Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Questa Cosa Nostra

The whole transaction took less than three minutes. From where I sat, I could hear the rustle of the small notebook's pages as the tall man sifted through what might have been a list of important numbers. He seemed to have been looking for something and, judging by the way he maneuvered his fingers through the pages one by one, he was confident that what he was searching for was there. He must have been right. Inside, the storekeeper tried to hand him a few bills through the shop's small opening, the part where all the selling and buying take shape. Although the man forgot to remove his helmet the whole time, it did not seem to bother him. I was a bit bothered that he was not bothered, but I let him be. After all, the afternoon sun was still bright even if it was a cold Monday. By the time he was back to his red scooter, he bid the storekeeper a brief adieu. That was when his accent gave away his nationality.

Maybe the stereotype for their people has a bit of truth serum in it. Some Indians in this country practice that ancient business for a living. Quite a number of them do so as well back in the streets of Calcutta or Mumbai. All these years, they may have already mastered the craft and store owners everywhere have already benefited much from the same. These foreigners have done it before and they'll do it again simply because—as one Indian who speaks Italian puts it, questa cosa nostra—"it's our thing." Quite possibly, they may hardly be able to steer themselves clear from that business. They may try, but like a cat desperately trying to run away from its own tail, they'll eventually realize that five-six can never be far behind.

I just made-up the Indian who speaks Italian part. Still, I think it's their thing and perhaps they will not disagree with me, at least not violently.

And most of the time they do their thing with their scooters. It's like a pleasant love affair in the presence of strangers. Each day is a different experience even if the routine is essentially the same. They stroll the alleys, stopping from one merchant to the next to gather the spoils of the day, and at the end of it all they are happy, or at least the driver is happy. On some occasions, collections may be as dry as Danny DeVito's left testicle but they know by heart that it's all part of the risks of running a business, or actually riding one. On better days, the consequences are readily apparent. It is, and will always be, business as usual. The machine gets oiled, and so is its master. Well, at least not literally.

Others have only so much to say about their partnership on wheels—man and his personal machine—but they could only care less. You can hardly separate one from the other. It's as if there's an invisible umbilical cord that connects them, with the motorcycle not necessarily being the mother and the Indian rider not quite being the fetus. Either way, the case of scooters and Indians is ripe—or pregnant—with stories, most of which are never to see the light of day. Others, though, get to land on the front page of broadsheets and tabloids, especially if the stories have everything to do about Indians being knifed to death. Which makes you think why they still prefer to grow their roots, notwithstanding their capital, in cities and towns in this country when the moment they do so their turbans are already waiting for them in their graves, or somewhere in the Ganges river. In many ways, they are vagabonds in a hostile environment.

Perhaps, for the average "bumbay", things are not really as bad as the way the media portrays the rut and gut in the metropolis. They scour the streets with their scooters and they get to witness firsthand life on ground level. It may not always be a beautiful sight, or one that draws and inspires a host of artists to use their poetic license, but it is still one that holds a promise or two for the everyday woman and man and everyone else in-between.

But knives and deaths and graves aside, it is still their thing. Of course, it's not uniquely theirs. I know some Filipinos who are more "bumbay" than the Indians themselves. They don't do five-six. They do five-seven, sometimes even eight. They embody the very concept of a loan shark on dry land, and it's an evolved form, if not an outright mutation, of the business of the Indian on red scooter earlier in the day.

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