Tag Archives: children

a clown in a rickshaw ocean

A new rickshaw wala abandons his rickshaw in the standstill traffic to go and get a paan.

He stands and listens to the cross-legged paanwala complain about his wife while he sucks and chews and masticates the betel nut and sweet coconut in his mouth.

Then, with a red mouth like a clown and dusty feet in chappals, he heads back to the sea of rickshaws. In that ocean, he cannot find his own.

He curses. His home place of Jamshedpur is nothing like this goddamned crazy city full of traffic.Traffic starts to inch forward maybe a hundred meters ahead. His passenger starts to worry, where is he, she is already late.

He swims through the ocean to reach her and swings himself into the rickshaw like an orangutan, swiftly starting the rattling engine. They lurch ahead just in time.

He feels relieved and a little bit heroic, and smiles a paan-stained clown smile at whoever will look. The children in the next rickshaw on their soft mothers’ laps laugh and point at him.


Skinny jeans and runners; dupattas and wind and rain

There is a baby wearing skinny jeans on her fat legs. Sausages stuffed into denim. And little puma runners on her puffy, soft feet. How inappropriate.

She is rocked to calmness on her mom’s swaying hip. Mom also wears matching skinny jeans and runners: she dressed her baby as herself as a pleasant surprise to the rest of her Moms Group. She’s eating salad that she bought for 1.39/100 grams from an organic grocery store. Out of a compostable container, with a biodegradable fork made of corn.

She chats about the goddamn weather with another woman, then covers her mouth. She tries not to use curse words when her infant is listening.

The other woman laughs, nods, holds her own baby, a little boy about the same age as the other one with the sausage legs.

His neck is practicing holding up that heavy head, those weighty cheeks. It takes a lot of work, but he is patient and revels in each success and new independence that he gains.

Baby frowns, becoming frustrated because he wants to sneeze but his sneeze won’t come. He is too young to reason about why he feels as he does. He doesn’t even know why he is frustrated, but anyone watching can guess.

On the other side of the world, there is a baby wearing nothing on her thin legs. And no footwear on her already-hardened feet. How inappropriate.

Baby is rocked to calmness on her mom’s swaying hip, listening to the jingling of aunty’s ankelets as she sweeps outside their home. Watching her cousins drawing their dreams in the dust with sticks.

Until wind lifts the dust and their dreams into the air, and everyone shrieks and wraps their dupattas around their faces to filter the air, and runs indoors. Dust dances in the thick air through a thin sheet that separates inside the house from outside.

Until rain starts and beats the dust into the ground. It starts light, then comes heavy. Not only smothering the dust that was in the air, but pulling and tearing up the packed dirt that was patted so firmly by so many human feet, including baby’s.

The cousins shriek again, for a different reason, and tear out of the home into the downpour. Mom doesn’t have the energy to stop them, and also has a little bit of delight in her chest. She stands with Aunty in the doorway, beneath a ledge, watching the girls grip one anothers’ hands and spin in a circle. Their braids fly and water runs down their faces, shining their gold noserings. Their dresses are soaked through as their brown feet stamp up brown mud.

Baby waves her hands and legs, trying to also dance or be more involved. But she’s also happy to watch from mom’s hip.

A leak in the ledge allows a little bit of water through, and it starts to stream onto the part in Mom’s hair. Mom steps back out of the way, so that the stream is in front of baby.

This is the most marvelous thing that baby has ever seen. She has almost no memory of things she’s seen before, so everything is exciting, especially this stream of light and water that is happening right in front of her. Baby waves her hands and touches it, while the cousins continue to dance. And the only sound is of rain smashing into tin roofs.

to sleep by the sea

What an assumption to make: that a person could be more than a dream made to fit the requirement of someone else.

All of the housemaids retuck their sarees, dhoti-style, and slip on plastic chappals. They tear open tobacco packets viciously and complain about work as they walk on the side of the sea back home. One carries a stainless steel spoon, from the house she works in. It’s the fourth utensil she’s taken, along with a sense of relief. It’s only a small piece of justice, but you have to take what you can get.

What an assumption to make: that whatever would happen between people during the day would influence whatever might happen at night. And vice versa.

When evening comes during Ganpati, crowds sleep by the same sea. Every merchant that has come to address the crowds of Ganesh-toting, shopping Hindus has also brought his wife and kids. Moms of many diligently spread out tarps while their little ones caper around wearing only tshirts and black threads tied over their popping stomachs. These women are Raanis in their own right, claiming monopoly over colours and qualities like determination.

