‘They hold it in,’ she says gravely, matter of fact-like, looking me in the eye past my camera as the other two nod. ‘They prefer it to the shit they have to take from the bastards on the way to the (community) bathrooms. They’re too afraid and they don’t go,’ she says, talking about the girls in her slum. She’s in her 60’s, having moved to the city from god knows where with her family, she’s a resident of Ambojwadi, a vast slum frozen in various stages of development in North Mumbai.
I’d be there a few days later and take the 15 minute walk from the residential gulleys to the designated toilet area myself- it’s a large field with some scattered shrubs in the way of privacy and little else. Don’t forget your lota. I stood there after a night of bad Chinese, having slept on the floor of a small NGO office, and looked out in the haze, west towards the sea, fancying the facilities 2 miles yonder, off Madh Island on the exclusive Aksa beach.
The ladies notice the tear, the only betrayal of emotion, and I’m coughing too much to be recording anyway. It’s cold in the open here in Azad Maidan, my third night at Medha Patkar’s Andolan. I put my gear down and make to leave to find my place for the night. They ask me to visit them in the slum sometimes, I tell them I’ve been getting a lot of invitations but they say no, don’t go with the people you’ve been talking to we’ve seen you talking with, they’re thugs. They sense it’s been a rough day for me and invite me for a coffee to cheer me up.
Most of Mumbai grinds to a halt when the local trains stop at 1 AM, it’s now nearly 2. Outside the park, solely in the company of a van full of sleeping cops, I wait with them in the eerily quiet, empty city for a bicyclewalla to roll by, chiming his little horn.
The women are excited and it’s thrilling- they talk about everything and I feel like family. When the coffee guy does show up, he’s a little surprised when they women insist on paying for it but pours out the sugary drink in little white plastic cups from the steel box on the back of his bicycle with aplomb when they explain its their treat. He says something, something rich and large, but superficial and makes no sense. Maybe he was just lonely. We go back inside.
A guy in a cap, someone I’d spoken to earlier invites me to a person-wide space on the tarp he seems to have saved for me, it’s the only space left that I can see- there’s a lot of people sleeping in the park tonight. This guy is in a small group, some three men in their mid-thirties, awful and dirty but who isn’t? We make small talk, they inquire about my work, my gear, about the price of it- I quote them a third of what I’d paid, but here in the dark it still makes their eyes widen.
A guy, Javed whom I’d also interviewed, bedded a row down from me, catches my attention with a wave and comes near, ‘You want a coffee?’
Javed is one of the guys the women called a thug. He’s small but firm, and I had a very unpleasant experience with him a few hours ago when he took my East German Braun lighter and asked what I’d do if he didn’t return it to me.
‘Now? I’ve just had coffee’
‘Come on, it’s good coffee. It’ll keep you warm.’
I used to have this thing, something I’d say to myself every now and again like a fucking mantra- never say no. So I take my gear and join him.
We talk about weed. He tells me of the crazy shit they have in his area and invites me to visit to have my mind blown. We’re crossing the street towards the station, no cyclewallas now but Javed is confident we’ll find one on his return journey on the other side. In the 2 AM desolation, the city is vast and the broad lanes that were incredible with traffic just a few hours ago are deserted and wide in the pungent glow of the orange streetlights.
Javed crosses nimbly, jumping over the side railing on the street, where we wait behind some dividers which is normally a taxi stand. A couple of drunks join us, materializing out of nowhere. We all wait for the coffee guy.
Javed turns to me.
‘Those guys are gonna rob you tonight. That’s why I brought you here for a coffee, to warn you. Why do you think they offered you that space? What are you crazy, trusting just anyone?’
I knew he was right, I’d seen as much when they’d targeted a poor drunk sod in front of me, attempted to relieve him of a canvas bag he’d been carrying. I hadn’t thought anything of it then, which is insane in retrospect, but that’s how it was.
The cycle rolls by, we have more shitty coffee. We go back.
I return to my space, there’s no other. They welcome me back and adjust so I can be as comfortable as the situation allows. I settle down.
I turn to Javed in the distance in the dark; he nods, I nod back. I’ve caught it- the fear, the paranoia. Welcome to the jungle; trust no one and never sleep. I’m sitting next to the guy with the cap. He recommends I lie down, I don’t. I turn to Javed again, in the other row, I can’t tell him from the other bodies until he laughs, sniggers, smirks. It is acknowledged. I want to sleep. I need to. I want to sleep.