The Umbrella man

By Shishir Joshi

A typical weekday afternoon outside a Mumbai railway station. Andheri. Mumbai in miniature. A wet, washed and yet, dirty Mumbai.

On one hand, the dirty old station in the backdrop of a fancy sky walk staring at you. Glaring. Almost as challengingly as an illegal slum which has jutted out into the road, slowing traffic. Or like the pandals during the Ganapati festival which ‘rightfully’ occupy a space otherwise meant for you. Us. Public spaces I mean.

Then there are cars of all shapes and sizes. Taxis with multi coloured disco lights and rickshaws with their meter half-down, trampling over grumbling feet. But almost oblivious to all this are the people. What makes Mumbai in fact! Their speed. Almost like locomotives. Loco-machines. Sometimes picking speed and often slowing down, but always moving. Yet, dignified.

And in this hustle-bustle, rainy Wednesday afternoon, I noticed him. Elderly. Cautious steps, balancing his weight, focussing on the ground to avoid holes or puddles, or both.

With one hand, firmly clasped, was a lovely grey umbrella. That’s the reason I noticed him. Unusual colour. My favourite too. Well, I also watched him, in hope, because it was raining. And he was sheltered by an umbrella. I wasn’t.

Almost as if he had read my thoughts, he came and slowed down along the streams of people waiting (in vain) for rickshaws. Since I was the last, he stood next to me and, extended a smile, asking me to come under the umbrella.

Like a hungry pup, I mumbled a thank you and quickly ducked under it. Now, the long wait in the rain did not matter any longer.

We began talking, the dirt, politics, education, corruption, CWG, Mumbai, IPL and, of course, the unseasonal showers. I realised 20 minutes had gone by.

There were a few more people who had queued up behind us. Suddenly, we both realised that it had also stopped drizzling.

“Ok, challo, Tata”, he said, looking up at the sky, noticing the rain had stopped; simultaneously, he stepped out of the queue.

“Aren’t you going to wait for your turn and the rickshaw?, I asked him, surprised. “Oh, no, I live down the road. I don’t need a rickshaw. I just noticed you getting drenched and thought of waiting and saving you from the rain. Anyways people in Mumbai are falling ill like nine pins. Let me save one, at least from the rain, he said, smiling. “Now that it has stopped raining, off I go,” he said, and glided away, dodging the traffic and hopping to the other side of the road. Before I could react, he was gone.

I often wonder if Mumbai has such Umbrella men around. The cynic in me says nope, the one whom I encountered was the last man standing.

But the optimist in me nods in affirmation. Yes they do exist. And they are the ones who keep this city ticking.

There are men with Umbrellas. Its’ just that they get lost behind the scores of illegal hoardings which have mushroomed. Or their voices get drowned in the rising levels of puddle or pot-holed water. The rare voice of protest sometimes is the shriek of one such umbrella man, who may have got run over by a drunk driver or a ‘youngistan’ Indian driving his dad’s fancy SUV to celebrate adulthood.

So the next time you bump into someone, who emerges from nowhere and disappears into thin air, and in the interim has touched you gently with his kindness wand, don’t forget to thank your guardian angel. You may be thanking the Umbrella man, in disguise.

I just did.

( Mumbai based Shishir Joshi is Journalist and Mentor and co founder of JM foundation for Excellence in Journalism, Mumbai. He can be reached at shishirj@journalism.org.in)

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