I am greeted with a moist kiss to the cheek, her perspiration clinging to my face as a warm welcome to Mumbai. I’ve never met this woman before, but she has driven to the airport in the wee hours of the morning as a favour to an old friend. Her teenage son Shan towers next to her. He assures me he intends to safely transport me to what will be my home for the next few days.
3 a.m. in Mumbai couldn’t be any further from the chaos that will ensue in a few short hours. The monsoon rains have washed the streets clean leaving behind a refreshing breeze. Except for the stray dog scurrying across the street, the place is completely desolate. An orange haze emanates from scattered lampposts; enough to illuminate the main intersections, but with no street signs to guide our way Shan finds himself circling around the maidan in the Churchgate area. One wrong turn later, a police officer is signalling our vehicle to a stop.
Clad in khaki and small in stature, the officer marches towards us, his decidedly visible rifle swinging from his shoulder. I try to feign invisibility as he peers into the car and carefully examines Shan’s mother and me. I don’t want to be mistaken for a wealthy foreigner, but I’m afraid my pale complexion tells a different story. Shan is asked to produce his driver’s license, which he is unable to do. It has been left behind on the kitchen counter.
Hindi words are exchanged between Shan and the officer, accompanied by a hefty dose of enthusiastic hand-gesturing and dance-infused head-bobbing. As the officer walks away it appears the matter has been settled, but then Shan turns to me, “He wants 900 Rupees”.
“You mean like a fine or a bribe?” He shrugs his shoulders. There is little distinction between the two.
Roughly the equivalent of 20 USD, 900 Rupees may not seem like a very large sum, but in a city where you can feast on the sweet fried dough known as pani puri for a mere 25 Rupees, it’s a substantial amount. Shan is not prepared to pay this amount and therefore neither am I. So just as one would do when quoted any exuberant figure in the market, we decide to haggle.
Shan the Brave gets out of the car and walks over to the officer’s jeep and the surrounding uniformed entourage. I watch from the rear seat, goosebumps forming on my arms, either from the monsoon winds or the unfolding situation.
The enthusiastic hand-gesturing resumes, except this time the officer is moving his head in a hybrid motion, somewhere between a negative shake and a positive nod. Negotiations are underway.
Minutes later Shan returns with a smug smile on his face.
We’ve got ourselves a deal!