The Dormant Alchemist of Mumbai | A Story of Dust and Gold

The year is 1963. Hanuman sits down at an empty space near the Gateway of India. It is dawn. The Arabian Sea pukes out the sun. The waters, a dusty sparkle. Hanuman watches, as the fishing boat comes in to unload their catch.

Matsya, the fish. Lord Vishnu’s first avatar in His first incarnation on earth. As Matsya, Lord Vishnu guides Manu, the first man and the living creatures of the world, through a flood. Manu. We are all descendants of Manu: the first man who was made entirely of clay.

Hanuman glances at his watch. It’s 7am. He has a meeting with a prospective business associate in a few hours. Solitude is enjoyed best before a long day.

Bombay is India’s principal port. Two generations ago, Hanuman’s forebears left India from this very spot, searching for greener pastures. They were visionaries. They had a suspicion, that the world had a lot to offer the brave who dared to take the road less travelled.

It’s terrifying, to leave behind all you know and love. The unseen world, the world that one has never seen, can be very scary. Humans misunderstand that which they’ve never seen before. Fear and ignorance. How easily they destroy the treasures of the world that humans are destined to discover. Knowledge and the pursuit of truth. They alone unearth the latent power within mankind to dispel the venomous snakes of fear and ignorance. Hanuman makes a silent plea to Goddess Saraswati. Please grant me wisdom and guide me through this world the way you did my forebears.

A whisper once ached through the hearts of his ancestors. A voice inside them that dared them to look outside all they ever knew. The unseen world beyond Bharat Mata, beyond Mother India.

They boarded a ship, where the ocean stretched out for weeks. Seasickness. Discomfort. All endured. They had no idea what awaited them when they arrived at the other side of the shore. The strangeness that they would encounter. The tongues they couldn’t speak.

The malleable mind: man’s greatest gift. How quickly it soaks up new environments. How swiftly new territory becomes familiar if the mind is open to new experiences. Destiny always creates an opportunity for those who crave a chance.

The Suez Canal opened in 1869. Indian exports rose from Rs. 5.2m in 1855 to Rs. 900m in 1900. The trade boom began. To Indians then, India was the whole world. The world had always come to them. The Aryans. The Greeks. The Persians. They came, conquered, adapted and never left. The conquerers made us as much as we made them. They added to our colour and we gave them colour. No one can ever come to India and leave unchanged.

The folks of the village had mocked Hanuman’s forefathers for leaving behind their beloved Bharat Mata. There was no need to look elsewhere. India had it all. A rich heritage, natural resources and all the treasures of the earth hidden in its midst. People have always come to India for ‘The Gold’. Why should Indians venture out to find it? Because when two roads diverge in the woods, fortune, a fickle ally, always favours the brave.

Hanuman’s forefathers were destitute and penniless. But still, they ventured. They had nothing left to lose but themselves. They went, to Singapore, with their haberdashery. They sold them by the roadside. The break-even point slowly found its way into profit.

Indian textiles were renowned worldwide for their quality. The British had tried to paralyse the industry by imposing heavy taxes on the export of Indian textiles. But they themselves created the very loophole that would see to Hanuman’s success. They founded Singapore. A tax-free zone created solely for the purpose of trade. The British had created their very own monster. A Frankenstein.

For every debit, there has always been a corresponding credit.

Mumbadevi was Bombay’s name before British Rule. She was nothing but seven low-lying dirty malaria-infested islands given away to the British by its Portuguese occupiers as a wedding dowry. The British government leased Bombay to the East India Company for an annual 10 pounds in rent. That was all Bombay was worth then. Today, it has emerged from the dust. It is here, that Indians and the people who invade them come from far and wide to find their Gold. Their treasure. Their loot. Their bounty.

Land prices in Bombay are beginning to soar. One day not so far away, this will be India’s most affluent city. A land reclamation project has joined these seven islands into a single land. Humans are capable of mimicking everything that nature has given in its artificial splendour. Whether or not Mumbadevi stays together as humans command, is anyone’s best guess.

