Runaway: a chronicle of metropolitan transience
I HAVE been on the lookout for a driver after the last one decamped with the money I foolishly advanced him. I begin to notice a taxidriver who always has his cab waiting in the compound of my building, Dariya Mahal, by seven in the morning. His taxi is always clean smelling, with freshly lit agarbattis in front of the shrine over the dashboard, and the driver is always polite, with sandalwood paste on his forehead from his morning puja.
Early one morning, stepping out of Dariya Mahal to go to my office in Bandra, I find his taxi waiting outside and get into conversation with him. His name is Ramesh, and when he learns that I’m writing a book, he says, ‘I can’t read or write. If I could I would write such a story for you.’ He knows every lane of the city, knows where all the crime is. He has seen the public running from a police encounter, seen four men pull out a rickshawallah and stab him to death. He knows the brothel opposite Simla House, and know of another one in Ashoka Apartments next to Petit Hall, where good-looking girls from the village are brought and fed till they look nice, and sold for up to fifty thousand a night. ‘I can’t write, otherwise I could write you such a story.’ His fate in life was decided by five rupees worth of coffee.
When the taxi passes Haji Ali he touches his eyes and kisses his fingers ‘for Haji Ali Baba.’ There isn’t a single Muslim in his village – they have another village all to themselves – but Ramesh says, ‘I believe in Allah, and also in Bhagwan. It is the same.’
He wants me to hire him, but not as a driver. ‘Will your book have pictures? I will take pictures. You can give me a camera, and whenever I come upon a scene I’ll take a picture of it for you. I drive a taxi all day, and I see scenes all the time, amazing scenes. People won’t mind my taking a picture because I drive a taxi.’ He will take pictures of accident scenes, stabbing scenes, crowd scenes. I ask him to come to my office to talk it over. And so he appears in Bandra, one Sunday afternoon, and I make tea for him. I would not have been able to do this – make tea for a driver and serve him, stirring the sugar for him – if I’d grown up and stayed in Bombay. I went abroad and lost a sense of caste.
We talk all day; at lunchtime I give him money to go to the Lucky restaurant for some biryani. I want to eat my lunch and check my e-mail and I expect he’ll be gone an hour or two. But he comes back in half an hour eager to continue his life-story. He had been growing up in Dariya Mahal around the same time I had, but he had been growing up in the garages, the servants’ quarters. When he mentions the landmarks of his childhood – the school, the sea, the garden, the underground garages – I realize they are the same as mine, and he can fill me in on the details of the other world, of the servants, drivers, and cooks that co-inhabited our space without intersecting with our lives. When they did, the results were generally disastrous, for us and them.
He tells his story well, without elaboration, without excess adornment, leaning forward slightly, eager to get to the next plot point in his tumultuous life. I can write it down and relate it almost exactly as he is telling it to me, without my having to interpret or explain for him. It is a chronicle of metropolitan transience, of constant movement between the village and the city and abroad; and a life always under the threat of violence.
Ramesh Gowda is ‘32 or 33, I don’t know definitely.’ He is from the village of Kundur, about 40 kms outside of Mysore. There are five hundred households in the village and of each family at least two people work in Bombay. They work as domestics, in small restaurants, as gardeners, in factories, as drivers and car-washers. Most of them live in Chembur, close to giant chemical factories. But Ramesh’s family lived in a more upscale area: Nepean Sea Road. His father worked in Walshingham School – which my own sisters had both attended – and would come back to the village for a month every year or every two years and would bring from Bombay biscuits, soap, clothes, and his bad temper. He lived with a certain style in Bombay, and resented having to send money back to his family. After Ramesh’s grandfather died, his father came back permanently and tormented his family; he couldn’t find work, couldn’t live well in the village.
Ramesh grew up hating school and loving trees. He was climbing a tamarind tree once, and the master caught him and beat him with a stick. He hit him back with a slate, and ran away. When his father came to know, ‘he beat me a lot.’ To avoid school, the boy would run into the fields and spend the days there. After a few days his father found out ‘and beat me a lot again.’ Again, for eight days, he hid behind his house. He would hide till the school let out, then join the other boys. This time, when his father found out, he lifted him by the hands and dashed him against the ground. Then he hit him on the head with a stick.
Ramesh shows me now, two decades later, the scar on his temple from the beating. ‘He said I should die.’ His mother and sisters thought that he would kill the boy, and they were wailing. Afterwards, he was taken out of school and sent to herd the cows and goats in the mountains around the village. His recounting of his cowherd days sounds like the tales of Krishna in Mathura. ‘I would take them at nine in the morning, and bring them back at five-thirty. Eight to ten of us went up into the jungle. All day we would play pranks on each other. We would let each other’s cattle into the sugarcane fields, where they would eat the cane and the farmer would tie up the cow. I would climb up into their coconut trees and drink the coconuts. They complained to my father.’
One day he drove the buffaloes into a river, and asked another boy to come into the water; he would teach him swimming. The boy came in, and began to drown. Ramesh shouted at him to hold a buffalo’s tail; then Ramesh hit the buffalo, and the animal dragged the boy out of the water. But the other boys told Ramesh’s father that his son had almost been the cause of the boy’s death. His father then decided to send him away to Bombay. There wasn’t much of a future for him in the village, anyway. That year the village had nothing to eat. The crops had failed and there was no work. The villagers took to going to the riverbank and picking a particular kind of grass, and cooking and eating it.
Ramesh was one of seven; five brothers and two sisters. One of his brothers was working as a domestic in Sagar Kunj, behind Dariya Mahal. His father wrote to him to send money for Ramesh’s train passage. He didn’t, and his father decided to sell ten goats for his passage. They took the goats ten kilometers away to the market town, but none of the goats sold. He got mad; said that Ramesh was bringing him bad luck, and brought him back all the way to the village beating him. ‘My father beat me again at home, and my mother was crying, saying he would kill me.’
