Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Changing Lives - One Person at a Time

I vividly remember an incident way back to when I was seven years old.  My father and I were at a traffic light in Mumbai.  A young beggar boy (probably in his teens) peered through the window of our taxi, and started reciting his sob story.  His face convulsed in misery as he recounted a nonstop rendition of how he hadn't eaten in days, and that a rupee from me could feed his starving stomach.

I was immediately taken by this young boy's woes.  His sorry face showed no tears, but his matted hair and dirt-streaked face painted the perfect picture of a young boy trapped in hopelessness.  And all it would take is one rupee to morph his sad face into one of temporary hope.  I fished into my pockets and found a one rupee coin.  Before I could place it in the boys waiting palm, my father clasped his huge hand over my thin wrist and brought it down.

"What are you doing?" demanded my father, shifting his irritated gaze between my face and coin.  "Someone asks you for money and you will just give it to him!  Nothing is wrong with this boy!  He is just lazy!  Look at him!  He is hale and hearty - why can't he work?"

I looked at the boy closely.  The boy didn't understand English but his uncertain expression indicated that he knew he was the bone of contention between father and son.  I noticed that even though the boy had successfully forged a sad tone in his voice to supplement his miserable story, there were no tears at all.  And he was a little on the plump side - a little ironic for a boy whose words had almost led me to believe that for him, food was a luxury.

The traffic light changed to green.  Our taxi zoomed ahead leaving the boy to his life and me with a philosophy for the years to come on how to deal with beggars.

When I hit my teens, and my awareness and sensibilities kicked in, I learned of the beggar mafia.  It had been reported that all beggars worked under a 'Dada' (local gangster) to whom they had to give their earnings of the day.  Some reports mentioned that children and people of all ages entered this profession both voluntarily and involuntarily.  Either way, it was a profession that fueled the mafia and did nothing to improve the circumstances of beggars.

This morning, I was returning from Lokhandwala Market in the Andheri Suburb of Mumbai.  At the Adarsh Nagar signal, a young beggar girl (no more than 12) jumped up from the kerb when she saw my rickshaw come to a full stop.  Wrapped around her, in a dirty cloth, was a sleeping infant.

She started a familiar rendition in Hindi - "My child is hungry, saab.  Please give me something, anything so that I can feed her.  I myself have not eaten for two days."

Her words brought back the incident at the signal with the beggar boy, years ago.  After accustoming myself to the flashback, I mildly unleashed a chiding tirade on her.

"You should be ashamed of yourself carrying a little child in the heat just to make some money.  If you choose to do this, then why drag the child along with you?"

She looked at me sadly and said, "Saab, this is my child.  And there is no one else to take care of her.  And I beg because my family needs the money."

"I'll give you Rs. 500 if you're story has any truth to it," I replied and turned ahead.

I expected her to back off, but she remained standing there her sad look piercing into my eyes.

"Come with me, if you don't believe me," she said and walked away.

Her challenge took me by surprise.  Ordinarily, I would have ignored her and gone on home.  But there was something about her innocent face and sadness in her eyes that made me curious.  Besides, it was broad daylight and I doubted that she would be stupid enough to lure me into a situation where I would be roughed up and mugged by older associates.

I paid the autowallah his fare, while he shook his head in disapproval.  The girl walked ahead and I followed her, staying a few feet behind.  She turned around periodically to check if I was still following her.  The faceless baby remained asleep throughout, his/her tiny feet popping out from his/her child-mother's bosom.

Our destination was 500 meters down the road.  An open gutter ran the entire length.  Over the gutter were several shanties (slums).  The makeshift house was big enough only for two people - it was so small.  The girl ducked into one of them and within seconds, pulled out a frail hand along with her attached to a perpetually coughing woman.

"This is my mother," said the girl.  "She is paralyzed waist down.  The doctor said it was blood clots.  My father lives in a chawl in Behram Baug there, but threw us out and took in another woman and her children.  We have no money and I'm the only one to support my mother.  No one will hire me as a servant because I am too young.  This is the only work I can do."

