Although I was born in Bombay, now renamed Mumbai, the city was never my home. I grew up in small towns along India’s west coast. But it was home to my grandmothers, uncles and aunts, and my parents would take us to India’s Big Apple for holidays.
As a young girl, I would walk past a rain-washed salmon-colored cottage, past the culvert, and past a field where cows grazed on over-grazed grass, and buffaloes stared with big vacant eyes, unperturbed by flies or children running around. Left-over rain water lay in puddles, riddled with mosquito larvae hatching beneath the surface. Occasionally, the government would spray a film of kerosene oil to kill them and prevent malaria outbreaks, but during the monsoons, the mosquitoes won the battle.
Now, when I visit India, nothing is familiar. The stone culvert has been ground down to dust, the streets widened and tarred, the houses, cottages, gardens and trees gone. Instead, tall ten-storied buildings with iron-rimmed balconies, symmetrically spaced and stacked, reach up to the sky. Gardens have been reduced to strips of land with a few coconut trees, flowers and potted plants, bordered with cement bricks. Barking dogs have replaced the silence of napping buffaloes and lolling cows.
But a little ways down the road, there is one thing that doesn’t change—my visit to my mochi, who still mends shoes and sandals by hand, and unapologetically tells his customers to come tomorrow because he will not hurry, not if they want good work, and if they don’t, they should go elsewhere.
I start down Almeida Road where I expect him to be, but he isn’t there. So I walk a little further down the road scanning the pavements on either side, and there he is — in his new digs! It’s a thin plywood board contraption, water proofed with discarded rain coats, strips of gum boot mackintosh, a black umbrella minus the handle, and irregular patches of water proof pliable plastic. It’s very colorful. And there he sits in a space so low that he must bend to enter it, and when he crouches down and crosses his legs to align the soles of his feet, his head almost touches the ceiling. His feet are like a podium for his customer’s shoes; sometimes they are a clamp as he wields a large needle through the leather—-stitch by stitch, as if he has all the time in the world.
“Namaste,” I say, delighted to have found him. “How are you? Do you remember me?”
He nods, joins his hands, smiles a tooth less smile, his deep eyes filled with kindness. But of course, he doesn’t remember. How could he? My hair is short and curly, my face more lined; a few hundred people walk past him everyday. And it has been three years since I came “home.”
“May I take your photo?” I ask him.
He shakes his head, yes, with pure delight. “Can you wait a little?”
He almost bumps his head against the ceiling as he emerges, and reaches on a tree branch behind him for a blue cotton shirt to cover the vest he wears while working. He uses his palms as if they were an iron, and presses down, on his shirt, over and over, then adjusts his collar, and shakes his head side-to-side to indicate he’s ready.
I take several pictures and show them to him on the LCD display. He smiles, pleased with what he sees. And that seems to trigger a memory, because I’ve taken his picture numerous times—-essentially every time I go home.
“Ah, you don’t live here,” he says. “Where did you go so long?”
I wave my hand toward the sky. “Bahut dhoor,” I say. “Far away.”
“Me, too,” he says. “ Bahut dhoor.”
“Really? Where?” I asked, happy that he could afford to close shop and travel somewhere, perhaps to see the Taj Mahal. It is after all, one of the seven wonders of the world in his (our) country.
He points up the road. “Oodhur,” he says, “There!”
I look to where he points.
“So many years, my shop was there,” he says. “Under a mango tree. Then, they cut down the mango tree. So, now I’m here.”
I feel my eyes filling up with tears. He had travelled far away too, and set down new roots, like I had done when I came to America.