Saturday, 21 September 2013

Lifting the Sights

In Memory of Vidya Shankar Tiwari
The late Vidya Tiwari  aged about 30 years. Image courtesy Hotel Godwin staff files.

 Something went missing in India recently. The ‘singing’ lift man was not at his usual post at the Hotel Godwin when I ventured down for breakfast after a late arrival the previous night.  I was not too perturbed as for several months he had been telling me about a holiday he was planning back to his village in Uttar Pradesh. Like many of Mumbai’s menial workers, he supported a wife and extended family back home. I knew most of the facts about his life – he would always tell me about his hopes and dreams and especially for his son with whom he shared a single room in one of the higgedly piggedly outer suburbs perched along the railway line. He was paying his son’s way through a college where the 22 year old was in his final year of becoming a ‘CA’ ( chartered accountant). You see - already I am writing about him in the past tense!

I first met the singing lift man about ten years ago, soon after Shelleys Guest House on the sea front shut its doors and I began staying at the Hotel Godwin. ‘Madam’ the small, neat man with premature silver flecks in his hair asked me on my first ride up to room 804 (corner-room-breeze-catching-sea-facing) ‘which country?’ and then reassured me that I came from a ‘very beautiful’ place with of course ‘very fine cricket.’ The following morning the Times of India was duly pushed under my door and thus began our friendship. ‘You come, I happy’ was the usual greeting as he placed his hands in front of his chest and bowed. Then he would ask about my family and always he would tell me ‘you come is like my mother come. I look after you Madam Carole’ and he did. Most respectfully. He carried my bags, made sure I had water each day and one day he told me he would sing for me. His eyes lit up when I responded positively. And so from then on whenever we were in the lift alone he would stand very still, take a deep breath, close his eyes, place his hands in ‘Namaste’ and in a beautiful voice would fill the tiny space with prayerful melody as we shuddered either up or down. Such are the special moments in life and I knew that my generous tips were used wisely.
View from room 804. Image © Carole Douglas 2010
On the second day of his absence I asked his rather surly replacement where the usual attendant was. ‘He is gone’ he told me abruptly (I had refused a tip when he asked the day before) and I then followed up with the breakfast staff. ‘Is Vidya on holiday?’ I enquired. ‘No Madam. He is gone. Finished!’ reported one waiter making an explicit throat cutting motion with his hand. ‘You mean dead?’ I was incredulous. By then I was surrounded by the early morning wait staff eager to give me their versions of his demise; murder, suicide, accident all came tumbling forth and with various gruesome accounts. From what I could gather the tragedy happened between train and track. The body was not identified for days as his wallet containing his ID and money was long gone. I was too upset to finish my breakfast and wandered out to get a closer version of the truth from the front desk who had more or less settled in for the day shift. Whatever the truth of the matter it appeared that Vidya Shankar Tiwari, aged 45, was no more of this world. A voice was silenced and a small void opened in my life!

‘He was either pushed or had fallen off the train’ my friend Mr Singh told me when I returned through Mumbai two weeks later. He had a clearer version of the story. ‘He was a very careful man so I believe he was pushed.’ Vidya left work every evening and made his way to Victoria Terminal where he duly caught the train to his modest home. However, on one awful day in June, he failed to complete his journey. We do know that the incident happened at Wadala Station where the line forks and people leap off carriages and jump the tracks to scramble onto other trains. Mumbai trains are notoriously crowded, accidents are common and no-one cared to report the incident. Without any grace at all Vidya’s anonymous torso lay for five days in a hospital morgue before it was finally identified by his son. Not a dignified end for a most dignified person.

And so the domino effect begins. What happens to a widow left grieving in poverty at the other end of the country? What happens to a young man for whom a father had lined up a better future? Those of you who have read ‘A fine Balance’ by Rohintin Mistry will understand the domino effect that occurs when a whim of fate topples those who are struggling to rise above the mire of mere survival. It stops not at death as it doggedly continues to break links in the delicate chain of life.

The next time I visit Mumbai on October 5th I aim to take a healthy contribution towards a young man’s completion of his final year of study. I aim to set the dominoes upright in this particular game. I have a meeting arranged with the college who will hold the funds in trust and which will be overseen by the owner of the Hotel Godwin who has also contributed to this cause. India wakes the heart and breaks the heart and I am happy to hear from anyone willing to help with an awakening – accountably, transparently and most importantly of all - directly. Contact me at

No comments:

Post a Comment