The presidency of the East India Company was transferred from Hanuman’s ancestral hometown Surat to Bombay in 1687. The Gold. It travels where people go looking for it. It has no life of its own.

Every Human is a Dormant Alchemist, creating his own gold from dust and drinking its elixir to sustain his life. The treasure that is found is always plundered. Hanuman worries about the Gold-Mongers. The ever-ready scavengers. The glittering allure of the element attracts the evil eye of greedy souls. They are just regular humans with bad intentions.

Hanuman reassures himself that there is no pure evil in this world. All evil but a manifestation of disorder rooted in ignorance. Knowledge is the only way to overcome the worries that dwell in Hanuman’s mind and spirit.

Call her Bombay or call her Mumbai. She is the Indian city paved in gold. The gold, however, cannot exist without the dust.

Hanuman’s eyes water from Bombay’s dust. The slums. The overcrowding. The constant influx of hopeful migrants, whose wishes are either destroyed or granted by the nefarious djinn. The wealthy and dirt-poor all live side by side. The rich ignore the street urchins they drive and walk past each day, thankful that they have never known life in the dust. Those born in the dust, who’ve never known the Gold, aspire to it. Hoping. Praying. Searching. Never finding. Everything in India seems to exist in its extremes.

Hanuman gets up and makes his way to his hired car. The driver raises his hands to his heart in a prayer position. He holds the door open for Hanuman and touches his feet before starting his day. The man who feeds his family is as good as God who provides shelter, food and warmth for his wife and children.

Hanuman stares out of the car as they drive past Colaba area. The British have left their mark on Bombay with their architecture. The English have left behind much that Indians can profit from however inequitably.

It is no easy task, to feed and sustain a growing population of this size. No wonder Bharat Mata is having a hard time. So much of life established by Mother Earth. The inequalities of the world rooted in the nutritional needs of mankind. Adequate sustenance is important for the advancement of any nation. Food provides the physical energy for creation. Artists, inventors and soldiers are born.

When Hanuman arrives at his destination, he gets out of the car and walks into a restaurant. He orders a garam chai. He glances at his Rolex Watch. He has five minutes till noon. The tea arrives and Hanuman takes a sip. It is sickly sweet. His prospective business associate arrives exactly at noon. He is wearing a white t-shirt and a dhoti.

Namaste Kantilal Bhaiya. Greetings. Kantilal. Please, sit,” Hanuman says as he holds his hands to his heart in prayer.

“Thank you for taking the time Hanuman Bhai. You must be very busy,” Kantilal says as he sits down.

“It is not a problem at all.”

“It is hard to catch a man after he has found his gold.”

“Yes. But a man is still a man, with or without his treasure.”

Kantilal smiles. He is not like Hanuman. He is an ordinary man. He has no gold. He hungrily awaits the day that he’ll find his treasure. But he is still touched by Hanuman’s humility.

“So,” Kantilal says,”What would you say is the secret to your success?”

“Honesty. Take away everything a man has and leave him in the desert and all he has is his word. His word is his bond. A man must be honest if he is to enjoy longevity in this world. Money acquired by unscrupulous means will not digest in the stomach of a man who has swallowed it.”

“Yes, bhaiya, But cash is king.”

Hanuman gives away a rare smile. Kantilal still has a lot to learn. When the student is ready, the teacher always comes.

“No, Kantilal,” Hanuman says, “Stomach is king. We all work to feed ourselves, our wives and our families. Now tell me, what is it that you need from me?”

Bhaiya, I want to start my own business like you. I’d like to follow in your footsteps.”

Hanuman scrutinises Kantilal. He is an honest man and a hard worker, but he is not a visionary. He has no innovative spark, but he will work tirelessly to reach his goals. Sometimes that is enough. An unfulfilled genius is one of life’s greatest tragedies.

“What is it that you want to do?” Hanuman asks.

“You are a textile man. You buy in bulk from your suppliers and sell to your customers in Singapore. I want to do that.”

