The stalls along Colaba Causeway had not yet opened, I could walk undisturbed and in long strides. It would take me around fifteen minutes from my hotel to Cafe Mondegar, where I was going to meet a friend. A couple of hours later, and I would have to force myself through throngs of tourists and the whispers of «Shawls, Madam, Pashmina, silk …»
When I reached the café, I was early, but I didn’t want to walk any further just to kill time. It was already hot and clammy and I decided to hang around in the shade in case Sanjay was early. Of course, that would never happen. Sanjay would have to take a three-wheeler to his local train station in Dadar, get off the train at Churchgate, and then come by taxi to Colaba, the southern tip of Mumbai. All sorts of delays could happen and I didn’t expect him even to be on time.
My eyes fell on the old woman on a chair only a few metres away from me. I had seen her from the corner of my eye when I passed her, now I noticed to my astonishment that she was naked. She sat with her back towards the street, but the pavement was lined with stalls. Nobody could see her from the street, but she was visible for everybody walking up and down the pavement.
The woman might be in her 70s. In India, old people often look much older than their age because of the wear and tear of the country itself – at least those of the lower classes. Her head was bent and her back crooked, as if she was sheltering herself with her body. I caught a glimpse of one of her breasts; long and skinny and no longer bearing any resemblance to a female breast. I felt a lump in my throat and turned away.
When I looked at her again, a man had appeared with a small bucket and was pouring water over her body. I was simply witnessing her morning toilet. But why outside and so unprotected?
I wondered if he was her husband or perhaps her son. It was difficult to judge the man’s age as well. He kept pouring water over her haggard, wrinkled body. Her hair was grey, and sprouted in every direction. I wondered how this could take place in the middle of Colaba; one of the finer parts of Mumbai and more than anywhere else a melting pot of all kinds of tourists, with a mixture of street markets, elegant government shops, famous street food and up-scale restaurants.
Of course, I knew that in a megalopolis like Mumbai, people are – all over the city – born on the street, and they die there. In between, life takes many miserable shapes.
It must be her son, I thought, watching them openly. I fidgeted with my camera, fighting the urge to take a picture. I wanted to show friends at home how pitiful life can be. But I held back.
The man had put a grey towel around the woman’s shoulders. He was talking to her in a loud and coarse voice, and I tensed and wished I knew Marathi. Maybe he wasn’t shouting at her, maybe her hearing was bad and he needed to raise his voice. I looked at the way he was drying her; did he go gentle on her? How I hoped his hands felt caring on her body.
I thought about my own mother at 89. Her bathroom seemed like an operating theatre in comparison. Oh, that lump in the throat again, I had to turn away and walk, but just a few steps. With shame, I hoped Sanjay would appear with his enthusiastic grin, we would hug and walk up the stairs at Café Mondegar and escape into the world of Art Deco furniture and Americano coffees.
The man left the towel around the woman’s shoulders. I wondered if he was the owner of one of the stalls. They wouldn’t open until around eleven, so there was more than an hour left. He was sweeping the pavement, he might be getting ready to open.
The woman sat still as the man busied himself with this and that. Suddenly, the pavement was completely empty, and the man had his back to me, so I lifted the camera and snatched a photo. Instinct, I thought shamefacedly, and hoped the photo would be blurred and useless.
The man reappeared with a pink dress. He removed the towel and for a few seconds the woman was again naked. Then she raised her hands and he started to help her on with the dress. It looked like a nightgown, but it was a long, loose dress. It must feel comfortable, I thought, as if to justify the pitiful sight. When her arms were through, she collected her hair in a bun on the top of her head. It took a while to get the dress on, her body seeming frail and stiff.
The man looked around, and there came another man hurrying towards them with whom he exchanged a few words. The two men helped the woman to her feet, and led her across the pavement, only a few steps towards another chair. She is not able to walk, I thought. I wish he had asked me for help, I would have liked to give her a hand. But he would never do that, I wasn’t part of their story. Hours later, I found myself at the same corner. I had come back to buy some bangles, and had no choice but to force my way down the now jammed pavement. The woman was still sitting on the chair, her back still crooked, her head slanting upwards and for a second I thought I met her gaze. I wondered if she was still naked under her dress, if she sat there all day without panties. The thought was unbearable.
I didn’t believe she was homeless, not even poor, but many moons away from an existence I would call decent. Maybe a chair on a busy pavement was more of a life than a tiny room with a whirring fan as the only companion.
I decided to look for her the next time I set foot in Mumbai. She had already become a part of my Mumbai DNA. She had rightfully claimed a place in that pocket of my brain where I kept the stories that broke my heart.