July 05, 2014

Of Waiting, Of Luck, Of Wanting

“The bus left just five minutes ago,” the youth in formal office wear and cradling his laptop bag said as I got into the queue behind him in the shade of an old Pipal tree that has managed to hold its ground even as tar and concrete has all but choked it where it enters the earth in a sacred pact with life.

I have no idea how water manages to seep down to its roots anymore. Only a dogged determination of not wanting to roll over and die at a place where it took root long before the earth that sustained it was tarred over to make roads, must keep it alive. I cannot think of any other reason.  

“The next bus should be here soon,” I replied.

Office goers were beginning to queue up behind me. Under an overcast sky threatening more rain after it had rained out the city the day before, the lot of us were no doubt hoping to reach our offices dry.   

The twenty-something youth in full sleeves shrugged his shoulders and managed a half smile; together they seemed to imply Well, you never know. I returned his smile, adding, “With the rains around, the buses get stuck in traffic and get delayed on their round trips to Andheri and back.”

I was looking to make small talk to while away the waiting but nature had other plans as I would soon find out.

I distinctly heard the splatter as it hit the ground a fraction of a second after I felt something brush my left sleeve and hand.

A crow had emptied its load from somewhere high up in the tree and I wasn’t about to look up just then and risk collecting a second fall on my face. Checking my shirt sleeves for stains I was relieved at having escaped with only faint trails of the familiar dark gooey as opposed to the wide splotch on the youth’s shoulder ahead.

After I pointed it out to him he turned his neck, pulled at his sleeve to get a good look and let out a wry smile before quipping, “It’s said that bird droppings landing on the left shoulder bring luck. Maybe I’ll get lucky today.”

“Are your appraisals due today?” I asked him.

“Haha,” came the reply.

Amused and heartened at the equanimity of the cheery office goer looking at the bright side of things while fielding calls from his office even as he was looking to clean up the mess on his shirt, I looked at my own left hand and sleeve. It had collected a bit of bird splatter itself or shall I say a bit of “good luck”.

I wondered if a bit of luck would come my way as well.  

Pointing to the small paan-bidi shop beside the bus shelter, I said, “He might be able to spare you some water to wash it off.”

“No, it’s okay,” he replied as he retrieved tissues from his bag and began scrubbing the bird dropping off.

Two fellow commuters behind me, a middle-aged woman and an old man, wary of being singled out for avian generosity stepped back clear off the tree. But the tree had a wide canopy. The woman would keep looking up every now and then until it was time to get onto the bus.

I opened my umbrella for ‘protection’.

Stepping sideways and looking up I saw the culprit, a male crow. Oblivious to his morning ritual having stirred up the crowd beneath, he sat still beside a nest of twigs occupied by a female. It’s likely both were on parenting duties.

After the youth had cleaned up his shirt the best he could, he rolled up the tissue paper and looked for a place to chuck it. Spotting a makeshift plastic garbage bag stuffed with empty cigarette packs, tobacco rolls, chocolate wrappers and sachets of mouth fresheners and paan masala discarded by customers shopping at the paan-bidi shop, he asked the owner if he could chuck the used tissue in with the other garbage in the plastic bag.   

The paanwallah, a lean middle-aged man sitting with his legs dangling sideways from the platform that extended from the six open shelves painted orange, the colour associated with Lord Hanuman whose photo depicting him as Panchamukha took pride of place alongside Goddess Lakshmi in an upper shelf, nodded in the negative without taking his eyes off the betel nut chopper he was busy cracking open betel nuts into small pieces. 

Instead, the paanwallah jerked his head sideways to point to the back of his shop where the youth was free to throw his garbage. Embarrassed at being refused permission to use the shop’s garbage bag, the youth curled up the tissue into a ball and tossed it behind the shop!


The paan-beedi shop adjacent to a Sulabh Sauchalaya was no different from the thousands that dot Mumbai, small affairs that stand in impossibly tiny spaces roadside, often operating as what can only be termed hole-in-the-wall affairs.

Largely manned by North-Indians, more likely from Uttar Pradesh than Bihar, these paan-beedi shops are a lifeline for all and sundry addicted to tobacco based products.

Stocking cigarettes, beedi, match boxes, tobacco, lime powder, betel nuts, betel leaves, badeshep (fennel seed), elaichi (cardamom), and supari, these shops serve smokers, and those who enjoy a quick bite of khaini and paan, to get them through the day.   

Elaichi packaged in small sachets is a relatively recent offering, serving as a mouth freshener more for smokers of cigarettes and beedis than those who chew raw tobacco or prefer to mix it with lime and water for a dose of khaini. Now, khaini is also available to buy ready-made in shiny sachets.

Before gutkha got banned, gutkha sachets used to be on display prominently, hanging in long strips from hooks or strings. Here, they were replaced by strips of “Chutki” – mouth fresheners. Chutki is Hindi for ‘small’ or ‘little’ though there is nothing small or little about the face of a sultry model gracing the sachet.

Matchboxes with a top for a cover were named ‘Toy’, stating the obvious that a top is a toy. They could’ve as easily named it ‘Top’ instead of ‘Toy’ and served both needs – identify the toy as a 'top' while extolling the quality of match sticks as ‘top’.


I failed to spot the once familiar cigarette brands that were a regular at paan-bidi shops – Four Square, Chancellor, Berkeley, Blue Bird, Charminar, Scissors, Bristol, Style, Charms, A-1, Panama, and Gold Flake among others.

Many of us would be familiar with those distinctive packs and cigarette advertisements before the ads were banned. 

All I could spot in the shop were packs of Marlboro and Wills Classic.

Of the beedis less said the better. They never stood a chance once micro cigarette brands like Blue Bird entered the market at the very cheap. He had stocked some beedi packs in one of the shelves.


There was still no sign of the bus.

A BEST bus conductor from a recently arrived bus serving a different route stepped up to the shop for some tobacco before heading back for his return journey.

The Sulabh Sauchalaya was busy. An eunuch who works a traffic signal near the bus stop hurried to the Sauchalaya, “her” colourful bindi set off by dark complexion. “She” was smiling to herself as she skirted rickshaw drivers gathered outside after washing up at the sauchalaya.

The queue for the bus had gotten longer, backing all the way up to the road. Still no bus. Overhead, the skies were getting darker.  

Then the bus came, finally. I got in.


Later that afternoon the lot of us in the office where I work were handed our appraisals and new salary terms. I couldn't help thinking that the bird dropping splatter on my left land had worked its magic after all.

I looked at my letter not knowing what to make of it at first. I noticed some clever jugglery in it. But they had good words to say about my work except that words are never enough to tide over inflation.

Maybe my quantum of luck would've been greater had I taken the full load as it dropped from the sky.   Who knows what might’ve been.

The other guy did. I hope it worked out better for him.