The man in the road
I was walking towards Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai; I was on my way to buy train tickets at what used to be called ‘in British times’ Victoria Terminus. I was standing by the side of a road intersection waiting patiently for a gap in the insanely busy traffic, car horns ringing inside my ear drum; I had been standing there for quite some time along with a number of other Mumbaikars when I felt a tug on my trouser leg. My initial unguarded reaction was to pull my leg back and shout. Personal space in all Indian cities is almost none existent and I had grown used to this fact, but, even on Mumbai’s over crowded streets this personal intrusion I felt went a bit too far especially whilst I was waiting to cross the road.
Squatting at my feet was a young disabled man; the lower half of his body looked like it had been paralysed for many years probably since birth, his legs had withered his feet and toe nails were gnarled and he was dressed in filthy old rags. He motioned his hand towards me opening and closing the palm of his right hand, a beggars hand gesture in India when asking for money. So I gestured back to him, trying to point out how dangerous the situation was as I tried to cross the road and that his actions were distracting me. I realise now I must have sounded like a complete idiot, from his daily view of life, having to walk on his hands and cross these deadly roads must have been quite some challenge.
I took my forward position up once again, eyes forward, then left then right, waiting for an opportunity to arise, a break in the traffic when I could take my chance and I could sprint to the other side of the road. The man on the floor tugged at my trousers again. On numerous occasions in Indian cities I have felt preyed upon by beggars, Picked out and picked on! My western appearance alluding them to the possibility that I may be rich pickings and even though I am not rich, I do realise I am still incredibly rich when compared to the man who had just pulled on my trouser leg. Even though he appeared a pathetic figure I was still a bit pissed off with him. By the time I took these portraits I had spent almost five years travelling across India, I had lived in some of the most populated places on earth and I had stayed in some of the cheapest accommodation I had become hardened to many sights, sights that when I first began my journey would have shocked me.
So I decided to ask him if I could take his portrait, or if I’m honest, I think I said “if I give you some Rupees, I will take your photograph!” It was a statement not a request. I’m usually much more polite when asking if I can take some ones portrait but as I said in the heat of the moment whilst wilting in the sweltering humidity of Mumbai’s midday sun I already felt hastled and pissed off. He nodded to me that that would be fine, that I could take his portrait. He sat staring up towards me as the people who were also waiting to cross the road became bemused onlookers sharing with us this normally intimate act and they watched as I took about 3 or 4 frames of this man. I did not take me any longer twenty seconds, enough time to take a few images and as I took the photographs he opened and closed his hand, a little reminder to me that a fee was required for this portrait. This was not a portrait he was giving to me as a gift, this was a business transaction between me and him.
I do not walk around India offering people money to take their portrait, why would I? On this occasion it was right and proper that I should give something. How much should one give though? There had been no time for any negotiation, our brief encounter had not allowed for this. I put my hand in my pocket aware that what ever I offered would not be enough, so I was already prepared for a row. I have watched people in India hand out Rupees to beggars and when money is given it is usually given in quite small amounts, 3 or 4 Rupees at the most. I knew exactly how much money I had in my pocket; I had about 600 Rupees, enough money for some thing to eat and enough for my train ticket that would cost me 450 Rupees. I decided to offer him 100, I would still then have enough money for the train ticket and I could eat cheep fried food from a street vendor and not have a sit down dinner. I was also aware that this was a good deal for him for 20 seconds work.
I planted 100 Rupees firmly in his gesturing right hand and as I did this every one else who had been waiting at the side of the road took advantage of a break in the traffic and they began to cross. I smiled at him said goodbye and I took my chance along with everyone else. I had not banked on being chased across the road though, completely underestimating the potential speed of this young disabled man and his solid determination to get even more money out of me. Sprinting on his hands he followed me 50 yards along the gutter dodging traffic, I also noticed he was half laughing at me. I stopped and I said “OK, OK”. I put my hands in my pocket again and I took ALL of the loose change out and I bent down and I gave all of it to him, I patted my pockets at him, they made no noise now, I felt like I was being mugged. I had kept the other 500 Rupees notes I needed for my train ticket in my back pocket. I am aware of how this makes me look now, but I swear to you really had to be there to really appreciate the comedy value in our little encounter, as we left each other he was really milking the situation, laughing and taking the piss out of me. Good lad!
Jason Scott Tilley