August 20, 2018

Bakra Eid And Kota Goat

No sooner the bespectacled Muslim man, accompanied by two others, took his place on the platform with a large goat by the luggage compartment he quickly drew a small Sunday crowd of fellow passengers waiting for the same local train toward V.T.

With Bakra Eid (Eid al-Adha) around the corner it’s common to see goats appear on the streets of Mumbai and adjoining suburbs, munching on feed in front of shops and neighbourhoods before being led to slaughter on Bakra Eid, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. Needless to say the goats have little say in it.

As more people gathered around the goat, the Muslim man betrayed signs of nervousness, repeatedly looking in the direction of the train. There was no sign of it. Gradually he warmed up.

A little boy and a youth accompanied him. Clad in white salvar kurta and skull caps the three stood out in the sea of people crowding the railway platform without the large goat to accentuate their identity further.

“This goat is from Kota,” he said looking at me. “See its ears, they are long.”

He pulled the ears as the goat looked up at him, almost in affection, barely wincing as he pulled its ears at full stretch. They were indeed longer than any you see of local goats. The goat’s ears hung flat and long.

The Kota goat was a mix of black and white, easily over three feet tall standing on its long legs and at ease in the crowd surrounding it. It was majestic in its demeanour, stately in its bearing and cut an admirable figure in the crowd, little aware of the gruesome fate awaiting it at the hands of butchers on the day the Muslim world celebrated the sacrifice of animals as a festival.

“How much did it cost you,” I asked him.

“38,000 rupees,” he replied before adding 2,000 rupees more to the total to account for transportation form Kota in Rajasthan. “Total the Kota goat cost me 40,000 rupees,” he said.

The goats from Kota are raised for dairy and meat. Known as Karoli breed which I believe this goat belonged to, Kota sees large populations of goats on sale for slaughter as Bakra Eid approaches.   

A large goat, a costly goat is a symbol of wealth, a differentiator and a mark of prestige. Nothing less will do for those who can afford them and show them off on Bakra Eid.

Later in the day I came across another goat tied to water pipes on Modi Street in Fort. There was no crowd except for three people who kept a watch over it. The goat faced the wall. It only had a little more than a day to live.

August 09, 2018

Sidewalk Scribbler

Crawford Market
Crawford Market Building (on the right)
We emerged from the subway on D. N. Road and walked past the majestic Times of India building toward Crawford Market.

Victoria Terminus (renamed CST)
If it weren’t for the crowds on the footpath, I’d look for reasons to take this route on leisurely walks about town at every opportunity, for, the old Raj era buildings that rise roadside impose their majesty on the seeming chaos presented by scurrying humanity largely centred around V.T. (Victoria Terminus), disappearing into and emerging from it with the same alacrity as headless chickens except the masses align with a method in the madness of Mumbai, or maybe not.

But the crowds preclude any such thought, most times that is.

The Gothic stone buildings resonate of a city that arose on the back of the vision its builders and planners, primarily the British and the Parsis, and to a lesser extent the others, gave it – one of architectural grandeur and splendour befitting its potential as a great port city, a harbour as much for ships as for the commerce they generate on trade routes Mumbai (Bombay) sits on.

From old photographs of the city it’s still possible to sense the interplay of Bombay’s Raj era architecture with its then sparsely populated streets, their relative emptiness a perfect foil to the architecture, allowing the majesties in stone impose their royalty onto broad streets, never letting up.

With little or no distractions around, I imagine people at the turn of the last century went about their lives aware of their place in the grandeur around, almost taking it for granted, each making space for the other at the same time each lent the other meaning with their presence.

But things have changed. The peace of the Mumbai of the old has been punctured by the pace of migrant influx largely from the North that’s accelerated over the last decade to the extent that the only peace to be had is if you can fashion a bubble around yourself in the midst of swirling crowds and keep your head down.

Enter the smartphone! A device you can lose yourself in even while all around you are seemingly losing their minds.

Even better, immerse in a book. Many still do on their commute to work though not as much outside of the commute as one might expect, say, in gardens and benches around the city except Mumbai has barely any benches streetside where one can rest awhile and open a book if only to flip pages.

Mumbai is a largely ‘Standing Only’ city to those seeking some respite out on the road.

Sir J. J. School Of Art
And if you cannot afford a smartphone, or books, or a home then the options are even more limited in seeking a bubble to cocoon in except in the one instance I came upon close to three years ago when we walked down the footpath past J.J. School Of Art and Architecture toward Crawford market.

An old Muslim woman sat hunched over a book and a notebook on the pavement, writing in the notebook verses from the other book she balanced on her outstretched leg, oblivious to people walking past her, oblivious to honking cars roadside, oblivious to life itself.

Hair oiled and neatly tied into a pony tail, dressed in an old and worn salvar kameez, she peered through her glasses while copying into her ruled notebook what I can only imagine to be Urdu text possibly from the Koran.

I cannot imagine what else it could be if not the Koran.

Her possessions were stacked by her side on the footpath, carrots strewn to one corner, a water bottle re-purposed to hold some cooking oil, cheap steel plates and cooking utensils.

Her footwear was placed neatly behind her; a rose graced an ankle strap on one. It’s likely she was working on her writing bare-feet out of respect for the Holy Book in her lap.

Everything about her was orderly and dignified. Everything single thing.

