It was my first trip to india. I had planned to stay one week in Mumbai, and spend the weekend touring the city. On booking my trip through my company's travel service, I was informed I should consult the company doctor about travel and health precautions. I did so, coming away from the consultation with a "survival" package of various "preventative" cocktails, and a list of do's and don'ts related to food and drink. I studied the booklet, stashed it into my suitcase, then squeezed in my last piece of clothing. Time to set off to the airport.
I am used to hiring a car, and driving myself to my business appointments. Not this time. The car came with a driver. My very own chauffeur. He was to sit in the car all day waiting for me to finish my business. I felt ashamed. I said there will not be a need for him to wait, that he can leave the car during the day, but he seemed offended. He was proud to be my driver. He insisted to be at my call all day. He insisted.
The business week was over. I woke up early on Saturday morning, grabbed my camera, and set off to walk into the centre of Mumbai. I stepped out of my five-star hotel near Mumbai airport. It did not take long before the noise, smell, and heat signalled the day was going to be stressful. I had no idea how stressful it would be. I was about to find out, and experience a world that changed my view of life.
My hotel was a sanctuary. An illusion. Within a few steps, the clean, ordered, western-standard habitat was replaced by dirt, dust, putrid smells, and scenes of poverty and disorder. The air seemed to be thick and sticky, laying down a contaminated film on my skin. The sun seemed to burn the contaminants into my flesh. I felt hot and uncomfortable.
I turned the corner, the street opening up into an area filled with rubbish and debris. A huge sewage pipe severed the open space. Behind the sewer pipe I could see slums. Young children were playing in the rubbish piles, oblivious to the stench, a smell of rotting waste, faeces, and chemicals, amplified by the burning sun and mild breeze. I paused to catch my breath, a feat that was not easy in this place.
I heard them before I saw them. Young voices shouting "take my photo, take my photo". I turned to see a group of six young lads running towards me. They were laughing, seemed excited to see me. They asked where I was from, insisting I make a photograph to take home to show my family. They were not interested to receive a photo. They were satisfied to just pose and smile. That was enough for them. I made the photograph. They laughed and thanked me, the event seeming to be a highlight in their day. They said goodbye, and as they ran back to the slums, one of the boys turned around and shouted again "thank you!".
I stopped and thought for a moment. Here I was, in a poverty-stricken place, surrounded by filth and decay, terrible conditions in which to grow up, yet these young lads seemed happy and joyful. They were laughing and joking, and were able to express gratitude for the smallest of actions. In their eyes, my making of the photograph was a moment to be thankful for. I thought again. I should be grateful for experiencing this moment. A spontaneous meeting, a moment of connection with young people I will never see again, yet for them the moment was filled with meaning and gratitude.
I walked into the reception of my hotel. The luxury of the fittings, the air conditioning, the symbols of western standards meant nothing to me. Nobody was laughing, nobody seemed grateful. I felt sad. Somehow those six young lads reminded me of an important lesson in life. I have never forgotten that lesson in being grateful.
I am grateful I met those youngsters on that Saturday in Mumbai more than ten years ago.