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Slumdog Schwarzenegger

New America Media, Commentary, Peter Schurmann Posted: Jan 19, 2009

SEOUL -- Years ago I stepped off a bus in Mumbai -- it was still Bombay then -- and into a sea of waist-deep water as the annual monsoon transformed the city into a giant, filthy swimming pool. I turned around to look at the driver, thinking maybe I'd catch a ride back the way we came. He just shook his head, which mostly means yes in India, but not this time. It was 4 p.m. and I was clear on the other side of the city, with a lake of floating rickshaws and stalled taxis between me and my lodgings. I was staying with friends of the family in a neighborhood called Borivili, a suburb about an hour or so by train from Churchgate and the center of town.

I had been in the house all day, soaking up the daily routine of life in a city I knew nothing about and was completely captivated by. The scent of coconut chutney on the stove, the bearded holy man on the television or the soft Vedic chanting pouring out of the stereo. The crows that would land on the windowsill as young kids played cricket in the courtyard, the palm trees sweating in the afternoon humidity. The little apartment was a universe of discovery for me but my presence began to annoy the father of the house, a terse writer from Kerala with a fondness for beedies (rolled cigarettes) and straight talk. He told me to get out - at least for the day. So I did, hopping a bus headed to Santa Cruz station, which by the time I arrived was all but submerged by the afternoon flooding.

The first thing I did was wade over to the train station to see about a train back to Borivili. I got on the platform, which was also a sea, but of people, not water. After about 30 minutes this rolling heap of bodies came steaming down the tracks. I can't think of any way to describe it other than to say that the body of the train was invisible under the swarming mass of people hanging onto every nook and cranny they could dig their fingers into. Still, I made my way forward, until a hand fell on my shoulder. I turned and there was this businessman waving his finger in my face, his head shaking from side to side. He too meant no. Don't get on, he said.

Good thing I didn't. It would have been a nightmarish ride and I would not have had the experience I did later that night.

I left the train station, down the stairs and back into the still rising waters. I was feeling desperate and began sticking rupees in drivers' faces as if they'd somehow turn the waterlogged vehicles into rafts to carry me home. Nothing doin', so I began to wade back down the way I'd come, not quite sure where I'd end up but too wet and chilled to stand still waiting for a miracle.

I walked for about an hour in the rain, stopping at a corner to look around in disbelief as most folks didn't seem the slightest bit perturbed by the apocalyptic scene around me. That's when I saw him walking straight at me.

Young, muscular and well dressed, he came right up to me and asked where I was headed, like I was out for an afternoon stroll or something. I told him and asked how long it would take. "Maybe tomorrow morning sometime," he said. When I asked him what he thought I should do he said with a straight face, "walkie talkie... we walk and we talk."

And that's what we did, all the way to the Juhu slums, where he lived with several younger sisters and a female cousin in a corrugated tin shack and where I spent a night gaining a new appreciation for the muscle bound Austrian who is now my governor.

Like Malik, the hero of Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," my young host that night had dreams. As we walked he told me about his work as a salesman in the pre-Bangalore computer industry, about his father in the Gulf driving a cab and about his deceased mother. And as he talked the neighborhood changed. I noticed a sewer pipe above the still-high water and lots of people standing in front of tin-shacks watching as we walked passed. And I began to wonder whether it was a good idea to be following him and whether I wouldn't find myself minus an organ come morning. We Americans are a trusting sort, aren't we?

He was Muslim, living in a world of poverty that contributed to periodic outbreaks of religious violence. He told me how his family had tried to hide their religious identity during riots some years earlier. "We would have been killed," he said flatly. He led me through the front door and chased away his young sisters and cousin. Women of the house are not to be seen by male visitors. They scurried into the adjoining room to cook up some chapatis and dal while he handed me a dry dhoti and T-shirt to change into. He gave me his bed, the only piece of furniture in the house. He squatted down on the dirt floor.

"Who is your hero?" he asked as I dug into my meal. I couldn't think of anyone, and looking back now, I think that's what I'd gone to India to find all those years ago. Under the single light bulb he pulled out his wallet and opened it to a photo that he kept inside, like some secret treasure. And there was Arnold, muscles bulging and pearly whites shining for the camera. "He is my hero, because he went to America speaking no English and look at him now." You could say I was surprised.

At 21, I had done some traveling but this was my first serious stint outside the U.S. I'd been a cycle courier in San Francisco and then New York, ridden across country as a green-haired vegetarian after squatting for a year in New York's lower East Side. In short, I didn't know who the hell I was or what I wanted. And here was this guy with nothing who knew exactly who he was and what he wanted. He wanted to come to America, which maybe partly explains why he took me in for the night. But more than that he just wanted out, because he had dreams that took root in the fact that he knew he had something to offer that was smothered by his present circumstances.

I can see him sitting there in Malik's chair, answering that million dollar question. Only it isn't the beautiful Latika Patel in his mind's eye but Arnold, the governator, a living embodiment of what's possible with a little luck and muscle grease.

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