The music of the city plays loud as he looks left and right from the night-shaded doorway. He’s been listening to the music since arriving in Mumbai four monsoons ago. He knows each instrument like an old friend. Each tone and timbre. The rhythm, the pulse, the energy gives him faith and keeps him alive.
Behind him, in semi-darkness, lies the station. The great, arching roofs have become his home. The station provides everything he and the other boys who live here need. There’s shelter from the rains, people to beg from, and when things get desperate – and they often do get desperate – pockets to pick.
Somewhere in the darkness, the final train rattles to life and begins to slide along narrow rails and out into the city. He doesn’t turn towards the sound. He knows the sight of the lone taillight drawing small. He knows the final mournful cry on the horn echoing through the terminal marks the end of the day.
For the next few hours no more feet will shuffle over platforms. No more shouts of delight as reunited relatives embrace. No more first-time travellers will gulp their first diesel breath of a new Mumbai life. No more hawkers, bright-eyed bag carriers, beggers, dealers or hungry children. Nothing more will ring from the distant steel sky as the symphony of the day is over. Silence swells.
Standing in the doorway, looking out at the night, he knows it’s all part of the music of the city. The music he has come to know. The music he has come to trust.
Ahead, two people walk through the golden glow of a streetlight, tourists, probably.
Somewhere far away a car thuds through the night with its sound system turned up loud.
Stepping back in the anonymous shadows he watches the tourists; normally they would be ripe for begging, but not tonight. Two stolen tomatoes eaten hurriedly behind a tuk-tuk are enough.
They’re tall, they have tanned skin and their hair has been softened by the Indian heat. With an inhalation of the sweet city air, he thinks of all the places they may have been. All those he’d one day like to go, maybe.
In India alone there are many; he has seen pictures of them in discarded newspapers. Deserts and palaces that glimmer even in black and white, rivers so vast that the far banks are invisible, mountains so high they look like the clouds themselves and wide, white beaches that run beyond the horizon.
One of the tourists raises a hand to a coming taxi. It slows, and stops. They open the rear door and start to get inside.
Wherever they’re going, maybe one day he will go there, too.
Watching the second of the tourists disappear into the small car, he notices something fall to the floor.
The taxi pulls away from the curb, its exhaust adding texture to the silence.
Rushing from the shadows, he bends down and picks up the fallen item. It’s a wallet, a battered leather wallet, its spine crinkled and split.
Back in the safety of the darkness – it’s not safe in the light for people like him – he examines it. He turns it over between calloused fingers.
It contains only a couple of dirty rupee notes; it won’t buy him much, but something at least. Examining it again, he notices a picture staring back at him from the small photo window. Even in the shadows the colours lie behind the faded filter of age. In the picture, a small boy grins from beneath a woman’s arm. His first thought is, a mother and her son. Next to the photograph he sees a hotel’s business card. It’s a hotel he knows – it’s in Mumbai, it’s not far at all.
Pulling the wallet close to his chest, he looks in the direction in which the taxi disappeared. Then, tucking the wallet beneath his shirt, he makes a decision.
Around the corner of the terminus building, its ornate façade glowing like a jewel, he crosses the road. In the daytime, it’s one of the busiest roads in Mumbai, a chorus of traffic that rumbles and throngs. But now, in the late hours, there’s only the occasional car or bike. Each one just a halo of light in the muggy darkness.
Taking the road opposite, he walks. With each step he feels the cracks of bucking concrete beneath his bare, dirt-darkened feet. The other boys use this time to sleep, but for him, to be out in the city alone, to hear its night-time song, is something that feels like freedom.
Reaching Marine Drive, he takes his first breath of the sea. It reminds him of a home he once knew. The home where he lived with his parents. Somewhere in the south. He’s not sure where. He just remembers leaving after they died.
Around him, the music of the city changes. The thump and clink of celebration from brightly-lit hotels, the two-stroke romance of others rushing to get home, the shuffling of his feet and the breathing of the waves. He thinks it sounds like hope, opportunity and loss all playing together.
Opening the wallet, he looks at the hotel’s business card. It’s just ahead, sparkling in a lavish white light across the road. Looking towards it, he sees a taxi pull up outside. A man climbs out of it. It’s the same man – the tourist – he’s sure of it. They must have been somewhere else first.
With the wallet in his hand, he rushes across the road. A motorbike squeals past, sounding its horn.
“Sir, excuse, sir!” he shouts, searching the few English phrases he has learned to beg from tourists. “Excuse, sir!”
The man looks up, eyes narrowing.
“This, yours, wallet,” he says, reaching the pavement and passing the wallet across. “Is yours, no? You dropped back there.”
Two minutes later, drawing a deep breath of the cold sea air, he crosses the road again. Somewhere in the darkness the water gushes and slaps across rocks, and in his hand, the twenty-rupee note feels crisp. He’ll have a good meal tomorrow.
Reaching the road’s edge, he stops, fills his lungs, then turns right, heading for the wide expanse of sand which curls around the top of Ocean Drive. During the day, Chowpatty Beach is full of the noise of the city, but at night it’s quiet. He likes to walk there, to feel the whoosh and drag of the waves across his feet, the sand between his toes, the music of sea swirling around him.
“Hello. What’s your name?” There’s a voice in the music now. He ignores it – they aren’t talking to him, and if they are, it won’t be good news. On the streets, voices are often unkind.
“Hello?” The voice comes again. It sounds soft, motherly. He stops and turns. It’s a woman; she wears a purple sari and her expression is calm.
He doesn’t answer. She takes a step closer. In the distance, the waves sing like a memory.
“What’s your name, young man?” she says, taking a step forward.
He doesn’t answer.
“My name’s Pavari,” she says. “Have you heard of the SA Shelter?”
He shakes his head.
“It’s for boys like you. People who don’t have anywhere to go. It’s a safe place to help you.”
Looking at her, he notices her eyes for the first time. Calm, hazelnut eyes.
A motorbike growls past, clattering back into nothing as it turns a corner.
“I can take you there now if you like.” She reaches to take his hand. “It’s a nice place. They do lessons in reading and writing and maths, there’s somewhere to sleep and there’s always food to eat.”
He steps backs, considering the woman with unblinking eyes.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You don’t have to come now, but I’ll explain to you where it is, then you can come anytime.”
He nods and listens. The shelter is close.
Later, he walks on the sand and closes his eyes. Sometimes when he does this, he can forget about the city altogether. Sometimes, when the waves sound right, he can be back on the beaches of his childhood. Hearing the waves that he would chase with the other boys from the village as they waited for their fathers’ boats to arrive.
The music was different then, it was pure and kind. Before the city, the loss of his parents or the isolation of poverty.
But all he can see tonight is the picture of the boy with his mother. All he hears is the city grumbling for attention.
“Oh, hello. It’s great to see you again,” she says, opening the door as he squints in the bright lights of the entrance hall. “Will you tell me your name now?”
“Tau,” he says, stepping inside.