Chapter 8: Right or Wrong!

For about a fortnight, I have been sleeping in this bed.

I am about to get down from my bed on the right side, but my leg strikes against the wall. Perhaps, I am half asleep still or half awake as yet! I don’t know whether I am in London or in Mumbai. In my London house, there is a wall to the left side of my bed while in Mumbai the wall is on the right side of the bed.

After brushing my teeth, I put water on the stove to boil for tea. Thereafter, with a cup of tea, I sit at the dinning table. My mind is still haunted by the thought of that shoe polishing lady.
On the very first, I had got my shoes polished rather hesitatingly. While polishing, she had looked towards me three or four times, wearing a mysterious smile on her face. I wanted to escape the notice of the vendors, and others around. At a short distance, another elderly man was also engaged in cobbling and polishing. On the other side of the road, two boys also followed the same business. I didn’t want that they should be obliged to think why I choose that particular shoe polisher.

After taking my tea, I put the empty cup in the sink. But still, my thoughts are occupied by that lady.

Initially, this area of Mumbai has seemed to be very strange to me. Now I realize, as if I had some old relationship with these labourers who had come from outside, their cottages and this shoe polishing woman. This strange relationship had obliged me to purchase two pairs of leather shoes and one of sandals.

While lying in a corner of this metropolitan city as an alien, I had started considering this city to be my own. Whether the city had owned me or not, I did not care much. Your own city is the one where your own people reside.
Similarly, your native land is the one which provides you with livelihood and habitation. For me, to be honest it is east London.

While having a shave, I am suddenly struck with the idea that today I should try a phone call to Anita. But soon after, I change my mind recalling an incident of four years old. At that time, I didn’t have even such a friend as I could trust like a buddy or a brother. I don’t know why my mind got prepared to repose confidence in her. I had no bank account and in spite of my faith in her, she refused to deposit my money in her personal account, I received from Bha ji. After all, how long had I known her? I had met her just twice or thrice; or we had sat together for about an hour before her show started.

On seeing her show, I had been greatly impressed. I had seen such a role being played by an actress, for the first time in my life. But on meeting her outside the theatre, I was very clear in my mind that this was not the same Anita, who had innocently and honestly, played the role of a depressed and oppressed woman, on the stage inside.
I am a very raw hand so far as the worldly matters are concerned. Sometimes, I become infinitely emotional. I do not know whether being so sentimental is a merit or a demerit of a person! I have always suffered a loss on this account. The acquaintances, friends and relatives have always tried to exploit me. This is what I feel now, but can’t help change my nature. Emotionally overpowered, I had taken some people for Gods. Now, when I have learned to understand such Gods, I feel that ordinary manual workers, to some extent, are more honourable than these Gods.

Westerly wind is blowing. I feel like keeping the door of the hall open. If I close it, I feel somewhat lonely. I think that I should have a gauzy door outside which let me breeze in, and the neighbours, too, will have no objection.

I take yogurt out of the fridge, make thick buttermilk and start drinking. Without this, I am unlikely to be satisfied. To escape from some sort of inner loneliness, I sit outside in a plastic chair in the front garden. One of the neighbours comes and sits close to me, to be acquainted with. I ask him where I could get folding steel beds from. He tells me, “Brother, it is a custom of the villages. Why do you want these beds? What for? Here in Mumbai, there is the custom of spreading mattresses on the floor itself. You have a nice comfortable bed for yourself, for the visitors, you can spread mattresses in other rooms.”
“But if you spread the same mattress on the cot, it will become a sort of bed. When you don’t want to use it, simply fold and store it,” I expressed my idea, but he is obstinate about the custom in Mumbai.
And finally, he convinced me briefly, “Look brother, here weather is quite different from UK and Punjab. In Punjab, such beds can be comfortable in winter but not that much in summer. In countries like UK, it is entirely a different story. Here in Mumbai, everyone hasn’t got air conditioning.”

Thinking to go out, I am about to put on my sandals and then, I change my mind to go out with my boots on. After my children settled in London, I stayed with them for months but never felt the need to polish shoes. The same shoe polisher lady, again, occupies my mind. On my shoes, I put some soapy dirty water in order to put some stains and think of course, on the road they will gather some dust as well.

Before turning to the station road, I think of getting my shoes polished. Then I am reminded that the urgent job must be attended to first. While I am undecided, the face of the same woman makes me restless. My shoes are not in need of getting polished, then why do I direct my steps thither? What is the unusual thing about her? By now she too, must have realized this pretext of mine to see her. How a man can go out of the way for the sake of an ordinary woman, I wonder! Some men of daredevil type go straight away, but shy and sentimental like me, are in a greater need of appearances, good conduct and feints.

