Over the years, I received help from many people known and unknown to me. Even those known were not my mates. Those unknown have remained unknown. Yet, I prefer to call both as, friends. Those who helped were not heroes and were not looking for glory. The help they rendered was not the kind that is flashed as big news over the TV. They did not exactly jump into suburban railway trench to pull somebody out from in front of a moving train, jump into inferno to save a kid, or beat up a dozen goons to rescue a damsel in distress. What they did was more on the level of common decency than heroism. Each one of them was just a selfless stand up person in a time of need. It was not the size of their good deed; it was not how small or big it was, it was their kindness that mattered.
Bombs do not bust every day, deluge does not inundate the city every day; but every minute every day somewhere someone needs help. It is not often you see people help each other. It says something about the society we live in. When an ordinary person living a dreary life takes a step and helps another ordinary person in need, it stands out as an idiom of kindness.
In the early sixties most of us went to Bombay driven not merely by the need to earn a living but also by impatience to escape from the confines of claustrophobic small towns, and to move on to a broader arena that provided scope and opportunities to discover and to realize our potential or dreams. There was an urge to achieve, to become something in life, or to find a meaning for your existence. That was a forerunner to the migration of today’s youth to the West. I realize it may sometimes be important where you are placed; that certainly is not as important as who you are and what you aspire to become.
All of us were without resources of any sort. Only a few among us were blessed with some talent. The rest were run of the mill, untrained and unskilled; yet each nurtured a dream to come good. We were strangers in a big city enclosed in an unfriendly neighborhood.
The big cities like New York and Bombay share certain characteristics. A large section of its population comes from other towns and countries. Every other person there, is virtually a stranger busy pursuing his own short listed agenda. The shroud of anonymity the city throws on its clueless strangers is a perverted blessing. It lets you the freedom to degenerate, be rid of shame and throw away the yardstick of decency that until then caned you into submission. You live as you can afford to or as you are allowed to; and not as expected of you by the standards set by your elders. The lonely freedom the city lets you wander into is like being lost in space without purpose. It is a burden that weighs on your shoulders that cry out for a hug. Being alone in a crowd, to stray away into these forests drear, /Alone, without a peer (John Keats), is a pain. It is one of those phases in life when you crave for love hoping desperately it would rescue you from loneliness and shame.
As you find your feet, you discover the city has a heart, hidden in its folds. As Didier said, “Every city has at its heart a village and that village has a heart.” You will never understand the city unless you understand the village in it. You come across that face of the city in strange ways like suddenly coming upon a dazzling smile or a pair of bewitching eyes set in a scarred face.
* Four of us shared a nondescript chawl in Girgoan, central Bombay. Two of us had minimum wage jobs in Dalal Street
area. By about the third week of the month we would usually be broke besides being behind on rent and the utilities. On one rainy evening in the last week of June, we were trying to figure out, rather loudly, ways to find the next meal. A Bihari who recently moved into the adjoining room overheard us, introduced himself and wanted to help. We went through a range of emotions. We were skeptic, embarrassed, ashamed, and slightly irritated; and did not know how to respond. He insisted and took me to a near by kirana (grocery) store owned by his gaon _wala (village mate) and got us on credit a week’s grocery, on his guarantee. We had a hot and a full meal after a long time, thanks to Bihari babu. It may now look only a small gesture but it really meant a lot to me. The credit arrangement helped us get past a very rough patch. I send my thanks to Bihari wherever he might be.
** Monsoon months of June-July do strange things to Bombay and its people. It is the worst season to commute but it sometimes brings the best out of its people, even from its scum. On one late evening when heavy down pour and high tides in the WorliSea coincided, I was stranded in Lower Parel, a low laying area, flooded more than knee high. I took shelter near a modest apartment builging.Even at 9 in the night the rains did not subside and the street continued to be choked. There was no way I could reach anywhere in that rain, deluge and darkness. I later heard that tracks in Parel station were submerged and trains were stranded.
The Durwan (security guard) of the building came up to me and said that Dastur Sahib was calling me in. I did not know any Dastur. I hesitated but followed the guard as he kept insisting. Dastur Sahib turned out to be a Parsi gentleman of middle age, a perfect stranger. He handed me a towel, enquired about me and instructed his cook to serve me only vegetarian food. He asked me to stay for the night. I gratefully accepted all that he offered. I often think of Mr. Dastur and wonder whether I would have trusted a stranger, invited him home, offered shelter and food; as he did.
I heard of similar stories of help and generosity, during the recent deluge in Bombay. Some women formed into groups to serve food to the stranded commuters. Only a city (however messy be it) with a large heart is capable of such acts.
***Once, while traveling from New Delhi to Bombay by train I lost my brief case (square, hard and black box called, at that time, as James Bond box) at Bombay Central. I do not know how I lost it. Whoever took it, must have been a very smooth operator. After I realized the box was gone, I wandered for a while on the railway platform aimlessly, bemused and sheepish; and finally gave it up as lost. There was some money in the box but more importantly, it contained some office papers and other documents of value. On way to my apartment in Prabhadevi, I talked to my self “Ok. Old boy, tomorrow is your last day at the office. Start looking for another job. Take heart and have your last good sleep”. After reaching the apartment, I did exactly that; I ate well and slept well, convinced I was beyond help.
Next day I set out to office in a suicidal mood. On the way near the main gate, facing Siddhi_Vinayaka, the Durwan– Waghmare, greeted me and as he usually does, started some small talk. Then I mentioned about my bag and how it was lost etc. He asked me what I proposed to do now. I said, I cannot think of doing anything and if the office asks me to quit I will do just that and go home; period. He said you could go to the office late today; now come with me. He took me by my arm and led me to a taxi. We reached a small suburban railway station on the outskirts of Bombay along the Harbor line. The station looked almost deserted at that time. He hailed someone and asked for Karim Lala. After a few minutes, Mr. Karim Lala materialized followed by a couple of his sidekicks. Waghmare explained the details of the case and the predicament of his Sahib. The result of the esteemed conversation was that after a while I was staring in disbelief at my sad looking black box which I had given up as lost and grived that I would never again see in my life. I was politely instructed that I should not expect to find any money in the box and should be thankful for getting back the box with all papers intact. I checked the box; the papers were all there. We both thanked Mr. Lala profusely which he accepted royally.
On the way back, I offered some substantial money to Waghmare as reward and as a sign of my gratitude. He said all payments are to be made to his Boss and he would not risk displeasing him, a hard task master. We drove back to Prabhadevi and reached our apartment. Waghmare took me to his Boss who resided opposite to the main entrance to our apartment building . Then, Waghmare instructed me to drop the money in the hundi of Sri Siddhivinayaka. That was how Waghmare and his Boss saved my job.
The claim that love pervades this world may not sound real; not because it isn’t true but because we haven’t learned to pay much attention to countless moments of love, kindness, and care that surround us each day
There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is to live as though Everything is a miracle. -Albert Einstein