It wouldn’t strike me quite so funny if the brand were “Hindiware,” but it’s not.
Is there a more perfect name for a toilet? This one was in our grubby Mumbai hotel.
I’m a sucker for adorable beggar children on the streets of Mumbai. It’s impossible to look away, not reach for a coin. Now that I understand that so many poor farmers from faraway villages flock to the big city in desperation after their crops fail, that they can’t find work, have families to feed and debts to pay, my heart breaks for adult beggars, too.
But begging is also an industry; one that can sometimes net a better living than many honest jobs—hard labor earning barely enough money for food. A Mumbai local explained that these professional beggars know exactly where to hang out for the biggest return. While the locals may offer a rupee, tourists will easily hand over a 100 rupee note. Though only worth about two U.S. dollars, it’s a windfall to the panhandler. This sort of begging is so lucrative, my friend told me, that it for some it is a career. He described seeing beggars don shabby costumes, muss their hair, and dirty their faces before going to work.
And there are begging scams, too, like the mothers-with-babies (rented) who beg for milk powder, lead you to a nearby shop where you buy milk at an inflated price, and when you leave she returns the milk to the shop and splits the money with the shopkeeper.
Makes a person skeptical, even suspicious. And confused, because Mumbai has severe poverty, destitution, despair, and wretchedness. Heartstrings tugged, or legs pulled?
Beggars can be compelling. I fell for this family, a mother and her three boys, at Mumbai’s Dadar train station, in a chaotic crossroads like a Third World Times Square, an area far from any tourist zone.
The woman made a continuous loud honking noise by rubbing a stick on one side of a drum she carried hanging from her neck, and beating it on the other side. Meanwhile, her gorgeous painted boys turned their enormous eyes up to me. The boys had rope whips slung on their shoulders, wore bright skirts and anklets of bells. I was transfixed; couldn’t be bothered with a camera—I fumbled for coins. Bob, as always, had a video running.
Why the whips? Why the awful racket scraped on the drum? What’s on the woman’s head?
These are the Potraj people, seldom seen nowadays and said to be fast-vanishing. They are nomads who represent the goddess Kadak Lakshmi, or Mariai. When the Potraj are heard in the neighborhood, superstitious and religious women, of which there are many, run out and give alms. What is frightening about the ritual performed by the Potraj is the fierce self-flagellation practiced during trance-like dances to the “music” produced by the woman with the drum. A wonderful description of a child petrified by the mysterious Potraj is told by that child grown up. He called his nemesis the “boogoo-boogoo man,” and although he had nightmares about the Potraj as if he were a bogeyman, he refers to the sound of the scraping of the drum: boogoo-boogoo-boogoo-boogoo.
Watch the video if you dare. The sound may haunt you.
The male beats himself—hard—while his wife or mother stands by like a one-man-band and takes offerings. She balances a heavy wooden altar on her head, in which sits a statue of her goddess. Children begin as trainees at a painfully young age, and have their own little whips.
I saw one of these Potraj in Chennai a few months ago. He was on a tea break. I didn’t notice if a woman was with him. I had no idea what he did, either. His colorful costume was arresting, and the long yellow rope whip slung over his shoulder fascinated me.
The Thiefhunters did, and lets not even count the two boys found handcuffed together at Kurla train station, roped to an undercover policeman. We rode the train with them where they had to sit on the floor, like dogs on a leash.
Bob and I spent days on trains so crowded we couldn’t move, and joined pushing-shoving boarding mobs that were a pickpocket heaven. With opportunities like those, we thought we’d find plenty of thieves.
We road buses all over the city, which turned out to be a fascinating way to see Mumbai off the tourist track. At stops along the way, we hopped off and onto buses that barely paused for passengers. Where large groups waited to board, the rush was sudden and desperate—perfect for pickpockets. They should be able to do their work without boarding at all, putting instant miles between themselves and their victims. At a bus stop on the edge of a large slum, we spotted a pair that did board. The ticket-taker noticed them too, and pushed them off at the next stop.
Interestingly, every bus we rode carried a human ticket man who checked and sold tickets. Whereas on trains, we saw no controls whatsoever.
At end-of-the-line bus stations, huge orderly crowds lined up in a metal cattle mill for each route. Buses came at short intervals, again barely stopping. Passengers surged on while a uniformed people-manager tried to keep order. These men too watched for pickpockets, and told us that most thieves stalked bus passengers on the two monthly paydays. Those are only the pickpockets who get caught, I say.
From the excellent, new, non-fiction book I just read, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I gather that beating is a common enterprise in Mumbai. Among the book’s stressed-out, almost-zero-income community members, everyone partakes: parents beat children, brothers beat sisters, and kids beat each other up regularly. In the book, police are notoriously brutal. When we interviewed Mumbai pickpocket Rahul some years ago, he’d been beaten to a pulp by train passengers who’d caught him in the act. This, we are told over and over, is the way it works in Mumbai. A deterrent, possibly.
And when our friend Paul McFarland was mugged for his wallet, the wallet, his ID, and credit cards were all returned some 15 minutes later, with only the cash missing. Why? Karma.
The pickpocket we spoke with this visit was from Andhra Pradesh, an Indian state southeast of Maharashtra (where Mumbai is). He specializes in highway robberies, getting a driver to pull over whereupon he steals their stuff. But the smooth pickpocket moves he showed us betrayed his real job skills.
We promised not to photograph his face, but I will say this: although he was of average height, weight, and appearance, he was the type who would stand out in a crowd as suspicious. Perhaps it was his demeanor.
