Friday, May 13, 2011


Glazed light through and through,
Can't live life without you,

Somehow with two of me,
I feel we'll make it through...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Shoeshine Men

My 7 years of traveling by the Mumbai local trains, have yet never stirred any need to polish my shoes at the station. If at all the rare occasion arose, polish and a shoe brush were always at hand at home. So you can imagine how walking toward a local Boot-polisher for a tête-à-tête must've felt. His deftness at his trade was only compounded by my awkwardness as he prodded me to place one leg then the next on to his box. I marveled with quiet obedience and awe while he allowed me no inch to speak. So with a failed attempt at conversing behind me, I moved on; on my quest to learn more about the men in Prussian blue.

A slow walk to the other end of the platform ensured I wasn’t caught off guard and allowed the dust to settle on the squeaky clean shoes. Uttam Sinha - Professional Shoe Shiner, Age 32, peered up at me as I came to a halt before him.

Shoe shiner or Boot polisher is quite simply a person who engages in polishing shoes with shoe polish. Since the profession traditionally falls in male domain they are often known as Shoeshine Boys. A bootblack is another popular term in the leather fetish communities. While the role is deplored in much of the Western world, there are children that earn an important wage for their family in many countries. Some boot polishers offer extra services, such as shoe repairs and general tailoring, depending on the skills they have learned.

I placed my high heels on Uttam's Boot polish holder and he began his routine. A Boot polish holder is a rectangular wooden box which houses inventory like boot polish, brushes, insoles, etc. all paramount to his trade. It also serves as a footrest for polishing boots. Shoe polish (or boot polish), usually a waxy paste or a cream, is a consumer product used to polish, shine, waterproof, and restore the appearance of leather shoes or boots, thereby extending the footwear's life. Shoe polish is applied to the shoe using a rag, cloth, or brush. Three kinds of Shoe Polish: black, brown and cream (white), determine the price of the service.

Their holders are mostly left to the mercy of the platform for the night. Some chained along with other boxes to a pole, some inside stalls on the platform and others are just left there in the hope they will still be there waiting the next day. Uttam adds that he has been warned by his brothers (other boot polishers) about people stealing or breaking the boxes. I exploit an opening to speak of his trade and learn that he has been polishing shoes since he turned 15. Earlier he worked for a few years in a Shoe factory and is amongst the fortunate few who have learnt the skills of a cobbler. His head droops as he recounts the day the factory shut down and he had to come back to this very Platform 4 years ago. Setting up a cobbler shop is on the cards and is currently saving up for the same. Most of his family has migrated from Bihar with some family members if not the whole family. The same can be said for most.

Ashok Singh, 38 yrs, from Bihar, shared the existence of The Mumbai Harijan Boot polish Kamgar Audhyogik Utpadak Cooperative Society. This Society is in charge of boot polishers that fall under a zone that extends from Khar Road to Goregaon railway station on the Western Line. Mumbai’s entire boot polish industry is run by 12 such societies spread across the three railways lines. According to Ashok, the society was formed around 1988 and has been looking out for the welfare Boot polishers ever since. The society issues Identity Cards that need to be duly stamped by the Station Master of the station which grants him right to work at that particular station. In case he does want to move shop to another station, he has to get a new identity card and a fresh stamp. This card gives them not only security but a sense of belonging that makes them part of a whole. Such a measure legitimizes their occupation and protects them from being evicted by Police or Municipal workers. The society performs just like a union and is welcoming to everyone. Here, recruitment into this profession is not restricted by caste or religion.

Despite being open to converse about their trade, I sensed reluctance towards talking about caste. They all had the same rehearsed answer, - “We are harijans, and we come from the same family (Pariwar)”. It almost felt like they had been instructed to give this answer by a higher power. I could not make any head-way into this observed peculiarity.

Most of these workers hail from Bihar and the poor financial state of their family has forced them into this occupation. One such boot polisher Santosh, 30 yrs old narrates how he hails from a family that owns no land so there was never a choice of agricultural occupation. Boot polishers do not associate themselves with cobblers or their work. They are neither encouraged by the Society to learn the skills of cobbler and nor do they have the time, like Ashok Singh highlights, “If I start to learn something else, when and how will I earn tonight’s dinner?” Talk of education or schooling and they compare it to unfulfilled dreams, but they insist that they are working towards changing lives for their coming generations. Some have never gone to school, while others have just about completed primary education. Their day begins with sunrise as commuters pour in and out of stations, and ends only late in the evening.

