The unerring cock has crowed, the sun is rising but not yet hot, and it is morning in a back street in Mumbai, India. Here is a man named Krishna, aged fifty-eight years, whose job it is to polish a small fleet of taxi cabs before their drivers begin their day’s work in the late morning and afternoon. There are nine cars in all, and quite an assortment, from the trusty black and yellow autorickshaw, to the ubiquitous Suzuki Muruti, to a gorgeously regal white tank known as the Ambassador.
With three differently coloured plastic buckets, an assortment of rags, and a stealthily “borrowed” water hose at his disposal, it takes Krishna most of the morning to complete his task. Each car needs roughly twenty-five minutes of his attention. He’d be quicker, of course, but considerably less happy, if he was alone. Which, decidedly, he is not. He has learned to factor in a series of faithful interruptions to his steady regime of soap-scrub-rinse-and-polish. In fact, human interactions, rather than cleaning the cars, become the point.
The crippled cobbler drops in first, en route to his shop, which is the patch of pavement on a near-by street corner where he has been spreading his blanket and erecting his shoe stand for almost three decades. A painter comes by on a bicycle. He has a piece of information, and he shares it conspiratorially with a wink and a laugh before re-mounting his bike and continuing on his way, impossibly laden with a dozen paint cans somehow bound together around his handlebars and basket. A man on a chair by the street is a kind of guardian angel. He never really moves, just surveys his newspaper, and barks out selected highlights to Krishna, whether his companion wants them or not. The driver of the Ambassador is reliably picky. He has no one to boss about at home, so he is sure to show up early each morning. He struts about, fussily pointing out an inconsistency in Krishna’s polishing of the right fender, a insufficiently gleaming corner on the silver roof rack.
And who’s this now? It’s a sniffy woman in big ear rings and an elegant golden shalwar kameez. I’ll guess she’s an aspirant (frustrated?) Bollywood actress who lives in a third-floor flat with her sister, only leaving to go to the gym or to a dance class to practice the “two hip lift” thing. Utterly self-absorbed, she comes by only after a fashion: she is yakking into her mobile phone while impatiently waiting for Krishna to move his hose.
The housekeeper who cleans in the dilapidated mansion that has become a hotel is much better value from Krishna’s point of view. She is bent from years of hard work, but with her bright eyes and laugh as easy as the part in her long dark hair, she is more than enough to make an older man ponder what might once have been. Besides, she has time. She has generosity not just emerging in her face, but from her very pelvis. She brings a snack, sustenance reliably spiced with entertaining gossip about the possessions and habits of the hotel’s international array of guests.
What a strange lot, these guests – all foreign tourists – seem to be. But they too have become local players, however fleeting. Like driftwood washed up on a beach until the tide of their lives and concerns carries them away, back to this train terminal or that airport. They pay Krishna little mind and interrupt him even less. They mean him no harm, but from their perspective he is human scenery en route to Colaba market, the city tour, or the boat to Elephant Island. Judge them and their gaze (and everyone else’s) if you wish. Some places and people are more beautiful, more captivating, than others. As Western strangers with eyes for India and its airs, sounds, smells and ways, they are simply the most recent. Just round the corner there’s someone selling “orientalising brew,” and next to that shop you know there is a frothing cup of “provincialising europe” and the “subaltern” sip.
If Krishna wants to be appreciated more deeply, he has other options. There is his beloved cha – if he has managed to keep to schedule then surely once, but maybe even twice, each morning. Maybe his friend the housekeeper will stop in? Krishna stretches his back between autos, looks this way then that, then saunters down the road. Past the beauty parlour, the shop selling excellent language classes, two watch repair men, the laundry, the tailor, a boy selling collared shirts on an oil drum, and a two-table restaurant specialising in dosas — to the tea stall. With one step, he enters the steamy, aromatic, cup-clanking court of Ramesh. With golden reading spectacles askew on the end of his nose, silver stubble on his chin, and approximately four strands of hair tied up behind his head, Ramesh rules. He brews the cha, and commands a ready staff of stirrers and washers and deliverers. Ramesh reigns benignly over all comers, local and alien. Krishna pays only half of the usual five rupees for his tea. There are benefits of being in the middle, a trusted regular in this local economy. Voices are everywhere, competing against the din to be heard.
The tea break becomes the whole morning. It starts, it ends, it begins again. People float in an out. They do not take home enough to live in the dignity they deserve. But for Krishna, imperial Ramesh, the housekeeper, the snotty driver, and all the others, this back street is out front – less a place of business than a place of life itself. The stuff, the ceremony, the gestures, the accidents. Spaces of showing and sharing, and concealing a thing or two.