Oscar-Worthy Performances in the Streets of India
Pottering through a lively marketplace in the lakeside Indian town of Pushkar, I was seized around the elbow by the firm grip of a wily old lady.
“Hello my baby,” she said.
I turned around eagerly: no one’s called me baby in a while. Unfortunately though, she wasn’t referring to me, but to an adorable infant child wriggling on her hip.
“Hello,” I said to the baby, deeply inspired by the longevity of this woman’s ovaries.
“I don’t want your money, oh no, no money. I just want milk for my baby,” she beseeched.
She picked up a box that was conveniently placed in the centre of the table I had been walking past, and shook it in front of my face.
I looked down at the sultanas she had for breasts and nodded with understanding.
“Of course I’ll get you some milk,” I said warmly.
“How much is it?”
“45 rupees,” replied the shopkeeper.
I dug in my wallet and handed over a 50-rupee note. He unravelled it.
“I said 245 rupees.”
I turned to the elderly mother to whinge incredulously about how inflated the price of powdered milk is these days—why, it cost more in India than Australia—but she had disappeared. I then looked confusedly at the stack of boxes from which she’d plucked the product, picking one up to see if it was labelled. It wasn’t even milk, but ghee: a clarified butter used in cooking.
“As if it’s 245 rupees.”
“245 RUPEES!” shouted the man, attracting the stares of passers-by.
“But it’s not even milk!’
“Pay me NOW!”
His raised voice worked extremely well on me, as I hate getting yelled at in any circumstances, even when they’re false, so I dug into my wallet, mentally putting two-and-two together. As soon as I left the shop, the “mother” would no doubt return the product, and she and the shopkeeper would—evenly, I hoped—split the profits. I couldn’t help but break into a smile. Why that cheeky…
I hadn’t even finished contemplating the woman’s spark of cunning when another mother grabbed my elbow.
“Buy me milk. For the baby,” she pleaded. I rolled my eyes and patted the baby’s foot.
“I’ll save you the effort,” I said, shoving a note straight into her fist and scowling at the shopkeeper.
India is an incredible multi-faceted country with natural and cultural beauty from top to bottom. It’s also overflowing with people, and getting ahead in a place with a population size of 1.34 billion is no mean feat.
To put food on the table when you’re competing against and perhaps even feeding so many other hungry mouths requires a great amount of resourcefulness and initiative: qualities many of the 22 per cent of Indian locals who live below the poverty line seem to be overflowing with.
One week into a trip to the land of the holy cow, I was starting to become accustomed—but no less immune—to some of this ingenuity. Perhaps the most memorable transaction occurred late one afternoon in the Goan town of Mapusa.
While waiting for a bus, my friend Grace and I were squatted in the red dirt at a depot watching the mass of cows, dogs, goats and people navigate the streets without crashing into each other. A lanky gentleman with a kind face waltzed towards us, swinging his limbs broadly: the picture of health.
When he was a metre or so away, with all the drama of a Bachelor contestant, he threw his whole body onto the ground, covering Grace and I in a thin film of dust. Then he began to wail.
“Hospital! Hospital! Please – hospital!” he cried, gasping for air.
Grace and I watched him aghast. How had someone who had seemed physically fit seconds earlier be so gravely ill? Was he having a heart attack?
I thought back to my memories of the First Aid Certificate I pretend I still have, which actually expired in 2005. How do you do CPR again? Is it suck and blow?
With furrowed brows, we rose to our knees and handed the man a bottle of water. He looked at it confusedly.
“It’s for you! Drink!”
He took the bottle, flicked his head back, and poured some water in his mouth. Seconds later, he began to weep, fat tears dribbling down his cheeks and towards the creases of his mouth.
The sight of a fully grown man sobbing in a heap and screaming for medical attention is no less confronting than it sounds. But none of the other humans, cows, dogs or goats walking past batted an eyelid.
“How can we help you?” we chorused. “Tell us!”
In response, the man thrashed around and moaned a bit more. In amongst the tantrum, I saw him quickly open and close one eye to make sure he still had a captive audience. I began to feel a bit more suspicious than I was concerned.
The man launched into a lengthy explanation, but it wasn’t in English. The majority of Indians speak a minimum of three languages, but being the typically useless Australian travellers that we are, Grace and I hadn’t even downloaded DuoLingo’s Hindi language course before heading to India.
I squatted back on my heels, feeling both helpless and ridiculous.
“Sorry but we can’t understand you! We want to know what the matter is but we only speak English. How can we help?”
He gnashed his jaws a few times.
I took an apple from my backpack and stretched it out to him. He took it in his hand and placed it beside him.
“Do you need money?” Grace asked. He paused for one second and nodded, then resumed rolling around. His groaning got louder.
“So you want money… for the hospital?”
We both dipped into our bags and pulled out a few hundred rupees. “Here you go.”
Cheeks glimmering with tears, he took the money from us gingerly. His mouth broke into a wobbly smile and he clutched his hands into prayer above his head, gazing up at the sky like an American televangelist. Delightedly, he began to shriek his praise.
“Thank you!” he whooped. “Thank you, oh… thank you, holy day, good day, kind friend, thank you lord!”
Across from us, two other tourists had arrived and were doing a very bad job of pretending not to watch.
“Where are you from?” the man queried us, suddenly able to converse in perfect English.
Like many locals in Goa, he seemed to have cottoned on to the fact that Australians tend to think themselves vastly superior travellers to Russians, so began to spout vitriol to that affect.
“Australians, not like Russians. Oh no. Russians bad, Australians good.” He grinned and stuck up his thumbs. “I love Australia!”
He continued for a good two minutes, naming a list of other counties he deemed to not be anywhere near as good as Australia. “Japan… bad. Italy… bad. Russia… very bad! But Australia good!” he nodded firmly.
I suppressed a smirk. “It’s great that you feel better!”
Health perfectly restored, the man got to his feet, strong and sure. Glowing with love, he reached to hug both of us, and wrapped us in an embrace multiple times.
I pointed in the way of a food van dishing out hot samosas 20 metres from us.
“If you’re hungry, they look nice. Or there’s a hospital a few blocks that way, if you’re still sick.”
Our near-death victim shooed my comments away affectionately with his long fingers and—in the opposite direction from the food truck and the hospital—stepped into the oncoming traffic and weaved his way through without so much as a scratch.
“I think that’s our bus,” said Grace as a big red sleeper pulled into the depot, and together we trudged over to put our bags underneath.
Cover by Julie Johnson