The long walk home.... A rather different food story

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”

He smiled.

“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’.


Anonymous said…
You did the right thing. I know the very cautious ME would probably say that this guy could be anyone with an nice act. But then at least your conscience is clear.That is important.Thanks for sharing.I hope the Peters of the world get what they need to keep going.
kaniska said…
this reminded me of my encounter with this young man on the streets of calcutta. i was working with fcb ulka at that time and the office was at lord sinha road. i was outside the office, drinking a cup of tea (more likely, ogling at girls!) when this young man walked up to me and asked for thirty three rupees. i asked why thirty three. his response left me stunned. he said that his mother just passed away in sskm hospital (if you know calcutta, not too far away from lord sinha road) and he needs to go to naihati by train to inform his relatives and that was the fare. stunned, i gave him the money, and he silently walked away. hope his mom's soul is resting in peace.
jjs said…
Really touched, by the time finished, i had tears. My father used to always say, there are good people around and that's why the the world still exists. God bless.
Unknown said…
Very Touching.... Yes I think you did the right thing, even in spite of the possibility of the guy being a con.. Which I don't think will be the case coz how many motorists in Mumbai would actually offer a lift to any stranger.. Really made me emotional..
Sue said…
In a city like Bombay such encounters are so important - to be reminded how lucky some of us are to live in the world of 'coffee shops and cappuccinos served extra hot' and how we need to stop thinking that we somehow 'deserve' our positions in life. The most important thing about such encounters is that for many people they are just the kick we need to do something to help change others lives and stop sitting around believing that change is impossible and that the everyday battles that many people like Peter face are hopeless.
Scarlett said…
I'm very proud of you Kalyan. After reading your FB post yesterday, I was wondering if you would've helped him out with some groceries. I'm glad you helped him out with the means to purchase some groceries for his family, even if for a few days. Good on you.
Jaya M said…
Helping him was so right thing to do even if he turn out something else in real, but at least you are clear on your part..and it was very touching to read.Almost felt a lump in my throat as well.. as you wrote there..
The Bride said…
One of our teachers at uni told us that it's the belief in human goodness that keeps us human. If we believe everyone out there is bad, why would we get out of bed every morning? So, even when it's quite possible that the person out there is a crook or a conman, sometimes it's good to take a chance on them being a genuine person.
I remember I was once going to college in an auto early in the morning and the driver suddenly started telling me about how his kid was going to kicked out of school because he couldn't pay the fees. I ended up giving him everything in my wallet - which wasn't much... 200rs or something since I was a student. Later, people told me he would probably go and have a drink with it. But when I thought about it - although the money meant something to me because I didn't have unlimited funds as student, I felt it meant more to him. It could be that he went off and had a drink and laughed at me but I wasn't going to starve to death from that; on the other hand, I couldn't have borne it on my conscience that a kid got kicked out of school because I didn't have the heart of give the money.
So yeah, maybe this guy wasn't genuine, but then again... what if he was? Better to err on the side of goodness, right? You did the right thing.
k said…
What a strange world we live in, where our happiness is measured by another's unhappiness
Unknown said…
an excellent article.
Rhea said…
Made me cry. :-(( You are a good man.
Unknown said…
Kalyan, I get all teary-eyed reading such stories. I have worked with the less privileged children and sometimes you just have to believe that everything they say is not an act.

You did the right thing.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Folks this is rather embarrassing. I appreciate your sentiments. Am touched but honestly, I didn't do anything much. I gave him some 500 odd bucks. Didn't really empty my wallet. Gave him a lift. Didn't go out of the way for that. Listened to him.

I am as sceptical as the next person. We know all the stories, all the scams about 'no money to go home'. But there was something about Peter which makes me want to believe him. And, as some of you said, there was nothing lost.

I so hope he calls me back. There are actually a couple of people who have written to saying that they can actually help with Catholic organisations. I really hope he calls me back.
Bong Mom said…
That was a very sad story. I do hope he calls you back. There is no other way to find him, is there ?
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Well, Peter did call me back. I did put him onto to the lady who offered to help. he called me later and I gave him the contact she gave me. Don't know the end of the story though
RM said…
Hi Mr Knife..... I think i have met this gentleman too... Only this time his name was not Peter but Micheal... at the jogeshwari link road junction at 7:30pm in a genuine need of a lift till Oberoi mall, where he had to visit a church for "some work". I happened to mention this similar out-of-normal, lets-be-kind-act of mine to my neighbour, and to my utter surprise, she mentioned that my story was too similar to a blog she follows, and thus has directed me to your page. The storyline is in absolute similarity, right from Chunabhatti to Sion church giving groceries. Am still trying to figure it all out.... remember him very clearly, young man, small fair face, big eyes, clear clean well proportioned face, timid body language, spoke clear english(bandra accent).
So leave it for you to this a genuine case or just a new con-style... i surely am still wondering.