His mother appealed to her nephew, who had come from Bombay. The nephew promised to take Ramesh back with him. Ramesh was very happy to be going to Bombay; he told everybody about it. He used to gape at the men coming back from the city: ‘they were healthy, not thin like the villagers. They wore chappals; I used to stare at their chappals, since we didn’t wear any. They would wear pants and shoes.’ The village existed in a kind of timelessness. Ramesh had never seen a movie, he didn’t know what it was. When a motorcycle came through town he would run after it for two kilometers, in wonderment.
When he was ten years old, Ramesh was sent with his uncle and cousin to Bombay. They woke up at four on a Monday morning. His mother packed him two pairs of clothes, and food: yoghurt rice packed in supari leaves, and wadas. She had taught him: ‘keep your hands inside the window in the train.’ They walked the three kilometers into the city – there were no buses. Then they took a lorry to the train at Asikeri. Ramesh annoyed his cousin with his pranks on the train – pressing the taps, looking at the lights, staring at the vendors on the platforms. They changed for the Mahalaxmi Express at Miraj, and got off at Dadar, and took a taxi to Chembur.
On the ride, he opened the taxi door by mistake and his cousin hit him. They got to the slum of his uncle, who worked in a factory. Ramesh saw a bicycle outside; he got on it for a ride and crashed into some women gathering water, breaking their pots. They shouted at him, and he brought back the cycle and left it outside his uncle’s home. Shortly after, it went missing; it had been confiscated by the women whose pots were broken. The uncle threw him out, and sent him to another uncle in Santacruz, who placed him as a house servant for a Gujarati family. They gave him nice things to eat: chapatti with ghee, sweet dal, fine rice. ‘I loved this. I looked at the TV and saw people in it and wondered how the people got in there. I was told they got in there through current, but I didn’t know what current was since our village had no current.’
One day his employer gave him five rupees and asked him to go to the market, and buy coffee. As he was walking by the station, he saw the local train coming. ‘I stopped and stared at it. I found it strange – this huge train.’ He was near the canteen, and saw people drinking cold drinks. Drawn in by thirst and the enticing sodas, he gave the canteen man the five rupees and he gave Ramesh a bottle of Fanta, and the change. ‘I thought in five rupees I could buy the world.’ Then a train came into the station. The boy got in the train, with all the rest of the public. The train stopped at Dadar, and he got off. He wandered around the station. It was three in the afternoon by this time, and he suddenly remembered the coffee, and was scared. He had spent one rupee and 40 paise; he was afraid to face his employer. Ramesh thought he should run back to his village. ‘There was another train waiting, and I got on it.’
That train went to Kalyan station, about an hour out of Bombay, and Ramesh got down. He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know the language. He couldn’t ask anyone how to get home, an address which he didn’t know. He slept on the platform. The next day, he spent 60 paise on two wadas. A train pulled in, bound for Poona, and he got on it. Another train took him to Daun station. He ate some more, and his money finished. He kept taking more trains all around the West, for a week, till he got to Gundakkal. There he saw a boy begging below the train. Someone threw him fried rice and Ramesh watched him eating. He stood in front of a canteen. The owner asked Ramesh what he wanted, and he said food. He put the boy to work washing glasses, and then gave him something to eat. Another train came, which brought him back to Kalyan.
At Kalyan he met a deaf-mute man. There was a tree on the number six platform, and as Ramesh was sitting below it, the mute gestured to him. He was a beggar, and much older than Ramesh, at least 45. He had lived all his life in Kalyan station. He understood everything through gestures. ‘I didn’t know whether he was Hindu or Muslim. Who knows what compassion was in his heart, he took me to the canteen, and gave me tea. We slept together, in a gunny sack used to store sugar. I would go with him when he begged. I also got training in begging.’
‘What kind of training did you get?’ I ask.
‘I was told that Arabs in the first class compartment give a lot. I would seek out the first class compartments and get money. I would say, "Give me 5 paise, 10 paise, I’m very hungry." They would give me 10-rupee notes.’ He accompanied the mute everywhere. With the deaf-mute was another man, a deserter from the military. His fingers had all curled up from leprosy. He would also beg. People would tell Ramesh, ‘Don’t touch him, otherwise you’ll also get the disease.’ ‘I didn’t keep all these rules; I ate with him. He taught me swimming. We would go swimming, off the Gateway of India. If we were late we would just sleep in VT station.’
When he got a big amount from begging he would buy treats for the other boys living on the station. One of those boys, Sadya, took Ramesh to his first movie theater, and he saw an old film with Raj Kapoor. He was killing animals in the jungle. ‘Then I started seeing films continuously. Even if I didn’t have money for food I would beg and get money for movies.’ The immersion in the Bombay movies had a fortunate side-effect for the Kannadiga: he started learning Hindi through them. ‘I would see dishum-dishum pictures, and in story pictures I cried all the way.’ In one of them he saw a woman that looked like his sister and he wept and wept.
The boy would find a place to sleep under the water fountain, or in a broken compartment, or in the guard’s wagon of a freight train. One day he was crossing the tracks when he saw a big poster of the new Amitabh Bachchan movie. He stood and stared at the poster of Bachchan demolishing some villain on the poster, and so rapt was he that he did not hear the Deccan Queen bearing down on him fast. A coolie took a stick and hit him hard on the back with it, pushing him forward and out of the way just before the train got to the point he was standing at. After saving the boy’s life, the coolie came to thrash him for his carelessness and Ramesh ran. ‘The people on the station knew me.’
But as there were people who would save his life, there were also others who would kill him.
