It is the month of July; the rainy season has begun. It’s overcast and drizzling in Bandra Kurla Complex, in a suburb of Mumbai. In a new construction zone, commercial building work has halted due to rain. A quiet two-lane road cuts through partly demolished houses on the wide-open land.
An old bus stop about ten to fifteen feet away from one of the houses is also waiting to be torn down. Gokul Vidyalaya, an old school a little less than half a mile away to the northeast, is up the hill from the bus stop. Close to the school, under one of the newly constructed buildings, a few general stores are not open yet. There’s a police station to the southwest, down the hill, about a mile away.
It is a rather tranquil morning. The big old trees are green and glistening from the rain, but there are no birds chirping or flying in the trees. A few dogs huddle together quietly next to the bus stop. It is said that birds and animals behave differently when a strange event is about to occur.
A red BEST bus slowly approaches the bus stop, brakes, makes a sneezing sound, and picks up speed again as it leaves, revealing a boy and a man with two heavy bags in both hands, who slowly trudge to the house near the bus stop.
As they labor up the stairs, a gust of strong wind shakes the house, which is barely supported by dilapidated cement pillars and beat-up logs. The man and the boy nonchalantly keep trudging up the steps. As they come to the landing about fifteen feet above the ground, they open a huge window that displays glass bottles full of food sitting on a plank and baskets of eggs, potatoes, and onions hanging from the top of the window frame.
A dangling old plank above the window squeaks with every gust of wind; it reads, “Takloo Chai Shop.” Next to the main door and to the right of the window displaying food, there is a smaller window, and to the left there’s a partly broken porch made of beautifully carved teakwood and a wrought iron railing.
The boy is fifteen-year-old Ganpu Aapla. He is a little over five feet tall with brown skin, a round face, and uncombed short hair. Ganpu is smart-looking and has a friendly, pleasant smile. He’s wearing an old, faded red T-shirt, dark brown shorts, and ragged canvas shoes with no socks.
Ganpu prances on the porch, listening to loud Bollywood music on his earphones while rolling an old bicycle tire.
The man is Rama, Ganpu’s father. He’s in his midfifties but looks much older. Rama is five feet six inches tall and skinny with uncombed short, straight hair. He’s rugged-looking but timid. He’s wearing an old muddy white short-sleeve shirt and brown pants, and he’s carrying a small bag in his hand.
Savitri, Ganpu’s mother, is in her midforties but also looks much older. She’s five feet tall, with fair skin. Savitri wears her long black hair parted in the middle and tied in a bun at the back of her head. She has a red dot on her forehead and is wearing an old yellowish-green sari and carrying an old plastic bag in one hand.
Rama and Savitri hurry down the stairs, waving to Ganpu, and Ganpu waves back. He speaks to them in Marathi from the porch.
“Please bring me a new model airplane when you come back,” he says. “Remember, one made of wood only.”
Rama, with a broken smile, raises his hand in assurance, trying to unlock his bicycle parked under the stairs. Savitri stands near him. Both Rama and Savitri speak in Marathi to each other.
“Every day he asks me for a new airplane, and every day we only bring him excuses,” Rama says dejectedly.
“Let’s try to buy him a small wooden airplane today! He’s our only son and he is missing out on his childhood,” Savitri suggests enthusiastically.
“We bought him all the wooden toys when we lived in Dabhol. We could afford it back then! I don’t understand why he wants to play with only wooden toys. Plastic airplanes are so cheap, but, no, he is hung up on wooden toys only. We can’t afford them now, Savitri!”
“Too bad we lost our good old life in Katalveldurwadi. It is not his fault our government sold us out to the foreigners again.”
Rama has a noticeably angry look on his face.
“Yeah, before it was East India Company, now it is the Enrone electric company. It’s funny how these rich people gamble and have the poor pay for it. All we can do now is save every penny for the legal fees and hope to get back to our house and our beautiful life in Dabhol.”
“Then, instead of feeling sad and guilty every day, why don’t you talk to him? He is a good kid. He will understand,” Savitri says, prodding Rama.
Rama, still focused on unlocking the bicycle while talking, hits the lock in frustration with his fist. It finally opens, and he looks up at Savitri. His eyes catch on Ganpu standing right behind her on the steps.
All three pause for a brief moment. Ganpu breaks the silence, handing them their umbrellas.
“Here, you forgot your umbrellas. Baba, don’t worry, I can wait till we can afford it. I understand.”
Savitri takes her umbrella while Rama moves toward Ganpu. He grabs his shoulders, pulls him into a tight hug, and kisses his forehead. Ganpu hands Rama his umbrella as Rama gives him some coins.