Around 25 such workers occupy big railways stations, though the numbers vary. Boot polishers are granted access to sit anywhere on the platform. The prime locations like the bottom of a staircase or entry-exit points of the station force them to sit all day under the sun with little respite from the heat. They wear the similar blue shirts and sit within close distance of one another, mostly seated in pairs either next to each other or with their backs against another.

My first encounter with Rajesh and his colleague saw a crowd gathered around me. The unnatural duration of time spent at their post attracted not just people on the platform but also nearby boot polishers, who inquired about my identity and motives. It was refreshing to see such camaraderie. Each one is very protective of the other, yet the competition was evident. They all spoke highly off their respective society, to the extent of proclaiming to being proud members. One even called a Society Secretary a Godsend.

Some of the boot polish holders had something nailed to their sides. It brought up another association, namely - The All India Schedules Castes/Schedules Tribes Railway Employees Association, Mumbai. This association was founded on 19th of Sept. 1959 at New Delhi. It falls under the category of Government Activities and works for Scheduled castes and schedules tribes who work in various zones of Indian Railways. A closer look disclosed that the acrylic sheet is more of an ad for Prime Plywood rather than the association.

The objectives of the association as per their website include promoting co-operation and unity among its members, working for the Education, Social, Religious and Economic well being of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Railway employees and their dependents; and removing untouchability amongst the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes themselves; among a long lofty list of 25. The boot polishers do not know of what this association is supposed to do for them, but the ad helps them get “noticed” on the platform. They seem to be unaware of its existence, but there is someone from the association who comes with the acrylic sheets and helps them nail it to their box.

Some kind of fear is manifest as many refused to talk to me regarding a Society’s activities and detailed working, while others simply directed me towards others. The Society seems to be doing a good job and the numbers are increasing, which leaves me wondering whether such societies glorify such professions hence attracting more people and adding to the informalisation.

When asked about their troubles, the defense of their community, society and its work is unnerving; questions on ambition promptly protect their occupation and its simplicity; the future of their children are left to the lord and his might.

They may have begun as an offshoot of the shoemaker and/or cobbler occupation, but they seem to have made their mark in the city’s informal labour sphere. Visualizing Mumbai railway stations without the clattering sounds of their brushes and boxes should they be evicted is an impossible feat. The boot polishers have been absorbed into the image of the city. They are proud yet vulnerable, but most of all they lack awareness, especially amongst youngsters who are barely out of their teens. The ones that have came to this city for their dreams; it’s like a first step- Towards self-reliance, self-respect and knowledge about the world around them. Dr. Ambedkar said that the caste system was not just division of labour but also division within labour, but the boot polishers seem to have created a family that is united by such divisions.

Somebody once said you can't judge a Book by its Cover, but can you judge a Man by his Shoes. Most people get their shoes polished to look perfect for their engagements of the day, but rarely do they realize what kind of life the boot polishers live. Sleeping in small rooms with 4 other men, earning daily wage around Rs.150 to 250 barely enough to survive in isolation, let alone the subsistence of an entire family and yet holding their heads high. These are the people who add that spark and confidence to people’s lives from the ground up.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Technicolour on the Streets

Little waves of excitement rippled through the crowd gathered on the footpath of the 125-year Ali Building, Shahid Bhagat Singh road. A man with a golden tooth and a glowing smile walked around really slowly, surveying with satisfaction the crowd gathered in front of the 21-inch TV set. Raju Rajendra Prasad is glad that street kids and others of no-fixed address could share many joys and sorrows all thanks to the Television.

A rag picker by profession, born to a Tamilian mother and a Kannada father, Raju Rajendra Prasad fondly known as “Anna”, believes in teaching street children and others through the Television. A 35 year old, with dark complexion, stands just about less than five feet tall. Raju lives on the same footpath, somewhere next to the TV, and he knows what it is like to be detached from the world outside.

