The Mall (08.19.2003)

Not far from the place where I used to live during my college years stands one of India’s glitziest shopping malls. By day, the massive building dwarfs every structure around it. At night, a dizzying display of lights cruelly exposes the surrounding shops and houses for what they truly are — Old and weary from the daily assault of man and weather.

Inside this shining behemoth called Quest, Puneites with fat pocketbooks spend their rupees on luxury foreign brands such as Gucci and eat at Michelin-star restaurants.

Outside, life’s cadences remain much the same for people like Rashida. She lives in a slum in the shadow of Quest. She is part of a faceless, often-cited statistic, people who survive on less than $1 a day.

If you think of India based on the income divide, it is almost as schizophrenic as any country can be. One India boasts billionaires and brainiacs, nuclear bombs, tech, and democracy. The other is inhabited by people like Rashida. Faceless, clueless, hopeless — — Almost nonexistent unless you dig deeper into the boroughs.

I have known Rashida since she began working at the rental apartment where we boarded in college. She walks every morning — sometimes in rubber flip-flops, sometimes barefoot — — — from her room about a mile and a half away. She arrives around 10.00 am to wash the pans from the night before and the dishes from breakfast. She scrubs hard, and we often joke that we could taste the grit of Ajax in our fish curry. She dusted the furniture, finely covered with a layer of dust even though the day was still young, and hand-washed clothes too delicate for our software typing hands.

Rashida was probably then already well into her 60s, though she used to say: “I think I am 50.” She didn’t have a single piece of documentation, but her family insisted she was born before India gained independence in 1947.

She stood not much taller than my mother, but no one was fooled by Rashida’s small stature; she was steely from years of domestic labor.

One day when cash is running short and I don’t have much to eat, she comes by to clean the rooms as usual and accidentally sees me eating a week-old bread with a banana. She knows that I hate bananas but the situation is dire. Her motherly instincts kick in.

“When did you have your last dinner?”, she asks without any preamble.

“Last night, of course”, I reply incredulously.

She shakes her head and pats me on my head as any mother would.

“I have a son too and he lies too. I know”.

She goes out and gets her lunch pack and unravels it. Out comes a bowl of rice and daal and the smell permeates the entire room. I don’t even put up a fake protest. I eat voraciously, everything, scraping the corners, the curves, the lid — Everything. A couple of days of hunger can do that to you, especially when you are young.

From then on, she cooks and brings me a small batch every single day. If I am not around, she leaves it right in the middle of the bed. I adore her as I would my mother and even after I pass out of college and get a job and go to the USA, I seek out Rashida on every trip home.

On one visit, I learn that her husband, Sheikh Fazrul, had died, and as she grew feebler, she had a hard time keeping jobs. I always tried to slip her a few rupees, but she never takes the money without insisting on “earning” it. She asks for some work, this frail lady in the sunset of her life, but I have none to offer. I sometimes invent it. I send her to my friend Darrius carrying a week-old sealed letter and tell him to accept it and pay her a 100. He is amused but doubles it and pays her. This trick lasts for a while until she catches on.

“Don’t ever do this again baba. Our dignity is the only thing we have and it’s much more expensive than 100 bucks”. She is serious. I never pull that stunt again.

I visit India often, partly because I am different from many of my Indian-American peers who arrived in the United States as young immigrants and did not look back. My family is still in India through the years and my personal connections to my homeland run deep. But there is another reason. I tend to see poverty in India through the prism of my own experiences.

I am aware, too, that a Westerner’s view of India is often clichéd — it’s a land of corruption, bus crashes, pollution, arranged marriages, and colorful festivals. It may still be all of that, but there are so many new dimensions to that mass of the population, suffering in the sewers yet so richly alive. The changes force me to reacquaint myself constantly with the land of my birth. It’s a never-ending exercise in futility, enriching but still in some ways futile.

This afternoon, I am eager to see how Rashida has fared since our last meeting a year or so ago. I navigate a dark, maze-like alleyway that leads to Rashida’s one-room abode.

The air is smoky from coal-burning stoves, the sulfuric smell colliding with the perfume of onions, garlic, and garam masala in the woks of women cooking lunch. There’s no indoor plumbing, and I see teenage girls fetching water in red plastic buckets from an outside tube well. There’s a common toilet, but men and women bathe out in the open. Dignity is the first causality in these neighborhoods. To learn that is to cross that threshold of no return.

I walk through the slums looking at those people. To my ego, they seem to be beneath me yet they invoke a powerful sense of helplessness deep within. They just want to fare better than their neighbors, and move up a notch, however small, in the money ladder — not unlike any of us who strive for a better house, a shinier car, and a good education for our kids. But Rashida never moved up and that is perhaps her great sadness; that she was widowed by a man who she believes had neither the verve nor the physical strength to improve his lot in life.

I spot Rashida’s granddaughter, Manisha, and she takes me to her. Rashida’s room is cave-like, with no windows. A wooden cot sits up on bricks to keep it dry when the monsoons intrude. An old black and white television set perches precariously on a shelf. Scratched aluminum pots adorn a wall facing the bed as though they are priceless works of art. For this privilege, Rashida pays $2 a month, about what she used to earn cleaning our house. Rent controls in the slum are the only reason her son-in-law, who lives nearby, can afford to keep her here. She shares the space with her grandchildren and, sometimes, a daughter who lives in Delhi.

I take off my shoes and walk into Rashida’s room. She is on the floor and cannot stand up by herself to give me her usual warm hug. Arthritis has taken hold of her body and limited her mobility. I sit down on the cement floor to meet her eyes. I had told her ahead of time that I would be taking her on an outing.

“It’s so good to see you,” she says. “Where are we going today?”

“To another world,” I say jokingly.