“Save them so that someday you can buy your own airplane.”
Ganpu takes the money and slips it into his pocket.
“Yes, Baba, please don’t worry about me. You have so many other things on your mind.”
Rama gets emotional.
“To have a kid like you, Ganpu—we both feel blessed, my son. Thank you, God, thank you, please take care of him. Baba-re, you take care of yourself. We will be back soon.”
Later that morning, a black Mercedes pulls up in front of a U-shaped, four-story, newly painted yellow-and-white school building the Gokul Vidyalaya. There’s a huge playground in front of the building and a guard stationed at the main gate.
Javed, a twelve-year-old boy about four feet, eleven inches tall with brown skin, short, straight black hair, and a nice smile, is dressed in the school’s uniform: white shirt, blue pants, a red tie hanging from his right pocket, black leather shoes, black socks, and a brown backpack on his shoulder. He hops out of the backseat. Javed zips around to the other side, where his father, Hussain, sits chewing paan. Hussain, who is in his late thirties, is rugged-looking with brown skin, a well-trimmed goatee, and nicely groomed hair. He’s wearing a noticeable gold necklace and three gold rings on the fingers of his right hand. Javed’s dad is well dressed in a black jacket and pants and a white shirt. He is the CEO and owner of a top construction company headquartered in Mumbai, with offices in Pune, Delhi, Chennai, and Bengaluru. Hussain kisses his son’s forehead and says, “Be good, son, don’t forget your lunch.”
Xinmin, a very skinny Asian fourteen-year-old about four feet, eleven inches tall with short hair, a round face, slanted eyes, and fair skin, dragging a backpack on wheels and wearing a similar uniform to Javed’s but with a tucked-in shirt and red tie in his back pocket, steps out of the car and waves to Hussain, saying, “Thanks, Mr. Hussain! Thank you for the ride.”
Hussain winks and gives Xinmin a thumbs-up in response. He spits out the red paan while signaling the driver and pulls the door shut. They drive off.
Meanwhile, at a banquet room in a five-star hotel in Bandra, about twenty miles west of the school and close to the seashore, a panel of dignitaries sits behind a long table covered with a pleated white-and-blue tablecloth next to a small ceremonial table with lamps.
One of the panelists stands up and walks to the speaker’s podium to the right of the table. He unhooks the microphone from the stand and taps on it, then says, “We have gathered here today to address some important issues. The first will be new construction, followed by traffic and any related issues that we face in this city today. Moving forward, all of you here have a very strong influence on how these two issues can be handled. I welcome you all and thank you for your valuable time.”
He ambles over to the projector, places one slide displaying the new construction plan and another slide showing a traffic jam in the city, and returns to the microphone.
“Our main guest is on her way. She should be here any minute, and we will start as soon as she arrives.”
A yellow-and-black taxi pulls up just outside the school gate. Twelve-year-old Siva, a short, fat boy with short, curly black hair, light brown skin, and a pleasant smile, springs out. Dressed in a similar uniform as Javed and Xinmin, with his shirt untucked and a tie knot hanging down to his chest, and carrying a rather heavy backpack on his shoulder, Siva hastily tries to cover himself with a blue raincoat.
“Okay, bye. Mom will come pick me up after school. I should run now, bye,” Siva tells the driver.
The driver just waves back and drives off.
As he scurries toward the school, Siva skids and falls in a puddle of water.
Back at the banquet room in the five-star hotel, Mrs. Iyer, Siva’s mom, speaks quite animatedly at the podium. Mrs. Iyer is in her midforties; she’s overweight but attractive with light brown skin and sensual full lips with barely any lipstick. Her shiny black hair is parted in the middle and tied back in a nice round bun, showing off her noticeable makeup and prominent red dot on her forehead. Mrs. Iyer’s big gold earrings, tiny diamond-studded nose ring, and expensive leather white-brown sandals complement her white sari and blouse. She is an actress by profession with political ambition to run for office.
All of the panelists lead the audience in applauding as Mrs. Iyer finishes her sentence. She raises her hands to quiet them and continues.
“These poor people in the slums, driving taxies and doing other menial jobs, have a right to live in this city too. We can’t destroy their homes in the name of progress.”
Everybody applauds again.
Mrs. Iyer continues her speech a bit louder and with a little more gusto.
Near the bus stop on the road, four kids run down the hill with a simple two-fold paper kite on a long string in their hands. Ganpu has his earphones on—music still too loud—trying to keep in step with the beat. Now he’s rolling a car tire in a circle as he grooves to the tune.