The boss of Kalyan station was a shopkeeper named Jahir Syed. He had a shop selling tea, cold drinks, and sherbet. ‘Everything duplicate. Even the tea and sherbet had saccharine in it instead of sugar.’ One day he shouted at Ramesh, ‘Arre where are you from?’ From the village, Ramesh replied. Syed put him to work for him, collecting water. One day Ramesh didn’t fill the water tanks and Syed hit him. The boy cursed him. Syed asked his men to bring the boy back to him and hit him again and again in the stomach. Ramesh, enraged, picked up a rock and hit Syed on the collarbone, felling him to the ground. The deaf-mute told Ramesh that they should run away from the station, because Syed’s boys would kill him. The deaf-mute knew people in Manmad, in the interior of Maharashtra. They hopped on a train going in that direction. When the ticket taker came through their compartment, they escaped him by standing on the coupling between the bogies. As the train neared Manmad, they needed to get off; if they got off at the station, they would be caught without a ticket and be thrown in jail. So the deaf-mute showed Ramesh the stairs next to the coupling leading to the top of the bogey, and how, if you climbed the ladder, you could turn a key on top of the coupling and the air would come out of the brakes and the train would slow down; and then you turned the key again and got off before the train resumed speed.
At Manmad the deaf-mute found work for Ramesh in a restaurant, and left the boy to go to Bhusaval. That same evening, as Ramesh was cleaning the tables, a patron cursed at him, ‘Clean the tables properly!’ Ramesh, angry at being cursed, threw a glass at him, and the management of the hotel beat him up and sat him to one side and told him they would call the police. So Ramesh ran away again, and kept running for some thirty kilometers, into the night. Running on the road, he came to a small village, where the dogs started barking. A man, coming out of his hut to piss, shouted into the darkness, ‘Who is it?’ Ramesh told him he was hungry and had come from Manmad, and the man took him into his home and gave him what the peasants eat: bajri rotis and chutney. He slept there, and in the morning, the man asked him if he would stay in the village and work. Ramesh said he had to go home, and walked out on the highway.
He hitched a ride with a truck going to Sholapur. For two days he had nothing to eat. He was drinking water at Sholapur station and felt dizzy and faint and fell down on the platform. A man revived him, but didn’t give him anything to eat. He saw another man eating sugarcane and spitting out the shards. Ramesh went over and, as the man spat out the shards, gathered them from the floor and chewed and sucked on them. ‘They were sweet.’ Then, on a train passing by, he found better fare; some people who were eating rotis and methi bhaji gave him some of their food. He found a train going towards Bombay and, riding again on the coupling, got to Kalyan, still scared of Jahir Syed.
He lived on the station, always hiding from Syed, till one day the Sadibai – a policewoman from the children’s remand home – caught him. She asked him where his parents were. ‘I had no interest in my parents.’ So she took him to the remand home in Bhiwandi. The remand room was a small jail crammed with over two hundred boys from all over: Calcutta, Punjab, Madras. They were runaways and orphans, infested with lice; they were busy rubbing each others’ bodies with the delousing medicine. For their bath, they were given just one jug of water each. Their meals consisted of two chapattis, a little dal, a little rice, tea and bread. The guards would make the boys sing religious songs, but Ramesh saw plenty of homosexual activity in the home, where he stayed for six months.
Meanwhile, someone had told the deaf-mute where Ramesh was, and he came to the remand home. He didn’t have the money to get the boy out. So he made up a story; he came with a document saying that he was Ramesh’s brother. Ramesh was released, and they walked all the way to Kalyan station from Bhiwandi; they didn’t have money for the bus. At the station, they saw the father of Jahir Syed, the dada, selling pav-cake. The mute spoke to him, and he in turn instructed his son not to beat Ramesh. And he put Ramesh to work selling batatawadas on the trains. He did that for a while, until his friend Sadya recruited him into a better business: train-catching.
When the long-distance trains going all across the country out from Bombay pulled into Kalyan station, they would have one empty bogey for passengers without reservations who came aboard there. The scramble for seats would be desperate; getting a few inches of space on the seats could mean the difference between sitting or standing for several days and nights. So one of the group of train-catchers would get on at the previous station the train stopped at, Dadar, and hop into the Kalyan bogey. When the train pulled into Kalyan the boy would wave his hand out of the empty compartment and the other train-catchers would run very fast along the arriving train, and jump on before it had come to a full stop. They had towels around their necks which they spread across the seats, claiming them. Then they sold the seats to the passengers for ten or twenty rupees each. Often they would get into fights with passengers who challenged their claims on the seats. ‘We beat up people.’
Ramesh had now been living on the station for two years. ‘I became a big khiladi on Kalyan station, and got the knowledge of how to live.’ The coolies would send him to fetch liquor. They would let him drink from it, too. By this time he was 16. ‘We teased girls.’ From Kalyan his friends would go to the whorehouses of Grant Road. ‘My friends would say, what fun we had in Pilhaus. I was not much interested in sex, then or now. I only loved the movies. Sometimes English films would play at the theatres. I liked the action, the fights in the English films. The jumps, the flying, in air and water.’
With Jahir Bhai – the dada of the station who had threatened to kill him – Ramesh became such good friends that the dada wanted to take the boy with him to Delhi and convert him to Islam. He took him home to his family and fed him; ‘that was my home when I wasn’t on the platform.’
During his time at Kalyan Ramesh saw all life and death. One morning he was walking with his bottle of water to defecate by the tracks. As he squatted down, he saw a black thing. He looked closer; it was a human head. Its associated body was lying some distance away. He jumped backwards onto the platform and ran. The police came, and wouldn’t touch the head; they made him pick it up. A man had written a suicide note, and then had laid himself across the tracks in front of the Calcutta Express.
