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EASY MONEY

*

Seven Indian Samurai lolled outside Gokul, hot summer love for temporary rental. Some coiled in the handlebars of someone else’s motorbike, some slouched across their own, one lay  like a leopard along the saddle. The rest just stood and looked perfect, casually posed in a photogenic row. It was Muscle McJimmy’s Drive-by.

One sexy Samurai smiled at me.

‘He likes you,’ said the shopkeeper.

‘He only likes my big wallet.’

My shopkeeper laughed then shouted something in Hindi. It must have been straight to the point. The boys waved back and abandoned any pretence of interest.

‘Every boy in Colaba wants to sell me his banana,’ I sighed.

‘So, what’s the problem?’

*

He looked exactly like a Michelin Man in a singlet, sitting high behind his counter, lit by an electric light bulb. His large arse splayed wide over the padded seat, one dimpled knee poking vacantly into space. Ten terrible toes wiggled below in the dark. All around him every inch of wall was covered with his stock; drinks and smokes and sweets and gum, biscuits and shampoo and soda fighting for space in a galaxy of sparking wrappers. Vast as he was, mine host was almost invisible in the middle of it.

Chai was summoned. I was in for a chat.

‘One rich woman, she comes by here in her big car – blacked out windows, chauffeur – ri-i-i-ich lady. She stops, winds down the glass, looks at the boys. One hand comes out and she beckons, in he gets – off they go. A week later, he’s back with a sore dick and a thousand dollars.’

‘Easy money.’

‘Money, you can always get easy – no problem. I’ve seen men in here with piles of money this high…’

He showed me. It was a lot of money.

‘Anyone can get easy money – but it comes with a price.’

I like my shopkeeper philosopher. He’s spent his entire life in this street; he loved the chance to gossip, to spill the beans to an outsider. I loved listening. We were a perfect combination. It was a bit like having my own Indian Zorba the Greek.

*

‘Everything is pride, my friend. E-e-e-everything is pride.’

He leant back in his chair, swiveled gently from side to side and reflected on this great human truth.

‘I have a fat girlfriend. She earns ten thousand rupees a month cleaning hotel rooms. That boy earns ten thousand in one night.’

‘Jeesus. That’s two hundred and fifty bucks!’

‘I give her money, of course,’ he shrugged, ‘but she still has her pride. He only has his vanity.’

The subject of all this interest was preening, peering at his reflection in the rear-view mirror of someone else’s motorbike. He adjusted a hair here, a hair there – generally though, he was pleased with what he saw.

‘He’s a very stupid man – very conceited. He spends everything he earns on himself. If my fat girlfriend makes a thousand, she spends nine hundred and puts the rest in the bank; if he makes a thousand, he spends two thousand. Look at him; all for show, everything on credit.

Stu-u-u-pid. He thinks he’s smart. Pfffft! He’s got nothing special in his pants. He’s got nothing in his head. Easy money? Pff! He doesn’t know anything about money. He’ll be dead in a year unless he smartens up and pays his bills.

Live or die – nobody cares in Colaba. All they want is the cash.’

*

Gokul vomited out a pod of drunks. They stood outside swaying, shouting, trapped in a six-pack of confusion. The seven sexy Samurai changed pose, as if Bob Fosse had shouted a cue from Heaven, took a breath and adjusted their hair. They were starting to look more and more like The Village People.

‘There’s Naseeruddin Shah, there’s Akshay Kumar, there’s Shah Rukh Khan: little boys dressing up as Bollywood stars. Pffft! Trust me, while they’re out here on the street, they believe it.’

His chair squeaked and moaned as he turned to face me. He leant forward and sighed.

‘Nothing changes – they come, they go – over and over… another fight, another stabbing, another score – it’s everywhere.’

He looked directly at me.

‘You can buy anything you want in this street. Anything. You understand me?’

‘Men are men,’ I shrugged, ‘we all think with our dicks.’

‘Not just sex… anything.’

*

‘Everything is business,’ he said, ‘everybody has a mobile phone. Fast money, easy money; they want it and they want it now. They want Hilfiger, they want Nike, they want Harley. It’s all brand names and Bollywood. Money is everything in India – you either have it or you are nothing.’