He lets the tire roll down the road. It rolls a bit before suddenly turning right, jumping the curb, and smacking into a pile of wooden logs stored under a half-demolished house. Ganpu hurries to fetch it back. He notices two broken tambourines stuck in the pile of logs. He pushes one of the logs out of the way to free one tambourine and picks up a few logs and moves them aside to reach the second one.
Amid the crowd in the banquet hall is Anu, a teacher in her late twenties, who is a full-bodied, attractive woman with brown skin, straight, long black hair parted in the middle and braided into a single plait down her back, full sensual lips, and a small black dot on her forehead. Anu is wearing blue jeans and a light orange kurta, a pendant with a picture of Krishna hanging on a gold neckless, and black-rimmed round glasses.
She’s speaking with her friend and roommate, Sheela, a reporter in her early thirties who has fair skin, a small mouth, and thin lips. She is petite and pretty with straight, long brown hair. Sheela is wearing a light pink long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants. Reading glasses hang from her neck while a brown designer bag hangs from her shoulder and a ballpoint pen sits in her shirt pocket.
As the crowd applauds again to Mrs. Iyer’s speech, Anu expresses her frustration to Sheela: “It’s the same blah-blah everywhere she goes. Why do you bring me to these events? It’s as if she had a good writer pen the speech and must use it everywhere she goes, like the speechwriter put an expiration date on it or something.”
“Yeah, I don’t understand. If she feels so strongly for these poor people, why doesn’t she put them in her own mansion or at least visit the slums in person once in a while,” Sheela concurs.
“The fact is, she needs the slums to make speeches to keep up her celebrity status and her political ambitions. We need the slums for people to work in our houses cooking and cleaning for cheap,” says Anu.
“True, but I need new material. I don’t have the time or energy to follow her everywhere to hear the same old speech. My boss is going to think I am not working on his assignments or—”
Anu looks at her watch and cuts Sheela off. “I totally agree. But today we have exams, and a few questions are from off the syllabus, so the kids will complain if I am late to class. They will have an excuse to not take the test. Can you please drop me off at school? It’s on your way.”
Today, at Mumbai Harbour near the Gateway of India, about fifty miles crow’s flight southwest from the chai shop, the wind is much stronger than usual; waves are brutally hammering the rocks around the harbor. At this usually bustling port there are just a couple of tour boats operating.
One tour boat with a small crew, four international students, and their guide are cutting through the waves rapidly, going on a tour to the Elephanta Caves, one of Mumbai’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Amol is the group’s tour guide. He is handsome with a pleasant chiseled face, sharp features, and short, straight hair parted on the right side. Amol is in his late twenties, five feet, nine inches tall, and wearing a rain jacket, reversed cap, a light blue shirt, and blue jeans. He’s carrying a small diary-size pouch in his hand, and a small leather bag hangs from his shoulder.
Julie, a fourteen-year-old French girl who is five feet tall with short blond hair and brown eyes and a pleasant oval-shaped face that has sharp features including thin lips and a dainty nose, is wearing light blue shorts, a green T-shirt, designer running shoes, and a small backpack.
Five-foot-tall Saira is fourteen but looks older. Coils of leaf-brown hair parted on the left side surround her fair face, which appears worried with its arched eyebrows, sweeping eyelashes, button nose, and puffy heart-shaped lips. She is wearing long blue pants and a black T-shirt and speaks with a heavy Middle Eastern accent.
James is a fifteen-year-old athletic white boy with a rectangular face, nice white teeth, a straight, slightly broad nose, and short red hair. He is about five feet, six inches tall and is wearing blue jeans, a printed blue shirt, blue-and-white designer sneakers, and a designer backpack. He speaks with a heavy Southern American accent.
Fourteen-year-old Rick is a Scottish black kid with dark narrow eyes that are evenly spaced apart, trim eyebrows, a broad rounded nose, an oblong face, angular cheekbones, and a slightly pointed chin. At about five feet, four inches tall, he is slim and has a short black Afro. He is dressed in blue jeans, a red T-shirt, and red-and-black designer sneakers.
It’s still not raining yet, but the boatman is having a hard time navigating through the hurricane-like winds. Amol grabs everyone’s attention with a few short claps and tries to explain to the tourists what they can expect on their visit to the island where the Elephanta Caves are located.
“We still have a good half hour to get there, but I want to welcome you guys to Gharapuri Island, also called Elephanta by the Portuguese.”
All are fielding the heavy wind with their arms as they try to listen. The winds slow down a bit and Amol raises his voice, but the phone rings, interrupting him. Amol stops to check his phone, but the boatman answers it instead. Amol, all excited about the island tour, continues.
