Finding Lennon’s will on the streets of Mumbai

I was in Mumbai teaching one of my classes at a footpath school. There were nine street kids around me, restless and distracted, because one of them was wearing a brand new T-shirt.

It was a pale yellow cotton tee with a minimalist rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.

“Where did you get that?” I asked the boy.

“Someone gave it to me,” he said a little defensively.

“Arey, don’t worry. I’m not going to take it away from you.”

“Someone gave it to me,” he said again, just as defensive. “At the local station. I didn’t steal it.”

“I’m not saying that. I’m just asking. Do you know why they gave it to you?”

“I don’t know. They just did. I like it.”

“Haha. Okay.”

I realised that there was no point teaching them about checking expiry dates on food products that day. So, instead I pulled out my phone and played Imagine for them on YouTube.

They watched Lennon and Yoko and everything white in the video and they asked me to play it again. And then once more. I am not sure if they liked the music, or were just fooling around so that I didn’t get back to boring things like expiry dates.

Afterwards I tried to explain what the words meant and how this song is now an anthem for all artists, human rights activists and dreamers in general. They nodded like they usually do when they don’t understand something but also don’t want me to repeat it. I smiled and let it be.

The following week when I came back to teach, I found the T-shirt in my classroom again. But it wasn’t as shiny and squeaky clean as it had been before. And it wasn’t on the same boy either. It was slipping off the shoulders of a younger girl now, who kept wiping her hands on the back side of the shirt every few minutes.

I shrugged and went on to give expiry dates another try.

For the next three weeks I saw the shirt doing rounds. It was never on the same kid twice.

And it didn’t matter how big or small the kid was. There was one boy who was spilling out of it from all sides. I totally empathised with him.

I called him to me and asked him, “What’s happening here?”

“It’s my turn now. So, I am wearing it.”

“Your turn?”

“Yes. Each of us get two days with the shirt.”

“Who decided that? Manju’s mother?”

“No no. We only did.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Everyone liked it. And it was free. So we shared.”

“Doesn’t Manju mind?”

“He was the one who offered.”

“Wow. That’s great.”

On my way back, that day, I listened to Imagine again. And lingered each time on these lines.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

– John Lennon, Imagine
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