I know better than to give 200 dollars in cash to the man who makes bamboo blinds before he has delivered them. But when Kamal told me that he needed money to buy the material, I ignored eight years of bargaining experience. A month later, I have no blinds. I don’t have my 200 bucks either.
That much money can go a long way in India, especially if you add it the $200 you stole from the woman down the street and the $200 you stole from the woman up the street.
So why did this woman in the middle of the street fall victim to Kamal and his obvious scam?
I blame Rohinton Mistry. He’s the brilliant author who wrote A Fine Balance, a novel set in Mumbai during the Emergency, a two-year period in the mid-1970’s when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended constitutional liberties to preserve her party’s governing control following charges of election fraud.
One of the main characters in the book is a tailor. He suffers a rough ride through the slums of Bombay, and ends up a legless beggar after a forced and botched vasectomy by a family planning clinic that needed to meet sterilization quotas.
Kamal, the bamboo blind maker, reminds me of Mistry’s tailor, Ishvar. I can’t remember the details of what Ishvar looks like in the book, but I imagine him to be short and thin from undernourishment, soft spoken, deferential, polite, sad-eyed, and smelling not-so-clean. Just like Kamal. I gave Kamal the money because I couldn’t imagine Ishvar ripping me off.
I vacillate from being pissed at Kamal for stealing my money, to feeling guilty for being pissed at a man who scraps and scrapes to feed an extended family in a place that severely discriminates against the poor and makes it nearly impossible to improve one’s life.
I have the number to Kamal’s cell phone, which he leaves at home during the day when he is working, in case his family needs it. I call early in the morning every few days when I know Kamal is home. He promises to show up but he never does. He’s been “sick.” “In the hospital.” “Busy.” “Not home.” Once, I threatened to report him to the police and he begged me not to. I felt guilty when I hung-up the phone.
It’s not easy for me to accept my loss and move on. I have worked very hard for much of my 45 years. I started an apartment cleaning business when I was 14. I worked in McDonald’s and Baskin Robbins in high school. I found a job on my second day of college and waited on tables daily for four years. I made donuts at a convenience store at four in the morning one summer in Wyoming – then headed straight to a downtown restaurant to host the lunch crowd. All of these jobs formed me for my later professional life.
Now, I live like a Queen when compared to the average citizen in India. I still have a work ethic that rarely gives up – and it’s always been sated with salary, or opportunity or the beautiful faces of my children. But I feel guilty sometimes for having so much when so many around me don’t.
Do I let that guilt walk away with 200-dollars?
It’s a question I haven’t answered yet.
I have a back courtyard, New Orleans style. It’s one of the highlights of our new house. And beyond the courtyard wall is a neighborhood alley. In the alley lives Ram, our local iron “wallah”. He lives outside, under a tent that’s buttressed against an old, sacred tree. He has a fan and TV and gas burner and charpoy, or lattice-rope bed. He also has space where he works, ironing clothes for families in the neighborhood. He uses an old-fashioned coal iron.
Ram says he has lived in the alley for 40 years. He has no family. Many of the neighborhood drivers and other workers hang-out in the shade of the tree near his tent. When we were moving back and forth between our old house and new, we discovered that Ram was the keeper of the keys to our place. He let-in the painters and the plumber and our driver every time we sent him over with a load of furniture. Our bedroom wall backs onto the alley and at night I hear Ram talking to the security guards, listening to music, moving through his routines. I like knowing that he’s there and safer than he would be living on the street somewhere else. Here’s the view from our courtyard:
And a closer look:
Can it be? Unit #3 is seven!
And thrilled because he got a CRICKET set. His baseball, basketball, football (the American kind…) loving father is perplexed.
We celebrated in school, as well:
Earlier the same day I brought cupcakes to class for one of my students who shares Eddie’s birthday: