Manish* is waiting tables at a restaurant my Indian friend and I sometimes go for lunch. The food is good but not extraordinary. It is the AC cooled room that keeps us coming back. One day – temperature outside climbed up to 48°C – I stay in the restaurant after lunch. I don’t feel like wandering the streets nor do I want to go back to my hot and sticky room (no AC). Instead I start talking to Manish of whom until now I didn’t even know the real name as my friend simply calls him «Chotu» («Small» in Hindi).
Right in the beginning of our conversation Manish surprises me with a very frank statement: «I’m selfish and greedy for money». When I look at him puzzled he explains: «I only work for the money and whatever I earn, I keep for myself. I will never give a single penny to my parents». His eyes fix mine without blinking and I know he speaks the truth.
Even though Manish is a grown up man of 21 years of age his small stature and friendly but rather reserved personality always make me think of him as a boy. His latest statement doesn’t match this image. I can’t hide my surprise and want to know more.
Manish’s parents got divorced when he was seven years old. To this very day getting divorced in India is rather unusual but Manish doesn’t know or doesn’t want to talk about the reasons behind his parents’ separation. What he remembers though is the feeling of being dumped by his own parents. They sent him off to live with his uncle, a Bollywood cinematographer in Mumbai. When Manish got up in the mornings he was alone. On the table he always found a plate with breakfast that his uncle, who had to leave for work early, prepared for him. Manish ate and then got ready for school. After school he went to the film set and waited till his uncle finished work and took him home. Manish turned eight, nine, ten, he became a teenager and finally went to Varanasi to study at BHU (Benares Hindu University) and in all those years his mother never asked about him. This hurts Manish more than anything else. «What did I do wrong that my mother doesn’t care for me?», he asks more than once. «What wrong can a seven year old do?», I ask back, knowing that these words offer little consolation.
The people of Varanasi are proud of BHU. They say it is one of the biggest and best universities in Asia. Usually there are more than 100 applicants for one seat. Manish is clever and lucky. He is accepted to study literature. The senior students often treat the freshmen badly. They send them to buy cigarettes, force them to drink alcohol or ask for other favours. If a junior doesn’t follow the orders they humiliate or beat him. Manish has some connections to older students, who are well respected on the campus. They spare and protect him from this kind of harassment. But there is one fellow student that picks on Manish and his caste over and over again. Manish tries to ignore the verbal abuse untill one day he can’t bare it anymore. He beats his tormentor up and sends him to hospital with a broken leg. Manish is suspended from his studies for one year and banned from entering the student’s hostel for the rest of his life. (The latter restriction doesn’t stop him to sleep there almost every night even if it means that he cannot enter the hostel before 2 am in the morning when the manager goes to sleep and has to leave again at 8 o’clock when the manager is doing yoga.)
Because of his suspension Manish suddenly has a lot of time and he decides to travel the country. He puts the money he earned with student jobs together with what he got from his father and leaves Varanasi with 45’000 Rupees (about 750 US$) in his pocket. First Manish is heading North to Kashmir. Later on the way South he stops in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Orissa. He spends several weeks in Kerala before boarding a boat travelling up the coast to Goa and finally visits his hometown Mumbai for two days without letting his relatives know. He mainly picks places he knows from previous visits with his uncle, who sometimes took him along when he had to go to exotic places for shooting films.
On his trip across India Manish has learned more than he ever imagined and more than he would have learned in a year at university. Somewhere along the road he met a young man from Pakistan. At first Manish was reserved as he was brought up to look at Pakistan and its people as the enemy. But soon he realised that what the two of them have in common is greater than what separates them. Since then he dreams of visiting his new friend in Karachi someday: «I want to see with my own eyes how people live there. I want to experience our similarities and differences.»
Manish was also impressed by the sheer hospitality of his fellow countrymen. «For them I was an innocent boy of whom they wanted to take care of.» They invited him to their homes, shared their food and stories with him. It sometimes made him feel guilty: «I took advantage of their hospitality without being able to give something back.» But it allowed him to travel far and for a long time. Nine months after his departure he returns to Varanasi.
Manish gets back to university and takes his exams. He fails. Even though he had served his punishment he is convinced that this is another revenge by his teachers. They suggest him to retake the exams in a year. Under normal circumstances Manish would have finished his studies a year ago, now they ask him to do another extra loop. He is fed up and looks for a job instead.
And here he is, waiting tables and telling me his story. He says that again he has saved enough money so he would not be forced to work here. «But what else should I do all day long?», Manish asks without expecting an answer. He tells me about the 19 years old boy who is working in the kitchen and who is already married and calls his wife several times a day. For Manish this cannot be the meaning of life. «Getting up in the morning, working all day long, eating dinner and going back to sleep… there must be something else», he is convinced. Manish enjoys the freedom and that he has no responsibilities for anybody except himself… and for his sister who is six years younger than Manish. She grew up at their aunt’s place in Varanasi and talking about her Manish can’t hide how much he adores her. «She is talented in so many ways», he says proudly. Within the next three years he wants to put aside between 2 and 3 lakh (between 3300 and 5000 US$) for her wedding. She will be 18 then and I ask Manish to give her some more time before marrying her off. «I would love to», he answers, «but in our community girls should get married before 20, otherwise people start talking and it would become difficult to find a decent match for her.»
«What about you», I ask Manish, «is there any girl?» «No», he answers, «not anymore». And then he tells me about Sylvie, a French girl, he met in a youth program in Delhi. Manish lost his heart and extended his stay in Delhi to be with Sylvie for another two weeks. They promised each other to stay in touch and meet again. But the only thing he ever got from Sylvie after she left was a farewell message in which she wrote that the distance is too big and that she met another boy at her university. Once again Manish felt dumped.
After hearing these stories I decide that Manish is not as cold-hearted as he seemed to be after his statement in the beginning of our conversation. On the contrary he is a sensitive and bright person who cares and fights every form of injustice. And with the same determination he despises those who do wrong in his eyes.
He could probably have an easier life if he would go back to his father’s place in Mumbai. His father is rich, has land, four houses and a shop where Manish could get a job. But Manish didn’t forgive his parents that they neglected him when he was a kid. He wants to prove them that he doesn’t need them now. He plans to go back to his beloved Mumbai without his father’s help. Again his eyes fix mine and I know that he will do it because Manish isn’t the quiet boy that I mistook him for in the beginning but a young man who knows exactly what he wants to do in life.
PS: A couple of days ago I read Manish’s post on facebook saying that his mom died. From what he wrote one could tell that the message of her death has shaken him more than he had expected himself. After all she is his mother no matter that she didn’t come to see him for 14 years.
*name changed by the author