He waved his hand as if he were trying to dislodge a recalcitrant dollop of daal.

‘Nothing. You are the shit on my fingers.’

One of the drunks has seen the Samurai. He laughs. The others crowd around him while he dishes the dirt. They all look over and giggle amongst themselves. Indian men giggle like girls.

I could see the Samurai. One stood up from his motorbike and drew himself up to his full height, pulled his broad shoulders back and raised one eyebrow. The lounging leopard sprang into action, sitting up slowly, before nonchalantly getting to his feet. His chest was huge. He didn’t even bother to look at the drunks. Another uncurled himself from the handlebars of somebody else’s bike and stared straight back. Suddenly the giggling stopped.

‘See?’ said the shopkeeper, ‘they are powerful – now. They are bi-i-i-ig Bollywood stars. Pffft! They act like a pack of dogs.

The drunks scattered rapidly. Smart move. The Samurai relaxed back into their pose.

‘Then they get greedy, they get old and smug, do drugs, break the rules – they get their cheek slashed, they get beaten up, go broke – the lady in the limo picks another boy…

There’s always another boy,’ he said, ‘there’s always another lady in the limo…’

Dog sat quietly, finishing off his chai.

There’s always another old fool, too – slum-dogging it in Mumbai.

‘I am carpenter,’ said one solitary young lad, ‘I work every day from six-o-clock in the morning. I am carpenter.’

We are leaning against the low wall on Apollo Bunder, our backs to Mumbai Harbor, staring at the Taj Palace Hotel looming large and empty in front of us.

It looks vacant, kinda strange.

For the next few minutes the carpenter spun his story. Poor sod – he works all day, slaving away for a dollar a week, living in a hovel with thirty five boys, sending money home to his poor sick mother and thirteen younger siblings in Bihar – on and on, tragedy, pain, the whole darn thing.

He had surprisingly perfect English for a poor Indian carpenter. I let him lie a bit longer. India always has a soundtrack.

I wasn’t listening. A thin stream of people, heading from left to right, was right in front of us, so close they were touching, just flowing a foot from our faces. Little boys scuttled around our heels with boot polish, working their way along the wall.

Behind this a much thicker stream of humanity headed in the opposite direction; family groups, couples, packs of young lads, a clan from the desert, walking, watching; young lovers, villagers down for a day in big Bombay – conservative folk dressed in their best, trashy young men showing off at their worst – headscarves and turbans, baseball hats and burquas, saris and jeans – India then, India now, India forever.

I turned my head slowly in his direction. He was freshly showered and neatly dressed, shaved and smelling of cheap cologne.

‘That’s a great watch,’ I said carefully.

He thought so, too.

‘And a very good mobile phone.’

He pressed a button and I heard the ring-tone. It was the Hendrix version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’. I could see gold glinting on his fingers.

‘Wow,’ I said, ‘great rings! Show me.’ He did.

‘Is that gold too?’ I pointed to the chain around his neck. He nodded.

‘Great belt.’

He stood up and showed me. This was a buckle with a message. Sitting in a large circle, surrounded by diamonds, was the letter ‘S’. He turned slightly, so I could see. No, it wasn’t an ‘S’ – it was a $ sign.

‘You’re a handsome man,’ I laughed, ‘why not sell what you got? I don’t care.’

He stood back a pace and gave his buckle a flick. The $ sign revolved at a furious pace while all around it the Bling diamonds lit up, glowing red and dangerous. My carpenter wiggled his head and slowly smiled a very white, very broad smile.

I knew his name. It was Jimmy.

*

A silver carriage shaped like a swan sailed by, bursting with ten generations of a single Indian family and more blinking fairy lights than Bollywood, its place taken by another silver cygnet complete with silver horse and silver Christmas decorations, twinkling brightly against the Taj. It shuddered to a stop and creaked as an Arab of generous proportions clambered out.

Two grey cars with blackened windows drew up either side of the silver swan. Each produced four men in black suits. Two moved to assist the fat Arab down to the pavement, two spread out to the nearby street vendors.