"And the baby?  Where is the father?" I asked, too taken in to employ any tact.

She looked down and kept her gaze fixed on the dirty gutter.  At that moment, it seemed to offer her more solace than my shameless face.

It all came to me in an instant.  This girl didn't know who the father was.  Because her innocence was taken from her against her will and her soul ripped apart in the process - not once but probably several times by different men.

I felt tears welling up in my ears.  I felt foolish.  But my dark glasses hid my shame well.

I had studied an MBA in Sustainability, focusing on both the Environmental and Social Sector.  On the social side, I had studied about all about the poverty traps that kept the impoverished poor along with other social issues plaguing the less privileged the world over.  Armed with that knowledge, I began to look upon India in a different light - and that long-term change could happen only one person at a time.  The Government and charities were offering only short-terms solutions.

After all those case studies, volunteer/community work, late night studying, papers, presentations, exams, non-profit/foundations exposure, and top grades - here I was standing face to face with a girl one-third my age, but whose experiences had made her grow up before her time and see three times as much of life's misery than I had.  Here I was, the typical wary Mumbaikar, reduced to someone who had learned everything in college, but who knew little about the reality behind all those concepts and stories.

On one hand, I felt ashamed for having doubted her.  On the other hand, I was grateful for having opened my eyes into learning about something that every Mumbaikar ordinarily ignores.  I took out a five hundred rupee note and pressed it it into her hand, along with my card.  I told her to call me if she needed any medical assistance for her mother.  She finally allowed her listless expression break into a slight smile and returned the card.

I didn't ask her why but understood.  People in the past may have offered to help her.  But they had either taken advantage of her or just went back on their word.  On seeing her plight, I knew that her long-term solution was money.  I gave her Rs. 1500 more and decided to deliver Rs. 2000 to her personally each month.  It would eat into my monthly budget and I would have to give up on some of my monthly outings.  But she needed basic food more than I needed to eat out.  Hers was a necessity.  Mine was a luxury.  This was the most I could do for her now.  And I sincerely hope that I can do more for her further.  But I know that at the end of the day, our own responsibilities make us lose sight.  And it might happen with me too.

It got me thinking.  We all talk about quitting certain vices - like smoking, drinking, non-veg (I don't consider it a vice:)).  But we always want to do it for ourselves.  How about doing it for others?  How about calculating the money we save, and using that to help someone else - someone we don't even know.  After all, I believe, we can help the less fortunate by helping one person at a time.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mind your Umbrella!

The Mumbai Monsoons hit really hard today, announcing their final arrival in their full splendour and glory.  An umbrella is a must, and you should have it with you at all times!  By "at all times" I mean - never let it out of your sight!  Yes, there are umbrella whackers out there!

I went to the Medical Centre to pick up my reports today.  I should have gone much earlier, but got kind of lazy about it.  Anyway, the rain was pouring hard, so hard that I needed my umbrella from the autorickshaw to the entrance which was literally a few steps away.  Outside the entrance was a green plastic bucket, housing inverted wet umbrellas in various stages of wear and tear.  As you know, in most establishments, you are expected to leave your wet umbrella outside in such a container.  However, there is no provisions of specific security to safeguard your umbrella.

Once I collected my reports, I stepped back outside and retrieved my umbrella.  There was a family of three looking searchingly in all directions.  I figured that something was wrong and asked if I could be of any assistance.  Apparently, their umbrella got whacked.

The man told me that they had stepped in for a few minutes, and when they returned their umbrella was gone.  I asked him if it was a fancy umbrella and he replied in the negative.  He went on to describe his umbrella - it was one of those plain sturdy black ones that offer protection to three people and never threaten to overturn in gusty winds.  I then saw why his umbrella was 'the chosen one.'