More than 30 years ago, his father settled on the footpaths of Colaba, bringing with him a small boy- Raju. This is when they met Mr. Desai who taught him learning through games and stories and made Raju what he is today. Mr. Devendra Desai, the proprietor of the 101-year old R Desai and Company, is called “Seth” by Raju with the utmost love, admiration and respect. It was Seth who helped him buy his first TV.

Raju speaks of the days when he would watch the effect of alcohol on his own father, the effect of other addictions on others and his hatred for the same; he noticed the lack of activity for pavement dwellers. He talks of his own craving for owning and for doing.

“People would shoo us away when we stood outside their windows or near TV showrooms and looked at their television sets,” Raju said. “I saved money to fulfill the dreams of pavement dwellers like me.” He always dreamed of owning a colour TV. Formerly, the owner of a black-and-white TV, Raju upgraded it with a little help from Seth, “I bought a black and white TV in 1997. Later, in 2001, I bought a colour TV with Rs 10,000 out of my savings,” said Raju.

Mr. Desai lends electricity to Raju from his office, while Raju proudly pays Rs. 210 every month for the cable connection. Mr. Desai even enrolled him into a school where he attended for a month but then left. Raju said that it was not a place for him; he loved the streets and had to take care of his father. He may not know how to read or write, but Seth insisted he must know how to write his name and do simple mathematical calculations. Raju wishes to continue Mr. Desai’s tradition of teaching through games.

His usual day begins with sorting the garbage which he intends to do all his life just like his father. It's a wonder how people find pride and honour in all kind of employment. When you meet Raju, one realises that the kind of job does not matter much, as long as you have a job that pays enough for two square meals, however meagre they may be. He earns up to Rs. 200 for 1-2 hours of work, a simple man who is content with his livelihood and lifestyle. He lives with his father, an alcoholic. He knows of no other family other than his father and doesn’t yearn for any kind of company except his canine friends, whom he spends the rest of the day with.

Raju laughed like a small child when asked about his extra finger and said that people tells him he is very lucky! When he was about 6 years old, he became partially deaf, when his right ear was damaged in an accident, but he never let his disability or position come in his way. He blushes and hesitates when asked about marriage, and said that he was waiting for the right girl to come along.

He never misses the Sunday mass and calls himself a ‘good Christian’ who believes in the saying “Never say Never”. The man has an extraordinary will and spirit! Even his second TV getting stolen did not dampen his spirits and he went on to save for another TV. The cable and electricity wires were chewed at by rats on the streets, but Raju found a solution by borrowing an extension cord and had the TV running within two days.

Raju wants to keep the children away from addictions of Ghutka, Cigarettes, Alcohol, and Gambling etc. He understands that they must earn a living just like he had to when he was very young and so he hopes to educate his little friends, who spend their day washing utensils and other household chores, about life. He wants the taxi drivers, food delivery men etc to spend their after work hours watching news or a movie instead of gambling or sitting at some bar. He believes that not everything on TV is bad or unintelligent.

Pavement dwellers come from as far as Churchgate. He has other visitors too: office workers, taxi drivers, bus driver and now even beat policemen. Raju started off playing his black and white TV in 1997, for anybody interested. The TV set is switched on around 8 pm everyday and the crowd starts to gather by around 9pm. The spectators include children of around 7 years onwards to senior citizens. He does not allow anybody who smokes to watch TV and tells them how harmful it is, especially the children and makes it a point to scold them.

Raju makes sure that everyone finds a suitable place to either sit or stand at the back while watching TV. He insists that the people stand only on the inside of the footpath, which has a railing keeping the people safe from the speeding traffic right outside the Naval Dockyard. He personally invites the passersby to join them, who are amused by the sight of people gathered around a TV on the footpath. He makes a good host and his kindness is beyond comparison to anybody from his profession.

On select days, it’s a dose of Hindi cartoons or Children’s programs, on other days it’s Zee TV or Star Gold when everybody enjoys a 9 pm movie. There is the usual news show in Hindi, where everybody discusses current news especially Mumbai news; there are a few who explain to the others who cannot read the bulletin or are unclear on various issues. Raju is a huge cricket fan and sometimes even shows Day-night cricket matches. Recently, Raju bought a DVD player and now even shows English movies dubbed in Hindi. He learnt how to use the player and DVDs, VCDs that he bought from Colaba. The TV set is finally switched off at around 12:30 -1 am. The crowd disperses very slowly as the next day arrives. Raju believes that one must give your body enough rest so that you are ready for yet another day of hardwork and labour.