Rashida hobbles to another room to get dressed and returns wearing a new orange and white printed cotton sari, the kind I know will run for at least the first dozen washings. She is barefoot, the cracks on her feet blackened by dirt. We walk to the road and get into a chauffeured car I have borrowed from my old friend Darrius. She is hesitant at first. She has never sat in a car before. Always wanted to — she said. She is excited and apprehensive all at the same time. She looks up at me for validation. She starts to take off her shoes.

“It’s Ok. Go ahead “, I tell her, but she insists. She carries her sandals in her saree-clad lap and enters haltingly.

The car meanders down the road that Rashida traversed on foot every day. Finally, we arrive at Quest, the latest mall in that district. The area suddenly changes to a better-quality road, the cars that line the corners. The juxtaposition of old and new is jarring.

Outside the mall, I watch the street vendor Baburao crack an egg at his roadside food stall, as he has for the past 15 years. He recently raised the price of his omelet to 10 rupees or 14 cents. Inside the mall, a veggie quesadilla at the American chain Chili’s costs 25 times more.

Quest hasn’t really hurt his business that much, Baburao laughs because his customers can’t afford anything in there. It’s beyond the realm of most people, including Rashida.

When we try to step out at the main entrance, a security guard rush toward us.

“No entrance for her,” he says in Hindi.

I see the sign on the glistening glass doors: “Rights to admission reserved.”

I tell him Rashida requires a wheelchair and press a 100 rupee note in his hand and pat him looking straight into his eyes. The old trick works and we foray into the mall without Rashida’s feet touching the sparkling Italian marble tiles. Her eyes grow big and her head swivels from side to side, as though she were watching a tennis match. The mall was another world to Rashida. She’d never been inside.

“Where have we come? It’s so clean,” she asks. She has seen the new mall from the outside but never dared go near it.

It’s mid-afternoon on a weekday, and there isn’t the normal crowd at the mall. I see mostly women and teenage girls bobbing in and out of stores like Vero Moda and Michael Kors.

I wheel Rashida into the Gucci store. The sales clerks look at us in wonder: Why is a middle-class man catering to a poor woman?

“How can I help you?” asks a woman behind the counter. Her politeness barely conceals her scorn. She is the same woman who at 9.00 PM when the mall closes catches the hard-packed commuter metro to Virar, drenched in sweat with the same commoners she scorns all day. Such is the irony of life.

I ask her to ask Rashida. For a moment, the woman glares at me, but then asks politely: “May I show you a bag?”

Rashida points to a silvery, buttery leather concoction.

We ask the price. “It’s 1.25 lakhs,” the clerk tells us. That’s 125,000 rupees or $1,865.

I wait for Rashida’s reaction, but there is none. She cannot even fathom the amount. It’s as abstract as “gazillion.”

In America, few people can afford to drop almost $2,000 on a handbag. But poor people there can at least walk into a mall and grasp what it would take to pay that amount. They could even possibly save enough to buy it one day.

It would take Rashida at least 25 years to earn that amount. In a way, I am relieved she cannot comprehend the price. I worry she might have felt humiliated otherwise, and that is far from my intention.

It’s too late anyway for her.

I take Rashida to the mall’s food court on the top level, and she orders a heaping plate of chow Mein. She’s never seen chopsticks before; nor has she used a fork.

I tell her it’s OK to eat with her hands. She eats haltingly.

Again, I feel the burn of many eyes upon us.

“What do you think of this place?” I ask her.

“I have come from hell to heaven.” She says as she wolfs down the food. I know that feeling. I have been there. As we nibble on our chow mein, I know exactly how it feels to be given a plate of food on an empty stomach. She was the one who did that once. It’s my time to pay it back.

After a few minutes of silence, she says, “I suppose now you will have to take me back.”

I nod. I don’t have any answers for her, yet.

In the car, Rashida places her hand on mine. It’s her way of thanking me.

“I will die a happy woman now and will remember this day for a very long time”, she says with genuine candor. I am touched.

She tells me about her childhood over cups of sweet tea. Her parents died when she was a child, and an aunt brought her from her native Allahabad to Kolkata to Pune. She started working at an early age and toiled her whole life until her body gave in. Now she lives every day at the mercy of her daughters and sons-in-law.

“Ami garibmanush achi, dada..”

I am a poor person, she says in broken Bengali.

“And I will always be a poor person,”

She says this as she looks out of the window avoiding my eyes.

“There is no way out for people like us, for our children.”

I hear those words, but I am slapped by the hopelessness and despair behind them, all the more. Her words make me terribly sad for no apparent reason.

We make our way back through congested lanes teeming with street life. Here you can buy almost anything you need, from syrupy fried sweets called jalebis to the blood pressure pills you’ll need if you eat too many. I look at a stall selling leather handbags.

They hang from hooks on a wooden pole, their black leather dulled by sun and dust.

These are cheaper than Gucci, only $3 each. I ask Rashida if she would like one.

“I can afford these,” I say.

“What will I do with a bag?” she responds simply without any bitterness.

After a lifetime of hard, bone-breaking work, she has nothing.

Not even some money to put in those handbags.

I drop her off at the entrance to the slum.

“Are there poor people in America?” she asks before getting out of the car. Her mind is somewhere else already.

I tell her there are people everywhere who are in need.

“Do they go shopping at malls?” she asks.

“Sometimes,” I respond.

“See you next time.”

“Maybe,”, she laughs and pats my shoulder.

“If I am still here.” She says seriously, but then seeing me curious, she breaks into a toothless smile.

“Baba, I’ll always remember today. Especially on my deathbed. You made me very happy today.”.

It has not taken me much. Just a couple of hours of my time that I could have easily spent lounging around or playing a game or watching a movie.

Time as a commodity is a never-ending equation.

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Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.