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.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post! Wish you had the chance to ask the lady all that and more. From the last pic,I noticed that she was the only homeless on that stretch. Was she? How did she manage during the monsoons I wonder.

Anil P said...

Anon: On that stretch, the only one. I didn't interrupt her rendering of the Koran (most likely).

Monsoons are another matter altogether. Often the homeless will shift to where they can find shelter else draw a plastic covering over the pavement from the wall. Tough life.