“Sir Can you help me?
I turned around to see where the voice was coming from. It was an older man must be in his fifties with a tattered shirt and a dirty looking pant. He was not very tall with striking white hair and beard. His beard and hair were long and well groomed. This was in sharp contrast to the image that he portrayed of a man in need. His eyes still had a liveliness which had not been doused by the misery he had under gone.
I was in a hurry. I was late for my client conference call. The Mumbai traffic was at its best performance this morning along with my normal reticence ensured that I was rushing for the call. I was pushing and shoving the bike in to any space available so that I may crawl ahead in the stand still traffic. He was standing at a traffic island imperious to all the rush and noise all around him. He was holding a board written in English.
I read the board it spoke about money needed for an operation of his sick wife and he was unemployed. I raised the pane of my helmet and looked at the man. He looked familiar. It was his eyes that gave him away though there were dark spots and a weathered look on his face now.
It must be close to twenty years now. We lived in the chawl and my dad worked for the rationing office. The chawls by their very nature afforded no privacy and hence everyone knew everyone else. Further most of the people who lived in a chawl had recently migrated to Bombay from their villages across the country. People sought out people from their community and region to have a kind of kinship and sense of belonging in a strange land.
People would hang around in the open to escape the heat and small space that chawls provided. After work men would sit in the open playing cards and drinking, while the women as was the norm then were housewives sat talking and trying to quiet excited kids. It was melee but nobody seemed to mind.
It was in these circumstances one day someone brought to the attention case of a man and his family. The man was unemployed and was going through a lot of misery. The man belonged to rich Christian family from Kerala and had means to survive back home. He was stage actor and was trying his hand in Mumbai. Unlike today those days the Hindi movie industry was dominated by Punjabis with no roles for a South Indian male actor. He had exhausted all the money which he had with him chasing the elusive dream.
The local Malayalees of Uday nagar decided to help them. The family was invited to come over one Sunday afternoon. The man was dashing with a thick mustache and lustrous hair. His eyes were big and brown. The woman looked wretched with bones sticking out and face which had a haunted look. Her eyes were buried deep in their socket and face was drawn inward. The kids all looked disheveled with hairs which were not groomed and shirts with buttons missing. The man was in stark contrast to his family. Even though he was asking for help, it seemed the community of Uday Nagar was doing a good deed for itself by helping him. It was like feeding the over feed Brahmin in our mythical tales of yore.
The wife we learned was suffering from Tuberculosis. Those made many wives of the colony have their children go away inside the house. A rickety table and chairs were bought out and the food was laid out. The wives and kids devoured whatever was laid in front of them. I was ten years old and was staring at the family from the confines of the chawl. The man was picking and choosing his food. It seemed he tasted the food to see if it was befitting his stomach’s stature. The children stuck together with the wife and the man stood aloof like a lotus in all the muck around it.
It was decided there would be a collection drive to help the family. The family had decided to go back to Kerala. They needed money to clear some debts and for the rail tickets. My father and one of the neighbors started the solicitation. There was a letter written by the man in Malayalam and to it was attached a paper for noting the name and contribution by the resident Malayalees of Uday Nagar. It took a lot of late nights and tireless effort by my father to collect money for the cause. Some of the residents worked late shifts or had different holidays, further everyone was not sympathetic to the cause which required a lot of cajoling and arm twisting. The drive was made difficult as you had to ensure you took along someone the family who you went asking for money recognized. To ensure all these schedules matched was a Herculean task. I can still remember my mom being critical of my dad and his unnecessary involvement in a fruitless endeavor.
The man visited frequently our house and was impatient with slowness of the drive. He even expressed doubts if the people raising the money were keeping it for themselves instead of giving it to him. It made my dad loose his cool and shout at him.
“I do not doubt you sir”
“I don’t trust Mr. Nair who is helping you in the drive”
I don’t recollect exactly how that discussion ended. I know my mother was very unhappy that night about the fruitless endeavor and the attitude of the man.
“I have never seen or heard of a situation like this” she said
“Well, I feel sorry for the wife and the kids, otherwise…” replied my dad.
It was about two thousand rupees that was handed over to the family in a small function in the neighborhood. We also gifted old clothes and food items. The man was more interested in auditing the list than expressing gratitude.
People heard him complaining about wasting money for the function than adding it to the collection.
“You guys want to feel good that is why ….” he said.
The people involved in the process were glad to see his back.
It was almost a year later we were traveling to visit a family friend in the western suburbs of Bombay. The trains were crowded. My mom and sister went into the ladies compartment while I went with dad. We got down at Malad and waited for my mother and sister to join us.
“Guess who I met “she said.
She had the seen the wife of the man we helped in the ladies compartment. My mother recognized her as the lady tried to avoid her. Long story short, he was a conman and she was a woman he had enrolled in his project to hoodwink the gullible residents of Uday Nagar. Her husband was dead and she had hungry stomachs to feed.
“The bastard gave her almost close to nothing” said my mother.
My dad was quite for a long time. We visited our friends and had a good time. On the way back he and my mother decided to keep the secret to themselves.
“This will create a ruckus” he said.
“I will keep quiet, if you promise not to involve in such projects again” she said.
There was some relief and traffic was showing signs of life again.
“Did you not go to Kerala Mr. George?” I asked.
He looked at me for a long time and then he smiled.