On another day Ramesh and his friend Sadya were to catch seats on the 1:30 train. They bathed in the yard, under the big tap of the train water tank, and then Sadya went to his home to do his puja. When he came to the station, he told Ramesh about something that was worrying him: the garland he had decorated the god with had fallen by accident on his head, which had been freshly oiled. He took the garland off, and touched his hands to his head in the process – which was also a gesture asking forgiveness from the god – and the result was that Sadya had oily hands when he came to the station. His family had asked him not to go to work that day – they wanted him to come with them to Ulhasnagar – and Ramesh told him to clean off the oil, but Sadya wiped his hands on his clothes and said he would be all right.
Ramesh drank tea and ate wadas with him, and they saw the Nagpur Express coming in. ‘I’ll get the front, you get the back,’ Ramesh said to him. They ran at great speed, and Ramesh grabbed the steel rail along the gate, and plunged into the bogey. He got in and spread himself across five seats and shouted for Sadya. He didn’t see him, but he sold the seats and got down. He was walking near a juice stand when he saw a crowd of people bending down and looking under the train. A porter told Ramesh what had happened: As Sadya ran to grab the rails along the compartment that morning, his hands slipped on the steel, and he fell in between the running train and the platform. He was cut neatly in two pieces.
That day, Ramesh left train-catching. ‘I got sadness in my heart.’ He took up selling wadas again. One day he was in the Mahalaxmi Express and a group of boys bought four rupees worth of wadas from him. Then they shouted at him to fetch water. He shouted back that he wasn’t in the business of selling water. They refused to pay, and he held one of the boys by the scruff of his neck and demanded his money. The boy looked at him, and said in astonishment, ‘Hey, Ramesh!’ It turned out that they were all from his village – Heerappa, Kundu, and others – and they had grown up herding animals together. They were going to the village, and said they had an extra ticket; he should come with them. He didn’t go, but ‘after they left the village started coming back to me.’
When the boys got to the village they told Ramesh’s father that they’d seen his lost son on Kalyan station. In the six years that he’d been missing, his family had searched all over Bombay for him. On instructions from a pujari, they had taken water in a steel plate, then turned the water black and put a betel leaf in the water. Then the pujari asked them to look in the water, and they saw his face on the leaf. They asked Veerappa for a boon: if the god helped them find Ramesh, they would feed the whole town.
Immediately after the boys from the village spoke to him, Ramesh’s father got on a train and came to Kalyan. He got to the station and was sitting in the canteen, whose owner was also from Karnataka. Just as the Ernakulam Express left, Ramesh sold his wadas and walked toward the canteen. ‘I recognized my father at the canteen and was afraid. He saw me and got up and came toward me. I was very afraid, he would beat me, I should run. But he came running toward me and embraced me; he was sobbing. He was saying something in Kannada to me but I had forgotten the language. So he asked me in Hindi what happened. I replied that for fear of you I didn’t go back to the village.’
His father took him back. As they approached the village, a crowd had gathered, from the three or four adjoining villages, to see this lost boy come back after six years. They were saying, ‘Ramesha, Ramesha.’ But he couldn’t understand the rest of what they were saying. His sister, now married, came running to him and asked where he’d been all these years. She hugged him, crying. ‘I felt very strange seeing the huge crowd in my home, but I couldn’t understand and kept nodding.’
The person Ramesh wanted to see most was still in the fields: his mother. So he set out to look for her. Meanwhile his father had gone to the fields and told her, and she was running back to the village. As she ran, she still held a stick in her hand that she used to herd the animals. ‘I saw my mother’s face from far and I started crying a lot; I felt great sadness in my heart. My mother was saying all kinds of things in Kannada, she was clawing at my cheeks with love.’ She took him home and said tenderly to her son, ‘Uta marti?’
Ramesh looked around and asked, ‘What is she saying?’ A Hindi speaker translated: she was telling him to eat. He ate rice and vegetables. After everyone had left, his mother asked if he had brought any money back from the big city. He only had a hundred rupees in his pocket, and felt ashamed of himself. ‘The other boys had earned 5000 rupees after staying in Bombay for one year. But this son, after staying away for seven years, had only brought a hundred rupees.’ He had spent the money he earned in Bombay on his friends.
In the village, he started learning Kannada again. He herded animals. His father suggested work: in a government construction project, digging a canal. His sisters were already employed in the project. There was a line of five women along the 40 feet to the bottom of the canal. A basket of earth would be passed up all the way along the line to Ramesh, at the top, who would throw the earth over the side. It was very hard work. The sun beat on his head, and he sweated a lot. He worked eight hours a day, and made a total of six rupees a day; the women earned four rupees. In Bombay, he had made up to two hundred rupees a day in the train-catching. ‘I realized now that life was very hard in the village.’ He worked for three months on the canal. He was 18 by this time; he said to his mother that he didn’t like it there, he would go back to Bombay and this time, he would save money. He tried two or three times to run away to Bombay, would go as far as Asikeri, but would then feel bad about abandoning his mother and sisters, and would turn back.
‘I remembered Bombay: my friends, the movies, my fun in Bombay. Nobody to tell me anything, ekdum bindaas. The trains, the cars, the buses.’ His village friends would take him to see Kannada movies, which bored him. ‘The heroes had no style. The scenes were totally third class, like stage plays.’ His father, meanwhile, would go to other people’s houses to recite the Harikatha. He knew all the stories, of the old kings and gods. But Ramesh didn’t like this. ‘One day I shouted at him, I don’t like your shouting in other people’s houses, they will think you are a servant. Another guru explained that I shouldn’t say such things, god won’t like it.’ It was clear that Ramesh had become a total misfit in the village, and he left for Bombay again, two years after he’d come back.
