” The relief was palpable in Mumma’s voice. She turned to the salesman. “Pack this one.”
“Yes maam,” The salesman beamed. He looked at Rahul. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy this shoe, sir.”
Mother and son walked out after a six-hour long shoe hunt. The Nike Air SuperMax was the winner.
****
The mustached tea vendor fiddled with his gas stove. He poured steaming hot, light brown tea from a large steel vessel into short glasses.
Next to him stood a dark-complexioned boy, clad in faded black shorts and a white banyan. Or rather what was once a white banyan, but now reduced to a brownish-blackish composite of filth, dirt and grime. Its color matched that of a thick scar that ran down the length of his left cheek.
“Rajju,” The tea vendor barked at the boy. “Take three glasses to the Maruti over there.”
Rajju picked up a cloth, and slung it over his shoulder. He arranged the glasses on a steel tray and served them to the customers waiting in the car.
The vendor’s gruff voice rang out nonstop.
“Two more glasses there, Rajju…”
“Did you collect the money from the blue Innova earlier?”
“Clean these glasses…”
“Move fast, Rajju…what are you doing…”
Back and forth, he trod barefoot on the uneven pavement. The same cloth used to wipe glasses also wiped the relentless deluge of sweat streaming down his slender arms and scared face. The sun beat down on him, burning his body from the inside out.
There’s a saying amongst the street dwellers of this city. May God deliver me from the bite of the tiger, the sting of the cobra, and the heat of the Mumbai summer.
“Take four glasses, Rajju…”
“Don’t forget the money...”
“You’re not cleaning the glasses properly…”
Back and forth. Up and down. Round and round.
Five long hours later, the sun finally waned and Rajju’s shift was over. He collapsed in a heap on the footpath. He massaged the soles of his feet. New blisters appeared every day, and the old ones got bigger.
Absently, he took out a red yo-yo from his pocket. A serendipitous discovery on the side of the road one fine winter evening, it was the one thing he always carried. His most prized possession. His only prized possession.
He wrapped his fist around the yo-yo, hurled it forward, then tugged the string to reel it back in. A technique he had mastered over the years.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed something that made him turn.
A shiny, white shoe with a big red tick on the side. Gold and purple streaks adorned the heels.
Rajju didn’t look up at the bearer of the shoes. His eyes locked onto the white wonder, whose every step was accompanied by a slight squeak, and seemed to exude a certain sparkle around it.
“Oye Rajju, time to leave,” A voice called from behind him. It was Nandu, his friend who worked at the bicycle shop.
Rajju ignored him, transfixed by the shoe.
An elbow poked into his midriff. “Get up, Rajju.”
“You go, I’ll come later,” Rajju snapped.
“You’ll miss the Borivalli train, then you’ll have to catch the Virar fast.”
Rajju glared at him. When he turned back, the white shoes had squeaked away to the end of the road, and were turning the corner.
“Chal, let’s go.”
Rajju felt his arm being yanked up. He clambered to his feet. He strained his eyes.
But the white wonder was gone…
****
It was that time of the year. Results time. The time when atheists turned believers, when mothers performed poojas with colorful diyas and scented agarpatis to appease their favorite gods, when the silliest of superstitions gained traction: lucky t-shirt, lucky shoes, lucky pen, lucky glasses.
Rahul sat in the backseat of the car, his eyes glued to his phone. He toggled between WhatsApp groups, and scrolled through his Facebook newsfeed.
They say that in prison, a man will do almost anything to keep himself busy. An engineering student waiting for his semester exam results was no less than a prisoner waiting for his death sentence.
“Should I drop you off here, Rahul bhaiya?” The driver asked. “The car can’t go all the way to the mandir.”
“Here is fine,” Rahul said.
“I’ll wait on the main road. Call me when you’re out.“
“No, you go home. I’ll walk back.”
The driver glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “I can find a spot…”
“It’s just 10 minutes walk. And Mumma will probably need the car for something.”
“Are you sure, Rahul bhaiya?”
Rahul nodded, and stepped out of the car. He shut the door behind him.
The narrow lane leading up to Mahalaxmi Mandir was packed with people from all over the city, waiting in long lines. Stores sold orange and marigold flower garlands, mithai and ladoos, framed pictures of various Hindu Gods.
An assortment of smells filled the air. The jasmine and lotus from the flowers, the sweet scent of the mithai infused with sugar and ghee, the smell of incense sticks and candles, sweat from the armpits of the waiting devotees.
Rahul reached the front of the line, where a flight of steps led to the temple. There he saw a sea of footwear dumped together, everything from slippers and sandals to sneakers and leather boots.
He removed his shoes. The Nike Air SuperMax had become a stock favorite of his.
Two boys dressed in tattered t-shirts were seated on the ground nearby.
“Leave them with us, bhaiya,” One of them called out.
“Ha bhaiya, we’ll watch your shoes,” The other boy smiled at Rahul.
Rahul looked back at them.
Meanwhile, a man who was in the line behind him, took off his leather shoes, tossed them on the ground and walked onwards.