“Yes. But that is not what I do. That is how I make my profit. What I do, is possess knowledge of every fabric in this world. I know what it is good for, what it is worth, and how much my customers are willing to pay for it. That is my purpose in this world. You must always know your destiny.”

“My destiny?”

“Yes. The path that was chosen specially for you to travel in this world. You see Kantilal, if money can solve a problem, it is not a real problem. The privileged among us will see wealth at some stage in our life. The ability to make money is inherent in every man. Holding onto it is a different story altogether. That is where your purpose in this life comes into play. Everything in this entire world has its dharma.”

Kantilal is surprised by Hanuman’s knowledge. He’s heard that Indians who live abroad forget their roots when they leave Bharat Mata. With his soon-to-be mentor, it clearly is not the case. Generalisations such as these are dangerous. He wonders what Hanuman’s children are like.

“I see,” Kantilal says. “Well, first, I need to feed my family. That is my first objective.”

“It is an important one. I will loan you the money that you need to start your business. You will pay me back. With interest, of course. But there is no rush. The first few years of any business are always difficult. Be persistent and you will create your own gold. But be careful of the people who befriend you after you find it.”

Kantilal smiles. The wisdom that Hanuman is teaching him is worth far more than the Gold he is looking for. Gold. Freedom. Friends. That can all be taken away. Gone, at a whisper of Destiny’s command. Wisdom and knowledge, no one can ever take from you. Once you acquire it, it is yours for life.

“I will Hanuman bhaiya,” Kantilal says. “How will I ever repay you for your kindness?”

“You will value the most valuable thing I will ever give you. My trust.”

“I will.”

“Trust is very important. If you break my trust, you will be worth nothing. Even if you own everything in this world.”

“Your word is your bond and so is mine.”

“A guilty conscience doesn’t sleep at night.”

“The dreams of a hard worker are always sweet. He sweats during the day, the night giving him release from the harsh realities of life.”

“You understand. For this, I am glad. I wish you luck.”

“I don’t believe in luck.”

“Never look down on Lady Luck. She smiles when you first begin and she’ll keep smiling on you the more you persist. As a woman, she always gives when you don’t give up. Treat her unkindly, and she’ll slip through your fingers.”

“Well said, Hanuman. You are a wise man.”

“You will be a wise man one day too.”

The two men embrace before walking out of the restaurant. Hanuman has found his gold. Keeping it, however, is a challenge. Money can attract far more trouble than what it’s worth. He thinks of all the rich, miserable people he knows who never have enough. The Gold-Mongers that emerge from the same womb and of the same seed. In the name of greed, a man will kill his own kin.

Hanuman remembers the imaginary sword that he has strapped on him in the event of a surprise attack. He knows that he might need it one day, perhaps even against his own family. 

Later that night, Hanuman heads to his room in the Taj Mahal Hotel. He takes a crystal glass and pours some mineral water in it. The trust he has placed in Kantilal is like precious crystal. The liquid Hanuman drinks from the crystal tastes crisp and clean. Trust quenches the human thirst for companionship. Without it, our world would not function.

Hanuman resides in the lap of luxury. His gold buys him all the comforts that this world has to offer. He lights a pipe and opens his copy of the Bhagavad Gita. A paper slips out. It reads, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Hanuman picks it up and slips it back in. He prays that his late mother is at peace. Whoever she is. He still wishes he had a photograph, a memory. Something. Anything. He remembers the ancient Indian dictum. When a father says, ‘This is my son’, it is matter of faith. When a mother says it, it is based on knowledge.

India was once a matriarchal society. All family property belonged to the Matriarch and the daughter inherited directly from her mother. After the Aryan invasion, the roles were reversed. Oppressors become oppressed. This cycle continues on till this day.

It is hard, for children born in the gold to appreciate the value of dust.

Hanuman crawls under his silk sheets. He feels incredibly pampered. He reaches out for his wife, but her side of the bed is empty. The loneliness shakes him. He misses his wife desperately.

One day they will be a happy family. Ek divas. One day.

Author’s Note: This story is a work of fiction.

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