At Kalyan station all his friends came on to the train and gave him free wadas and cold drinks. They said he looked very good in his clothes, not like a tapori. His uncle at Walshingham was unwilling to put him up again. ‘He was in Kalyan station for such a long time, we can’t trust him.’ Then Ramesh’s brother put him to work in a tea canteen at Nana Chowk, washing glasses. He hated the dirty work, and felt like going back to Kalyan station, ‘but I remembered my mother, and thought I might get crushed under the train.’ After four months he found better work in the parcel office. The man running the office was a Shetty from Kannada, and he hired his countryman. It was good work – it shut at five, and Ramesh had Saturdays and Sundays off.
But there was trouble in the village. His sister had married their uncle’s son, to save money on the dowry. Shortly after the wedding, she came home to her parents’ and wept in front of all their photographs; her husband’s heart was not with her. He loved another. One morning she left at six in the morning with the manure to the fields, in the mist. The villagers were wondering why she was going so early, why she was so sad. ‘When people in the village saw my sister, normally, they were very happy.’ She spread the manure in the fields, and then she went up to a well and put her feet in it. A villager, defecating nearby, saw her, and then saw her disappear into the well, but he didn’t go up to her because he thought she was bathing, and as a man, he shouldn’t approach her alone. But when he didn’t see her emerge from the well, he ran to the village and raised an alarm. ‘They came to the well and saw her standing like this, with her hands above her head, in the well with water just above her head.’
His sister had enjoyed great respect in the village; they were all howling now with grief. Along with his mother, they went off in search of her husband, who was hiding in his lover’s house. They broke the house down and dragged him out, thrashing him. He was crying that he didn’t know why she would do this. Ramesh’s uncles went at him with bamboo sticks and would have killed him, ‘but some educated people saved him.’ His mother wrote to Ramesh and he went back. ‘We didn’t inform the police; we have a custom that if anyone commits suicide we don’t tell the police, we gather and close ranks.’
After he returned to Bombay, he got his brother’s old job at Sagar Kunj, right next to Dariya Mahal, working as a domestic. ‘I had never seen such a flat in my life. The TV, the A/C, the tiles, the fan, the color. My brother told me, ‘Don’t touch anything here, don’t steal.’ I had to do the clothes, the dusting, the washing... good work.’ Once he was at his uncle’s garage, sitting at the wheel of his uncle’s Ambassador car. His uncle shouted at him to get out of the car. Ramesh felt hurt, and asked his employer’s wife for money to learn driving. He went to the Goodluck Driving School and in 15 days he had learned the basics of driving. Then, while washing his employer’s car, he would sometimes take it out for a spin. During one such joyride he got into a fender-bender, and pushed it all the way back to Sagar Kunj and told the employer that someone had banged it in the parking lot. But the employer found out the truth, and said he would take Ramesh to the police. He left that job, but he had his license.
His uncles found out that he could drive. ‘They started respecting me.’ He found another job as a domestic, earning a thousand a month from the owner, Vachmani. Along with his brother, Ramesh was able to marry off his surviving sister for one lakh rupees in Shimoga, including thirty thousand for the dowry. The money was raised from the informal banking network that many migrants in Bombay use, the ‘pund’ or ‘BC’. He explains the system: a group of thirty people deposit a thousand rupees a month into the pund. Whenever someone has an urgent need for money, they bid for it, saying they will take thirty thousand minus one thousand, minus two thousand, minus ten thousand. Those who lift the money early get that amount cut from the payout. But those who can wait till the end of the cycle get the full thirty thousand.
Meanwhile, he was still practising his driving in the owner’s car. Once he banged it, and Vachmani was fine with it, but his wife said something insulting and Ramesh left their employ. The next job he had was with a jeweller who treated him like family. When they drove to Nashik he ate with them, in good restaurants, rather than being given a few rupees to eat at some truckstop. ‘I found out what a boy in a big family enjoys. I found all the happiness that I didn’t find in Kalyan.’ When they went to Varanasi for a pilgrimage they took along as their driver – in a plane. It was, of course, the first time for Ramesh. ‘My ears burst; they gave me cotton.’ In the three years he stayed with the jeweller, ‘I saw what a big man in the world enjoys. The tension he has: of business. A big man can’t become small. A poor man can live without bread, such people can’t. Their children can’t live poorly. When business is down they still has to maintain their lifestyle. They can’t sleep well. they sleep four hours a night, then wake up early and think, ‘I have to make money, increase my business.’
When his brother was to get married, Ramesh again went back to the village. With a friend, he had to go to a house in a nearby village to give the invitation for the wedding, and there was a girl sitting in the room, alone, and they talked. He liked the way she was talking; he thought she was smart. She brought him a glass of milk to drink. His friend was kidding him, telling him that she was so nice. Then her mother came into the room. Ramesh looked up at the lady, and told her, ‘I want to marry your daughter.’
Her mother laughed. ‘Whose son are you?’
The girl, who was only 16, got shy and ran away. Later, she told Ramesh that she had liked him on first sight, too; ‘I had eaten a lot at the jeweller’s house and looked like a man from high society.’ He was 25.
He went back home and told his father that he’d met the girl he wanted to marry. They had an argument; the girls’ family couldn’t give much dowry. They had themselves given a lot of dowry for Ramesh’s sister’s wedding, and his father was counting on the dowry for Ramesh to come in and right the economics. ‘Then we had a fight. I was obstinate; I went the very next day and got engaged to the girl.’
Eight days after his engagement – nine days after he had first set eyes on her – he got married. (He says, ‘I got married,’ as opposed to ‘we got married.’) But even during the brief period of his engagement, he had other offers. His sisters’ husband’s sisters liked him a lot – they thought he looked like Ravichandra or Kamalahasan, film heroes of the South. They told him so.
Ramesh and his brother came back to Bombay with their new brides and installed them in a room in Worli that a garage mechanic rented out to them for three hundred a month. When Ramesh went back to the jeweller’s family, he found that the substitute driver had replaced him. So he found work with a Jain diamond merchant. But he didn’t get along with an old Maharashtrian maid in the house. Her sons were involved in all sorts of criminal activities. After a while, Ramesh left the job. Eight days after he left, the merchant was kidnapped at gunpoint from his car. He was robbed and let go.
