What do you pray for: three stories from Mumbai

The Two Dollar Umbrella

“If it starts raining, you can always buy one.” – Dr. Andy Dearman.

Andy was the seminary professor I traveled with in the Middle East and he was talking about umbrellas, and how you really didn’t need to carry one and wouldn’t you know it here I was walking around Mumbai without an umbrella, when it started raining, and thinking I sure hope Andy is right.

It started raining, and suddenly there were umbrella salesmen.

Funny thing is, they were still willing to haggle with me over the price…and it raining. They could be charging whatever they wanted. I know I will only use it today, but I figure there is nothing like having a $2 umbrella, in a $10 rainstorm. For the record that umbrella served me well all day until a windstorm overwhelmed it at dusk, moments after this picture was taken. Totally worth it.

Monsoon in Mumbai

30 seconds after this picture was taken, a blast of wind ruined my $2 Umbrella

 

An Easy Mark

I’ve always been an easy mark. I know that, but I enjoy playing along, instead of being rude. However, Mumbai’s game is more nuanced than I’m ready for. Because people are so naturally friendly, I have trouble telling the scammers from the sincere, the hustlers from the friendly, until I’m too far into their game.

Baboo is a typical example, though I could tell you about Ali, Azi, or Sham, but Baboo’s story will do. I was walking around Colaba looking for a place to eat when Baboo strikes up a conversation with me as we wait for the light to change. People are so friendly here, and I always learn something even if it is only that they ask so many questions, I feel sometimes like I’m talking to myself.

Baboo is a shoeshine artist, but because of the rain, isn’t seeing many shoes to shine.

Baboo

He might be Jesus, or just Baboo

Like many others, Baboo is concerned about me being in Mumbai during monsoon season, or really anywhere in southern India. Baboo insists I talk to a government travel agent to have him book the rest of my tour up north. Early on in this conversation I told him I was going somewhere I wasn’t and felt bad that I had not mentioned the tour either. None of this was going to any use to anyone, but I couldn’t find a way out, so I played along knowing all the while knowing it was a waste of time.

I tried to get out of it, really but it would mean being rude. Its just the kind of thing that drives my wife and kids bonkers, but they are not here, so I plays along. It really is fascinating to me, partially because each time I begin to understand a little more about how things work here, but more importantly, because I worship a God who can show up as anyone, anywhere and who knows, I might actually be interacting who just happens to look like Baboo. So I won’t be rude and quit the game, even if I know it isn;t going anywhere.

After the failed travel agent booking, Baboo asks me to buy him a shoeshine box for 10,000 rupees, about $150. I actually don’t have that much on me, so I can’t. I try to buy him some street food, as he is hungry, but he wants a bag of rice, and then when we have the rice, he says he needs oil to go with it, and I swear I can see Suzanne laughing at me out the corner of my eye, mouthing “if you give a mouse a cookie…”

Finally we negotiate 10 lbs of rice and a quart of oil; the rice will feed him for three weeks, but the oil for only one. I tell Baboo, he can worry about more oil next week.

Besides maybe meeting Jesus, I like how I’ve learned a bit more about Mumbai, discovered where the food store is (from the imposing outside, I thought it to be a government building or aging palace) and enjoyed at least $7 of haggling in a pretty low stakes game. What it actually costs me is a bit of the natural trust I place in humanity, and how for a few days I find myself a smidgen more suspicious when someone is being friendly or kind.

As we say good-bye he says “You really should by some Indian clothes, the ones you wear really make you stand out.” He was the third hustler person-who-might-be-Jesus to tell me that today.

What do you pray for?

On the taxi drive to the airport from Mumbai, I notice an elaborate shrine in my taxi. Actually, most taxis have a plastic Hindi god of some sort on the dashboard, but this one had pictures and orange marigolds around them. On the ride we talked about our families, what it is like to be a taxi driver in Mumbai (he was a teacher before), and I asked about his shrine. He told me he prays to it, and said “Praying makes me feel better.”

Taxi Shrine

“What do your pray for?” I asked.

“I pray for good health, protection, my family, and for good customer, like you.”

We both laugh, and I repeat what he said, without mentioning the good customer part and observe, “So we pray for the same things.”

“Yes,” he said, “the same things” and I think we are not really that different, both fathers praying for their children:  for some that God will bless their lives, for others that God will become real to them in ways He has never been before, and their protection until that happens.

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