I meet this guy named Ajay outside a restaurant (Pizzeria) a few days ago. Actually, he comes up to a friend and me and rubs his tummy. He's unkempt, sleeps on the streets, and for a minute I actually wonder whether he's really hungry or he's faking it. This is before he says a word. It's something I go through everyday in Mumbai. See, judge, dismiss, doubt, change mind, ask for opinion, walk away from problem. It happens a lot when you're confronted with poverty. Well, with me, anyway.
But on the day - I think it was Friday - I get him a pack of biscuits, and receive in return a mile-wide smile not seen since...I don't remember when, actually. He parks himself on the pavement, and meticulously cuts open the pack, as if it was mealtime. You could imagine him sitting at a dinner table somewhere, with his parents going, "Sit straight, and what about your prayers?"
I interrupt his mealtime, and we get talking. He says he's from Jammu, and the word itself is so far away, it does not register for a minute. I imagine I'd look pretty stupid to anyone else, but with this kid, I can return a whole minute later and ask, "you mean Jammu from Jammu and Kashmir?!" In between, I had fooled myself into thinking it was the name of a slum somewhere in Bombay. He says yes and moves his index finger over the layer of dust on my car.
He has run away from home, with an older distant cousin, who becomes more distant when things do not go well in Bombay. He abandons Ajay, the boy in front of me right now. Ajay first sleeps at Mumbai Central station, but the cops harrass him. So he moves to Churchgate Station, where "no one troubles me". His parents have no idea of his wherabouts for the last six months. I leave him, promising to be back the next day.
I return, but he is not there. The keeper of the nearby store briefly deflates my faith when he says the people who hang around here, asking for food, have all been here for long, and that they spin convincing yarns. But I recover quickly when I remember Ajay's smile. It was quite real. It's nearly been a week but I remember it clearly. A genuine smile always stands out.