He waits patiently for me every day. He knows that I come to the beach in the late evening and he has been watching the road and the stretch of beach touching it for hours. He doesn’t want to miss me. Prem Sagar is a short, thin and dark man with bulging bloodshot eyes and a cyst on his forehead. His hair is scanty and his face is hollowed. He smiles with large, broken discoloured teeth. Many decades of a hard life have literally wrenched the flesh off his body. It is raining and his shirt is wet illuminating his bones. He came from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai many years ago and scrapes around for a living. His family is still in the village. He earns a little and sends whatever he saves back home for his son’s education. “I believe in hard work,” he tells me with evocative eyes. “I have to create good karma for my next life.”
But Prem Sagar is not waiting for me for idle chatter or to talk about the afterlife. He has other, more pressing issues to discuss. He is courting a grand obsession. He wants me to connect him with Mallika Sherawat, the actress who smooches, ad libs and drops her clothes without patience. Like millions of other Indians, her voluptuous body fascinates him. “Please,” he begs me. “Just one call. I want to hear her voice. I know you are in the film industry and you can do it for me.” I tell him it’s difficult, that I am not in the film industry, and why bother to talk to her? See her films and go home and fantasise like the millions.
“I have seen all her films at least ten times each,” he tells me with more passion than a scholar at the Sorbonne poring over the nutrients of ice. “I have read all the articles on her. I know where she stays and the doctor she visits. But I want to talk to her. I know you can connect me to her.” What will you tell her? You must be decent, no vulgar talk, I insist. “Of course not. I just want to hear her voice and tell her that she is a great actress and that I have seen her films several times. I promise no vulgar talk. I just want to hear her voice, that’s all.”
It is difficult to avoid him. He catches me at any corner of the beach. The moment he sees me his eyes light up and a huge smile crowns his face. “Now, please call,” he pleads. I tell him that the time is not right and she is on an overseas shoot. He looks disappointed and then says fine, next time. This happens every day. I can’t shrug him off. Prem Sagar lives to talk to Mallika Sherawat. The summers in Mumbai are harsher these days and the rains ensure that the city is flooded. It may be due to global warming. But Prem Sagar isn’t bothered too much. He will sweat for all he is worth and swim for cover if he only gets a chance to hear the musical voice of the goddess who has snapped up every other reason for his existence on earth.
For the migrants on the beach the obsession with Hindi cinema is aggressive. All the Hindi films are seen and discussed several times. Yesterday’s hero Jeetendra walks on the beach in a tight black T-shirt and jeans at a furious clip late in the evening. Whenever they see him they stare. Some follow him and try to talk to him but Jeetendra puts his head down and ups the pace. Well into his sixties and wafer trim, he is faster than the boys who follow him. All the boys have their ears pierced, are draped in bling, and have cut their jeans with blades near the thighs and knees like Shahrukh Khan. Hairstyles, walking styles and drawls are all copied from some actor or the other. I can’t explain it or understand it. Neither can I tell them that their lives should make more sense. They are dead to reason.
Everyone on the beach wants to be an actor, director, singer or dancer. They have no education and have run away from home in the badlands. Why do they believe that Bollywood is the last recourse of the illiterate? I can’t nail that reasoning to any logic. Is that what they believe of their demigods?
Word has, by now, strangely, got around that I am from the industry and can shape their dreams. They all come, one by one, and touch my feet every evening. It is embarrassing. I tell them to go back home, that I have no connection whatsoever with Hindi cinema, that this is a wasted dream, and time is precious. It will make more sense thrusting their youth on other things. But my words don’t reach them. I also know that they won’t return home. There is nothing to go back to.
Mumbai dazzles. It is a heroin fix. Every day unfolds with hope and beckons hundreds of thousands of migrants to its hollows. Once they are plugged to the energy of the city, all sanity is vacuumed. Their only hope now is in slum development schemes, vote bank politics, a life of crime or even something as bizarre as being hit or run over by a rich man’s car. If they survive the accident, there will be good money paid for their silence. If they don’t, the next of kin have a windfall!