In the police inquiry, they asked the merchant about his servants. He said that he had one who hadn’t come for a few days. The police arrested the robbers, and one of them said he knew someone named Ramesh. Three police jeeps pulled up outside Ramesh’s house in Worli. By this time, he was driving a taxi, and had just come home with a headache from his long day. His brother had been arrested and released, but they now took Ramesh to the police station. They asked him if he knew the robbers; he said he didn’t. Meanwhile, he saw how the police were torturing one of the robbers: ‘They had him up on the table, and had tied his feet together, and were beating the soles of his feet. Then they would have him get up on the table, and tell him to jump, and then hit him on the buttocks with their sticks.’
Ramesh was spared the beating, since the robber said he didn’t know him, he was the wrong Ramesh. But they kept him jailed overnight anyway. In the morning his employer came to the station, and the police released Ramesh. He had to keep coming to the station for the next few days. He confronted his employer’s wife. ‘I said, how could you do this, I haven’t even touched any valuable in your house. I choked up and wept there.’
One day, driving his taxi, he got talking to the passenger. The passenger said he had been adopted by the madam of a whorehouse, and now had started his own brothel. He needed a driver to take his girls to their customers in the hotels, and that was how Ramesh started working for him. He took the girls to good hotels and not so good ones, from the Mansara Hotel in Bandra to the President in Cuffe Parade. He got paid five thousand a month; there were 35 girls. Most of them were from Andhra Pradesh, Nepal, and Calcutta, and the odd one from Delhi. The house was located near the Dreamland Theater. He got to know the girls’ stories. One girl was in college. She had been in love with a boy, ‘who used her and abandoned her.’ A girlfriend had brought her, broken-hearted, to Bombay and this line. Another was only thirteen, and from Andhra. When the police raided the house she was hidden away. ‘I talked to her. She was supporting her family.’
Another kind of migrant labour, the same as his own. But the girls did not cry in his car, and they seemed happy to him. When a nervous customer would ask him, ‘the girl will cooperate, won’t she?’ he would respond, ‘I’m not a pimp, you seduce her yourself.’ One evening the police were about to raid a hotel he had brought six girls to; the party would select two or three from them. The watchman warned Ramesh and he took his bevy of girls and parked by a lake. The police came up and tapped the window, and asked him what he was doing. He said he was taking the girls home from a disco, and they let him go. ‘I dropped them home and left the job.’
I ask Ramesh if he partook of the girls. He did not. He also abstained from sex in his next job, which was as a truckdriver. A relative of his who lived in Dombivili owned five trucks. Ramesh began as a second driver, a double, for three months. ‘I would empty the goods in Thane – chemicals, acid so strong that it will burn your hands if it falls on you – and supply it to the textile factories around there. Then I would head back to Madras to get the material. It took three days. I had great fun driving a truck. I drank. The truck ran tanatan and I was high. I drank anything – country, anything. Other drivers had ganja and drove.’ They needed the drink and the drugs for strength to drive their long shifts, which could be more than 24 hours at a stretch.
They also needed women. Truck-drivers consider sexual encounters on the highway part of daily life; often, a driver will have an erection first, then look by the side of the road to look for a woman carrying a telltale object such as a blanket. If he finds one, he stops the truck, negotiates with the woman, gets on top of her and inserts his penis, ejaculates, and gets up and back into his truck in under five minutes. When Ramesh would stop at a dhaba to eat, the girls from the surrounding villages would come to do their business, sell jasmine necklaces to hang up in the truck, and fall into the truckdrivers’ arms. ‘I didn’t do anything.’ They would tease him: ‘Don’t you have anything in you?’ But Ramesh was afraid. ‘Once I just touched one and I broke out in warts, and then I was very afraid.’
‘The truckdrivers just do it in the jungle. They spread a sheet and do it. I let my conductor do anything; I let him enjoy. But I got very disgusted when he did it and climbed back in the truck. Throw a bucket over yourself and then get in, I told him.’
He drove the truck for a year and a half. One night he was making the eight-hour drive from Bangalore to Mangalore with a load of tomatoes. As the truck left Bangalore, it ran over a serpent on the road. ‘I heard the sound under the wheel – khach, khach.’ It was a bad portent. He drove along, picked up four passengers for a hundred rupees, dropped them off in Hasan. He started feeling sleepy. At the next town he splashed his face with water, but the water smelt of fish. Coming down from the ghats, he picked up a new bride and groom going to the temple, and dropped them off.
Then, just before a bridge, he lost control of the wheel, and the truck went down the hill, breaking a light pole, and plunged fifty feet down a ravine. People from a passing bus pulled him out. He was only bruised, but was kept in the hospital for five days. His employer drove him to his village. He got out of the car and was walking home in the rain through the fields, when he heard the sound of wailing. When he walked into his room he found the women of his household crying, lamenting his death. Upon seeing him, they were astonished, and they said to his wife, ‘Look, your man is alive.’ She made him give up the lorry.
At this point he decided to try his luck outside India. He sold his wife’s jewels and raised thirty thousand rupees and went to an agent to find employment in Saudi Arabia. The agent kept Ramesh waiting for a fortnight and then gave him a driving test. Ramesh gave him all his money, and the agent said he would be able to go the very next day. Elated, Ramesh got a passport, and gave it to the agent.
He was asked to come to the airport at 5:30 am the following morning; the agent would be there with his tickets and passport and visa. Ramesh got there, ready to board his flight to his bright future, and waited for the agent. He waited till 5:30 pm. He was waiting outside the airport, where there were hordes of people. ‘I ran up and down the airport; I checked all the taxis coming in. I tried to remember his face. I phoned my brother-in-law to check for him in his office. There was no office, and he wasn’t in his hotel room.’