“Leave them here, bhaiya,” The boy repeated.
Rahul placed his shoes on the ground. He handed the boy a five-rupee note. “Watch them properly.”
“You don’t take any tension, bhaiya.”
Rahul walked up the flight of steps to the main mandir area where three idols of Goddesses sat on silver pedestals. They were adorned with nose rings, gold bangles, and pearl necklaces. Their palms were raised in blessing.
Rahul felt himself being pushed and shoved from all sides. He put a twenty-rupee note in the donation box, and closed his eyes.
God, I don’t want a first-class. I don’t even want a second-class. I just want to pass this time. Especially Electronics. That Electronics paper was an absolute bomb. Curse the bastard who set that paper.
Sorry God. I just want to pass, that’s it. Please God.
An elbow rammed into Rahul’s chest as more people swarmed into the mandir.
“Move along, move along,” One of the mandir staff commanded.
As he walked down the steps, he noticed something at the far end of the road that made him stop dead in his tracks.
Two boys walking with white shoes in their hands.
“Stop!” Rahul shouted. He dashed down the remaining steps, two at a time. “Stop those haraams.”
Most devotees in line didn’t give him a second glance, as he raced along the lane. He gestured wildly to a hawaldar in brown khakhi uniform, standing at the end of the lane.
The hawaldar had a bemused expression.
“Stop those boys,” Rahul screamed, and ran faster.
Next moment, he was airborne. He landed stomach-first into the concrete pavement.
“Aaaargh,” Rahul yelped.
Searing pain shot through his right knee. He rolled over, and brought both his hands to rub the knee.
“Fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell.”
He lay there for a few minutes. Wincing, cursing and massaging his knee.
A hand extended in front of him. Rahul accepted it, and rose unsteadily to his feet.
“Are you alright, boss?” A voice asked.
Rahul nodded. He stepped forward gingerly, testing the knee. He brought out his phone from his pocket.
The glass screen was smashed into bits. The power wouldn’t come on.
“Fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell.”
He inched ahead, trying to put his body weight on the left leg. He heard his own voice in his head.
“No, you go home, I’ll walk back. It’s only 10 minutes walk.”
He shook his head, and took another step forward.
The pavement was rough and uneven and dirty. With every step, he felt stones, fragments of glass, plastic, rubber and god-knows-what-else poke at the soles of his feet. With every step, his toes scraped against the cracks on the ground. With every step, his feet got filthier.
God, how he missed his Nike Air SuperMax…
****
Rajju sat on the footpath, propped up against the wall. It was twilight hour, but there was no evening breeze, no respite under the trees.
Another day, another long shift scurrying about in the sun, serving the chai-lovers of Mumbai. His t-shirt smelled of tea, his shorts smelled of tea, the pores of his skin smelled of tea.
Rajju swung his red yo-yo back and forth. He stared at the sky, dreaming of cold droplets of rain falling on his body.
When would the monsoon start? When would this summer be over??
His throat was parched. He felt like the sun would vaporize this whole city and everyone in it.
A commotion from the other side of the road distracted him. He looked up.
Two boys were running as fast as they could. Behind them was a hawaldar. The signal turned red, and the boys darted across the road in between the halted cars. The hawaldar labored to stay on their tail. His protruding round belly heaved up and down.
The boys ran past Rajju.
“Wait till I get my hands on you,” The hawaldar yelled, banging his stick on the ground. “I‘ll thrash you properly.”
One of the boys flung something to the side of the road. The chase continued, and the boys and their pursuer receded from Rajju’s sight.
Something about the discarded object caught his attention. He walked towards it.
He froze like a statue. He couldn’t believe it.
The White Wonder!
He looked around. The signal turned green, and vehicles on the road honked, cut lanes and chugged forward.
It was stolen. Obviously.
But still…
The white wonder had occupied his dreams for weeks after that initial sighting. Then the drudgery of the daily routine purged his dreams, like it always did.
And yet, here they were. Right here. For real.
It had to be fate. This was his destiny. This was what God wanted.
It had to be…
Rajju picked up the shoes, and walked along the footpath. He walked for a full kilometer, before parking himself at a quiet corner.
He put his right foot in, then the left. He stared at the laces. He fumbled to put them together in a knot, but it didn’t work. He tried making a loop and putting the ends through it, but it ended in a mess.
What are you supposed to do with these hanging threads??
Rajju gave up on them. He stood up, and put one foot forward. He looked left and right, and left again. He took another step ahead.
The blisters on his feet felt cushioned and cajoled. He couldn’t feel the ground at all. It was like gliding.
He ran his hand along the red tick on the side. He touched the mesh in the front.
With every step, the smile on his face grew broader. With every step, the swagger in his walk became more pronounced. With every step, he felt ten feet taller.
Shoes were such an incredible invention. A gift from god…
****