“We will soon see the famous Trimurti statue. Also, there are several stone carvings on the island narrating Hindu mythology. The main cave used to be a place of worship for Hindus until the Portuguese showed up, and this Trimurti statue has several myths and meanings, which I will tell you about as soon as we—”
The boatman taps Amol’s shoulder and brings him away from the kids. He speaks in Marathi.
“We must shut down the tour and turn back. The weather is worsening. It is not safe to be out at sea. My crew has been with me for over twenty years, and I can’t risk their lives. This boat is the only livelihood I have, and I can’t take any chances.”
“But you promised the madam, and she gave you so much money,” Amol argues.
“I can explain all of this to the madam later, and here, I have her money. Give it back to her,” the boatman counters, handing Amol a bundle of cash.
With the money in his hand, Amol says, “But this is not—”
The boatman cuts him off. “There is no ‘but.’ You don’t understand. If anything happens to these kids, we will both be in trouble, and we’ll be giving the TV news channels a reason to make our lives miserable.”
On that point, Amol takes a moment to ponder, then slides the money in his bag and turns to the kids.
“Okay, guys, we must head back to the hotel. The weather is getting rough, and it is not safe for us to be on the island.”
Julie immediately expresses her disappointment. “But we just got here.”
The phone rings, and Amol flips open his cell phone.
When he hears the caller, Amol smiles then answers back: “I told you so many times, I am not interested in going on blind dates. They have never worked for me, and they are a stupid waste of time.”
Amol listens to the caller and replies, “Okay, I am at work right now. You are cutting out . . . I don’t have much battery left . . . call you in the evening. Bye.”
Anu, riding pillion on Sheela’s scooter, is wearing a semi-transparent raincoat and carrying an umbrella in her hand. They stop at the gate outside the school, and Anu hops off.
“I can pick you up after school, but only if the handsome dude is not coming.”
“No, no, I’m not interested in the handsome dude. He stood me up last week and didn’t have the courtesy to call me back. When I called him, he said he was busy and would explain when we meet again.”
“Give him another chance, Anu. This is Mumbai! People have so much going on in their—”
Anu cuts her off. “I will take the bus. I hate raincoats; they make me claustrophobic. And the smell—ooh!”
“How in the hell will you take the bus in this rain? It is not safe! Are you crazy?” Sheela says a bit more sternly.
“Believe me, the Mumbai bus is much safer than your scooter and these handsome dudes.”
“You need to loosen up a little, Anu. You are just too hard and uptight. Anyway, suit yourself. I will call you later. If you need me, call me.”
Sheela just shakes her head in disagreement, fires up the scooter, and takes off, waving good-bye.
Back in the banquet room, Mrs. Iyer, in her South Indian accent, continues: “It does not matter how polluted this city gets serving the basic needs of all those who come here. I will go on a hunger strike if the government stops them from living here.”
The panelists clap and the crowd follows with even bigger applause.
“Anyway, let’s take a break here. They are serving tea, coffee, and snacks in the back. We will resume in fifteen minutes,” Mrs. Iyer announces.
Everyone stands up; some audience members continue to clap.
Among the crowd is Rane, the chief engineer at Hussain’s construction company. He is in his early forties, about five feet, nine inches tall, with light brown skin, neatly groomed hair, and black-framed glasses. He is neatly dressed in a gray jacket layered over an off-white long-sleeved shirt tucked into black pants. Rane is smart but timid.
At the far back of the room close to the food table, Hussain takes a sip of coffee, puts the cup on the table, and voices his dissent to Rane.
“It is about time she went on a diet. The way she’s going, this stupid woman is going to gain too much weight, and she’ll ruin my construction plans along the slums.”
“You know, sir, there are mangroves along the slums; we can’t really build there,” Rane voices his concern.
Ticked off at Rane’s response, Hussain retorts, “You have been telling me this for years now. You don’t tell me what’s what, okay? I don’t care about a stupid bird sanctuary, mangroves, shamgro, or the environment. All that is rubbish talk made up to scare people. I don’t care.”
“But how can you not care about the environment, sir? The people—how then can you expect people to care for you? Who will look after your needs in hard times?” Rane counters.
Hussain swallows his anger but uses sarcasm to get back at Rane.
“Mr. Rane, do you know what your qualification was when I hired you many years ago?”
Rane is taken aback by the question. “I am an engineer from a top engineering college with a gold medal, sir.”
“No, Mr. Rane. I had a few candidates with the same credentials begging me for the job.”
“What then, sir? I am confused. I certainly did not come with any recommendations or any note from any politician.”
“Politicians who matter are in my pocket, Mr. Rane.”
“What else then, sir?”