Then he found out that the agent had decamped with the passports and money of Ramesh and three other suckers like him. ‘Then I felt suicidal. What had I done?’ Not only had he sold his wife’s jewellry, he had borrowed another fifteen thousand. He kept looking for the agent, all over the city, for another eight days. One day he was looking for him in Sion station when he saw a man selling medicine to exterminate fleas. ‘I asked him, "If a man drinks this, will he die?" He said, "Immediately".’ Ramesh bought a bottle for 15 rupees and went home. There was trouble at home; his wife was sore at him for losing the money, and got irritated at him for minor matters. ‘Then a friend, seeing me in tension, said, "Why this tension? Let’s drink rum".’
As they were drinking at the bar, Ramesh asked his friend, ‘If a man drinks poison after drinking alcohol, will it affect him?’ His friend replied, ‘It will increase the potency.’ So Ramesh drank a quarter bottle of rum and went home and woke up his wife in the middle of the night. He said, ‘Look, Sudha, what do you feel, I have lost money?’ In answer, she told him to go away and not come to her bed. Whereupon he gave her two slaps. Her sister woke up and began yelling at Ramesh. In the midst of the altercation, Ramesh opened the bottle of flea poison and upended it over his mouth. ‘As soon as it touched my lips everything in my stomach, the rum, everything, came out and the whole house was filled with a stink.’ His wife’s sister gave her two more slaps: ‘Aren’t you seeing what he’s drinking?’ He fell unconscious and woke up in the hospital. ‘I was shamed, how could I be alive?’ But his family all comforted him, ‘So what if you’ve lost money, you’ll earn some more.’ His friends came around and told him that it was a sin to kill himself. His wife wept.
He took his wife to the village and left her there, and came back to Dariya Mahal and started driving a taxi.
One of his regular customers in the taxi was a Parsi businessman, and Ramesh told him his story, how he’d lost the money and been duped by the agent. The Parsi had a relative who owned a company in Dubai; he promised to send Ramesh there. Ramesh got another passport made, and worked at the Parsi’s house for a fortnight. He learnt cooking. And he gave his savings – ten thousand rupees – to the Parsi for the plane ticket to Dubai. ‘They said there is great leisure there.’ He finally made it to the Gulf, in 1996, and went to the house of his employer, a bad tempered man named Poonawala, where he was told he would work as a cook.
He was a cook all right – for the dogs. Part of his duties involved making keema for the owners’ dogs, after bathing them. He had gone from being an assistant beggar to working as a cook for a dog. This was not the life he had imagined for himself in fabulous Dubai.
For three months he woke at six in the morning, cleaned the house, watered the garden, sent the kids to school and took care of the dogs. He was not driving, he was only doing housework. When he remonstrated with his employers they sent him to work in their factory, where he had to work 14 hours a day. It was very hot there and there was no A/C. The factory made plastic cups for Emirates flights. Ramesh worked at a huge grinder that ground plastic waste into powder. He was constantly afraid that he would get caught in the grinder. But the money was better than he’d been getting in Poonawala’s house, which was five hundred a month in ‘Dubai currency’; he got a thousand to work in the factory. But he had to eat in the canteen, Malabari food, and got sick. He told his employers that he was a driver, not like the other Malabaris. He said he wanted to go back to India. They said he couldn’t. So then he offered to work again at their home, which several previous servants had left after being ill-treated. He was abused for transgressions such as sleeping in the air-conditioned room after a day’s work.
Meanwhile, one of the people from his village had also come to Dubai, and told Ramesh that his wife was seriously ill; she had his second child in her stomach. Around this time, a gold chain disappeared from the house and all the servants were lined up by the police and interrogated. Unlike Bombay, they weren’t beaten, but Ramesh still felt very bad. He told his employers that his wife was serious. They replied that they had found out that his wife had actually had an abortion. He argued with them, and they made out a return ticket for him. ‘I prayed to God that day, "thank you God".’ Then he opened his bags in front of his employer and said, ‘Look, check, and check me too.’ They gave him a thousand of their currency, and he left for India. As soon as he woke up the next day, he went to Narayan Dabholkar Road to the people who had sent him to Dubai. He left his passport and return ticket in their care. Then he left for the village and found that his employers had lied; his wife had not had an abortion; the baby was in her stomach. It was a daughter, like the first child. He had wanted to be sterilized right after the first girl, but everyone told him to wait, he might have a son next time. A year later came the second daughter. ‘Then I was afraid that if I had a third she would also be a daughter. My wife said, "your work is not so good, better you have an operation".’ And so he did; there won’t be any more children.
He stayed in the village for a year and a half, driving a bus. When he went back to Bombay he asked for his passport back and the people he’d given it to said they didn’t have it. Ramesh went to the Malabar Hill police station and told them what happened. The police asked him to file a complaint, ‘but I said they are big people and I am small and I won’t stand any chance against them.’ His wife told him to forget it, why did he want to go abroad anyway.
Despite all his troubles, he liked what he saw in Dubai. He remembers that his employers took him to a Hindi movie there, ‘Rangeela’. If he had found driving work there he would have stayed for ten, fifteen years. ‘It is clean there, not crowded. There are no wastrels there, everyone is doing their work. I liked that system. It is much better than Bombay; it is clean, there is no business on the sidewalks, no slums. Each office has an A/C. The poor there are not as poor as Indians.’
