Every night, tourists and Mumbaikars, young and old alike, throng to sit around the city’s iconic Marine Drive, tasting the breeze, resting their feet, and letting loose an effervescent chatter that adorns the Queen’s Necklace. Some come looking for a rendezvous by the sea, some for the picturesque view of a city they can only adore from a distance. But unlike most, for whom Marine Drive is a place for repose, 35-year-old Santosh Sabale comes here every night with vadapavs, samosas and jalebis – his ticket to education and a better life.
Night upon night, as he hawks his snacks to those lazing around the 3.6 kilometre stretch from 8pm to 5am, Sabale is buying himself a dream: come morning, he makes his way to the Kalina campus of Mumbai University, where he studies for a Masters’ degree in Political Science. As the sole breadwinner in his family with no other source of income, the little he earns at night is what fuels his ambitions to study further and pays for his education. “I buy these snacks for about Rs. 200 every morning, and on a good night, I am able to earn double that amount,” he tells me. But good nights are rare, and on most days Sabale goes back to his rented room in Thane – a room that costs him Rs. 2000 a month – with only Rs. 250 in his pocket. Some days, he sleeps on trains or on campus to save money that he can send home to his mother.
He talks with me of his idol, B R Ambedkar, and about the Indian Constitution. “I am proud of studying at a college that Babasaheb set up,” he says. Then, along with our carefully wrapped vadapavs, he hands me a fact about himself: “I wish to be like him.” There is a twinkle of sincerity in his eyes. Like Ambedkar, Sabale comes from humble origins, the son of a clerk from Rajewadi village in Sangli. Like Ambedkar, he wants to rise through the ranks through education and do something for his motherland. This year, he will sit for the Maharashtra Public Service Commission exam. “I want to become a civil servant, and to work towards making education and healthcare more accessible in my state,” he says.
However, he does his duty by his mother first. Since the death of his father in 2007, he has shouldered the responsibility of both their mouths to feed, as well as that of his unemployed elder brother. “I wish to make [my mother] happy. I dream of buying her a house of her own one day, get her a daughter-in-law and grandchildren who bring her comfort and company,” Sabale says, his voice choked with emotion. “But first, I want to have a stable income, a job,” he adds.
In January, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray himself took note of Sabale when his story made it to a local news channel, lauding him for his efforts to gain an education and promising him financial aid and a job in accordance with his qualifications. Sabale is proud of having thus been recognised and carries around clippings of newspaper articles about the same, which he shows to me. Yet, despite his making multiple trips to the CM’s office, the offer, so far, has come to nothing. “The last time I went, I got to know that my letter is collecting dust in the receptionist’s drawer,” he tells me. “Still, I will keep trying, and I hope their response comes soon”.
At this point, his hands are trembling. He later reveals that his landlord in Thane has demanded him to pay him Rs. 10,000, or else to vacate his property. “It will take me months to earn that kind of money,” he says. It will take him months of starving himself, too, if he has to feed his family. Yet, when he turns to face me again, he is smiling. “Money is not that important,” he explains. “What matters to me is that when I go up, people remember me for the good things I’ve done.” His smile is radiant through its pain.
As we get ready to part ways, Sabale packs me some jalebi to take home. Then, he whips out a notebook from his bag. It is a notebook full of names. In a gesture as sweet as his jalebis, he asks for my birthday. “You know, so that I can wish you well”. I wish him well, too.
While popular culture (see: Wake Up Sid) shows us a rosy picture of Mumbai, there are very different examples one finds when looking for hope in the city. If you happen to be passing by Marine Drive at night, do say hi to Santosh da, and have a taste of his conversations and lip-smacking jalebis!