“Mr. Rane, apart from your credentials, your top qualification was that you are a ‘Three M Man.’ Do you know what that means?”
“All the top companies in Mumbai have immensely profited by hiring Three M guys like yourself since before independence. In fact, for some of the top companies, this was a major requirement for long-term success.”
“What is that, sir?”
“Three M stands for married, Maharashtrian, and male. Through research, companies discovered that these Three M guys have three strong qualities: loyalty, conscientiousness, and, most important, very low ambition.”
Rane wants to say something, but he’s still processing this new information about himself.
Hussain continues: “Did you know that in a marriage if one of the spouses has these three qualities, that marriage will surely be a successful marriage?”
Rane just looks at him.
“These are the exact qualities any top company looked for in a candidate in those days, because it was easy to shepherd these kinds of men in the direction the company wanted without the slightest worry of any resistance whatsoever,” Hussain says.
Hussain wants to jab Rane with his hand but settles with words.
“So, to answer your question about who will care for me, Mr. Rane: Money. Money will look after me in hard times. You Three M guys will never understand this fundamental economic reality. You guys are smart. You work hard, but instead of investing time and effort in running your own business, you waste too much time on religious festivities begging for security in a job.”
Inside a luxury-car dealership in Santacruz, about two train stops from Bandra and thirty miles northwest of the chai shop,business partners Joel Lambert and Mohamed Irshad sit across from each other in black Herman Miller chairs in a first-floor conference room of a modern-looking office, intensely focused on the telephone in the center of the oval-shaped glass table between them. The conference room’s huge transparent main door is closed, but on the other side of the table is a tall window filtering in light. Pictures of cars cover the white walls, and gray filing cabinets display model cars and brochures. A car showroom is on the ground level.
Joel is Julie’s dad—a tall, slim, clean-shaven white French gentleman with thin lips, sharp features, a nice smile with a dimple on his left cheek, muscular arms, and shoulder-length brown hair. He is in his midforties and is wearing an expensive black suit, silk gray tie, white silk shirt, and a platinum-gold band on his left hand’s ring finger.
Mohamed is Saira’s dad—he is a dark-skinned, slim, tall Iranian with short, straight black hair parted on the left side, a slightly broad but nicely shaped nose, and a well-trimmed goatee. He is also in his midforties and is handsomely dressed in a red tie, dark gray shirt, and black pants.
In a French accent, Joel addresses the person on speakerphone: “Are the kids okay? Do you have enough bottled water?”
As the tour boat returns to the hotel, Amol answers Joel’s question: “Yes, they are. We had to cancel the tour due to crazy winds here. They say it is not safe to be on the island. We could get stranded if the weather worsens.”
Mohamed interrupts Joel and in his Middle Eastern accent says, “Take them right across to the Taj hotel if they are hungry, but make it quick and get here fast. And don’t forget bottled water.”
Amol fumbles with the phone as the boat touches the dock with a thud. All are in a hurry to get off.
“Okay, I will.” Amol hangs up and looks at the phone, concerned about how much charge is left on the battery.
Just as Joel hangs up the phone, it rings. Joel hits the button to answer.
Onstage at a concert stadium in Andheri, about five train stations from Bandra, James’s mother, Sally Jones, ends her dance routine. She is a curvy white woman with full hips, big eyes, sweeping black eyelashes, a small button nose, sensitive thin lips, and long light brown hair. She is a singer in her late thirties wearing a red low-neck top, skirt, tights, and high-heel shoes.
As Sally comes off the stage, she kicks off her shoes, wipes off the sweat from her face and arms, and signals her dance assistants to take a break. She drops into a chair as her assistant hands her a cell phone.
In the Southern American accent, Sally asks, “Joel, did you get hold of the guy Amol?”
“The tour guide with our kids, his name is Amol.”
“Ya, ya, no, no.”
“What are you saying, Joel?”
“Sally, yes, hello. Yes, I did. They are okay, they are on their way back.”
Sally, who is very worried and a bit angry at Joel, responds, “I just heard a big storm is on its way.”
“Yeah, that is what I am hearing on all the channels too.”
Joel changes the channel with his TV remote.
“Joel, you should have checked all this before inviting me here. All you care about is promoting and selling your cars. Anyway, I will call Megan and let her know the kids are fine and on their way back.”
She hangs up the phone.