Mumbai Dreamers

There was a wetness in the air. A dampness that you could feel, ever so subtly, on the pores of your skin. The smell of fresh rain was everywhere, an unmistakable mark of the imminent Mumbai monsoon.

            The showers started last night and continued intermittently till afternoon, before abating. Few raindrops still dripped from the leaves of trees and from the protruding awnings above storefronts. The roads were wet and puddles appeared here and there.

Over one such puddle, an old lady squatted down and peered into it. The face that reflected back was wrinkled and dark. She had two nose rings, a hanging belly and flabby arms. She wore a saree that was once a vibrant violet color, but years of wear and tear made it look like a dull, dusty brown.

She cupped her hands, scooped up some water from the puddle and splashed it on her face. Then, she wiped off her face with the ends of her saree, and stood up slowly. She walked back to her butta stall, which was just outside a popular city park.

“How are you today Chachi?” A pot-bellied man asked. He was seated on the ground nearby, with a basket placed in front of him, containing his wares, which included assorted kinds of nuts, like peanuts, black chana, etc.

“All good,” Chachi smiled at him. Two of her front teeth were missing. Yet there was a lightness and brightness in her smile.

“Your back is still hurting?” The man asked.

“A little bit. But this is normal at my age.”

“It’s time to retire now, Chachi. Give up this butta business.”

            Chachi just smiled, and said nothing. She shifted around some coal pieces placed in a rusty metal structure, and lit up the flames from underneath.

“Butta, sweet corn. Hot butta. Sweet corn,” She called out, in a voice that was hoarse from years of selling butta.

It was evening time, and the crowd of people entering and leaving the park was steadily picking up. There were retired folks on their evening walk, young couples looking to cozy up, mothers pushing their babies in prams.

Two young boys appeared in front of Chachi, wearing t-shirts and jeans, with backpacks slung over their shoulders. One of them was a thin and scrawny fellow who wore rectangle-shaped, half-rimed spectacles. The other was short and stout, and had unshaven beard stubble all over his face.

“Make two buttas for us, Chachi,” The thin boy said, raising two fingers.

Chachi nodded. She picked up corn ears, peeled the skin off, and placed them on her vessel. She took out a stiff piece of paper, attached to a wooden stick, and used it to fan the flames.

“Karan dude, just chill,” The thin boy said to his friend. “Everything will be okay in the long run.”

“What long run, ha?” Karan, the unshaven boy, shot back. “What is all this long run bullshit? I’m screwed, that’s all there is.”

“You got a K.T. in one exam, it’s not the end of the world….”

“What the fuck do you know, ha Rahul?” Karan had a grimace etched on his face. “A K.T. is a failure, and you’ve never failed an exam in your life, so what would you know about it??”

Rahul lapsed into silence. They watched as Chachi continued to fan the flames on her stove. She rotated the sticks of corn, making sure each part got roasted properly. Her movements had a certain rhythm and attentiveness to them.

“It’s just one exam,” Rahul said.

“Just one exam??”

“You can pass on the next attempt, dude. That’s why it’s allowed A.T.KT. - Allowed To Keep Term.”

            “Thanks, I didn’t know what A.T.K.T. stands for,” Karan glared. “You just solved all my problems by telling me the full form.”

A little boy, dressed in rags, tapped at Karan’s leg. “Bhaiya, I haven’t eaten for days. Please give me something.”

“Get lost,” Karan barked.

“Dude,” Rahul said, “What will happen because of failing? What is the worst that can happen?”

“I’m planning to go to U.S. for my Masters, you know that. Now, I won’t be able to get admission into…”

            “No man, that’s not necessarily true. You can do well on the second attempt. And anyways, they mainly look at your GRE scores.”

            “They look at exam marks too, at least the top tier universities do. And I don’t want to settle for second string ones. This is my dream, you know that. I want to get a job in Silicon Valley, hopefully with a company like Google. But it's all screwed up now,” Karan’s face contorted as he spoke. “And then, there’s Aparna.”

Rahul looked across at his friend.

            “She’s used to the good life, Rahul. Her family has a big bungalow in Bandra, three or four servants, cars and drivers to take her everywhere.” Karan’s voice grew shrill. “I have to give her a comfortable life, and I just can’t do that here. I’ve promised to take her to the US with me. When I get my Silicon Valley job, then everything will be fine. Otherwise if I’m stuck here, there is no way she will marry me, dude. No way.”

            Rahul placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. The two boys stood in silence for a few minutes.

            “Everyone has dreams, you know,” Karan said, looking away. “Just like it is your dream to create a tech startup here. Everyone has a dream like that. And it sucks when your dreams get ruined.”

            “It’s not ruined,” Rahul said quietly.

            “It is ruined.” Karan shouted. “You don’t know how competitive it is. Hundreds of thousands of students like me apply every year. You just won’t understand…”

            “You’ll want some butter on the corn?” Chachi’s voice interrupted them.

Both the boys looked at her. Rahul shook his head.

They looked on, as Chachi squeezed a drop of lemon on the corn. She dipped the lemon in a spicy masala powder, and distributed it evenly all over the corn.

With a gentle smile, Chachi handed them their buttas.

The smell of the freshly roasted corn, with the spicy masala, mixing with the latent moisture in the air made for a heady cocktail.

“What about her?” Rahul asked his friend, gesturing towards the old lady.

“Ha?”