He knows more about Juhu beach than any other person. His hair and thick sideburns, barring a growing bald patch on the crown, are dyed black and his dark, clean shaved face is proud and chiseled. His smile is an I-know-it-all smirk and he walks ramrod stiff, bent slightly back from the torso as though he is leading the Republic Day parade. His sartorial sense is old world: bell bottoms, leather slippers and a long, loose full sleeved shirt. The beach is his home and his office. Anthony Bhai is in charge of all the little dhandas that operate on the tiny rush of sand between the shut Tulip Star and the new Novotel hotels. Different areas of the beach are controlled by different people. Like the stray dogs who have sharply defined territories, one doesn’t step into the other’s domain. They are also under the jurisdiction of different police stations. So, like the monsoon which chooses which stretch of the city to rain on, the raids on the beach are also selective.
The dhandas are not injurious to health. They include a few games, children’s rides and coconut and bhel stalls. Anthony Bhai employs many people and he just hangs around, smoking cigarette after cigarette, overseeing the work. The municipality raids sometimes and the police are always on hand. But Anthony Bhai does the balancing act well. He knows how to talk and whom to pay, and still manage a good income.
I have been watching him for months and we haven’t exchanged a word, but one day, for some unfathomable reason, he comes over and starts talking. Once he starts, he won’t stop even if the city is burning. He also loves repeating his story countless times. He tells me about his life. About his family, his work, the money he makes, the payments to staff and various government agencies and his habits like sea swimming in the hot summer months. “I have written the story of my life in a book but it got washed away in the monsoon. I could have given that to you. It will make a great story. I believe you are a writer. You could have used it. It is a bestseller. You can even make a film on it.” Yes, he wants to be written about and, for a change, I am not in camouflage.
He tells me about his lifestyle in great detail. He sleeps before the clock strikes midnight on a thin cloth spread on the beach and wakes up at five every morning, walks to the marketplace across the road for his ablutions and a cup of tea. It doesn’t matter which time of the year it is. Anthony Bhai’s schedule is clockwork without even wearing a watch. “I haven’t had formal education but I have learnt a lot on my own,” he tells me. “I read the papers and sometimes watch television.” He talks about the news channels, how they get advertising, aboutAnimal Planet and National Geographic. There is a lot of wisdom in his words. As I get to know him over the next few months I realise that, yes, Anthony Bhai is a master strategist at survival. He will do well anywhere. Starvation is not in his horoscope. His DNA is wired for success even without Deepak Chopra.
“I don’t do any faltu talk. There is no one to talk to here anyway. They are all illiterate. Kala akshar bhains barabar. I do my job, sleep, wake up early and, sometimes, take a nap in the hot summer months. The authorities don’t want me have my dwelling here and have asked me to vacate. But I have explained to them that I am not building a bungalow here. I sleep here just because it is convenient for my work. I don’t own any part of the beach and it is not my ambition either. Sleeping here is not comfortable. It is just convenience. They have understood me now.”
We have cha and as I feed the strays, he continues, “It is all a money game. What isn’t? You tell me. You pay and you get things done. It starts at the top and goes right down to the bottom. Even a cup of tea costs money. You sit here everyday. You pay to come here and go back, even if it bus fare, and you pay for your cha. So you are paying just to watch the sea. Am I right or wrong? Even watching the sea is not free, even breathing clean air is not free.” I tell him that he is absolutely right and he likes the answer. Now there is no containing him.
Anthony Bhai talks loudly, with many gestures, often looking far into the distance, on every topic under the sun. He talks about the sea, the monsoon, people on the beach, his work, which is interrupted by the monsoon and the many religious festivals, and his dreams. The soul of his talk is his life that slides through the undergrowth of words like a boa shedding its skin. He wants to talk and spill it all out before the words pickle inside and crush him. He has no secrets. Everyone knows his story. He picks his audience and repeats it. He also tells me that everyone knows his story as though to confirm that he isn’t lying and it’s the same story that is doing the rounds.