Near the bus stop, five kids run down the hill with simple two-fold paper kites on long strings in their hands. The kites fly higher as they run faster. Ganpu sits on the steps playing the tambourines—one with his foot, the other with his hand, trying to keep the beat to the music in his earphones. As he watches the kids run by, he gets up and goes to the edge of the road, looks left and right to see if any more kids are coming. He picks up the car tire, waits for a lone car to pass, rolls it to the middle of the road, then lets it go. The tire rolls to the left, crashes into a light pole, and falls flat. Ganpu runs to retrieve the tire and notices a small broken anchor-shaped thing caught in the railings. He picks it up and drops it, then picks up the tire and brings it back to the shop.
The Taj Mahal Palace is a flagship hotel, right across from Mumbai Harbour near the Gateway of India. In the hotel, Amol and the kids are waiting outside a restaurant. His phone rings and Amol picks it up.
“Hello!” Amol listens for a response. “We are at the Taj . . . Kids are fine . . . If you can hear me, I can’t hear you.”
Amol hangs up. The phone rings again.
Again, he tries hard to listen, then replies, “Kids are fine. We are in a restaurant at the Taj.”
He hangs up. The phone rings again.
“Hello! Kids are fine. We are at the Taj, whoever you are. I am not able to hear you.”
He hangs up. The phone rings again. Amol is now annoyed.
“Hello! What is going on?”
“Hello, Amol, this is Joel again.”
“Sir, I understand your concern, but all of you calling me like this is not going to help.”
“As soon as you finish eating, please bring them to the hotel as quickly as you can. The weather is going to get much worse.”
“Okay, I will. Give me chance to finish up here.”
He hangs up, and the phone rings again.
“Hello! Sir, what is it now, I already told you—”
Sally paces up and down the stage, agitated.
“Hold on a second.”
In the hallway at a hospital, not too far from Bandra Kurla Complex, it is a typical busy day.
Dr. Megan Ford Patel, Rick’s mother, is an attractive, slim white woman with long light brown hair parted in the middle; puffy, curvy lips; a sharp, elegant nose; thin, well-done eyebrows; and a black dot on her forehead. She is in her late thirties wearing a doctor’s lab coat with a stethoscope hanging from her neck and a small pad and pen in her hand.
Megan answers her phone. “Hello, Sally. let’s not keep calling him. If his phone battery runs out, we and all of them will be in big trouble.”
“Okay, Megan, I won’t call him anymore.”
“Sally, where are they?”
“They are on their way back to the hotel. I called you to tell you just that, so you don’t worry unnecessarily.”
“Sally, why are they coming all the way here? Can’t they stay at a hotel closer to where they are? Or even better, shouldn’t they all stay at Joel’s apartment on Marine Drive?”
“That’s a damn good idea. How come we didn’t think of that? Let me call him back.”
In a classroom at Gokul Vidyalaya school, Anu ambles about, watching the kids take their exam.
“No cheating and no talking during the test. If you need anything, please raise your hand.”
A kid raises his hand.
“Teacher, may I take a bathroom break, please?”
Anu wants discipline during the exam.
“No! No bathroom breaks before you are finished. No wasting time. After the exam you can do whatever you want.”
“But, teacher, it is urgent. It’s coming out soon. This whole classroom will stink! I have to go, teacher,” the kid implores.
Anu looks at her watch.
At the Taj hotel, Amol looks at his watch. Amol and the kids sit at a table, disappointed. The kids are complaining to Amol; they are eating but aren’t that interested in their food. Amol, still holding the phone up to his ear, waiting, becomes frustrated. He punches the speakerphone button and places his phone on the table. Sally finally returns to the phone.
“Hello, Amol, are you there?”
“Madam, what are you doing? Please stop calling like this. If I run out of battery, we will be in trouble. And, yes, I have enough bottled water in the van.”
“Okay, I understand. My phone is out of battery too. I will call you back. I have an important thing to tell you.”
She hangs up.
As soon as Amol hangs up the phone, Saira tries to annoy James. “James, that was your mom.”
James, annoyed and embarrassed, replies, “Yes, Saira, I can tell. You don’t have to tell me. Why don’t we just move on?”
“Move on where?” Rick interrupts.
Why don’t we go see the Mumbai we keep reading about?” Rick says.
James shrugs his shoulders.
“That’s what I meant,” he says.
Julie pitches in. “I know, there is so much more in Mumbai to see. This cannot be it. I don’t think so, anyway.”
Saira thinks of a way. “Looks like there is too much traffic on the road. I read that Mumbai trains are always on time. Let’s take the train just like President Clinton did.”
Amol doesn’t like Saira’s suggestion. “I don’t think you can handle Mumbai trains.”
Rick defends her. “If he did it, why can’t we?”
“There are a lot of things he did that we can’t.”
Julie is now curious. “Like what?”