I offered my sympathies and prepared to set out in the heavy rain.  Of course, I did offer him a lift to an auto rickshaw.  But he politely declined saying that he, and his family, would prefer to remain there in wait in the event that someone had borrowed their umbrella for a short trip and returned soon.

As I walked away, I realized the sad state of affairs.  People don't seem to think twice about inconveniencing others, as long as it meets their own benefit.  How can a person whack someone else's umbrella?  I mean, if the person somehow got there without an umbrella in the heavy rain, can't he/she find his/her way back the same way?  Why should someone else suffer?  Besides, what if the person really really needed the umbrella for some other purpose (like in the clip below)?

It got me thinking - is whacking umbrellas worse than stealing shoes outside a temple?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai - Several tracks

The book 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai' runs on several tracks - love, hope, courage, just to name a few.  When I got down to creating visual trailers for the book, I decided to explore Mumbai visually on these three tracks.  So the first promo is all about hopelessness and hope.

The song was recorded by music director duo Sangeet & Siddharth.  Earlier it was meant to have only a female vocalist.  But when Sangeet started singing to direct the female singer, I instantly realized that a duet would be more effective!  Through melody, short track is a communication between two lovers.

The girl's voice is laden with hopelessness.  The guy's voice is lined with hope and a slight lift of spirits.  Earlier, I was planning to shoot with a guy and girl sitting facing the sunset - with the girl being sad, and the guy trying to reassure her.  But then, I found that a little too literal.  So I decided to go abstract and shoot at Bandra Railway Station (one of the characters) and relate the song to the spirit of the people that make Mumbai tick.

Hope you liked the promo!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Am I a corrupt citizen?

I had returned to Mumbai from San Francisco, to find pending bills waiting for my attention.  While the others could be taken care of online, what stumped me was a Property Tax bill with a huge five figure amount.

I remembered Society Property Taxes being included in the Society Bill.  But as explained by the Society Manager, a group in the Society Committee came up with this brainwave to have all members pay it directly to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Office.  The bill was 6 six months overdue and the Manager advised me to pay the bill immediately or the BMC might cut my water supply, which would take a lot of running around to get reconnected.

"Can they really do that?"  I asked.

"They won't," he said disinterested.  "But they can."

So armed with confusion, the bill, and a blank check book, I headed to the designated BMC office.

On arriving, I was surprised at seeing a huge line of anxious people (around 100 metres long) snaking up towards a window manned by a cashier.  It was 11:30 am, and the sign above the payment counter indicated the payment timings to be from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm - just four hours!  On observing the slow pace of the payment process (around 5-10 minutes per customer) further slackened by willful tea breaks and brief gossip sessions on the part of the cashier, it was beyond me as to how the last person in the line would get to reach the window by even 6 pm!

The best informants in Government Offices are peons.  They have all the information on procedures, the right people to speak to, and above all - shortcuts.  Before I could think of where to find the peon, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned around and was met with his toothless grin.  His uniform and knowing smile confirmed his identity.

"Do you want to pay your bill?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.  "Do I have to get in line?"


"But the payment counter closes at 12:30 pm," I pointed out.  "How will I get there by then?"

"You won't.  Neither will any of these people.  The ticket counter will close at sharp 12:30 pm.  Those remaining in line will come back tomorrow and stand again.  This is the system."

A slow smile formed on his lips, which made his shaking of the head with disapproval seem unconvincing.

"But there is a solution," he said, his eyes lighting up.  "You can go up to the third floor and ask for Mr. X (name withheld to protect the innocent writer).  Pay him Rs. 100 and he will do your work.  And yes, mention that I sent to you."

A bribe!  And a cut for the peon from the officer!  A more systemized network for bill payment than the official BMC payment system!

Being a Mumbaikar, I was no stranger to the world of greasing palms.  In fact, my acquired expertise in slipping a note here and there had saved me a lot of time at various Government offices - RTO, MTNL, just to name a few.  But the entire Anna Hazare movement changed my entire outlook towards this previously seemingly harmless act.  I had resolved never to bribe anyone ever again.