The Arab Prince dismissed his two security men with a wave and sent them off to help their comrades. As the beggar children started to zone in on the beaming Arab he reached into his flowing white robes. He pulled out a wad and started to distribute it. Ten, ten, ten, ten – everybody got ten. Order was maintained by a steely bodyguard sitting in the sawn cradling a machine gun. Well, maybe it wasn’t a machine gun. Maybe it wasn’t a gun at all. Whatever it wasn’t, a host of excited beggar children knew to behave in front of it.

The four other security men returned, arms laden with produce. They’d bought every nut, every ice-cream, every piece of strange Indian candy from all the vendors on the Bunder – then, on instruction, gave it all away to the assembled crowd. I was personally presented with a roll of warm peanuts and a big Saudi-Arabian smile.

The miracle of conspicuous generosity was over. The Prince of Kindness was helped back into his portable throne, the grey cars swallowed the security men, even his private machine gun disappeared. As he looked back, I caught his eye, smiled and saluted. He nodded graciously, snapped out a command then settled back in his luminous swan and slowly sailed away.

*

Jimmy was a hustler. He sold his cock to strangers on the Strand. He’d arrive for work about four in the afternoon and spend the next eight hours sitting on the wall. Jimmy went for the subtle approach – he let the other lads do the ‘Hi! What’s your name? Come, sit down! Where you from?’ routine. Jimmy stood out because he did the exact opposite.

‘I never do anything,’ he laughed, ‘I just sit.’

He was young, handsome and hungry. Unlike the men outside Gokul, his self-confidence had not yet tipped into vanity. He enjoyed his work – but exactly what Jimmy enjoyed was up for question; the sex, the game, the power – or the sting?

These Apollo Bunder lads were the renegade Jimmys. They slid into town, tried to get some dirty cash unnoticed and then, if they were smart, left. They had no police protection, no mob protection; all they had were their wits, their mobile phones and each other. They developed into ferociously good liars – but so they should, that’s what they did for a living.

‘We screw ‘em for five, ten, twenty thousand…’ Jimmy said, tapping his mobile phone, ‘whatever we think they have. Any problems…? Ding! I press the call button and my pals are inside the room in sixty seconds. That’s when the punters really shit themselves!’

He laughed heartily.

‘They always pay.’

Jimmy’s dollar buckle said it all.

*

That mangy black dog has found his spot. I’ve been watching him for a while now. He’s in the dirt under a tree digging a hole with his front paws. He’s a lazy ‘ol fool dawg, he ain’t in no hurry. He scrapes away, turns round, sluggishly scratches again, hollowing out his bed.

‘Can you help me?’

Just sit and a Jimmy will come. This is the penance of the single male traveler, old or young, cashed-up, broke or back-packer. Jimmy knows what they want.

Jimmy always comes from somewhere else, young men with no options and a head full of Bollywood dreams. Some slip through the cracks. These are the low-level Jimmies, the ones with stretched faces, haunted eyes.

They always carry a portfolio – a desperate collection of photos, an identity card, as if they want to prove to both of us they really exist.

‘That’s my girlfriend,’ he said, pointing to the attractive lass leaning on his shoulder. They made a handsome couple.

‘How old are these pictures?’

‘One year.’

A lot had happened to this Jimmy in the meantime. He was filthy, obviously sleeping rough, a shadow of the healthy, normal teenager in the pictures.

‘Oh, Jimmy,’ I thought, ‘oh, Jimmy.’

The fool dog stopped scratching and heaved himself into the dirt. He’d made his bed. Now he’d lie in it.

‘Uncle, can you give me something?’

I looked at his arms. They were covered in needle marks. I saw a dozen scars where he had slashed himself. He had amateur tattoos cascading from elbow to wrist. I could see just where any donation I might make would go.

‘Ahh-h-h-h,’ said the fool dog. He lay his head down on the earth.

‘No, I won’t.’

I stared deep into his eyes. He looked back. I held the pause.

‘I look at this…’ I said, pointing at the photos.

‘I look at this…’ pointing to the track marks on his arms.

‘I see that dog over there…’

The fool dog was sleeping, dancing in his dreams. He was chasing rabbits. ‘R-r-roof!’ he said in his sleep. His paws were twitching. Fool dog thought he was free. He was just a dog in the dirt.

I looked at Jimmy. He gasped.

*

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