I deliberate in my mind as to which province she belongs to. She does not seem to be a Marathi. Does she belong to Rajistan?  Her apparel seems to suggest so, but these days, you can’t depend upon the apparel for certain.
The dress has been reduced to a matter of show and fashion. It is not necessary that a person wearing saffron coloured clothes, may be a saint, he can be a robber as well. Life is very complicated and very diverse under this global roof.

Whatever, that lady appears to me like a goddess. Such a pretty girl! Oh no, she isn’t a girl, she is a woman. She must be nearly thirty or so. That two-three years old child, playing near by, must be her own issue. But, in what profession should her husband be? Who knows she may be all alone perhaps, abandoned by her husband. But how can one leave such a beautiful and earning woman? No man can be so foolish! Perhaps, her husband may be a drunkard and a luxury loving fellow; she herself may have deserted him. I think that’s why, she is earning her living respectfully. Otherwise, many young and beautiful women like her, are earning easy money, shamelessly.

I feel like taking a cup of tea, at the tea stall on the opposite side. Sipping my tea, my attention is again diverted towards her. What a figure she has been blessed with by God! In my imagination, I see her very gradually being divested of her clothes. How can one avoid getting intoxicated! But to be honest, the quality which has elevated her, in my estimation, is her attachment to her living. It is a blend of honour, honesty and industry. I am struck by the idea that nobody ever shows respect to anyone; person commands it through the mode of her or his livelihood and conduct.

I move ahead maintaining some distance from her and try to see whether she also takes interest in me or not. I cast an awry glance at her. Perhaps she too, has seen me I suppose. While crossing the road, again, I stare towards her and then, move towards a pine apple juice seller, and start shuffling my feet there.

There is another coaster near by who sells vegetables and salads. A woman comes there and behaves hesitatingly and then, stops near that barrow. While taking the juice, I attentively keep gazing at her. The coaster treats her as a regular customer and pays no heed; he seems indifferent to her presence. She keeps staring at the vegetables for a pretty long time and then, gathers courage in a way and  advances her hand such a way, that she seems to be afraid of the accusation of defiling the vegetables. I observe everything surreptitiously. At length, she picks up a tomato and a small cauliflower, and hands over to the coaster. The cauliflower must be of the size of an onion, though its size was increased by the surrounding stalk arms. Without uttering a word, coaster accepts some change from her and puts in coffer, and then puts two or three green chillies on her palm.
Some big tears glided over my cheeks from my eyes. For fear of being noticed by someone, I wiped them. But perhaps, the coaster has observed all this. My sentimental nature again seems to make a laughing stock of me.

“Sahib, this woman has two children to bring up. Her husband wastes his full day’s earnings on alcohol. What can this helpless woman do? Somehow, she has to run her house,” coaster tells me after observing my eyes following that woman, proceeding towards the parade of shops on the opposite side. Without saying a word, I proceed to cross the road.

Suddenly I was reminded that my toothpaste is likely to be exhausted. Turning back I approach a grocery shop. There, the same woman is standing and demanding ghee for one rupee. The grocer wipes a ghee smeared ladle on a small polythene sheet.

After putting toothpaste in my bag, I again move across the road and begin to think how this woman will manage with such a small quantity of ration! Will it be enough to satisfy the appetite of four persons? Her husband alone will devour all this after drinking. Then I think that such men are very mean. They return home after consuming fish or meat outside. They return home only to spend the night or to belabour the wife. Numberless questions cross my mind, pushing one another, just as the commuters run into one another while entering or coming out of the local trains at Mumbai.

Across the road, I direct my steps towards the park. My internal restlessness directs me towards that shoe polishing lady. I move ahead without paying any attention to others. Two kids seem to be laughing at me or this can be my own illusion, because a criminal is always conscious of his own acts. I gather courage and approach that lady. On seeing me, she smiles to say hello or welcome. She dusts a piece of old sack to put my foot on. Occasionally, she looks at me while polishing my shoe. I can see some questions wrapped in her faint smile. Her awry glance penetrates to the innermost depth of my being. I feel like asking her name and whereabouts but, noticing near by coaster, I keep mum. Possibly, she too, has similar questions to ask. Shamefacedly, again she throws a smile looking at my face.
I put on my shoes and as always, respectfully, put five rupees on her palm.