Now I was in a dilemma.  On one hand, I ran the risk of my water supply being cut off (friends also said that it never happens, but it can) and spending days on end as one of the hopefuls trying to get to the ticket window.  On the other hand, I could solve the problem within minutes by delaying my newly acquired sense of ethics and proceed to the third floor.  I chose the latter.

Once I was face-to-face with Mr. X, I showed him my bill and cited my reference.  He smiled and nodded, asking me to wait, but showed no signs of taking any action on the issue at hand.  I understood that his palm would need to be greased.  From past experience, I knew that if I didn't do it then and there, he would cite some sort of problem with the bill and put me on the path to a different runaround.

So I took out a hundred rupee note, rolled it up in my fist, and offered him a handshake.  He took my handshake, discovered the note, and politely refused.  I understood that he couldn't blatantly accept a bribe (sting operations were on the rise), so added the safest line to accompany my purpose - "Something for the kids, Sir."  He smiled, accepted it as a gift, and solved my problem within minutes.

In a city like Mumbai where time is money, waiting for hours on end for a small task is a huge loss.  But my solution to saving all that time fuels corruption.  So am I a corrupt citizen?

Monday, August 27, 2012

From a Cough to a Cough and Cold!

I've had a bad cough for a few weeks.  This morning I finally decided to do something about it.  So I set out for the doctor's clinic, just a slight distance from where I live.

It was raining pretty heavily which further highlighted the dilapidated state of the road running the entire length outside his dispensary.  Honest to God, I have never seen so many potholes in one road (maybe I haven't been around much the city lately)!  But anyways, I had finally made it to the outside of the Doctor's office.  I couldn't step out of the autorickshaw immediately because of the small bodies of water that had filled the potholes.  The driver had to reverse and go forward twice to give my foot a clear landing, away from the puddles.

The clinic was on the other side of the road but was surrounded by water on all sides.  Despite my long legs, I had never been good at the long jump so I knew that attempting to leap across the muddly puddles wouldn't work for me.  I walked all around looking for some way to get into the clinic, literally a few steps away, but found none.  Balancing an umbrella in one hand, I pulled up my trousers slightly and stepped into the water.  With drippy feet and now cleansed slippers, I made it to the doctors office.

After a brief conversation and nods of understanding, the doctor sent me to take some tests at a lab closeby.  The first test was a blood test.  Instead of being administered (or extracted) by a credible lab attendant, a peon walked in and did the needful.  He literally jabbed the needle in and out, prompted by routine and a certain hurriedness to get to other unrelated office tasks that were also probably part of his job responsibilities.

Next, I was sent for a chest x-ray.  The attendant in there was a  young boy (not more than 21), who seemingly had too been elevated from an office boy position.  Even though he wore a labcoat, his language was a dead giveaway.  He instructed me to take off my shirt and amulets around my neck.  I wear two amulets - one of a fish and the other of an old British Indian coin that my wife bought from a flea market by the Embarcadero in San Francisco.  The fish had a hook, and came off easily.  The coin was held by a thick black thread knotted securely.  I didn't have long nails so tried unsuccessfully for ten minutes to unknot it.  It was only when the attendant lifted up a pair of scissors suggestively, did it it come off in an instant!

The next test was the urine sample.  I really don't want to talk about it.

But now that I mentioned it, I think it's only fair that I share something from the uneventful experience.  Let's just say that the incident saw me balancing a small sealed plastic jar of identifiable liquid past a line of disapproving onlookers.  I had to walk the length of an entire floor, down a flight of stairs within the lab, and another short distance to another lab attendant.  When I tried to offer her the liquid, she refused to take it immediately.    First she made me reassure her, through two successive demonstrations, that the container was sealed, after which she told me to drop it in a plastic bag which she held open.  Once done, she treated the bag like a ticking bomb, holding it in her fingertips and at an arm's length.

