Jeetendra Sharma’s real estate business runs on goodwill and good manners. Earlier this week, I’d called him for something I required urgently: a two bedroom place as close as possible to the Tata Memorial hospital in Parel, on short-term lease. A friend needed it for a month, maybe a little more.
Jeetendraji called me the same evening:
“Sir, I’ve found a place. It is just a few lanes away from the hospital.”
“That’s great, I’ll tell my friend. And do let me know the brokerage and costs.”
“Sir, there will be no charges.”
“Jeetendraji”, I said, “I think you should charge whatever brokerage is due.”
“Sir, you misunderstood. The question of brokerage doesn’t arise. The landlord won’t take rent.”
“Yes sir, I told him why we needed the place, and he insisted that he wouldn’t charge...”
I asked: “Do such people exist?”
The landlord in question does exist: he is a man called Harry Sargon. The reason why we needed his flat has to do with a boy called Rehaan, who is eight. Rehaan is my friend Raj’s son. They live in Kolkata.
Some months ago, he fainted in school, and when he came back home, he fainted again. Thereafter, he had problems eating: he just couldn’t keep any food down. As a procession of doctors tried to figure out (incompetently) what was wrong with him, he lost weight at an alarming rate. He had to stop going to school, stop playing tennis, stop playing the guitar. The plastic container he threw up in became a constant companion: he had nausea all the time.
And then, a few weeks ago, an MRI revealed a tumour. It occupied a priceless piece of real estate: squatting partly on Rehaan’s spine and encroaching into the medulla oblongata.
The risks of surgery were obvious, and the family felt the best place for the procedure would be Bombay’s Tata Memorial hospital, one of only a handful of world-class facilities in India.
But what about post-op? Recovery? How long would the haul be? Where would the family Rehaan’s grandparents were also coming down stay?
Harry Sargon solved that problem. But truth be told, he did much more than that. When Raj heard there would be no rent, he couldn’t believe it. Other friends were stunned: “In this day and age... incredible!”
In many ways, my friends’ opinions (and mine) reflected the kind of people middle-class Indians have become. We are brought up cynical, we are taught opportunism which we learn quickly. So when unadulterated good hits us in the face, we suffer a bout of disbelief: ‘Is this really happening?’
Here in Bombay. The same city where women get assaulted, builders grab land and culture cops roam the streets. We hear about all that, we don’t usually hear about the likes of Mr Sargon. Maybe its because we’ve developed a craving for bad news...
I called Harry the evening before Raj’s family moved into his flat. Not just to thank him; this was a rare human being, so I wanted to make his acquaintance. I asked him what prompted his gesture. “Look”, he said, “I’m 80, I’m at the end of my life. The boy is 8, he’s just starting. Why not give him the best start we can?”
Harry and his family are devout Christians. When we met, he asked Raj whether it would be okay for a priest to come down to the hospital and say a small prayer. A priest came to the room on Thursday. On Friday morning Rehaan went in for surgery. He is doing well, as I write this sitting in his room in the Homi Bhaba wing. His bed is empty for now, because he is in intensive care.
From the sixth floor room you can see the infinite, and infinitely unfinished, skyline of Mumbai. As evening falls, lights in the occupied highrises wink on. Those under construction stare blindly back. Beneath this is the blue tarpaulin that sheaths and shelters the reality of Bombay. In this city, a roof over your head is hard to find.
In the lobby of the hospital are patients and families from all parts of India: the rich parts, the poor parts, the forgotten parts, the ‘happening’ parts. They are joined, made equal, by insidious, expanding lumps on the insides of their loved ones.
Alone, this city can sometimes intimidate them. In its cutting, businesslike way, it often reminds them that they’re on their own. Those families that don’t have means, or friends, or luck, huddle in the open outside the hospital through the nights. Sometimes, they get evicted: there are security issues. These are the times we live in.
When I think of Bombay, I often hum a song from the 1977 classic Gharonda. Gulzar’s lyrics in ‘Ek akela is sheher mein’ are possibly the tautest, most moving descriptions of the kind of desperation and loneliness that a city can effect:
“In sooni andheri aakhon se ansoon ke jaga aata hai dhuan...”
(‘These lonely, dark eyes don’t shed tears, they weep smoke’).
I won’t go into the morbid line that follows, but jump instead to the end of this little masterpiece:
‘Iss ajnabee se sheher mein, jaana pehchaana, dhundta hai..’
(In this city of strangers, he searches for someone he knows).
I don’t know what Bombay was like when Gulzar wrote those lines. But I do know that if you look, there are people like Harry Sargon in this town. They are waiting to be found.
Even “in this day and age”.