He shows me the blue stud set in silver on the middle finger of his right hand. “This ring protects me. When it gets dark and murky it is a sign that things are not going well for me and when it shines I get the message that the bad times have cleared up. Look at it now. It is a bit cloudy. I will show it to you a few days later and you will see the shine. It is natural. I don’t wash it.” He also tells me that he has bought his family a house in the village. But there is no gratitude. He expects nothing from them. It was his karma. “I had to do my duty. Now the monkey is off my back. I am a free man and a new destiny will happen. I also feel that my time on the beach is coming to an end. My duty is over. It is time to get married and have a family.”
He was born a Muslim but a Hindu saint prophesied it all and he was brought up by Christians. I love Anthony Bhai’s story. He has no time for religion; work is his only God. Barring his cigarettes and his high protein non-vegetarian diet, he has no other interest. I ask him if he visits the women on the beach. “No way. I have nothing to do with them, no interest at all. My work is my worship. It is their livelihood. Let them do what they have to do. We all fill our stomachs in different ways. It is their way. God bless them.”
He shows me wads of notes in his wallet bulging out of his back pocket. He has a bank account, pays his staff everyday and has saved enough for a decent living. What if he is robbed? “No one dare touch my wallet. He will be caught in no time. They won’t even dream of it.” Why do you carry so much money always? “Lots of payments have to be made to many people,” he says with his usual smirk.
Despite his fondness for cigarettes, Anthony Bhai has his own ideas about good health. “The salt water gets into your arteries and cleans it,” he repeats many times. “Sea swimming is the healthiest thing to do. I swim every summer in the high tide and all the impurities are taken away. Look at this dog you are feeding. It has a skin disease because it is the only dog that refuses to get wet with sea water. If it swam a bit like the other dogs it would be fine.” If you know all this, why do you smoke all the time? “Dhanda mein tension hain.” He also has a light Kingfisher beer every night with tandoori chicken. “Pet bhara hona chahiye,” he says. “Or what’s the point in working so hard? After all, we are working for our stomachs.”
Like the others, Anthony Bhai also had dreams of making it in films. But when he couldn’t, he realised that survival was more important. “Look at the films they make these days. Can they act?? The early films had real actors. Today they are nothing. The films don’t run either. There is no money now.” He sweeps a look at all the boys, some of whom work for him. “Look at them. They all think they are film stars. They know nothing. All they do is drink, take drugs and whore. In a few years they will be nowhere. It is the nasha of youth. When it is over, they are as good as dead.”
While we chat, a cop in a sea blue safari suit lands up. He greets us and joins the conversation. He is Anthony Bhai’s friend. He tells me that he will be retiring soon after more than three decades in the force. I look at him hard. The close cropped hair and moustache are dyed black, his shoes are polished and there is, surprisingly, no paunch. He looks very trim for a man in his late fifties. He also wears a saint’s demeanor and has large, innocent eyes. He also quotes the Gita and the Vedas. I look harder at him. Is he a Mumbai cop??
Weeks later, terrorists from Pakistan create mayhem by taking over the Taj Hotel and shooting at will. A handful of trained teenagers from across the border make the Mumbai police look like awkward schoolgirls at their first prom night. Senior officers are audaciously shot dead and policemen at the Chatrapati Shivaji train Terminus are unable to even load their rifles. They couldn’t even have shot coloured balloons at the shooting gallery run by Anthony Bhai on the beach. The cops are the laughing stock of an embarrassed political establishment. The whole world watches on television how inadequately trained and equipped they are. The entire nation of over a billion people stand up and chorus that the cops are nothing more than a useless, unfit, corrupt and scandalous bunch of gravediggers. India has been saying this for decades. Now thanks to the terrorists some changes in the force may happen.