The children are always praising their beloved Anna and some even insist on sitting next to him. The taxi drivers and other boys who clean out the garbage are thankful that they save the money that they would have otherwise spent elsewhere; they are grateful for the entertainment and news. Amidst all this, we sometimes see a proud Mr. Desai watching Raju learning, and helping others learn.

There’s more to Raju than just the TV: he has adopted 12 street dogs and spends a lot of money only on biscuits for them. He even pays some doormen to collect leftovers from Hotel Taj Mahal for the dogs. Raju, is a humorous man of small words, love for children and dogs and the curiosity to know more.

It’s inspiring to see a person who lives such a meager existence with such a large heart and conscience. No wonder the community calls him Anna or big brother.

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”

- Mark Twain.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

ppl at hi5!!!! sheeesh!!!!

so earlier i had mentioned how ppl at hi5 say the weirdest things... here is a gr8 example... i dont think i stopped laughin for hours after this msg was sent!!! i cant believe this person did sooo much mehnat!!! *phew*
anyway clap clap!!!! wat a gr8 job this person did at tryin to convince me to add him....!!!! so ppl try hard not to fall off ur seats.... *LOL*
p.s. check out the stuff i highlighted in red!!!! *rolling with laughter*

4-13-2006 9:06 AM
no wards to expreessss
hiii snehaaaaa, aaj main aapse itna he kahna chahunga ki aap hamesha isi tarah muskurate rahiye jaisa aaj bhi aap muskurate hai plz plzzzzzzzzzz be alays khush .Waise e baat aur maine ne aaj tak kaafi logo se mila hu lekin tumhari jaisa simplicity soberness aur itna pyar se dekhna sach main ek ajeeb c kashish ban jaati hai isliye main tumse yaho requwst ya phir kah lo ki mera ek favour kar dena ki tum jaisa maine abhi tumse kaha tha ki bus plzplz plz plz plz isi tarah hamesha khush rehan mere liye kaafi hai. love . . . . .saahil (9213598917 ) hope agar tum meri dost ban sako to main apne aap ko is duniya ka sabse khushnaeeb shaks samjhubga( and u know wht urs and mine b'day fals on same day only hainaaaaa thats 25 dec)

so long then!!!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

wonderful saturday

aaah so my wonderful saturday began with fun faces of pankaj n akilesh(motu), as usual i end up waiting for these two guys coz motu jus cant be on time... but its cool coz its 7 in the mornin n i jus cant be irritated coz im too busy being happy... the beach is sooooo fucking beautiful!!! i could jus live there.... so karan got nemo o the beach!!!!! (his 3 n 1/2 month old white lab) wheeeeeeeeee!!!! n i was all responsible n all!! hehe!!! so much fun!!! i want a dog right now!!!! so usual fun at the beach. akilesh even knocked me head on into the sand, is cool we fight like cats n dogs!!! *wink*
then came home n showered n left for bhavans to meet motu 's col frenz. ate at shettys!!! not done that in a long time, so felt very good n pretty full!!! came home n n jus slept, woke up only at 6 something. so then went down to meet my fav ppl - rohit n preeti!!! n had the best time ever!!! went to my terrace with food(piknik) n digicam, took amazing pics!! n we had a ball!!! sooooo much fun!!!
funny thing is friday nightt all three of us were in the worst of moods... we all wanted to die/kill somebody but on saturday it was jus brilliant!!! feels so outstandingly gr8 to smile n make someone smile n even better to see that smile stay.... rio n preeetey r the best!!! (preeti n my current disp pics n hi5 for terrace pics) preetey's digicam rules!!! we took such sexy pics in complete darkness its shockin... there is no light on my terrace so we couldnt see a thing on the cam ka display, we jus kinda assumed we would be in the frame. this way we got a lot of cut off pics too... but also got some stunnin ones... so preetey finally approves of my monkey face =) wheeeeeeeeee *wink*
its all faith in this song - maybe tommorow is a better day!!! god bless the song writer!!! =))