They say all roads lead somewhere. But roads can be a home in themselves, too.

Birsa had come to the big city, like many, to make it big in life. His family back in the village had been so proud. The youngest son of the family had come of age. The older brothers had been inducted into the family business of tilling the land. The income wasn’t colossal but just enough to make ends meet. Birsa wasn’t under any obligation to support his family back home, which was the sole reason for many city immigrants to leave their families. He was lucky. Sometimes, privilege can be as subtle as freedom.

With dreams in his eyes and no commitments back home, Birsa had taken the first train to Mumbai. The train lumbered on the tracks in the typical languorous pace of the Indian Railways with many fortuitous stops along the way. Every hill, every river, every town along the way seemed to be cheering him on through the compartment windows. The naivety that comes with youth had laid before his eyes a path to success with no roadblocks or ravines. He couldn’t wait to get started.

The train reached the station 40 minutes late. Birsa had tried to prepare himself for the hustle and bustle of a big city like Mumbai, but nothing could prepare him for the way this city breathed. His world turned upside down as soon as his feet touched the station floor. The crowd had gushed in, impatient to board the train and the ensuing chaos made Birsa tumble, with his bag falling over his head. He laid there for a minute or two after the train had gone, jarred out of his starry-eyed reverie. No one helped him up. The city didn’t have the time for such trivial issues. He got up, picked up his bag and checked for injuries. Nothing major, except for a minor bump on the head. He took a deep breath and went ahead, to get a feel of the place.

Unlike most people that went to Mumbai, Birsa had come without any relatives, friends or even acquaintances in the city. He was sure that he would eventually find his footing well enough without any helping hand. He hadn’t taken into account the shifting ground of the place. As he got out of the humongous station gates, hordes of roadside sellers, auto-drivers and fruit-mongers started to surround him in the cacophony, goading him to buy whatever they were selling. Feeling overwhelmed, Birsa froze to the ground, unable to meander through the chattering crowd. The auto and taxi drivers were a little rough; some got involved in a tug of war over him, and, for the second time since his arrival, the ground slipped beneath his feet, forcing him to lose his balance and collapse. Unsympathetic to the plight they had inflicted upon him, the crowd decided to try and haggle a family that had several bags around them. This time, though, he found an outstretched hand that was willing to help him up. Grateful to his sturdy bones, he took it with eagerness writ large on his face. The guy had a lopsided Rajesh Khanna-like hat on his head and black suspenders on a colorful paisley shirt.

“New to the city, are you? All newcomers must bless their bottom with the dirt of the city. It’s like an initiation ritual. Don’t feel bad,” he said with a welcoming smile on his face. Birsa got up with a smile of his own, one that was made entirely of relief and gratitude.

“Nobody told me that. They should put that up on the station announcement board,” he replied. Birsa’s witty reply made the two strangers burst into laughter.

“I’m Medhu. I was also once an outsider here, but now it’s been 8 years. What are you called?”

“Birsa. My village is in Chhattisgarh.” Both men bantered as they walked along the footpath, with Medhu sure of his steps, and Birsa sure of Medhu even though it hadn’t even been 10 minutes since they met.

“Oh, is that so? I hear the mining industry is going strong there, why didn’t you try your hand there before jumping into this cesspool of a city?” Medhu inquired.

“Mining was not my calling, bhaiyya. Those mines will choke you to death and the offices are only for babus. My eyes were set on the city since the beginning. How could they not with their lights shining so bright!” he answered cheerfully.

“You are one of those dreamers, aren’t you? All of them find their way here,” Medhu remarked not unkindly. “Anyway, you must be having no place to stay at. Come with me. I know a very cheap and nice place. You will love it.”

Birsa, being the simpleton that he was, went along thanking his stars for the new friend he had made. After 15 minutes of walking, Medhu said “We will have a cup of tea here,” as they stopped near a tea stall.

Birsa was hungry, anyway. As they started sipping at the hot cup of tea, a little boy came running to Medhu. “Arey Chhotu! Good that I found you here. Here, this is a new customer. Go take his bag to the lodge. We will meet you there,” he said to the boy, yanking Birsa’s bag from his hand and handing it to Chhotu. Birsa was a little apprehensive, but seeing Medhu’s sweet saccharine smile, he didn’t think much of it as the boy ran away with his bag. They bantered a little more, but Medhu did seem a little terse all of a sudden. At one point, he said he had to relieve himself and asked Birsa to wait for him there.

Five minutes went by, then 10, then 20. Medhu was nowhere to be seen. A panic-stricken Birsa ran around and looked everywhere. With tears in his eyes, he tried to ask the tea-seller if he knew anything.

“I have never seen that man before today in my life,” he said with an uninterested flat face and went back to his business.  Sobbing and stumbling along the streets, Birsa could not believe how cruel the city had been to him. Every face on the street seemed like a veiled threat. Every lamp post was glaring at him and every car seemed to be aiming to ram him to death. Dejected and defeated he ended up at a curb among some footpath dwellers making their beds on the curbs. An old man looked at him and said, “Here comes another victim of this city”, chuckling at his plight. Birsa didn’t pay any attention. He fell asleep with an empty stomach and any empty heart.

He woke up the next day, alone on the street with thousands of cars speeding away on the roads next to him. He couldn’t understand where he was at first, before the sadness and stress settled into his bones and he recalled everything he had been through the day before. Scared and confused, he just sat there waiting for something to happen to him; good or bad, he didn’t care. A big, white car stopped by and a kind, slightly overweight lady gave him a samosa to eat. His starving stomach, which was blissfully ignorant of the burden that his heart carried, prodded him into gobbling it down. His eyes followed the car, which drove a few meters ahead to stop in front of a temple nearby. The lady got down again and started distributing food among the beggars. For a moment, Birsa thought about going there and enjoying the free meals that were being dispensed, but he hadn’t come to this city to beg. A semblance of determination was still left after all. He walked along the streets and tried to find if any shop needed help. Everybody shooed him away as if he was a dirty cur from the drains. Something hardened in him then. Human resilience is, after all, a force to be reckoned with.

He finally found work as a waiter in a small hotel. At night, he went back to the curb. The old man offered him a blanket. He had become another ant in the anthill of broken hearts in the city of dreams. He didn’t know then that the city streets were homes for thousands like him. He didn’t know that the city tested the strength of eyes that came pouring onto her streets, to check if they could withstand and endure the weight of the dreams that they saw.

No night went by without filling Birsa with a sense of loneliness

Every night, Birsa would shed tears before succumbing to sleep and fatigue. He didn’t know it then that those tears were necessary to grow life out of the barren city soil that he had become destined for.

Every now and then, he would wake up to the sound of horns and speeding cars. He didn’t know it then that the noise was necessary for him to find his calling.

Birsa made a home on the streets and one within him as well. He started to realize then why walls were important.

Birsa found the walls in the city of shifting grounds. He knows now that he can always build and erect more if the existing ones come down crashing.

…now that you’re here

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