           “Do you think Chachi has any dreams?”

Karan looked at the wrinkled figure as she adjusted the coals in her stove.

“She’s been selling butta here for the last 20-30 years.” Rahul said, biting into his corn. “She’s even here on Sundays, and holidays. I don’t think she ever misses a single day. Do you think she also has dreams?”

            “Of course she does.” Karan said.

            “You think so?”

“Everyone has dreams, dude. Everyone.”

****

            On the footpath along the busy road outside Mahalakshmi Temple lane, a little girl struggled to focus on her assigned task.

            Next to her, two saree-clad women, her mother and her aunt, removed white, jasmine-scented flowers from plastic bags. Those gajra flowers were the only wares that the family sold.

They were all seated on a cloth that had been spread out on the wet ground. There were scattered leaves, scrap papers, and other junk all over the footpath.

            A small metal rod had been hammered into a crack in the ground. The girl’s mother tied a thin, white thread to the rod. She scowled at the girl.

            “C’mon Nandu, don’t sit there like a moron.”

            Nandu fidgeted with the end of her kurta with one hand, and tossed a small stone repeatedly on the ground with the other.

            “This is so boring, ma,” She said. “Every day the same thing. Every day, take out flowers and tie them to a garland. I hate all this.”

            “Shut up, and get to work. The evening traffic has started. We have to get enough flowers ready to sell.”

            “I don’t want to,” Nandu folded her arms.

            “Look at your sister, look how she’s working,” Her mother gestured to a smaller girl, who was sitting cross-legged, and separating each individual flower from a fresh bunch. She handed these flowers to the aunt, who strung them up onto another the white thread, like the one the mother was setting up. The aunt then stitched the flowers together to form a kind of garland that women wore on their buns, to decorate their hair.

            “Separate only the good flowers, Choti,” Ma said. “Discard the spoilt and shriveled ones aside.”

            “Yes, ma,” Choti said.

            “Learn something from her, Nandu,” Ma said.

            Nandu frowned at her sister, who gave her a sly smile.

            “Who are you going to be today, didi?” Choti whispered. “Priyanka?”

            Nandu shook her head. “No stupid, that was yesterday.”

            “Then, Deepika?”

            Nandu shrugged.

            “Stop encouraging her with this nonsense,” Ma snapped. “Every day she imagines she is some new Bollywood star…stupid girl.”

Nandu looked away. That ‘nonsense’ was her dream. But Ma would never understand.

“Why can’t you understand, Nandu?” Ma said. “We have seven people to feed. Four of us here, your drunkard father, and your useless brothers. Where is the money going to come from, ha? We have to sell at least twenty sets of these flowers…why don’t you have any common sense?”

Nandu didn’t reply. She picked up a bunch of flowers and put them in front of her. She looked along the footpath to see two short, dark boys a few meters away. Her useless brothers.

One of them had a torn-t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of chappals. The other boy, the smaller one, wore just a long, loose t-shirt with no shorts or footwear. They had a few marbles in their hands, and were taking turns bending down, and aiming them at the ones on the ground, oblivious of the puddles around.

“Come didi, play with us.,” The brother with chappals called out, when he saw Nandu looking in their direction. “It’ll be fun.”

            “Get lost,” Nandu shouted back.

Ma stared at her, as Nandu fiddled with the flowers in front of her.

“If you’re not able to do any work,” Ma said. “At least make yourself useful, and go look after your brothers.”

            “No,” Nandu said. “They’re useless boys.”

Her eyes wandered to the road, where the cars honked, cut lanes and zigzagged their way through the nonstop traffic.

Suddenly, her ears perked up.

A song emanated from the open windows of one of the cars halted at the red signal. Nandu strained her ears to listen. Her body swayed involuntarily.

“Stop that, Nandu,” Ma said.

But she couldn’t stop it. Without warning, she jumped up, and grabbed one of the flower garlands lying next to her sister.

“What are you…” Ma reached out to grab her hand, but Nandu slipped from her grasp. She ran to the basket that was tied to the tree on the footpath, reached in and fetched her most prized possession. That floral yellow dupatta.

It was slightly torn on the edges, and dusty all over, but Nandu loved it.

“Oye Nandu,” Ma shouted. “Where you’re going? Bring back those flowers, they are not ready…Choti, run after your sister, and get her back….”

            Nandu bolted towards the car, the source of the music. The song was fully audible now.

Mainu kala chasma….O mainu kala kala chasma...”

Nandu wrapped the yellow dupatta around her neck, and slung one end over her shoulder. She threw her hair back, and broke into her dance.

Her hips swayed, her eyes sparkled and her feet tapped to the beat of the music. She waved the flowers in her hand, swiveling round and round, never missing a beat.  Before long, she started singing the chorus.

“O mainu kala chasma...mainu kala kala chasma…”

            She caught sight of Choti scampering behind her.

            “Katrina,” Nandu yelled out. “I’m Katrina today.”

            And in her mind, she was Katrina. There was no doubt about it.

As her loose feet tapped along the stony pavement, her waist swinging rhythmically, Nandu imagined that she was on stage at the Filmfare Awards show, performing in front of a huge live audience.

