He said his life has been like an elevator.
“Up... down... up... down... up... down... all along.”
He sat on D.N. Road under an arch of the building in which I worked. He had before him bunches of tender coconuts, all so tender and green and soft enough to be shredded with a sharp knife that rested on a thick denim cloth. He would raise one leg so that his upper leg was horizontal, spread the thick cloth on his knee and shave off the husk of the tender coconuts with deft motions of his long knife. The knife, sharpened to shiny silver every night, was worn and the blade curved in with constant application. It was sharp enough to slice anything in a deft stroke of Mahmood's hand.
Every afternoon, I would descend in the creaking elevator, which had sliding doors, made of wood. Since Mahmood had likened his life to an elevator, I somehow associated the elevator with him and riding in it was as if I was having a lazy conversation with Mahmood. I have seen sliding doors made of steel on elevators but had never seen sliding doors made of wood. The novelty wore off after I became accustomed to its quaintness. After getting down from the elevator, I would walk a few steps to his stall and have a tender coconut. Since I was also from Kerala, he gave it to me for rupees seven though the going rate was rupees ten. First he would shave the bottom half of the coconut and then cut the hard shell in a neat ring and hand me the open end of the coconut to drink the sweetish liquid inside. Then he would neatly incise the husk and fashion a spoon, and with the spoon, scoop out the tender meat of the coconut for me to eat.
“This is not our Kerala coconut,” I said one day.
“No, these are the ones that come from Karnataka, our neighbouring state.”
“The taste is different.”
“Our coconut water is so tasty. Aaah, I remember the coconuts in our fields. I would climb on top of a coconut tree, sit there and have about four or five before coming down. Mother would scold me. Haahaha...” he reminisced.
Everyday we would share pleasantries like this about our beloved Kerala. We were both homesick for our lush native state, draped in the greenery of evergreen coconut palms.
“Tell me, how did you come to Mumbai?” I asked him one day.
“What to say, except that fate brought me here.”
”Did you run away from home?”
“Yes,” he said with a wide and sincere grin. The grin was typical of Malayalees. Malayalees have their own sense of humour and are a fun-loving people except when they are provoked or when injustice is done to them. He had a handsome face. The hair stood in a neat tuft on his head and receded smoothly and evenly to the back of his head. His eyes were wide-set and had the glint of humour. His face was typically round and broad like that of some ageing Malayalee film star.
“Why did you run away?”
“Those days, I wanted to work. Bappa (father) said I had to study and become a big man...a manager. Now I realise Bappa was right and olu (I) was wrong.”
“So you ran away.”
“Yes, when I failed the fourth standard.”
“Then you came to Mumbai and started the tender coconut business?” I prompted.
“No, it was not so easy. I had to work with a Hajiar shaving tender coconut like this. Then I washed dishes in a hotel and then became a waiter and saved enough money. Then I started this business.”
“So, you have been a tender coconut seller till now.”
“No, saar. This is a good business. In a day, I can make a thousand rupees at three rupees profit per coconut. I sleep here on the pavement. I don't pay any rent.”
“Then, where is all the money?”
“Long story, saar.”
“Tell me, I am interested.”
Vehicles honked and cruised past us. The afternoon was hot. I had to go back, ride the rickety elevator with the sliding doors made of wood to the second floor to my mundane office tasks. But the story that emerged, so slowly, so diffidently from Mahmood's mouth, riveted me to the spot. He was discreet now, whispering confidentially.
“You know George Coleho, the trade union leader? Now he is a big minister.”
“Well, he and I were friends. We would sleep on the pavement outside the West End Watch Company before he became a big minister.”
“If you meet him, tell him “Mahmood Narielwalla says salaam” to him. He will remember me.”
I wondered where I was going to meet the big Union Government minister who changes parties and loyalties like he changes his kurta and if at all he would remember a tender coconut vendor from the streets of Mumbai.
“How do you think I will meet him?”
“You all are big people going around in taxis and airplanes. You will meet him someday somewhere. Me, poor Mahmood, can never meet him now.”
“Yes, I will make it a point to tell him if I meet with him,” I said winking at him.
“I really prospered in my tender coconut business and he used to come and borrow money from me. He said he would set me up in the hotel business. He did. He got me the permission to start hotel Republic. Do you know hotel Republic? I started that hotel.”
Hotel Republic was a narrow and dingy eating joint and I had feasted in its dark interiors on hot mackerel curry. I nodded.
“I was doing very well then. It was like I was ascending to the topmost floor on my elevator at that time. I had money. I had everything. Then my friend left me to become a big leader. I was left without a godfather in this city. In this big city, you need a godfather for everything. Then the police harassment started. It was like riding the elevator down the floors then.”
