The Swami of Mumbai

The swami on the train.

The swami on the train.

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.

As more and more men gathered around our conversation, I tried to catch an eye; none gave me a smile or an ironic grin.

As more and more men gathered around our conversation, I tried to catch an eye; none gave me a smile or an ironic grin.

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.

Confident and commanding with a sweetness about him; we are confounded as to his motives.

Confident and commanding with a sweetness about him; we are confounded as to his motives.

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.

The swami writes out his contact information, covering both sides of the sheet of paper in small cursive.

The swami writes out his contact information, covering both sides of the sheet of paper in small cursive.

“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.

Dharavi slum, as seen from a speeding train.

Dharavi slum, as seen from a speeding train.

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 writes.

The swami writes.

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

© Copyright 2008-2012 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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