Where there were cars honking, she heard people applauding. Where the sunlight glinted off the car windows, she saw the flashing cameras of the assembled paparazzi.

Choti approached her sister and tugged at her dupatta.

“Didi, come back,” She said softly.

But Nandu didn’t hear a thing. She was at the awards show. Her performance was electric. The audience was in raptures. She twirled round and round.

The traffic signal turned green, and the cars started honking loudly. Nandu only heard the applause reach a crescendo as she neared the end of her performance. The music started to fade away.

Choti grabbed her sister’s hand and guided her back to the footpath, as the cars surged past them. Nandu felt she was being led to the podium to receive her award.

A boy appeared, pointing a microphone towards her, which seemed to be orange for some reason.

Nandu mentally rehearsed her acceptance speech. How hard she had to struggle to get here. From selling gajra flowers on the road to a best actress award, it had been a remarkable journey for her.

“Didi, you want some?” A boy’s voice asked, jarring her thoughts.

Nandu blinked, and looked around.

It was the same old footpath. Dirty, wet, and full of puddles. Her brother was standing in front of her, holding an orange ice-cream stick.

“You want ice-cream, didi?” The boy said. “Some memsaab was giving them out. I saved one for you.”

Nandu blinked again. The dream felt so real. The reality was so stark.

“Take it fast didi, otherwise it will melt.”

“Shut up, and get lost,” Nandu hissed. She wanted a Filmfare award, not some stupid ice cream stick.

She stomped off down the footpath, leaving her brother standing there with the ice cream.

No one understood her dreams. But one day, she would be a Bollywood star. One day she would win the best actress award. One day...

****

            Stuck amongst the endless traffic, a taxi driver wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. The heat was stifling, despite last night’s rains. The traffic was suffocating. It was just a sea of cars after cars after cars.

            His car was a white Maruti Swift, which he had bought on loan. Like all of his peers, he too had switched from driving the regular black-and-yellow city taxi to driving for Ola Cabs, one of those new fangled taxi apps that all the rich folks used these days.

He reached the assigned spot to see a family of four standing outside. The man had a thick beard, and wore a white kurta. His wife wore a simple salwar-kameez. They had two young kids, a boy and a girl.

“Are you driver Raviprakash Yadav?” The man asked hesitantly.

The driver nodded.

The kids bundled into the back seat, followed by the wife. The father stuffed their luggage into the boot.

 “Myself, Shivpal Yadav,” He said, as he lumbered into the front seat.

 “Where you going?” Ravi asked. “You haven’t entered your destination?”

Shivpal fumbled around in the front pocket of his kurta, and produced a piece of paper.

            “This is the address,” He handed the paper across. “Do you know this place? I’m new to Mumbai, you see.”

            Ravi read the paper and just grunted.

            “Are you also from U.P.?” Shivpal asked.

            “Hmm.” Ravi grunted again. It was evident that this Shivpal was going to talk nonstop. This godforsaken traffic, and now this fool jabbering away. What a crappy day.

            “Myself also from U.P,” Shivpal said. “Myself arrived in Mumbai two weeks back, with family.” Shivpal gestured to his wife and children in the back seat. “We stay with Chachaji’s friend, but his wife wants us to leave. So, I find another room, you see. All these city people are not nice, they are not like people in the village.”

            Ravi halted the car at another red signal. It felt like he was catching every single red today.

            “I heard all the taxi drivers are driving for these apps now? Is it true?”

            “Yes,” Ravi honked at the car that cut lanes ahead of him.

            “How I can get job in these apps, friend? I know to drive. I’ve driven trucks and buses and jeeps, and everything else. Can you help me get driver job?”

            “No, I can’t help you,” Ravi snapped.

            “Why not, friend? Help a brother from U.P….”

            “Just apply with Ola Cabs, and see if they take you. They will take your driving test, and ask some questions.”

            “Acha? What kind of questions?”

            “Simple stuff about how long you’ve been driving, and whatever.”

            “Acha, acha,” Shivpal nodded his head. “How I contact them? Do you have a number or an address or something?”

            “I’ll give you the number after I drop you off.”

            “Thank you, friend, thank you.”

            Ravi hoped that he would shut up for a while now.

            “Acha, tell me how is it like driving for these apps?” Shivpal asked. “Is it better than regular taxi? Do you get more money?”

            “It’s all the same.”

            “The same? Surely it must be different, friend. You have this nice a/c car, and there are the apps and all. How many rides do you get in a day? Are you making more money?”

            “It’s the same fucking thing,” Ravi growled. “Every day, I’m sitting behind the wheel, stuck in traffic jams all day long. Nothing ever changes. First gear, second gear, third gear, back to first gear. That’s all there is. It’s all the same fucking crap, day after day.”

            Shivpal looked a little stunned by this outburst. He glanced behind at his family, and then slumped into his seat, staring out of the window.

            Finally there was silence in the car, which lasted until their destination arrived.

            “Thank you, friend,” Shivpal said. “And sorry for all the questions.”

            “It’s fine.”