“Why did the police harass you? What did you do?”
“They jailed me for a month saying I was running a prostitution racket. A few prostitutes may have come there to eat. How could I refuse them? After all, they are also human beings. They may have talked to a few people inside. That doesn't mean I am in their racket. In the hotel business, you can't deny anyone who is hungry, can you? It is business.”
“Yes, I mean, no.”
“Then I sold the hotel to a friend from my village and I was again down like an elevator to the ground floor.”
His reference to the elevator was quite funny. He said it with a shake of the head, a wide gesture with the hands and a laugh like a snort. His face crinkled into creases and I too got carried away in the waves of laughter it set off.
“Then I started the tender coconut business again,” he said when we had finished laughing, “It is such a lovely business. I love this business. It breaks my heart to peel these tender green children of mine. After all, which fruit offers water to quench the thirst and food to satiate hunger? Which one? Tell me. Yes, they are my children. I look upon them as my children. I sacrifice my children for the thirsty and hungry. I have nobody in this city. Not even a dog to wag its tail at me.”
I thought for a moment and said, “No. None other than coconut.”
He nodded his handsome head in assent.
The afternoon was warm. The lunchtime crowd had gone up the creaking elevator into their cubby holes to yank at the creaky wheels of commerce. I was hesitant to let him continue. I had work waiting for me upstairs on the second floor. He, too, seemed pensive and distracted.
I walked to the elevator and waited for the taciturn elevator operator to open the sliding doors made of wood. The outdated relic seemed to shudder and falter when he turned a round crank pin made of shiny brass that would start it. It groaned on its way up and the lights that were on each floor cast criss-cross shadows upon us.
In the evening, when I descended the same elevator, the tender coconut seller was nowhere to be seen. The next afternoon also he wasn't there and in his place was a young boy doing his work. I bought a tender coconut from the boy who seemed lost in a world of his own. I didn't ask him who he was or where Mahmood, friend of minister George Coelho, had disappeared.
The next day, I overcame my hesitation and asked the boy where Mahmood was.
“Didn't you hear? He had an accident and was admitted to St. George Hospital.”
“Who are you?”
“I am his nephew. I am looking after his business till he is well again.”
The next day, I took special permission from my office to visit a “relative” in St. George Hospital and made it to the hospital, run by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. I took the elevator to the fourth floor of the hospital to find Mahmood resting in a largish ward with a roof so high that it could have accommodated three floors of a modern housing flat. The hospital ward hadn't changed since the time it had been built by the British and the cots were all of wrought iron, clearly showing on them the wear of the ages. There, on one of these cots, dwarfed by the tall walls, which tapered into the roof above in huge criss-crossing beams and rafters, lay Mahmood. His face had lost its cheerfulness and looked haggard. A sheet was drawn over him and he was propped up against a single pillow. The sheet was of coarse cotton cloth, which looked pale yellow with much washing and rubbing against the washing stone. Behind him was a small veranda and there were patients on cots in the veranda too. Beyond that, I could see the ships moored in the Mumbai harbour. As I watched, a huge crane was lifting some containers and stacking them on the wharf.
“So Mahmood, what happened? I didn't see you and asked your nephew what happened.”
“Yes, friend. It was a tragic accident. I closed my shop and was crossing the road to go to the Republic toilet to urinate. Suddenly, this taxi came out of nowhere, knocked me down and ran over my hand. I cried for help, but nobody came. Do these people have a heart? I lay there writhing in pain and I said, “Allah, take my life if that is what you want. I don't want to live. Why make me suffer like this? I have seen good times and I have seen bad. Why make me go up and down like an elevator?” Then, my friend Azhar, who has a business selling and repairing cameras, saw me and got me admitted in this wretched hospital. At night, the bugs come out and suck the blood and life out of me. What can I do? I can't even get up. I cry again to Allah, “Take me away, don't let me suffer like this.””
“Mahmood, you will be okay. Don't worry. They will take care of you. If you need any money, I can help.”
“Help? I don't want charity. What will I do without my business?”
He is a proud man, he won't accept charity, I thought.
“What happened to your business? You nephew is taking care of it, isn't he?”
“I will never be able to shave tender coconut again,” he said tearfully. His handsome face distorted into creases of agony and the tears streamed down his unshaven face.
“I will never be able to run my tender coconut business again. Serves me right for hurting all those tender children of mine,” he repeated.
With one hand, he removed the sheet that covered him.
I recoiled at the sight I saw.
I was staring at a stump that was once his hand.
As I descended in the smooth, large elevator that didn't creak like the one at my office building, I wondered if his friend, Honourable Union Minister George Coleho, would ever know or care about what had happened to his old friend Mahmood Narielwalla.