The Street Performer

It must take him hours to get ready for work. I imagine myself in his shoes: first some protective ointment – a lotion or skin cream, followed by the costume, a metallic skirt, the false chest and boots. Then the layers of paint; the green is the colour of evil intentions, but it’s the yellow and black that brings this character to life. The look is completed with a circular shield and the green-gold helmet. I’m already exhausted and yet this is just the start to his working day.

He works in a competitive field. He has to outshine the Star Wars characters, the Marvel comic heroes and villain and a host of magical beings. It means he has to get to the square in good time no matter what the weather. It’s the only way to find the right spot, one that enjoys the best tourist foot-falls, and set up. He also needs to have his papers in order. More than once the cops come rolling by, on their government issued cycles, and demand to see paperwork. If they are satisfied they roll on. If they aren’t, they shut the act down.

He is an artist, but also a businessman. His work – hours and hours of posing – can be enjoyed for a price. For the camera-wielding tourists who want his picture but don’t want to part with their coins, he lifts his shield and covers his elaborate make-up in one practiced swoop, blocking the shot. If you drop the coin in his hat, he poses for you and your camera, playing it up for all your money’s worth.

He stands, usually pretty still, for hours during the day. But every now and then you realize he is just another bloke trying to make a living. I’m lucky to be around for one such moment. When a cluster of kids leave, waving lingering goodbyes, he puts down the shield and pulls off his helmet. He reaches into his black trunk for a juice box and what looks like a sandwich. He takes a bite and a sip, and then he turns to Darth Vader, who stands a few steps behind, and makes a comment. They both laugh. They laugh for a while.

Pav Bhaji on the Beach

He has curly hair and a thick moustache, both glistening with sweat. His brows are furrowed, maybe in concentration, or maybe that’s just how he wears his face. A striped black apron hides a faded white shirt, but not his frayed collar.

He stands on a platform. The smoke from the large tava shapes into a spiced cloud around him. He doesn’t seem to notice it. I wait on the sidelines; wait for him to prepare my plate of pav-bhaji (bhaji being the curried mashed vegetables and pav the buttered buns), with extra pav.

I pull back my drenched hair and mop my face. Mumbai is living through a heat wave, and standing in a lane crammed with food stalls and sizzling woks doesn’t help.  A few feet away, the beach is busy.  At some point today all those people will stop by these food stalls too -the beach in Mumbai is known for its food rather than the grey, plastic crusted waters.

His spatula pounds the tava, mashing the already mashed vegetables. Between each pounding, he adds generous dollops of Amul butter; each addition is announced with a high-tone sizzle. I feel the calories gently pushing against my belt.

Once the bhaji, already partly prepared, is ready, he pushes it to the edge of the tava, freeing up the centre for the stack of pav – a set of four buns. He picks up the lot, sliced in between, and presses them onto a glob of melting butter.

When the bread, shiny with the additional weight and slightly crispy, is done, he scoops the bhaji, finely chopped onions, coriander and lemon quarters, as well as the toasted buns into the sectioned plate, and hands it over.

My hands are greedy as they stretch out for the plate.

I hurriedly sprinkle the chopped onions onto the bhaji and squeeze the bits of lemon. I mix the lot with a spoon – bits of orange-red specks fly about – I still have faded stains on my pink kurta. I tear the pav, small pieces, pile them with bhaji and gobble. There is no place for elegance here, just a good hearty meal.

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This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition

The Boatman on the Backwaters

The dark brown boat wobbled like a village drunk as I stepped into it. My husband, still on land, gripped my left hand (the right instantly flew up in search of balance). Our boatman laughed. He stood a little away, one hand resting on his waist, the other on a pole. Unlike the resort staff, he was dressed informally, in a once-white tee shirt and a yellow-blue folded-up lungi. As he caught my eye, he dropped his arm and in heavily accented English asked me not to worry. His hand now pointed at the (dirty fraying) rope holding the boat in place; maybe he thought this would be reassuring. I dug my nails deeper into my husband’s hand. The boat continued to sway.

He waited for us to settled down on the red cushioned wooden seat and once we were done, he swung into action. His movements were swift and well rehearse.  He kept one foot on the quay and the other in the boat as he untied the rope. With his right foot he pushed against the concrete, propelling the boat into the water. He swung the long wooden oar around his body and in sharp fluid movements that defied his age, steered the boat away from the uncontrolled sprawl of water hyacinths. We watched in awe as he effortlessly led us through the backwaters.

Drifting along the Backwaters

He took us through a never ending expanse of water before hitting up on a cluster of tiny villages, past broken bicycles and drying laundry, past temples, churches and shacks. Kids playing along the water waved at us and we waved back. Everything was dense and green and humid and muddy. The silence magnified every tiny sound. The water parting under the force of the oar; insect and bird sounds punctured by intervals of clanging pots or a lone scooter puffing along the little road beyond the water.

He wore a crooked smile as he explained the history and socio-economic reality of the region to us. As we crossed an underconstruction houseboat – it was all wood and tarpaulin; the constant drilling, hammering and sawing on the water seemed oddly appropriate- he told us it would take  at least four more months before the boat could be used commercially, which meant it would make money only in the next season. But apparently the owner was well-off and the wait wouldn’t be hard on him. That right there was Arundhati Roy’s village. It wore no frills, no plaques. And this was the home of the richest man in the region (he lives in the Gulf, only comes here during Christmas. See all the decorations they’ve put up. He will be here soon).

Then he twisted the boat into a tiny stream and with pride he added, “This is my village.” It was a mass of small homes hidden under thick dark green foliage, protecting the village from prying eyes. The only visible sign of activity was a middle aged woman, in a purple housecoat, crouched by the water not a few feet away from us. She was cleaning a pair of traditional Indian brass lamps in a forceful 1-2-3 scrubbing action. She didn’t look up. The boatman powered on.