While returning home, I think why she does not talk much. After all, being a customer she should wax intimate and then I ask myself, why do I bother about her? Has her work produced devotion for her in my mind? Or perhaps, her simple beauty has captivated me! Sometimes, from someone’s companionship, one wants to satisfy his emotional or mental desire. And many a time, it is only a physical. But this sort of relationship, only confined to physical gratification, cannot last longer.

For the sake of my emotional and mental satisfaction, I like people of artistic interests, creative. That’s the only reason, I long for the company of Anita. Same is the reason for my liking of Azeem Deol. His sincere nature makes one yearn for his hand of friendship. He is a very candid person with rural simplicity, a good poet, and moreover a nice human being.

All the people of similar interests and qualities are not sincere or great. It is also neither possible. Some of them turn out to be incorrigible. For such professionals, art is an article of the market only. Their ego of being extraordinary, break them away from the common people, even from their own fans! Their mentality, then, prevent them moving about among the ordinary people. But, this polishing girl has been born and brought up amongst common people, possibly educated up to middle school or so, and to me, seems very fascinating. Don’t know why?

Now, I have started feeling peeved at myself. Why am I focussed by her thoughts? How am I related to her? This idea makes me start on a search, for the meaning of relationship. Now, in this cosmopolitan city, I have made some acquaintances. In many cases, the relationship of acquaintance has given way to friendship. Many of them are big people, great personages in themselves, who can’t have any genuine compassion for me. Where do they me? Nothing, Simple is that.
Whenever, I feel lonesome and depressed, I long for the company of such a person for their shoulder to cry on.

The alarm rings. It is going to be seven o’ clock and I feel like sleeping for about another hour or so. But, I will have to get up because last night, I promised to meet Mr Behal at nine.

The whole day is spent in loafing about, in the company of Behal Sahib. He is after getting his serial approved. Sometimes, I get bored while roaming about with purely business minded people, like Behal ji. They are devoid of any sense of humour or tit bits. That’s why I love to be with jokers, people with a sense of humour. Laughing and joking is my hobby. I can do that all day. I hate to drink during the day, yes regularly at night time before dinner, to have a sound sleep. I can’t understand why these people don’t consider merry, making a part of life. Money is end, all and be, all for such people. It is essential for the basic needs of life. Has anyone ever been able to purchase happiness with money alone? Those people who claim to have purchased, are confined to eating and drinking or material possessions. They are far away from the real and natural happiness of everyday social life, and peace of mind.

It is about to be twilight and I feel curious to see that lady, I mean that polishing woman. She usually departs back before this time. What is she doing here today? I am surprised. To be speaking honestly, the cause of my increasing interest in her can be nothing than physical. I feel like daring to invite her, on some pretext to exchange emotions. My interest created on account of her honest earnings, now, seems to be confined only to her physique. If there had been some old, ugly or dirty woman in her place, she would never ever have become the focus of my thoughts.

A man is vending mangoes near the barrow of the hawker, selling general merchandise. I go towards him thinking of buying some mangoes. A sophisticated man is standing near and talking to the hawker. I have focussed my ears on their whispers, on the pretext of buying mangoes. Surprisingly, I was shaken by their conversation, even carried on at a low pitch. The ground seemed to be sinking underneath my feet.

……I do not know why today, the day is passing so slowly! I had been upset throughout the previous night, on account of the last evening’s incident. More than a half bottle of rum couldn’t help me sleeping and it is disturbing me even now. I wish, sooner that lady leaves and I ask everything by probing the mind of that hawker.

“……..Sir, this much I know that you come here for the sake of Parvina. One has to come to terms with circumstances to fill one’s stomach. You know these days nobody can be trusted. That’s why no longer she is prepared to go with any stranger. There is a hotel on the opposite side, if you want…,” hearing these words, I felt as if I had been betrayed by and felt I had again become an alien, in this area of cosmopolitan city.

After several weeks, today again, I put on my trainers. Compared to leather shoes, they seem to be very light, comfortable and smart.


Seeing me approaching, the hawker starts talking to Parvina. Unlike before, today, I don’t feel diffidence. I buy a comb from that vender. Then saying, “Hello Parvina,” I put my foot before her. She looks towards me, in a serious posture. Looking at her, then I withdraw my foot a little and say, “I am sorry, I am wearing wrong shoes today, hence can’t be polished.”
“Possibly, today only, you have put on the right shoes,” saying this, she lifts her head up staring at me. Her eyes are filled with tears. Her previous smile seems to have dissolved in the water of her eyes.
I take out an envelope from my pocket and places in her hands.
“What’s that?” she asks askance!
“Please don’t open until I disappear.” And I walk off.

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