What an assumption to make: that people beg because they are poor, rather than being poor because they beg.

The whole family spreads out to sleep, evenly spaced over the space that they are calling their own for that evening. Over time, they toss and turn and their limbs fall over each others. Husbands and wives that have never known privacy sleep side by side on the ground, under bright lights. I from the west, with the blessing and the disease of too much privacy, watch and wonder what this would be like.

What an assumption to make: to believe that what someone would demand from a relationship depends on how much or how little they are otherwise fulfilled, by their other relationships; the rest of their lives.


None: not one person who can be everything to anyone else.

Ones: one God (or more, depending on the point of view and of faith)

One child, a kid that is only a cement bag with legs coming out at the bottom. He walks slowly up the hill. The wind pulls through the pastic and he sways, almost falls, too slight to fight. His fingers curl around the edge of the cement bag and he pulls it tighter around his body to avoid the sideways rain.

Some things come in twos like: Idli sambar. Two idlis and two spoons. More sambar or chutney will come if you put your hand up.

Shoes in pairs: you have to bring an extra pair with you in your handbag if you want to look nice to meet someone, as you’ll be otherwise wearing monsoon shoes made of plastic.

Two packets of sugar with coffee.

Two beggars: one kid paired with one baby, together two human beings doing the only thing they know to do.

Men fighting: it takes at least two. To climb out of their trucks or rickshaws and wrestle and swear, while everyone else stands under their umbrella and looks on.

Three people in a young family. A backwards facing baby is sandwiched between two frontwards facing parents on a motorbike. The kid is like a starfish, all limbs out. The mother holds one end of her dupatta between her teeth and sits on the other end.

Three keys on a keychain. Three rupees for a hot samosa in the train station, drowned in dhanya ki chutney. A fly shares your chutney with you and you don’t mind, hardly a cause for concern with so many other concerns that have been caused.

I have left four umbrellas in rickshaws and on trains since I’ve been staying in Mumbai. Carrying an umbrella had become an expensive habit, so I abandoned it, and now get wet.

Six girls staying with one Aunty in a 2BHK, with one bathroom. Near Shah Rukh Khan’s bungalow.

Eleven rupees is the minimum fare to be paid for the shortest distance to be travelled in a rickshaw. If you give the driver ten, he won’t say anything. But if you give him fifteen, he’ll take his time in looking for change in hopes that you will just get out and go away.

Eighteen stops between Churchgate and Goregaon on the suburban train.

And countless crashing waves at Bandstand. Countless acquaintances, phone calls, visiting cards, zhopadhpati dwellers, hours spent avoiding and then feeling feelings, roads and galis, ways of doing the same thing, hearts, lives.


In a nearly unfindable building in Dharavi slum, you would never expect to find toddlers doing arts and crafts: but they are. Inside a warm room with a whirring fan, children’s feet stand on coloured circles painted on the grey ground. Oiled hair on each head is neatly parted. They have just finished with greeting time, and have now moved on to activity time.

Nursery-aged kids are summoned forward one by one. With help, they dip their feet into watered-down paint before stamping their prints onto big sheets of paper. A teacher who is also a young woman (and a wife, and a homemaker, and an accounts manager for the same NGO she teaches for, and above all a nurturer and uncelebrated heroine) lifts each child and stamps their foot down. She has developed an efficient system. With one arm laced beneath the kid’s armpits and gripping their body, Tanuja teacher reaches her other hand down towards the paint-dipped foot. She deftly pushes each individual tiny toe to the paper, to ensure a mark. Another teacher, Aasma, wears her dupatta wrapped and tied around her shoulder and waist like a dhobi’s. She diligently records each child’s name next to their footprint, as though they were creating a government document.

Ayush doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to do. All of the kids in the Kumbharwada colony, where Muskan Kindergarten is located, are Gujurati: none of their teachers are. So Kasturi Aunty, the cook and maid, is summoned again and again to tell the kids what to do in the language closest to their hearts. Once she explains the activity to Ayush, he still shakes his head, muttering something. Aunty translates to Tanuja teacher, and Tanuja teacher translates to me:

“He says it is dirty water!” she laughs. “So he doesn’t want to put his feet in.”