            Ravi’s phone beeped with the next ride request, which he quickly accepted and drove off.

            At the next signal, he realized that he never gave that fool the number for Ola. He shrugged, and wiped his brow. Why would anyone want this useless, laborious job of driving a taxi anyways?

            For his next ride, Ravi picked up three city boys.  Two of them sat at the back; one had black, square-rimmed glasses, and other wore a fancy gold watch. All three were dressed in smart shirts and dark blue jeans. The boy in the front seat had the top three buttons of his shirt open.

            “Good morning, sir,” Ravi said, as the Ola people had taught him to say.

Their destination, Palladium Mall in Lower Parel, had been entered in the app. Ravi followed the directions on his phone, while the boys talked amongst themselves.

He understood only bits and parts of English, but caught snippets of what they were saying.

“…exams coming up…”

            “…wish the semester just got done…”

“…college sucks…”

Ravi’s eyes lit up. College. Exams. His initial guess about them was right.

“College students, sir?” Ravi asked, trying to sound as refined as he could.

“Ha,” One of the boys said.

“Myself also knows little English,” Ravi said.

The boys stopped talking, and exchanged a look.

“Check out this driver, trying to speak English and all,” Mr. Open-buttons said, drawing sniggers from the others.

Ravi racked his brain, before speaking again. “What course study you, sir?”

Another giggle went across the boys. Ravi looked at them in his rear view mirror.

The spectacled boy replied. “Engineering.”

“Very nice, sir, very nice,” Ravi gushed.  “Myself dream of college sir…engineering is dream for myself...”

He was aware that he was talking fast. He was also aware that his words were a source of amusement for his college-going passengers. But he couldn’t contain himself. College was his ultimate dream. It had been for years and years.

“Myself dream of college, sir,” He repeated. “What advice you give for me?”

Open-buttons turned behind to his friends. “What advice can we give our cabbie who wants to be an engineer, ha?”

The boys at the back laughed.

“Dude, we can barely pass engineering exams ourselves.”

“And this guy can’t even speak English. I’m sure he can’t read or write. What chance does he have?”

            Ravi’s eyes darted from the boy next to him to the rearview mirror.

“Dude, he can probably understand you,” The spectacled boy said.

“He’s just a stupid cabbie, dude,” Open-Buttons shot back. “He can’t understand much, trust me.”

Nonetheless, the spectacled boy from the back seat met Ravi’s gaze in the mirror, and said. “Ha, always keep studying hard, and that’s it.”

Ravi didn’t bother to nod back. He understood that his dreams were like a joke to these kids. Kids born into rich families, with silver spoons in their faces. What did they know??

His dream was not a joke.

He fell into a sullen silence for the rest of the ride. Still, he tried to listen to the boys’ conversations.

“…she is hot, dude…”

“…should ask her for a date…”

“…lectures are so boring….feel like bunking…”

Ravi didn’t understand all of it. He got that the two from the back seat were goading the third one about some girl. He also picked up something about skipping classes.

Skipping classes?? Really?? He would give up all his fingers and toes for the chance to attend these classes. These fools had no idea how lucky they were. Just no idea.

He dropped them off at the mall, without another word. The spectacled boy looked at him, and said. “Good luck.”

Ravi nodded. He would be in college one day. He knew it.

Suddenly, the dashboard of the car turned into a classroom bench. His driver’s seat became a desk chair. His cell phone became a notebook.

Ravi was in class. He listened to everything the teacher said. He took down notes diligently. He never ‘bunked’ any class. Never ever.

He lapped it all up. Physics, Chemistry, Maths, whatever it was. He prepared hard for the exams. He studied everything in the syllabus.

Outside on the roads, the cars horned as they made their way through traffic. Ravi heard them as warning bells as he gave his final exam paper. He scribbled faster on his paper, determined to answer all the questions. He wouldn’t just pass the exam; he would top the class.

Then, he was outside the college building, waiting to see his results. He pushed past the crowd of students, and searched for his name on the notice board.

“Did you see my marks?” He asked someone.

“98...” He thought he heard a voice say.

Wow, 98!  He had aced the paper. He knew he would. He just knew it.

“98 for 3,” The voice became clearer. It was accompanied by a cackle sound, like that of a radio.

“Oh no,” Someone else groaned. ”98 for 4 now.”

Ravi snapped back to the present. He saw a group of drivers sitting together in the back seat of a car next to him. They were huddled around a handheld radio.

“Virat Kohli is gone,” One of them said. “It’s over now.”

“No, no, they will still chase it.”

            Ravi stared at them. Gone was his college classroom. Gone were his class-topping exam results. The real world only had some stupid drivers having a pointless discussion about some frivolous cricket match.

“Ravi bhai,” One of the drivers had noticed him staring. “We’re all going to Udupi Bhuvan to eat, and watch the match also. They have a TV there.”

Ravi gave him a blank look.

“Do you want to join us, Ravi bhai? It’ll be fun. India will win this…”

            “No,” Ravi brushed his hand dismissively. He put his car into gear and drove off from there.

