Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Nigel looked out the window and watched Sammy standing at the bus door, blotting her forehead and counting everyone as they reboarded. The heat and air pollution today seemed worse than usual and she was flummoxed from the laundry accident. Even with plasters covering the blisters, her heels stung and burned; it was difficult to concentrate on the noisy corner amid the honking horns, screeching brakes and ever-present hum of thousands of air conditioners laboring to keep the surrounding skyscrapers cool. 

The two California women were beginning to irritate Sammy. This morning, after she got the group settled in the van, she gave them a short talk about the ghats to help them get the most from their visit. The women talked all throughout the ride, exchanging files and showing each other their phones. The chatter was a distraction to everyone and Sammy struggled to be heard.

Those two lack empathy, she thought. She wondered why they came to Mumbai. So far, they seemed to be interested only in each other. She reminded herself not to judge so quickly. A Christian herself, she tried to follow the Golden Rule. But her husband and daughters were Hindu and encouraged her to follow Krishna’s more specific teachings, seemingly created just for tour guides:
 “Dear to me is the man who neither annoys nor gets annoyed, who is free from excitement, jealousy, fear and worry.
Dear to me is the man who hates no one, who feels for all creatures, who has shed thoughts of "I" and "mine", who is not excited by sorrow or joy, who is patient and serene, steadfast and subdued.” 

An almost lost cause, she tried to keep order, the precursor of calm, in her little slice of Mumbai life. This morning on the train, even though there was a separate compartment for the fisherwomen and their bags and baskets, she’d had to battle them for a spot to stand in. Regardless of the rules, they squatted by the door making getting on and off difficult. All over the city of twenty million people, rules were ignored and you could feel chaos slouched and waiting in the wings as a result. In a flaunting manner, people sold food and goods directly in front of signs warning “no selling.” They posted bills on signs that said “stick no bills.” They ate in front of signs that said “no eating” and smoked in front of signs that said “no smoking.” Most of her tourists found this Mumbain trait amusing and bewildering. They’d chuckle over it and snap off photos to post on-line. If they had to live with it, Sammy thought, they wouldn’t think it was funny.   

But she laughed along with them as though she didn’t worry about her deteriorating city, bulging at the seams, grid-locked and blanketed in air pollution. Nothing about her personal desires, problems or opinions was revealed to her tourists. After ten years as a guide, she had perfected a carefully edited version of her complex personality which she donned in the morning along with her clothes. On the feedback cards, her groups always commented about her enthusiasm and kindness. 

Most of the time, her tourists lack of engagement with her as a human being didn’t bother her. It was just another part of a difficult job and she’d remind herself hourly of the tips, a huge part of her income. Today, the long hot train ride into the city with a fisherwoman’s elbow in her back and the stinky fish under her nose, had started her off badly. Nigel’s fall was a bad omen and the two self-centered women had wounded her. Did these people wonder or care what happened to her after she left them in the evening in their 5-star hotels? They’d complain to her if there wasn’t a spare roll of super-soft toilet paper in their bathroom or if the white wine in the restaurant wasn’t properly chilled. Could they imagine themselves in her place, exhausted after 8 hours of keeping them entertained and comfortable, enduring another 3 hours of travel before arriving home? She’d have to fight the crowds at the station, stand up in the packed train for the 2-hour ride back to her stop, and then walk with her blistered heels for forty-five minutes from the station to her home. No—her life was unimaginable to her tourists. But, despite her bad day, compared to most people struggling to earn a living in Mumbai, Sammy was a lucky woman. 

Patient, serene, steadfast, subdued, she repeated her to herself. Tomorrow she thought, I’m going to tell the California women about my daughter’s wedding planned for next year. 

"India is a pot of gold amidst the potholes"

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