I see them every afternoon while I wait outside the gate for the girls. They sit under a tree on the pavement, just a few feet away from two large garbage drums. In a metropolis where even the richest have to scour for space, the poor usually make do with whatever they can lay their hands on, even it happens to be next to the garbage heap. Although, to be fair to them, the garbage drums had not been placed there when they had first set their shop up, they came in much later, by then, I suppose, it was too late to move away -- their business had been set, their customers were fixed.
I also go to them sometimes as a customer. The man is a tailor, and with my non-existent sewing skills do need his assistance often. But mostly I look at them from a distance. Then there are times when I walk past them and our eyes meet. The man nods his head and politely and says Namaste to me in his eastern UP drawl; his wife, a dainty young woman with neatly tied hair, a big red bindi on her forehead, and vermillion filled in her parting, meanwhile just smiles shyly at me, perhaps unsure if she should acknowledge me at all. Their toddler son, who seems a little younger than my daughter, plays on the mat next to the sewing machine, again only a few feet away from the garbage bins, oblivious to the heat, humidity, stink, flies, and passer-bys like me. Sometimes he wanders off towards the neighbours -- the flower-seller, the tender coconut man, and the ice-cream vendors -- all of whom inhabit the same pavement, a few yards from our society gate. Even though the boy keeps straying off consistently, his parents never seem to worry about it.
On some days, when I pass by them in the afternoon, I see them sharing their humble lunch on the flimsy mat, next to the sewing machine on which the tailor works. I have never looked at what they eat, for I do not want to embarrass them or invade their privacy, but I can very well imagine what it could be: a few thick rotis, some dry sabji, and a bottle of water borrowed from the tap of one of the society gates. The same society where the guards allow them to use the common wash-rooms and to keep the bag which carries expensive clothes of people like us, the clothes that come to him for repair and alteration. Interestingly, even though people are willing to pay him anything he charges for even the smallest of jobs, he, somehow, never returns the clothes on time and is often shouted at. There have been times when I have lost my temper too, but his humble requests and polite apologies have always won me over. Now, after three years, I know how to get my work done: I stand on his head until he starts doing my work.
Today, while walking past them at dusk, I notice the man and his wife sitting together on the mat, with the boy between them. They had their back towards me and were sitting facing the main road, looking at the cars, buses and bikes whizzing past. These were the cars in which they will never get to sit, the bikes that they will never get to drive, the buses which hardly stop for daily wagers like them. But, despite all that, I could not see even an iota of stress, grief, sadness, or bitterness on their face. They were chatting casually between taking sips of tea from flimsy plastic cups, smiling and looking happy and content with life. Their life seemed perfect.
In that moment I actually envied them, their peace, happiness, and contentment.
We need very little to be happy, just a little space to call home and two square meals, but somehow, the more we get, the more we seem to want. And yet we call ourselves educated and wise. Maybe someday we should change places with our helpers -- our maid, or dhobi, or driver, or tailor, or the man who sells vegetables, the woman who comes to collect the garbage. Maybe then we will actually understand what life really means. Maybe then we will value what we have.