This was as unlikely a sight as any I’ve come across among the homeless population I see on my commutes and travels across the city, and for this reason alone I could not help but wonder of the circumstances that conspired to push an obviously educated Muslim woman, likely sans her immediate family, to a lonely, homeless existence on the street at the mercy of the Municipality, and without any obvious way to support her as far as I could tell.

What fate had intervened in her life to turn her onto the streets of Mumbai?

Was the book she was copying from lent to her and so she was making a copy of it for her own use? Or was it the case that she owned the book but was copying it down to practice her writing or maybe to better commit to her memory the content of the book? Or was it a way to keep herself busy and retain her familiarity with the written word?

I had no way of knowing.

As we walked past her and put some distance between us, I turned around for a glance.

She was still bent over her notebook scribbling into it, nary a glance to the bustle around her, a forlorn figure dwarfed by commuters, alone and destitute. She was lost in her bubble however temporary a moment in the likely permanence of her own state.

Around her the British era buildings lent the Mumbai skyline a majesty matched only by the homeless woman bent over a book in quiet concentration, at once contrasting with the teeming multitude of sounds hiding moments of contemplation for passers-by in the moment they noticed her.

August 08, 2018

Prakash – Light, And Enlightenment

If there’s a definition for a hole-in-the-wall business then you need look no further than Mumbai footpaths. 

While it’s not exactly a hole in the wall where a hand reaches out through an opening in the wall fronting a room at the back, Prakash Light House comes pretty close to it, in more ways than one.

Prakash Light House functions from a footpath some way off Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai. A small cupboard space knocked back into the building's facade holds drawers and open shelves stacked with boxes of armatures for electrical motors, electrician tools, meters and plug points affixed to cupboard doors that open out onto the street and close behind it.

The armatures stacked in the shelf were a veritable advertisement for various armature brands – DCA, DCK, Electro Power, HID, Topline, Hongyu, Dewalt, and Hitachi among others. If you need any further evidence of the extent of Chinese penetration into Indian manufacturing space, you'll find them on this shelf.    

A short platform, not more than four feet long and barely a foot and half wide, enough to work on electrical motors sent in for repairs, juts out on the footpath. The owner sits facing the shelves, his back to the street, while he works on straightening out electrical appliances.

To a corner of this platform or work-bench, facing the street, sat a seemingly contented cat, keeping the busy owner company. It was an unlikely pair from the looks of it.

If I were to hazard a guess, I’d imagine the cat having driven a fair bargain with the owner to provide him company, rather eyes on the street while he has his back turned to it, in return for a ledge off the crowded footpath. In time I’m sure it came to share his meals as well.

Everything about this small setup seemed perfect, right down to the name of the shop – Prakash Light House.

“Prakash” is Sanskrit for “Light” and is a given name in India to males. Used metaphorically, “Prakash” (Light) is used to indicate ‘enlightenment’, rather ‘source’ of enlightenment.

If ever the shop needed additional emphasis as to the nature of business conducted within, Prakash Light House more than sufficed.

It’s not uncommon to name shops after the owner. If the shop owner sitting at his work bench was Prakash himself then whoever named him after ‘Light’ was prescient to know what awaited the child in the future.

Curious, I asked after the cat’s name and a man sitting on the other end of the workbench, likely the owner of the adjacent footpath-shop, replied, “Kaloo”.

“Kaloo,” I repeated to ensure I’d heard it right because the cat was not black to be called “Kaloo”.

“Actually, its name is Kalidas,” he clarified, implying it’s easier to short-name it to ‘Kaloo’.

“Kalidas as in named after ‘Kalidas’ the famous poet?" I responded.

Both smiled.

“Yes” came the answer, “named after the poet Kalidas.”

I smiled at the thought of Kalidasa, the legendary Sanskrit poet and dramatist from 4th-5th Cent. B.C., living on in the soul of a seemingly bored Mumbai cat who couldn't be bothered to fish for food if it could inveigle lodging and boarding from the owner, passing contented purring as poetry.

But who knows. Facts are sometimes stranger than fiction.

And so the last piece fell into place.

‘Prakash’ as ‘Light’ (read shop), and ‘Prakash’ as ‘Enlightenment’ (read ‘The Poet Cat’) covered both bases, and it took a cat to do it.

August 01, 2018

A Double Act At The Airport

Sometime back I travelled to the Santacruz Airport before A caught his flight out of Mumbai for home after landing the US Visa for his upcoming US trip at the time.

He spoke of the travails of getting the visa and was enthusiastic about his role supporting his team on the US expedition.

We didn’t have much time to catch up before his boarding call. It was good to see him after long.

The snacking area outside Arrivals was crowded with people either awaiting arrivals or accompanying those departing.

Come to think of it, there isn’t much of a conversation to be made when you’re counting down the clock. More often than not, if you’re not compulsively eating then you’re compulsively checking your feeds on smartphones when you're not conversing.

That day however a kitten decided it’d relieve the ‘waiting stress’ by going after the dog’s tail as it made its rounds to tables looking for scraps of food.

The tail acquired life, and life acquired the kitten and those sitting at tables and elsewhere in the vicinity. The dog couldn’t care less. This pair was a team if ever there was one, beguiling snackers with their adorable act. Hustlers no less but eminently welcome.

If there was anyone stressed by the thought of flying that day, it’d be safe to say this double act will've calmed their nerves.