Our translator spoke English and Marathi. Our barefoot pickpocket spoke something else, so our conversation was rough. The routine problem and frustration with impromptu interviews with thieves—not everyone is willing to get involved with criminals.
The thief described himself as a married Muslim with a wife and five children living in the next-door state. In the time-honored tradition, he learned pickpocketing from his father. When he demonstrated his technique, he couldn’t help using a specific move with his leg, in which he raised it to press his knee into the back of his victim’s leg. One indicator common to career pickpockets that we notice over and over is that their particular style is engrained and they can’t change it, even for a demonstration. His fluid motions and the confidence with which he showed them telegraphed that he was very practiced. We couldn’t figure out whether he currently practices both pickpocketing and highway robbery, or if he’d shifted from one to the other.
Bob and I have spent a lot of time thiefhunting in Mumbai, and our conclusion remains: although pickpocketing is not unheard of, a visitor is not very likely to be a victim. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t practice safe-stowing and down-dressing—but I assume that readers of this blog already know that.
The train to the slum wasn’t crowded, due to the hour and our direction of travel. Although there were plenty of seats, the swami made a beeline for us and planted himself next to Bob so that we sat three-in-a-row.
Our first impressions: he’s smiley, charming, has near-perfect English and a headband. Why were we the subject of his intense curiosity? He started asking questions, and when we asked him questions, his answers were very long. He’s a conman, we thought. Let’s see what his game is.
Our second impressions: He’s wearing at least five shirts and a heavy jacket (it’s 90°). His headband is actually hospital gauze and it’s stained yellow in back. He’s carrying belongings in a Kellogg’s cereal box. Is he a madman or a nutcase? Delusional, or suffering a concussion? Has he just had an accident or an operation? I can see a bit of shaved head above the gauze.
“I can guess your age plus minus one year,” he announced. Aha—he’s a circus performer! Or is this just one of the functions swamis perform? He was a little short on Bob’s age, but Bob said he’d have been right if it weren’t for the haircolor. I can’t guess the swami’s age at all.
Observing this eccentric conversation, a solemn audience formed around us. What do the ordinary Indians recognize that we do not? Is he a well-known character? Infamous? Is he sending out some cultural signals we’re just not getting? No one smiled. No one winked.
“Where do you alight?” Mahim Junction, we said. He is traveling to the end of the line. We have four or five more stops together.
He leaned in to us though he was already thigh-to-thigh, with endless important things to tell us. Most urgent was that he is our host in India, and next time we visit we need only phone his mobile on arrival and we will be his guests. He’s the founder and CEO of a huge, multinational entertainment company, makes documentary films, he said, and owns seven bungalows in Goa. We have to visit him in Goa. We have to stay with him there.
“How often are you in Goa?” Bob asked.
“Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Mondays I am back in Mumbai.”
I raised my camera with a questioning face.
“Wait, wait, wait, your light is not sufficient!” the swami scolded. Maybe he is a filmmaker.
He insisted on giving us his contact information and demanded paper from Bob. Bob unfolded a page from his pocket and began to tear off a corner.
“No! Don’t tear it. Give it to me!” The swami grabbed it, smoothed it onto his Kellogg’s box, and began writing in cursive with his own pencil. He was quiet and concentrated for long stretches. Each time he raised his head to speak, Bob reached for the paper, presuming he was finished writing. Bob’s paper had important notes for the day on it.
“I’m not finished!” the swami whined, and bent over the paper each time. He’d already completely filled the front and back, his handwriting becoming smaller and filling corners.
The train approached Mahim Junction along the perimeter of the slum Dharavi, our destination. I filmed the edge of the slum from the speeding train window: slow-moving people and colorful, skewed huts among a of confetti of beaten trash. Bob reached for his notepaper once more.
“I’m not finished. Do you want incomplete things or full things? Don’t worry, I am getting down with you at Mahim Station. I am busy, but I have ample time for a visitor. I want you to be comfortable in India!” He finished with a beatific smile.
The swami followed us off the train, clearly intending to stick with us (or manipulate us somehow?). Suddenly, he was leading us. Attempting a graceful separation and needing that piece of paper, we trailed him to a bench on the platform where he sat down. He began reading aloud every word he’d written on the paper, front and back. A new audience encircled us, men who were not ashamed to show their interest, leaning in and cocking their heads to read the notes. The swami read on, unaffected. He read his name, his long important titles, his Mumbai address and phone numbers, his Goa home address, his office address, his mobile phone, and several email addresses. His Facebook address, and a description of his Facebook profile picture (a white lion). And still he was not ready to let us go.
Bob took the paper and thanked the swami, who rose from the bench as we backed away. Politely but forcefully, we extricated ourselves. We meant to phone some of the numbers the following day but we didn’t. We’re not sure, but we’re pegging him a harmless nutcase. And if not the CEO of a multinational entertainment company, at least an entertainment himself.
UPDATE 5/7/12: The swami does have a facebook page with the white lion profile pic he wrote of. All that’s on it though is a photo of him with a woman and two young boys. I could easily jump to the conclusion that they are his family. “About” himself, he says “I AM A HUMAN BEAGIN & SPEAK LANGAUGE OPF HUMANITY.” He’s in an “open relationship” and “interested in men and women,” but I can imagine him interpreting these labels in the broadest, loosest terms. But who am I to say? Probably, he’s the CEO of a multinational entertainment company.—B