Soul Street

img_20160111_175515.jpgI was walking past the Jehangir Art gallery when a man called out to me.

“Would you like a portrait?”

The man was wearing a faded yellow coat. In his right hand he had a discoloured diary and some loose canvas sheets. Just registering the words, I stopped midway and gave the man a once-over. The left-hand side pocket of his coat was all but torn, it hung by the few remnants of a brown thread. The sheets in his hands were as dusty as the coat itself, yet he didn’t look dirty, just in need of new clothes. I shook my head and he went and sat at the curb, fingering his beard that still had some specks of black.

I had walked a few steps when I turned back.

“How much do you charge,” I asked, mildly curious.

“Rs 200, it’s a live portrait.”

The words came out hurriedly this time, like he wanted this part over so he could begin what he knew. I looked at him for a while before turning back on my way.

“How much will you pay?” he gulped as I shook my head and walked on. This time I did not turn back. I had no money to waste.

I spent that money at McDonalds as I read a fictional piece on eight ways to commit suicide.

*********

At the corner near Fabindia at Fort, a man, a woman and a little girl were hard at work. Nobody paid them much attention, not even when the girl climbed the pole. She was holding a bright pink pot on her head, the same colour as her skirt. Circumspect at first, she used the free hand to balance herself on that precarious piece of rope. Just after a few steps, she had quickened her pace. But no one there had eyes for her. Men were instead flocking to the other end where a woman was bawling in despair. Amid the circle of people, from the tiny crevices between their bodies all I could see what a sheet of white.

As I walked back towards the girl, she swirled the rope herself, not waiting for anyone nor losing sight of the end. I wanted to say something to the parents but I walked on…

God forbid, but maybe she would get some attention only when there was a white cloth covering her body, she would then be part of stardust that audacious girl.

I thought about the young girl as I read Rohit Vemula’s unfinished portrait.

*******

At one of the mobile cover and repair shops in the inside lanes at Fort, a foreigner was sitting on a stool. A man was working on a phone, which I figured belonged to the lady. She was in conversation with another man, who was standing nearby.

“Cows? Where can I see some cows,” she was asking the man.

“Yeah, yeah, cows.” His hands were pointing to the street outside, as he kept mouthing these words, smiling coyly every time he looked at her.

As I walked past, I just prayed that she wouldn’t utter the word “beef”.

I thought about the foreigner as I read about a minister being arrested for allegedly eating beef in MP.

*********

Near Kalaghoda, I was jolted by what was a sudden upbeat voice. A middle-aged man with a red cap and a badge was asking for my signature.

“What is this signature for” I asked.

“You sign this for Green Earth. All you have to do is pledge to protect a tree, any tree. So you see anyone littering around this tree, you stop them. You know Swacch Bharat, Green Bharat. You don’t let any harm befall this tree. That’s all. Now, can I get your signature,” he said, pointing to the pad which already was half full.

“Sure, but what will you do with the signatures?”

“That’s to show you support our NGO and initiative. Are you studying or working?”

“Hmm…working”

“So then you can make a monetary contribution too. Any amount you wish like…”

“Hmm…I’ll go to your website and contribute there.”

“Sure, it’s Greenearth.org. Don’t forget about the tree.”

I walked off smiling at his zeal. Would I mark a tree to protect? Would I fight for it if it was being cut? I shrugged, happy that I had got out of paying the guy.

I thought about the tree guy when I returned home and it was so damn hot.

********

I was walking past Rhythm House, when I saw the 70% off sign. A man had just walked out and was clicking a selfie. It was just days before it was to close down. When was the last time I had visited the place? Years, maybe five, maybe more, I wasn’t sure. I walked in, hoping to grab something for keepsake. I walked over to the fusion section, glancing over at the CDs. In a span of five minutes, two employees walked up to me and told me what was in and what was good. I smiled at them, torn between two artists I wanted to try out. I told myself I would pick up just one. But even one would cost Rs 250. I had no money to waste. I walked out of the store without a bag, but with a selfie of the blue exteriors where only the sound of silence would prevail henceforth.

I thought of the blue facade when I saw my settlement letter on the table.

***********

At Gateway, I walked to the steps where I usually sit, right next to the police barricade. As is usual, there were people milling around, clicking pictures, a film shoot was going on nearby and photographers were chasing people. The birds were doing a circuit of the area, trying to judge who had the funniest pose.

A boy was sitting on my spot. He seemed to have been crying, his eyes were puffed up and he was staring beyond the edifice that has come to signify Mumbai.

“Would you like some water,” I asked.

“No, no thanks. I’m good.”

Soon, I was lost in my own thoughts, none of which were comforting.  We were the only ones sitting by ourselves; the rest of the world had somebody to call to its own. He was staring at his phone, probably looking at a loved one’s picture. The tears were flowing rapidly down his face. I wanted to tell him, it wasn’t his fault, it was just one of those days and that it would all be fine. He walked away after a while and I followed a few minutes later.

I thought of the boy when I saw your bindi on the mirror.

******

When I looked up I didn’t recognise myself anymore. I used to have a voice once upon a time. I could be a friend, activist, nature lover with ease. Things mattered, they weren’t just still pictures that failed to move the heart. By the looks of it, I had missed my own funeral.

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