There are moments in life which touch the soul almost unknowingly. Over the weekend, I was in Mumbai for my book promotional tour. The venue was Crossword book store at Kemps Corner, a wonderful place for bibliophiles in the heart of South Mumbai. I spent an hour talking and taking questions on my book. It was hugely energising to sit amidst book lovers. Once the discussion was over, I signed several copies and thanked the staff. As I was about to leave, the guard at the book store approached me, ‘sir, I was listening to your talk. I am most impressed. I have seen you on tv, now I want to read your book. With my next salary, I will buy it,’ he told me. Surprisingly, he spoke fluent English. I asked him his name. ‘ Narayan Pillai, sir,’ he answered with a smile. What was he doing as a watchman in a book store. ‘I am a graduate sir, but need a job. Mumbai mein job mushkil hai. But here I am in a book store, I like books, so I am happy,’ he said.
I was completely disarmed by Pillai’s quiet dignity. A man who earned Rs 8,000 a month was planning to buy a book worth Rs 599. He wasn’t asking for a complimentary copy, he didn’t want a selfie, he simply wanted to indulge in his passion to read. Pillai had humbled me, swept aside the hubris of an author with the spirit of an aam admi.
Pillai’s story is that of millions of Mumbaikars, indeed Indians. The educated unemployed are a tragedy of modern India: too few quality jobs have been created, forcing people like Pillai to desperately take up anything that is offered. In her wonderful book, ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’, author Katharine Boo writes about a Mumbai beyond the bright lights, where aspiration co-exists uneasily with the reality of life in a tough, unforgiving city. Pillai symbolises that intersection between a city of dreams and an area of darkness, where the daily battle for survival takes precedence over all else.
I could not allow Pillai to buy the book. I paid for a copy at the store, autographed it and gave it to him. ‘Thank you sir, I will surely read it!,’ he said with a big smile. I left Crossword that evening not as a author delighted to be on the best seller charts but as perhaps a slightly better human being. Pillai had taught me a valuable lesson in the journey of life: there is no greater fulfilment than the dignity of labour.