The three minutes between the rickshaw and the office
In Mumbai, the events and details of a couple of moments can feel like enough for a whole day.
Crowds of men hover in the street, bees on a honeycomb as I step out of the rickshaw in the morning. Every space within one hundred meters of Khar station is packed with day labourers who sit back on their haunches or stand in chappals, shirt-pant combinations and side parted hair. They wait to be told what to do.
I step over the ragged curb onto the dusty pavement in the tea stall. Men sit in rows, bright lights hum and fans whir overhead, drying circular tea-stains on linoleum countertop. I trade a hundred rupee note for small change, money which has been passed through thousands of hands. The chaiwala stands slumped over his cauldron, looking at me while he pours tea into a row of cups in trays. The manager drops coins on the counter, worn from coins being dropped before. Steam erupts and spills into the thick air, making the whole space hazy and humid. I drop the coins into the rickshaw driver’s hand, noticing that his ring finger is missing its nail, and trip into the road.
Crossing the street means looking down at feet to find the path least cluttered with human traffic, angling your shoulders like a goat in a herd. Safely on the other side, a stray dog wearing a jingle bell on a twine collar and a stray child wearing his history in his body language both look at me hopefully.
In the stairwell is a dead rat, broken with its chin up against the wall. As though it had been thrown down the stairs by the tail. I feel sweat prickle and bead on my lower back.
At the junction of the next floor, cross-legged behind his basket is a subjiwala. The woman of the house stands in her nighty, bargaining with him through the steel grate. She feels empowered in this argument because she’s safe behind her door, and she’s looking down on him. Subjiwala manipulates chillies through his fingers in consideration. He has been there long enough for an ant colony to form from crack in the wall to his baskets, cutting away shreds of a carrot.
Upstairs, I hold the door open while transferring from outside shoes to inside slippers because the maid is coming up the stairs behind me. She steps over the threshold, braid slipping across her back, a shift of green glass bangles. “Ghar per koi nahi tha” she says in explanation as her three year old cousin steps through the doorway behind her, wearing ‘western dress,’ sucking on her fingers.