He started driving a taxi again in Bombay. A sheth from Muscat asked him to come to the Gulf again but he had lost interest. When he is not driving the taxi he does other kinds of work. He has worked as a bootlegger. ‘In Borivili they make country liquor. They keep it in tire tubes. They mix the pure alcohol with some chemicals and water and measure the degree of alcohol. Some mix tobacco, some mix cardamom essence, so it will be scented with cardamom. I have to bring six or seven of the tubes and drive at great speed to the liquor dens, to Tardeo, Nana Chowk, Khetwadi, and throw out the tubes. I bring the stuff in the evenings. Sometimes I am checked, but there is a setting.’
‘Since then I have been driving a taxi in Dariya Mahal. My wife lives in Nalasopara and I have two kids. I drive the taxi and I go home. Thus my life has passed.’
Ramesh has often tried to look for the deaf-mute who had taken him in at the station. But he has disappeared. Ramesh wants to take him back to his village and take care of him in his old age. Jahir Bhai, the dada, has a flourishing business on the station. Of the other boys with him who lived on the platform, one became a rickshaw driver, one is a tea vendor, another a tailor. One boy named Krishna, a train catcher, lost a leg in his work. Another train catcher, who was blind in one eye, slipped from a running train after catching it, and fell in between the tracks, and lost his arm as well.
He sometimes meets runaways like himself. Once he met a Kannadiga boy at Majestic bus stand who was begging. He asked him in Kannada, ‘Why are you begging?’ The boy replied, ‘I don’t have enough to eat.’ Ramesh gave him twenty rupees, to eat, and told him to buy soap, have a bath, and go to any eatery and ask for work. ‘I meet many such boys and I give them some money and I talk to them, "Don’t beg, work, don’t let me see you here again." I think, I too have seen such days myself.’
In Bombay, says Ramesh, ‘even if a man is selling bananas, his expenses are met and he can send some money home. In Bombay, even if a man sells stones, ornamental stones, on the road, he can have an income. There is no other city in India like Bombay, no other city where you can earn so much. In Bombay nobody will ask you: "Where are you from, why are you here?" You can die, sleep, breed on the road and no one will ask you.’
It is the most hospitable city. Come, and bring your family also. But things are changing; the city’s hospitality is being abused. Ramesh remembers a time when everybody could work and live happily in Bombay. Now, he thinks, people don’t want to work; they just want money without work.
Ramesh was in Dariya Mahal on the ground when I was there in the air, on the ninth floor. He has been living in the Dariya Mahal chawls since 1982, and has watched its decline. ‘First Dariya Mahal was known as the place where big people stayed. Now Dariya Mahal has no value, its show is spoilt, because of the underground garages. There is no control over who is coming or going. People go to bathroom on the seaside and bathe in the gutter water. From the flats you can see them shitting. In the underground the stench is so strong you will want to run out.’
There are upwards of a thousand people living in those garages, he says, Biharis and bhaiyyas mostly, ‘and it is all rotten.’ The lower row of garages have not a single car in them; the residents are related to the liftmen and watchmen of the three buildings, or complete outsiders. They boast: ‘I have a bungalow on Nepean Sea Road.’ They cannot be removed, even though the structure is collapsing. The watchmen of the buildings are also bhaiyyas, and so they don’t bother the garage-dwellers. There was a lafda there when Ramesh was in the village, someone was badly hurt. ‘Three-fourths of Bombay is now people from UP-Bihar. I know them, since most of the taxi-drivers are such people, and only ten per cent of them are good.’
He doesn’t have much respect for those who claim to be the ‘sons of the soil’ either. ‘The Maharashtrians are not hard workers. They just have two days’ dreams. They fill their bellies today, and don’t think about tomorrow.’ Bal Thackeray had boasted that he would turn Bombay into Singapore, ‘but he has made it into UP. In a little while you’ll see cycle rickshaws here.’
The city’s contrasts amaze him. ‘There are people who don’t have money to eat tomorrow. There are also people who have so much money they don’t even know how much they have. The people who don’t have money are thinking, I should do some crooked business and become like them. They can’t become like them from hard work, or a job. The people who have hereditary wealth – money making money – will stay like that. The small people spend all the money they make. They don’t save it for the next generation. Who becomes big? The people who do goondagiri, netagiri. They who become corporators, and then leaders. Now there is a bhai in each house.’
He had recently shifted from Dariya Mahal to Nalasopara, site of the birth of a two-headed baby who was considered a goddess. His wife had gone to see the baby, but by then there wasn’t much of a crowd around the goddess. There had been another case in Kerala 16 years ago, the crowd had learnt, of a baby with two heads, who had grown up and joined a circus. The event had been robbed of its singularity.
If business is good Ramesh makes two hundred a day driving his taxi; if not he makes a hundred. He averages four to five thousand a month. In Nalasopara he pays 550 a month for a room and a kitchen. The older daughter, four years old, is in an English-medium school. Her fees are 500 rupees a month. ‘She speaks abcd well.’
His family has now been in Bombay with him for eight months, ‘but I have now enjoyed family and want to put them back in the village.’ He puts the taxi back in his uncle’s garage in Dariya Mahal at nine in the evening, then takes the train to Nalasopara and reaches there at midnight, then bathes and eats and sleeps by one. Then he has to wake up at 4:30 and take the 5:30 train. All of Sunday he sleeps. Once a month he takes his daughters to a temple or to the seaside at Chowpatty. ‘My girls are not interested in me. Only in their mother, because I don’t see them at all.’
Poor as he was on Kalyan station, he had no tension. ‘Now that I have two children and a wife there is a lot of tension. Now I don’t like Bombay, I don’t like the crowds, and I think about going to the village.’ His family now has fields, fifty coconut trees, and a borewell in the village. When he goes to his village he does the jatra, walking on live coals, with the god supported on his head. He shows me the scarred soles of his feet.
He speaks about what he wants from the fates. ‘I want to get my two girls married off into good houses. I want to save a little money, put some money in my daughters’ names, and live my life with my wife.’
* Suketu Mehta is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Stories (forthcoming, Penguin India and Knopf).