Amol, frustrated and worried about his phone battery, wants to end the conversation. “Like nothing. Now, let’s get going or else your parents will have the entire CNN crew after me and I will be in trouble for all the wrong reasons and by no fault of mine.”
“You can tell us a little about Mumbai, can’t you?” Saira asks.
“When I came here a few years ago, for therapy, I read about some nice things, like a bird sanctuary, mangroves, a lake, and stuff. Tell us about that,” Julie suggests.
Amol pulls out a map from his small bag.
“Okay, guys, we can spend about fifteen minutes talking about Mumbai, but then we must get going. There is something strange about the weather today, they say, and my phone is running out of battery.”
Amol unfolds a map of Mumbai on the table. The kids help hold down the corners.
“Let’s start with the name. Mumbai was named after the Hindu goddess Maha-Amba or Mumbadevi.”
Rick questions Amol’s claim: “Then why was it called Bombay up until a few years ago?”
“Oh! The lazy asses, first the Portuguese, then the English, couldn’t twist their tongues enough to say Mumbai, so they twisted it to Bombay. Everybody since then has repeated their mistake.”
Saira chuckles. “Lazy asses, very interesting.”
Julie remarks, “Aren’t there a lot of towns they couldn’t say, so they just twisted and renamed them? And you guys just parroted them, without giving it even one thought?”
Amol is a bit surprised at the sharp response from Julie.
She continues: “Look at the station signs on the Mumbai platforms. They are probably sixty or more years old. The red circle with the blue rectangle in the middle—you guys can’t even design your own station signs. That’s just so ridiculous and—”
James cuts her off, wanting none of this talk. “Okay, okay, Madame Historian, all I want to know is where we are, and where the heck is our hotel? Is that so tough to find out here?”
Amol looks at Julie. He points to their current location on the map then slides his finger north on the map to their hotel location.
“So here we are, and this is where we need to go. Without traffic, this drive is no more than half an hour.”
Near the bus stop, Ganpu is sitting on the bottom step, now with two bicycle tires by his side. He holds an empty can with holes drilled around its center. He puts a wooden stick in each hole to make it look like spokes on a wheel. He quickly finishes one and begins to assemble a second one.
The music on his earphones stops. He slaps his front pocket, and the music resumes.
He then fits the two spoke devices onto the bicycle tires; he’s already made a similar apparatus with the car tire. He picks up a long stick, slides it through the heavier car tire first like an axle rod, then slips the two tambourines on either side of the car tire.
Ganpu takes one bicycle tire and secures it to one end of the axle, then he takes the other tire and secures it to the other end of the axle. Now he makes sure all three tires are touching the ground. He sets the whole contraption aside and picks up a small stick.
Five construction workers walk up to the chai shop; two of them who are looking for logs walk under the shop.
One of the workers orders. “Ganpu, bring five chai and five vada paos. You must make them fresh. We want to taste the magic of your hands.”
Ganpu hurries upstairs, and three of the guys follow.
In the middle of a busy road, the hotel tour van stops. Amol’s busy trying to restart the van when his phone rings. He ignores it.
“What is wrong with this van now? Oh! I am not picking up the phone.”
“Oh my God! I don’t know why I came to India. Can’t you just call Triple-A to get us home?” James says, exasperated.
“Relax, kid, there is no such thing in Mumbai. I am your Triple-A, so deal with it, okay?” Amol fires back.
Amol tries the ignition repeatedly, but nothing happens. His phone continues to ring; he continues to ignore it. The rain is heavy now, and there is no way they can run to shelter. Amol drops his head on the wheel. He tries again, banging on the steering wheel with both hands. He tries one more time, and the engine finally fires up. They start to move when Amol’s phone rings again. He lets it go to focus on the road, caressing the dashboard as if the car were a pet animal that needs encouragement to keep moving.
At the chai shop, the five workers plod down the stairs. Worker number two lets out a big belch and comments on the food. “What did I tell you guys? He makes the best vada pao and chai in Mumbai. I tell you, zakkas bhau, simply excellent, brother.”
Worker number three responds, “It’s true, the kid loves what he does, works hard, and makes everything with so much love. I think he likes feeding people.”
Worker number four lifts one of the logs from the pile and knocks on it.
“This teakwood is high quality, just thrown here unappreciated, like the kid. A good carpenter could turn this into a valuable work of art.”
Worker one responds somberly, “It is all a game of fate, I tell you.”
The workers pick up a few logs each and place them on their shoulders, then make their way along the road. Ganpu rubbernecks the wet, deserted street and sees only the five fellows lugging away.
