My Name Is Salman Khan!
So brags Salman, a circa nine-year-old I encounter the day before yesterday, walking the short distance from the Leela Hotel, a stone’s throw from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. It simply used to be called Bombay International Airport during saner, more cheerful times. Although the Leela is a piece of heaven where I can breathe livable, cleaner air, the oxygen of the streets just 2 minutes outside is so toxic and polluted, breathing it for an hour daily can make plump grapelike lungs turn into fleshy prunes in a matter of a month – I exaggerate not.
I usually have the complimentary ‘high noon tea’ that the Leela offers regular guests at 3 PM every day; this is a pretty generous selection of salads, sandwiches, chicken tikka, etc. This suffices, for me, and I skip dinner to indulge in the fruits of the season later on. Today, however, the Leela disappoints with pork selections, so I decide to walk to The Persian Darbar Restaurant, about a quarter mile away. The food is usually edible; more importantly, it’s halaal. This effort entails crossing a busy street, with every imaginable vehicle barreling both ways. Timing the crossover requires strong nerves during daylight hours and divine blessings after dark.
Very near the Persian Darbar, where there is enough light to see better, I encounter this very dark-skinned kid who, seeing me, immediately accosts me. Now, I know I stand out like a sore thumb here amongst the milling public, what with shorts, a t-shirt, and flipflops for attire; unlike a typical Mumbaite at all.
Salaam Saheb, says the grinning kid, raising a casual dark arm to his forehead in greeting, I know you.
He is so dark, his teeth sparkle white as he talks, smiling. I can see he is street-smart, with the confidence and manner of someone much older. His attire, too, speaks volumes. An obviously fake, fading Pepe labeled jeans, perplexingly ripped at the knees, rests fashionably on thin lower hips. There is a black taweez, now soiled with sweat, around his neck and the dog-eared greenish t-shirt he has on must not have seen soap in weeks; I can smell his unwashed body. I shake my head.
No, you don’t.
I say this sternly, hoping he’ll scatter so I can move away from breathing this leaded air and go eat some fried pomfret.
Yes, I do, he persists. You are that bald actor with an earring acting in the TV serial that Amma watches all the time, but I think the show is boring… Plus, you don’t know how to fight. Let me show you…walk the Salman Khan walk.
So, he proceeds to strut about with hunched shoulders and shows me some moves in kickboxing that have caught the attention of passersby’s, who stop to gawk at our curious pair. It also brings running the pale, potbellied doorman of Persian Darbar, who also salutes me hurriedly. He knows me since I am a regular diner.
Hey kid, saala. Leave the saheb alone. You want me to give you a painful jaapad? Scram!
The kid stiffens, at once wary and watchful, but unafraid. He regards the doorman in disdain.
Aye Motey, he scoffs insult with a dismissive wave of grubby fingers, you discarded rotten onion peel, you will slap me? Hah! He jabs an angry thumb at himself. I, Salman Khan, will kick your gut so hard, you’ll wish you were back being a smelly onion…
The doorman changes color and looks like he has swallowed a bee, but can do nothing, since the kid is now hopping around, agile and witty with insults, jabbing the air with fisted fingers and jerky kicks, obviously relishing the attention from the gathering crowds who are getting a free tamasha, Bollywood style. I act fast since this show can get out of control. I ask the doorman to leave and invite Salman into the restaurant. The air of self-confidence leaves him then, as he scans my face to make sure I am for real. So, to reassure him, I grab his hand and pull him inside the air-conditioned hall. There ensues another mini-tamasha as I have to argue with management, who are not too keen on letting a dirty insolent imp into their restaurant. I prevail, however, and a table on the secluded first floor is quickly made ready.
After I compel Salman to wash his hands and we are seated facing each other, I study the kid, who is now suddenly looking lost and jaded by the fancy surroundings.
What will you eat, I ask? Are you hungry? I point at the menu in front of him. You may order anything you like. Go ahead.
The kid stares at the menu without touching it. He looks around the restaurant, at the décor and the cold air flowing from a split air-condition just above his head. All the cockiness has left him, so he looks frail and fearful, almost. I smile reassuringly.
I’ll have a chicken biryani, Saheb, he whispers, if that’s okay. And a Pepsi?
I ask the hovering waiter for a chicken biryani for my guest and a fried pomfret for myself. It is quite an insightful conversation I have with Salman the next 30 minutes or so. He is 12 years old, he claims, but I have my doubts. His name is Salman indeed, but last name is Rahman and not Khan. He has had no formal education, except for occasional roadside classes his mother forces him to attend, run by an NGO. He has been on the wrong side of the law already, caught trying to steal jewelry from an unmanned house and getting caught in the act. No jail term for the first-time juvenile offender, however.
He attacks the biryani hungrily, with his fingers, eating hungrily, as soon as it is served by an uppity waiter who clearly looks unhappy with being tasked to serve a smelly street-smart imp. After the biryani plate is cleaned up, he drains the Pepsi from the glass in one gulp and then burps noisily. The floating waiter looks as if he is about to burst an artery.
Whenever I bring up the subject of education, Salman turns it around to Bollywood. With returning confidence, a sly gleam in his eyes, he asks for Rs.5,000; I am startled. I know inflation has made great inroads in India, but this is stunning. I keep calm and ask what he would do with so much money.
So much money? It is his turn to look genuinely surprised, I’ve asked only for 5,000, you earn a crore or so every episode! I want to go to Film City and try out for a role. I want to meet Salman Khan, he will promote me for his next hit movie. He has only to see me dance his songs and move like his fights, Salman snaps a surprisingly loud finger, the role will be mine…
And so, he pesters me, non-stop, for Rs.5,000. When he realizes I will not play his game, the request goes down to Rs.4,000 and subsequently rests at Rs.500; I still adamantly refuse.
He mutters angrily, gets up and topples the heavy chair that goes crashing over. He gives me a blatant look of hatred and takes off. He pauses at the stairs landing and turns.
You are a bekaar actor.
He disappears; I can hear him exchanging profanities with the doorman below. Ya Allah, what did I get myself into? I doubt Persian Darbar will ever welcome me to their restaurant again.
Outside, I am nervous. I can sense and smell him as I make my way back to the Leela in the darkness. He shows up by my side like a ghost as I near the hotel, giving my heart a nasty kick. He implores me one last time for Rs.500 as I hurriedly slip into the robustly manned reassuring gates of the Leela without looking back.
Uff, the Leela better stop their pork serving business.