It was a hot summer morning in Mumbai. My wife and I were standing outside a chawl in a crowded back-lane of Ghatkopar, waiting to meet a group of women from very-low-income households in the area. As we waited for our contact to arrive and take us to meet the women, I noticed a group of men idling nearby, watching us.
Since it was Mumbai, I wasn’t worried, but then as we waited, and they watched, I suddenly remembered this area has the highest crime rate in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai, and that a notorious gangster once lived in a chawl very close to where we were.
Before I could let the thought sink in, our contact arrived and told us we’d have to wait a few more minutes before we could go into the chawl, as he was waiting for directions from another contact. As we stood there waiting and chatting, I noticed another guy had joined the group of men nearby, and he was very boisterous, laughing and mock-wrestling with the guys from the group, while repeatedly glancing toward us. Then I saw one guy nudge him and point toward me, and the tall guy suddenly turned and started walking toward me.
‘this is Mumbai… relax!’ I told myself silently, and as the guy came closer to us, I saw him pull out a folded paper from his kurta pocket and wave it at me. ‘Oh it is one of those donation for temple or jagran scams’ I thought, relieved ‘I’ll give him hundred bucks, and he’ll be gone’ I thought.
But as he reached up to me, he pointed to my Kurta pocket, and said to me “Pen milega? Sign karna hain…” while waving the paper at me as proof of his need for a pen. My mind raced, because the request was unexpected, and fulfilling it wasn’t easy as handing him 100 rupees. But as if on auto-pilot, my hand reached into my pocket and retrieved my pen, and proceeded to place it in the tall guy’s waiting hand!
As soon as he had my pen in his hand, the guy turned around and wrapped the paper around it and began walking away.
Watching this, my wife gasped “You gave him your Mont Blanc!! Why did you give him your Mont Blanc??”
As I mumbled something about ‘what could I do… he needed a pen…’ I watched the guy disappear from sight behind a parked Tempo, as did the men who were hanging around with him.
My wife’s voice faded ‘how could you give it to a stranger… you should have told me, I’d have given you another pen…’ as I thought to myself “have I just got conned or robbed? Nah… couldn’t be, this is Mumbai… people are honest… but they’re also smart and aware… they must have recognized the pen with its signature mother-of-pearl snowcap…”
Noticing my wife’s consternation, our contact who was texting something on his phone asked “Kya hua?” to which my wife replied, “the guy has walked off with a very expensive pen of Nosh’s…”
Our contact didn’t even look up from his texting, but said calmly
“wapas de dega, don’t worry.”
His confidence in the statement was huge. And the way he said it, was reassuring for me, kind of… Many thoughts raced through my head “I am here to do good for poor people, I am on a noble mission, if I get robbed here, I am being given some twisted message from above…”
I was tempted to walk toward the Tempo and look for the man beyond it. And then I said to myself ‘Let me wait and watch…’
My wife looked very upset, and I could sense her dismay at my stupidity, as this particular Mont Blanc was a birthday gift from her to me…
After waiting for seemingly eternity, I laughed out loud and turned to my wife “I guess it is time you got me a new one!” I said with a shrug and an embarrassed grin.
She looked at me shaking her head in disbelief, and then her eyes widened, and she looked up over my shoulder… I turned around… and there was the tall guy, walking toward me again, this time waving my pen in his hand.
As soon as he came up to me gushed like a child “thank you, Sir… bahut kaam aya aapka pen… paper sign karna tha… ho gaya…” then he bowed gratefully to me with his hands folded and said, “thank you!”
He then turned and walked away and disappeared from sight, leaving my wife and I gaping at him, this time with reiterated faith in humanity, and reinforced pride in the people of this incredible city.
Our contact now finally looked up from his texting and said, “Bola na, de dega. Yeh hai Mumbai.”