He scuttles down the stairs with two paper kites. He sets them aside and grabs a small stick. He measures the stick from the axle rod to the ground, breaks it, then breaks another stick to the same length. At the end of the two sticks, he ties two different-size empty cans, then secures the two sticks to either side of the axle rod near the bicycle tires. The two sticks are tied in such a way that only one can hit the ground at a time. He fastens the kites to the two tambourines with a very long string and places the kites upright on the ground.
He then lets the entire machine roll down the road, making a rhythmic beat. As the device rolls farther and farther away, the paper kites go higher, as far as the long string will allow them. Ganpu enjoys the rhythm and watches the flying kites for a moment, then he sprints after them. The other kids see this rhythm-making machine roll down the street, and they chase after it too.
While the other kids keep running after it, Ganpu stops when he realizes the whole thing is going to crash into the police van parked at the bottom of the road, Ganpu’s hands shoot to his head, then to his mouth, and finally just before the machine slams into the van, he covers his eyes.
Inside the classroom, Anu’s sitting at her desk grading students’answer sheets. Some kids are still busy writing when the school bell rings.
Anu looks up from the sheets.
“Time’s up, guys. Please stop writing and bring me your answer sheets.”
Some visibly disappointed kids bring their answer sheets to Anu.
“Teacher, that was a hard exam,” one student whines.
“You were not paying attention in class,” Anu admonishes him.
“Some questions were not from the syllabus, teacher.”
Anu, a bit defensive, says, “But I covered them in class. You must pay attention and prepare yourself. Life doesn’t come with a syllabus, you know. You just have to pay attention.”
“No syllabus? Then how do we prepare, teacher?”
“If you pay attention and take good notes, life can teach you a lot.”
Anu’s phone rings. She quickly finds it and walks to the door.
“Have you seen the rain outside, Anu? It is a cloudburst. I have never seen anything like it,” Sheela says, quite scared.
“Okay, okay, don’t scare me. I am leaving now. I will see you soon. I will take the bus. Be home in a few.”
The police station, a one-story structure spread out on thirty thousand square feet of land, isn’t busy today. A few police vans are parked in the front parking lot. To the left, there is a huge banyan tree with a concrete platform around it. Constables are busy eating their lunch on a wide wooden bench on the front porch.
Ganpu’s rhythm machine rams right into the police van parked outside the gate, and all kids running after it come to an abrupt and frightened stop. They know they are in trouble, but no one runs away. They stand close to the machine in awe, looking at Ganpu’s creation.
Shakil is among the kids. He is a five-foot-four-inch-tall fifteen-year-old with dark skin, a distinctive scar on his right cheek close to his mouth, a pleasant smile, an oblong face, and a pointed chin. He is wearing a yellow long-sleeved shirt tucked into red pants held up by a wide brown belt. A comb is in his back pocket, and he has a steel bracelet on his right wrist and a cheap thick black watch on his left one.
Shakil flicks the comb from his pocket, slicks back his long hair, and stands nervously with one eye on the van door, waiting for it to open, and the other on the machine.
Dhope, a rather overweight police constable of average height with a big belly, a round, puffy face, and wearing a khaki uniform shirt tucked into khaki pants—it’s hard to tell if his belt is holding his pants up or holding his belly from dropping down—has a scowl on his face and wrinkles on his forehead.
Dhope opens the back door, rolls out of the seat, loses his balance, and struggles to stand up straight. With his mouth full of food and tomato sauce on his nose, he looks at the rhythm machine and then at the kids. He grunts and cusses in Marathi.
“You good-for-nothing sons of bitches.”
Dhope marches straight to Shakil, grabs him by his collar, and whacks him over the head. Shakil says nothing.
“Is this your father’s playground?” Dhope yells.
The kids look at Dhope’s face, cover their mouths, and say nothing.
Dhope is clearly mad about something from before—maybe his lunch was not what he expected.
“Road side jasus-spies, this is not your hospital canteen.”
Dhope continues whacking Shakil. He hasn’t seen Ganpu yet. Ganpu slips his earphones in his pocket and strides up.
Dhope continues blasting. “How many times have I told you not to play here. TELL ME, WHO DID THIS?”
Ganpu, while trying to hold his laughter, admits, “I did.”
Dhope, still holding on to Shakil, leans forward and wallops Ganpu’s head. He sarcastically fires back at Ganpu, calling to him, “Teri to Harishchandra ki awlad! . . . Why are you covering your mouth?”
“Tomato sauce . . . on your nose,” Ganpu tells him, cracking up while pointing at his nose.
All the kids burst out laughing. Dhope wipes his nose and frowns, utterly embarrassed.
“Get out of here, you scoundrels, before I break your legs.”
They scurry away.