But Ayush is convinced by the others, who are all laughing and dipping and stamping their feet, and laughing more. Having a grand time. So, with Tanuja teacher’s help, he steps a foot into the basin. And then the other. Everyone claps and congratulates Ayush for his courage. A smile breaks across his precious face, and Ayush is overcome. He brings one foot up and down, hard, and then the other. He pumps his fists and stamps his feet, wow, this is so great! Watery paint starts to fly everywhere and all of the teachers stop clapping and say hsssssssssss and chhhhhhh before Tanuja teacher can lift Ayush out of the basin. Aasma teacher swoops in to wipe his feet off with a rag. Ayush is grinning though. Even back in his place in the circle, he continues to jump up and down, celebrating life.

Gundecha Symphony

Gundecha Symphony is a series of partially-completed luxury apartment buildings at the end of Veera Desai road in Andheri west. Bombay’s skyline is interrupted with countless new buildings like these: everyone is building up, to fit more people into the already overcrowded city. Gundecha Symphony’s final buildings are in progress: homes for rich fair people made by poor dark people. The unfurnished, concrete skeleton of the building has become a temporary home for those who are building it.

A construction worker is not a single unit: he also comes with a wife, and kids, all of whom need a place to be. So all of their lives are stored in the unfinished buildings until they’re finished, and then all of their lives are shifted to a new place, again and again.

Women, who since girlhood have been shifting from one construction compound to another, tend to everyone’s needs. Some knead atta for chapatis, some scrub a flat piece of rock before scrubbing clothes on it. Others carry water in clay matkas on their heads, weaving their way gracefully around the different obstacles on the ground. Wind pulls through their synthetic saris. Through the water droplets falling from the building structure, I watch them shining in the sun. Feeling that it is such a sin and such a relief that something as beautiful and good as a woman can be found here, a place which otherwise at times looks so bleak and godforsaken… even despite all of the purposeful activity conducted within its grounds.

Children, who need to be children in whatever unfortunate circumstance life thrusts them into, play cricket amidst rebar and rubble. They laugh and yell and shove each other around, Hindus and Muslims and everyone else together. What can they do about being born into such a place? Make do, by playing, laughing, crying and being. And they do.

beauty in Bandstand

In Bandstand, home to billionaires Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan as well as their Dalit service people, no-one is too rich or poor to be unaffected by the beauty of the ocean.

At the sea’s edge, beggar kids scream and laugh and play out their dramas: more cinematic, epic versions of their real lives. They walk a distance that would tire me out once twenty times in a day, and still find something within themselves to dance at the pumping music from other peoples’ cars.

Those with the luxury of time to spend on their health, like me, do. Pairs of men and women trot up and down, chatting together. Women in Punjabi suits or western sportswear, men in casual shorts and sports socks pulled up to their knees. Both in runners, walking.

Scrap collectors have bodies that are so used that they’re almost used up. They have nowhere really that they’re allowed or supposed to be, or not. Ragpicking men and women have no boss, and so in a way are richer than Shah Rukh Khan, at least making their own schedules and answering to no-one.

With no place though, they gather at the edges of things: streets, dhabas, parks. Like snails, making homes out of anything. Thin bodies sleeping thick sleep, on their stomachs, on cardboard sheets, on the side of the road.

Along the walkway’s railing, every ten feet or so, there is a couple sitting under an umbrella. The men lean in close, whispering this or that sweet thing, wooing girls with their words and adoration. They confidently lace their fingers through the girls’ delicate hands with painted fingernails, trying. The girls blush, but don’t reveal how starry and hopeful they feel in their stomachs. The Indian girl at the flirting age is an unpredictable creature, sometimes smiling, and in the same moment, raising a threatening hand.  The guys don’t know what to do, and so continue their Devdas poetry, hoping for the best.

When it starts to rain, those older couples who are too settled and tired to bother with romance, leave. So do the young couples who aren’t as sure about one another yet. What they have is not yet worth getting wet for, and risking fever. Only those convinced they are for each other stay, heros and heroines in their own Hindi movies in their minds.

Dogs sleep on the sides of the boardwalk, dreaming unknown dreams and rolling back and forth in the dust, sometimes settling on their backs. Like beetles, dead, stunned in the sun. Chaiwalas walk up and down swinging their teapots. They call out the words ‘chai, coffee’ in voices that sound as though they’ve been run over and rubbed with gravel and broken glass. Ragged, but still cheerful.

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