One day, he would go to college. One day, he would become an engineer. One day…

****

            It was another miserable day in the miserable life of Hemant Patil. He had the shittiest job in the whole world.

            Every morning, at the ungodly hour of 6am, he joined a team of ‘Clean-up Marshalls’ as part of Mumbai city’s Nuisance Detector Squad. They wore blue uniforms with red shoulder epaulets. Their job was to stop people from public defecation, and fine them if they caught them in the act.

So, literally the shittiest job in the world. The t-shirt with the slogan ‘Same shit, Different day’ would have been an apt description of his life.

He was doing his usual rounds in Bandra’s Garib Janta Nagar area, which was a popular spot for chronic public defecation. The wet, rainy morning made the stinky smell of the area even more pronounced.

Hemant crinkled his nose, as he walked parallel to the railway tracks, tapping his wooden lathi stick on the ground every few steps. The rain had reduced to a light drizzle, but the roads were still slippery.

            “Caught one, Patil saab,” A voice called out.

            Hemant walked over to his colleague. “Did you stop him, Schinde?”

            “He had just started, and I stopped him,” Schinde twirled his mustache. He had his lathi pointed towards an old man with grey hair, wearing a white banyan, and with a white dhoti wrapped around his waist.

            Hemant pulled his slipping pants up a little, over his bulging waistline. He appraised the old man. “How many times to tell you fools? Don’t sit in the open, use the mobile toilet that the government has kept for you’ll.”

            “Sorry saab.”

            “100 rupees is the fine for you.”

            The old man looked at him with pleading eyes. “Please saab, it won’t happen again.”

            Hemant raised his lathi, and the man cowered back. “How many times we’ve already told you to stop? But you won’t listen.”

            “Sorry saab. I was really feeling the pressure. Otherwise I would have waited, I swear. I’m old now saab, and I can’t hold it back for long.”

            “Don’t give me that nonsense about being old and all. Just pay the 100 rupees and get lost from here.”

            “I don’t have the money,” The old man joined his hands, as if in prayer. “Please saab, I won’t do it again.”

            “Schinde,” Hemant turned to his junior colleague. “Did you catch him before or had he already done it?”

            Schinde hesitated, looking from Hemant to the old man.

“I stopped him before,” He said.

Hemant turned to glare at the old man. “Get out of here fast.”

The Marshalls watched the old man scamper away.

“When will these fools learn?” Hemant said.

“They can’t help it, ” Schinde said. “They are used to shitting in the open their whole lives. Now because of this Swachh Bharat campaign, they are being asked to stand in lines outside toilets, and pay 3 rupees to take a shit.”

“They better learn,” Hemant said. “There is enough shit in this city already. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of all of them.”

            “I know,” Schinde sighed. “But have you seen the lines outside that mobile toilet, Patil saab? There are fifty thousand people in the slums in Garib Nagar. There are 10 seats in that toilet, and that too 6 are reserved for women and children. Can you imagine how long this old man will have to wait in the line? It might be twenty-thirty minutes at least…”

A small boy came up to them, with a samosa in one hand. He turned to Hemant and saluted him with his other hand. “Good morning saab.”

“What do you want?” Hemant said gruffly.

“Nothing saab. Just wanted to say good morning, that’s all.”

“Go, get lost from here,” Hemant said. The boy skipped off along the footpath.

Hemant turned back to Schinde. “This stupid government needs to install more toilets.”

            “Yes, they do,” Schinde agreed.

“Swachh Bharat, Swachh Bharat, they go on. But who will pay the money for the toilets? No one will. And then fools like us are left chasing rascals who insist on shitting on the roads.” Hemant gripped his lathi tight. “And how much we get paid for this shitty work? Peanuts, we get paid peanuts. Even the auto drivers make more than us.”

Schinde just nodded.

“The whole system sucks, Schinde. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of this job. One day, I will quit and do my own thing…”

Just then, the rain started to pick up, and water droplets streamed down on the two Marshalls. The gusty winds made the rain come down at oblique angels.

“This fucking rain also now,” Hemant said. “I’m going to get my umbrella.”

Hemant turned away from his colleague, and walked along the road. He dragged his lathi on the ground, making a scraping sound as he walked. He brought one arm up to shield his face from the rain.

At the far end of the road, a bearded man with a white turban walked along the footpath. He went behind a tree, and squatted down low. Then, he slipped his pants down.

“Hey, you rascal,” Hemant shouted. “Stop that.”

The man appeared to not hear. He took out a newspaper, and placed one set of pages on his head to shield himself from the rain. He held the remaining pages in his hand, while still in the squatting position with his pants down.

“Stop that, you bastard,” Hemant yelled, moving towards the man.

The man looked up suddenly, his eyes widening. In a flash, he dropped the newspaper, jumped to his feet, and started to run.

“You rascal,” Hemant ran after him. “You have to pay a fine now.”

The turbaned man pulled his pants up as he continued to run. He reached the end of the road, and turned left.

Hemant ran faster. His breath came in wheezing gasps, as his middle-aged body struggled to keep up.

“Stop running, you rascal,” He shouted.

