As I stepped out trusting the bright sun, still carrying an umbrella hoping for rains, with my unusual precautionary gear which included a mask, face shield and gloves, I felt like an alien. I noticed that almost everything had opened up. New business models were clearly visible. People were selling hand sanitizers, PPE kits and masks on the streets. Every alternate store had these products, sanitizers at least. After walking for 10 minutes, I was confused if we had to wear the mask to cover our nose or the chin. So, I decided to ask a few people and heard that it is a conspiracy theory – ‘Corona jaisa kuch nahi hai’. I had previously heard this multiple times and was almost sold to one of the ideas. Still, everyone had different responses.
I got the opportunity of speaking to Mr. Salim Siddiqui* who had a different reason for not wearing a mask. He said that he recalls bullocks in his native village in UP wearing ‘Java’. To me, this was also a learning that Java is not only a programming language. Google additionally told that I could create a Bulls and Cows game in Java. In Salim ji’s context, Java is a small tool put in the mouth of bulls to control their direction while farming and to prevent them from eating the graze. This might not be the best definition but my understanding of it.
Salim ji said that wearing a mask feels like wearing a Java to which I asked if I was looking like a bullock.
No Small Talk
Our conversation started after I saw him selling earphones. He was approaching everyone on the streets, walking and displaying a bunch of wires and other devices of various kinds. I was actually looking for the wired ones but he didn’t have it. Irrespective, he asked me if I wanted those for playing PUBG. My reason was to prevent my phone from dropping.
Before selling earphones, Salim ji used to sell N-95 masks but the venture did not continue well. He had also worked with various businesses during the lockdown and on his farm in Uttar Pradesh but could hardly save anything. Wireless earphones had more margin. If I knew him earlier, I’d have learnt a few sales techniques from him.
Anyway, I asked him how he was doing in these times to which he responded, “Bus gaadi chal rahi hai aur kya”. He asked me if I was interested in wireless gaming earphones. I told him that I wanted one for Microsoft team meetings and Zoom calls. He was curious to know how I have been working during Covid time, and we talked about work-from-home during the pandemic, the unavailability of local trains in Mumbai, and how I miss the trains and the m-indicator. ( पुढील स्टेशन लोअर परळ). He extended the conversation by telling how several street vendors and roadside businesses were affected due to trains not running as usual.
He asked me how much money did I earn. I wanted to make a Fight Club reference but rather told him my salary as I grew up believing that it was perfectly fine to ask anyone about their salary/income until the Human Resources lectures in college helped me understand why salaries are not disclosed. Yet, out of curiosity, I asked a few people about their salaries during my internship days but none of them answered. Salim ji, however did.
He also asked me how educated I was, and again, I clearly told him that I had graduated last year, and have since then, been working in sales. Like him but with a company. Salim ji’s elder son had to drop out of Oriental Institute of Technology due to health issues within two months of his admission. Not only his investment went into vain but also his son did not continue education thereafter. Instead, he went on to work as a security guard installing money in ATMs. Salim ji thinks that there’s no scope of growth there.
His younger son also dropped out soon after and started working in various retail outlets as a helper. He was unhappy that both of his sons did not listen to him to pursue higher education after Class XII. Salim ji is currently paying a rent of INR 2000 for his house in Goregaon East. He has used up all his savings to sustain his expenses during the lockdown. Even with odd jobs, both his sons have been supporting him financially.
Salim ji also shared his experience of teaching Urdu, a language that he had learned during college. He expressed the importance of learning it then. Mid-conversation, it struck him that my beard could not accurately predict my religion. So, he cut short the Urdu part in between and continued with how much faith he had in God and how each person gets much more than he/she requires.
Lockdown in UP
After the lockdown was announced, Salim ji had travelled back to his village in Uttar Pradesh after securing a free ticket in the train. He stayed there for a couple of months, and told me how the government had provided two ambulances to test people of the entire village after there was a Covid-19 positive case in the village.
The hospital was 25 kilometers away. Every day, two ambulances would turn up. Each would take a family of four to the hospital and drop them back after conducting the test. The results would come within a week. If tested positive, the respective person would get a call and they’d be picked up the same day within 20 minutes. They’d be taken to a school turned quarantine facility nearby.
Once things started opening up, Salim ji decided to come back to Mumbai with eight of his friends. Before travelling back, they had to pass the Covid test. Shockingly for him, all of his eight friends were tested positive. He was the only one who hadn’t gotten infected as per the test results. So he decided to come alone.
Still Mask On
The conversation concluded with him politely asking me if he can leave and continue with his work. It was just a chat between a twenty-three-year-old guy with average communication skills and curiosity trying to understand more about life of people around him, and a much older man with a longer white beard trying to find new ways to earn money during these mad times.
*Name changed to protect identity