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The NRI (Non-Resident Indian) Experience is a well chronicled and oft thrown about cliche now. It is refers to the strange behaviour and attitudes of the otherwise perfectly normal Indians who visit the homeland having lived abroad for some qualifying period of time. Their newly acquired sensitivity and Western attire amuse the locals to no end.
Meeting Ram Sevak was my own personal NRI Experience. I was strolling along Connaught Place looking for Indian handicrafts to decorate my new room in California. Little trinkets that will mark and display my Indian affiliations to visitors. I came out of the emporium when I saw him sitting casually on the floor with his stuff strewn about him and conversing with the Pan waala who sits across from him. By his stuff I could tell he repaired shoes for a living. I sat right across from him and asked him if I could have a short conversation with him. Immediately, a small gathering developed around us.
Amidst at least 25 on-lookers I asked about his life. He comes every day to sit at the very same spot from 23 miles away, undertaking a bus journey that lasts 2 hours each way. He makes just about enough every day to pay for the ticket and a meal. Other than the presence of his shoe repairing equipment, there was nothing else about his demeanour that even remotely suggested that he was sitting on that corner by way of some business. I think he just gets by by sharing tea and meals with the hawkers and sellers who share the street with him. I could tell that he enjoyed their love and sympathy. This was his world, where he came and sat everyday and sometimes repaired shoes.
I asked him if I could take a picture and he noted that several people over the years "from foreign lands" have taken pictures of him. I immediately felt silly and awkward having had the bubble of supposed originality burst so unceremoniously. Felt acutely aware of the glare of the on-lookers knowing that they thought of me a a foreigner in my own land. I hesitantly offered him some money and he took it without question.
Regardless of my own sense of alienation and the feeling of insignificance for having purchased an NRI experience for a small sum, I will never forget Ram Sevak. In fact, I went back this year and to my delight there he was again. This time he was getting ready to leave and had packed up his shop in a bundle that he carried under his arm. I tried to remind him of the time I took his picture. Needless to say, he didn't remember.
In the story The Shoemaker.
Also by Saif Ali
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