They come to Mumbai by the thousands everyday. They bring with them not cats but their hopes and dreams. They may or may not believe that the streets of Mumbai are paved with gold. They may or may not (alright, they rarely do) go on to become Lord Mayors. However, they survive, some of them even thrive and prosper in this city. They are Mumbai’s Dick Whittingtons.
Kalpana - I do not know her name till much later - naam jaanke kya karoge? (what will you do with my name?) - spots me with the camera and pushes her way through the crowd. Tattoo, sister, one you try free - the English gives way to didi, mehendi laga lo na once I respond to her in Hindi. Before I know what is happening, my hand is in hers and she is making patterns all over it.
And now she turns my hand over and wants to cover the back too with that bright color. Hang on, how much does this cost?
Only ten rupees per tatoo, she remarks with that air of nonchalance I would give anything to acquire.
By then she is counting the tatoos on my hand and says 18, only 180 rupees. Are you sure you don’t want more on the back of your hand?
Kalpana’s family is from interior Maharashtra. She has lived in Mumbai for many years now and is seen at Juhu beach every evening. The foreigners are much nicer, she believes. I cannot blame her; I drive a hard bargain and end up paying much lesser, the foreigners never do that.
But see, I am taking your photographs - I banter with her.
What will I do with photographs? Will they feed my children back home?
And she turns her face away sharply. And I walk away feeling guilty, and unsure of the reason…
Standing on a wooden box close to her is Babban, from the North. That place from where they feel they are no longer welcome in Mumbai.
He has been selling bubbles to children at Juhu beach for four years now. No family in Mumbai. Unlike Kalpana, he is taciturn and suspicious of my questions. He thaws somewhat and talks to me; on Sundays and holidays, he earns over two thousand rupees.
Only God can answer that, he shrugs. And goes back to blowing bubbles.
There is some lesson in it somewhere; brightly coloured water but the bubbles that emerge colourless and ephemeral. Some lesson somewhere - I am thinking about Kalpana and Babban for the rest of the evening.