I am on the beach again having my cha and feeding the dogs when the old cop lands up. He looks dapper in a smart, well fitting police uniform. He has a pistol too which looks menacing in its holster. You guys couldn’t fight teenagers, I chide him. But if there is a rape, some cop is involved. What are you doing with a pistol now after all the carnage is over? “Oh no,” he exclaims. “You don’t know the truth. Do you know what is happening in the force, do you know what a cop’s life is like? I can’t talk now. Let me retire and I will tell you the whole story. I agree with whatever you and the others say but please listen to our side of the story too. Everyone thinks that we are a bunch of corrupt, useless fellows. There are good reasons for all this.” Then he pauses, thinks, and adds, “Do you know that even this uniform I bought with my own money. The uniform they gave me was terrible. So I stitched my own. I wanted some pride while wearing it. Also, let me tell you that every cop is not the same, every finger is different.”
I ask him about the pistol. “They have given me this for a few weeks. Then they will take it away. We don’t need firearms for regular bandobast. Also, this pistol can only shoot accurately for a few yards. It loses its accuracy after that.” Have you guys been training regularly? “Please wait, let me retire,” he assures me. “I will tell you the whole story. I can’t say anything now. You have no idea of the pulls and pressures on us.” Close by two teenagers are piling on each other. They have probably hit the beach after telling their parents that they have gone for tuitions. The cop sees them too. They are an ideal target for a bribe. Threaten to report the matter to their folks and they will give you all their change, their jewellery and their mobile phones. I watch the moment. But, this time, the cop isn’t interested. Moral policing has no takers after the terrorist attack.
As we talk, the dogs clamour for more biscuits. Every month new puppies are thrown on the beach by those who don’t know what to do with their pet’s litter. There is also a hungry bitch with several bloated teats and the ravenous appetite of a new mother. It is easy to see that motherhood pleases her. She feasts on whatever is thrown at her and then gets down to the joy of suckling her babies. Like a lot of human beings she has also skipped the family planning net.
One of the old timers, brown and frail, without teeth, is a ‘widower’. He has to munch the biscuits carefully, after a lot of deliberation, with his side molars. He looks at the biscuit, examines it from all sides and feigns disinterest until another dog eyes it keenly. That galvanises his appetite. He has had a long and steady relationship and several puppies with a beautiful brown bitch. One day, she just stopped eating, was reduced to skin and bones, and died. He looked hard at her lifeless body for a few minutes and walked away. I wonder what he was thinking; his partner won’t be around anymore for love and frolic, would he miss her? Does he know about death, would he mourn, would he worry about his own mortality, would he find another lover easily?
I call him Horny Atma. He has a human soul with the dog’s instincts in place. He is tactile and wants to be fed and cuddled and loves being spoken to in English. He will smile at your words and wag his bushy little tail. He loves it. He goes to everyone on the beach and they all talk to him and he is happy. You can also talk to him in any dialect. If he is not a linguist, he just loves the sound of human words. Horny Atma comes alive in the rutting season in the cool winter months. He is not top dog anymore and has to cower in submission when the younger studs with full teeth snarl at him. But he still retains the charm and cunning to promise a mate healthy offspring. Even if he doesn’t get the best bitch, he manages to sell a straggler sweet little lies. Despite his slowly depleting hormone charge, he remains the king of con.
“Good morning sar,” says a voice from behind me. I turn around and see Mashaal. I haven’t seen him for ages. “Where have you been? I ask. He remains silent and I notice a little boy with snort flooding his nostrils holding torn shorts from falling off his genitals. Who is this, I ask “My son sar.” Congratulations but it may be a good idea to stop at one child, I tell him. Earn a livelihood before you bring more kids into the world. Use condoms or go to a government hospital and they will do nasbandi and even pay you for it. There is silence. “I have one more child sar, this time a daughter.” One more child, but you don’t have money for breakfast? “What can I do sar? It is God’s will.” Well, then, the God’s must be crazy.
It is all getting too heavy and I decide to visit the loo which once hosted a condom vending machine on the outside wall. The condoms and the coins inserted got stuck and the machine rusted and was finally removed. The urinal is multipurpose and hazardous. I have to step over sleeping dogs and human beings, other men keen on ‘sizing’ me up, and inhale large doses of urea. It is much easier to pee in the sea!