It was raining heavily outside, and fortunately I had one of those heavyset umbrellas which offer protection on all sides.  As I prepared to step into the rain, I noticed an elderly gentleman huddled up in a corner outside the lab in wait for the rain to lessen to a safer pace, so that he could get to a rickshaw without getting completely drenched.  I looked upon this as an opportunity to do my good deed for the day and offered him a lift to the main road.

In my experience of a lift (have only given car lifts), the passenger gets in the passenger seat in the front or sits in the back.  He/She doesn't displace the driver and take over the steering wheel of the car.

But Uncle here, took control of the umbrella keeping it to his level (of 5.5" against my height of 6.1") trying to ensure that none of his clothes got wet.  In the process, I found myself bumping my head into the spokes of the umbrella while unsuccessfully trying to protect myself from the rain.

Yes, I got home drenched.  When I left home, I only had a cough.  Now I have both a cough and cold.:)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A feel of 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai.'

A synopsis and a book cover can only say so much about the book.  It's only after a person has read it, can he/she get 'a feel' of it.

By 'feel', I mean flavour.  'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai' is a story about love, heartbreak, adventure, and courage, set in a magnificently complex city Mumbai that has as many hues and moods as the colourful characters that headline in the book.  I thought - what better way to give people an insight into the book than visually?!

So I decided to shoot a promo.  Having written and directed in the film and television industry and worked as a Promo Producer, apart from being the author of the book, I felt that I had no excuse not to create one myself.  So I stepped on the local train, armed with my iPhone HD camera in the direction of Bandra Station (where 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai' is set).  I felt that a Sony HD handicam could attract attention and might prove cumbersome while shooting inside a train.

It was Eid in Mumbai, a bank holiday, so the station and trains were less crowded as compared to a normal working day.  This worked to my advantage as I was able to take my shots without being pushed by the hustle-bustle characteristic of the busy Bandra Station.  

I captured my shots inside the train, on the platform, the footbridge, and all over the busy Bandra Station Road.  Next I went to other places around Bandra Station, to capture the spirit of the people operating out of shops in and around the area.  But the main shot I needed was a clear static shot of the railway tracks, highlighting its mystery and endlessness.

Given safety concerns, going into the middle of the railway tracks (as Babloo has done in the book) wouldn't be a wise decision so I didn't even entertain that thought as it crossed my mind.  And for some reason, I wanted the shot to be only of the Bandra Railway Tracks (as opposed to any other Station) since those particular tracks are a main character in 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai.'

I walked along the entire length of the Bandra Station road, following the railway tracks and found my opening close to the Gaiety-Galaxy Multiplex.  'Ek Tha Tiger' was playing on one of the screens, so the place was packed with people.  Amongst angry cars and anxious people, I pushed myself through the human obstacles till I found my way to the clearing.  Since I have a long arm, I didn't have to lean over the rusted metal fence dangerously and was able to obliterate peering faces that were trying to get into the picture.  And soon enough, I got my shot.

A day before, I spoke to music directors Sangeet and Siddharth Haldipur and asked them for a track for this promo.  To give you a brief insight into the background of this talented duo, Sangeet and Siddharth were initiated into music at a very young age.  So you could say that music is in their blood.  They each play a couple of instruments and are trained and talented vocalists, having done playback singing for various ad films and feature films, among others.  They are also recognized as successful Indi-Pop singers.  Siddharth is a member of the popular group 'Band of Boys' while Sangeet is a part of the adored Pop foursome 'Aasma' having been selected by a nation-wide talent hunt on Channel V.  As music director duo for the big screen, they go by the name of Sangeet & Siddharth having many successful films under their belt, the most recent being 'Murder 2.'

They heard my brief once and asked for a few hours.  When they got back to me and made me listen to what they had designed, I was completely blown away!  They hadn't even read the book yet, but yet got the essential flavour of the book.  Now that's what I call talent!