Prelude: This is not a story about food. But about the search for it. It is not a story. It actually happened today. The post is long. But not longer than our hero’s march. A knowledge of Mumbai helps while reading this. Else keep in mind that the distances between the places mentioned are vast. That it was hot, humid and raining today. The story has references to specific Churches in Mumbai. I have written this story as narrated to me. I do not know how true the story is. The idea is not to vilify the Churches. In fact the story talks about how the Churches are out there helping many. I hope this post does not offend anyone. If it does, then it was unintended, and I will remove the offending parts if any.
It was 7.30 in the evening. I drove off from office. Grumbling about my driver who had bunked. Secretly happy at the chance to drive Princess Lea, my car. I inched through the gridlock in front of my office and finally reached the gate to heaven. The entry into the highway from Andheri E. I waited for the signal to turn green when I suddenly saw a young man gesticulate at me. There was something in his eyes with made me shrug aside of years of city bred cynicism and roll the window down.
“Sir, can you give me a lift to Bandra?”
I took a second look. He seemed quite proper. Dressed smartly if simply. He sounded civil. Didn’t seem dangerous. I did what I have never done before. I asked him to hop in.
He slowly crossed the road and seemed unable to open the car door. I opened it a bit edgily as the signal turned green. Asked him to put the seat belt on. Crinkled my nose at the smell of sweat which swept into the air conditioned car.
We set off. I looked at him. There was something in the way he sat. Diffident. Timid. Scared. He didn’t bother to push the seat back. He had cocooned himself in whatever space that was there without a complaint. He looked tired. And yet determined.
“Sir, I have never asked anyone for a ride before this. It’s just that I went to a Church at Four Bungalows. I didn’t have any money left. So I decided to walk home. Then my legs began to hurt”
“Where is home?”
“Sion Chunnabhatti. I know the way from the highway at Bandra. I will walk home. It’s just that I don’t know the road from here. And my legs were paining”.
I did some calculations. Four Bungalows to Andheri E seemed like a very long walk. And Chunnabhatti! That was really far. I took a second look at the thin young man. More a boy than a man.
“I actually went to St Michael’s Church at Mahim for the Novena. I had some Church work. I then tried the Churches at Bandra. My work was not done. Then someone told me that there were Churches at Andheri E. I went but my work was still not done. Then someone told me to go to the Chruches at Andheri West. My money was over so I walked. But the Church work didn’t happen. So I was going to walk back.”
“What do you mean by Church work” I asked
“Yes but what work? Like a prayer or something?”
Then the story came out. Peter D’Sousa’s father passed away three years back. The young boy studied in the junior college. SYJC. And worked in a Chinese restaurant. ‘Food cart’ as he later corrected. No, he was not a cook. He was a waiter. He spoke impeccable unaccented English. I told him about field interviewers in market research where I saw a fit for him. But his eyes lit up as he continued with his story. He had got a possible job offer at a Call Centre at Andheri. He would go to college in the morning and to work after that at night.
“The salary would be good. I’ll leave this job”.
His voice became tired again. His mother ‘worked in two houses’. As a maid, I assumed, but didn’t probe. He had two little brothers and one sister, a toddler. He and his mother worked so that the little ones could go to school.
“Perhaps your mother can begin a dabba service. People are fond of Catholic cooking” I ventured.
I knew the answer before it came. No capital. No fixed house. They were dependent on the vagaries of landlords.
“There are people who come to Bombay from outside. The landlords give them the houses if they pay rent”. A fact of life summed up by this frail yet brave young man.
Their Church, St Anthony’s at Sion, would apparently distribute groceries every month. Their family had received this for three years. Peter had missed it this month as he reached late. The supplies were over. That’s when he went scouring the Churches of Mumbai. Looking for provisions for his family to survive the month. Door after door were shut on him. The clergy explained that there were many con men preying on Church funds these days. They were very particular about papers at the Church to ensure that the funds reached the right people. One Father gave Peter a bag of biscuits for his brothers and sisters. From his personal funds. Peter clutched onto it. Ignoring his own hunger. Walking from Church to Church for his family.
“Have you eaten anything? I wish I had something to give you.” The highway was of course bare. I felt frustrated.
“Sir, do you know any Catholics who can help me get Church funds? I need it just for one month. Two weeks actually. I can take an advance from my new job. I went to YMCA, Father Agnels. They couldn’t help. Do you know someone who can?”
“But I am a Hindu. I won't know about Catholic organisations”
“I know sir, but you live at Bandra”.
That’s when we reached the Bandra end of the Highway.
“Sir, can you stop here for a minute. I will walk from here”.
It had begun to drizzle. I pulled over. I gave him my visiting card.
“This is my number. Call me if you ever need. I will see if I can get you a job doing market research interviews”.
He got off and waved goodbye with a smile. I took out my wallet and stuffed a few notes in his hand.
“Take an auto. Don’t walk”
“Sir, this is so much” he looked me in genuine wonder. (I don’t want to get into details here but it really wasn’t much. Just a few hundred. No great shakes)
I looked at him, smiled, patted his back and said, “Look after your mother”
“Look after your mother,” I muttered and drove off.
There was a lump in my throat as I left. Suddenly being stuck in bad traffic didn’t seem to qualify as one of life’s woes. Later someone asked me if I thought he could’ve been a dope addict. Honestly? I don’t think so. At no point did he ask me for money. There was something about Peter which managed to slip in through my world weary, calloused scepticism. We are no stranger to ‘in your face’ poverty in India’s commercial capital and dream city, Mumbai.
I guess tragedy hurts more when it happens to someone who could have been you.
Soon I left Peter far behind and entered the comfort of my own world. The world of coffee shops and cappuccinos served ‘extra hot’.