Without warning, his legs slipped on the wet road, and gave way from under him.

Hemant was flung backwards, and landed flat on the ground. A searing pain shot up his backside.

The rain continued to beat down upon him. He lay still for a while, groaning softly.

“This fucking job. I hate this, I hate this.”

It was a few minutes before he was able to stand up again. He leaned against a parked car, and rubbed his back.

He saw a store there that had a green plus in front of it. ‘Shree Ganesh Medical Store’ the sign proclaimed in capital letters.

Something inside him palpitated. An itch that had refused to go away for as long as he could remember.

Hemant Patil had always wanted to start a business, and his dream business was a medical store.

He had worked all over the city; first as a building watchman, then as a traffic hawaldar, now as a clean up marshal. He had seen many businesses thrive, then struggle, and then sink. The video cassette shops came and went. At one time, pool parlors were a rage, and then they all disappeared. There were cyber cafes, all of which shut down. Things always kept changing.

But one thing that never went out of style was medicines. People always fell sick. Medicines would always be needed. Always.

One day he would have his own medical store. It was the only stable business that could last for generations. He would serve the elderly and the young alike. The whole neighborhood would come to him. He would research, and keep everything from the latest foreign medicines to the Ayurveda creams.

            In his head, the parked car turned into a counter top. The people walking along on the footpath were his customers.

            A smile grew on his face, as he greeted each customer and retrieved the medicines they requested. Often, he would suggest the right medicine for them.

            Stomach upset? Take Immodium. Need to relieve pain? Try Combliflam. Dust allergies? Have some Cetzine.

            “Have some Cetzai?” He heard a voice ask.

            “Cetzai? You must be meaning Cetzine?”

            “…Masala chai…?”

            Hemant felt the rain drench his whole body. His vision gradually readjusted to the scene around him.

            “What happened, Patil saab?” Someone asked. “Are you okay?”

            Hemant didn’t respond.

            “Patil saab?” The mustached figure of Schinde stood before him. “What happened to your umbrella?”

“Ha?” Hemant looked dazed.

What happened to his medical store? What happened to his loyal customers? Why was he back here in the rain and the shit of this stinking place?

“I was asking if you want some masala chai,” Schinde said. “Some of us are going to the chai stall. You should come.”

“I don’t want,” Hemant said brusquely. He turned and walked away, his shoes splashing amongst the puddles on the road.

One day, he would have his own store. One day, he would sell medicines to thousands of people. One day….

****

            Back at Chachi’s butta stall, the two students, Karan and Rahul, stood there, biting into their corn.

            Chachi had just served some other customers, and shifted the coals to keep her flame going. She watched the two boys. They were lost in their own thoughts, ruminating as they chewed down the corn.

            “You know,” She said, “The problem with all these dreams is that when you finally achieve them, nothing really changes.”

            Both the boys looked at her, startled.

            “I didn’t know you understood English,” Rahul said.

            “And you were following our conversations??” Karan interjected.

            Chachi smiled. It was that calming smile of hers that seemed to come from a place of serenity.

            “When you achieve your dream, maybe you’ll be happy for a short while,” She said. “But then life will go on. You’ll still have day-to-day problems. It will be the same as before. Nothing will be too different.”

            The boys looked at the old butta lady, with flabby arms, and two nose rings, in a newfound light.

            “You know the other problem with chasing these dreams?” Chachi went on. “You miss everything that is happened around you.

            “Did you notice the little boy who came and asked you for money? Did you observe the family that came here after you, with the small girl who was trying to pacify her crying baby sister?

“Did you smell the fresh rain in the air? Did you even taste those buttas that you have almost finished eating? The hot corn, the spicy masala…did you really taste it?”

The boys stayed silent for a few moments.

“No, I didn’t,” Karan said, staring at his butta. “I didn’t properly taste it.”

            “Neither did I,” Rahul admitted.

“And I didn’t notice that crying baby and her sister,” Karan said. “I didn’t see any of it.”

“There is nothing wrong with having dreams,” Chachi said. “Nothing wrong with chasing after what you want. But you shouldn’t get so obsessed that you miss everything that is happening around you. You’ll miss opportunities for joy, for making human connections. Your life will go by, and you won’t notice most of it.”

The boys looked at her gravely.

“You’re right, Chachi,” Karan said. “You’re very right.”

He brought his butta close to his face, paused, and took in the smell. Then, slowly and deliberately, he bit into it.

“Wow,” Karan said. “This butta is amazing, Chachi.”

Rahul also paid close attention to his last few bites.

“Thank you Chachi,” Rahul smiled, as he paid her for their buttas.

“Take care boys,” Chachi smiled back.

“We will remember what you said, Chachi,” Karan said. “We‘ll pay attention to what is happening around us, and try to not get too caught up in dreams.”

Chachi watched them walk away. She had a slight smile, and a wistful look in her eyes.

She knew they wouldn’t follow her advice. Not for long at least. Soon, their relentless stream of thoughts would return and suck their attention inwards.

Mumbai was a city full of dreamers. And the dreamers just wouldn’t stop dreaming…”

****