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Shuffling to Fortune in Bombay

By Tim Campbell

PROMPT—No one noticed ...

Pilgrims shuffle in quiet grace,

like a sentence of hope a thousand syllables long.

They trek on a causeway over the Arabian Sea

to the Haji Ali Mosque, glimmering in white grandeur

atop a small islet.

Muddy tidal flats reek below,

the greasy underside of the glistening sea.

A pungent odor stings their nostrils,

assaulting the nobility of their quest.

They are the devout and somber,

young romantics, the bent and lame, the rich next to modest,

wide-eyed children, Muslim faithful, black-robed women,

all sweating steadily toward their goal.

Heads crane upward as they march

to glimpse the mosque, also a tomb, perched on high,

an ancient palace in old Bombay,

a building of promise and fortune.

Women, swathed in bold color glide above the stench,

their faces flash, dark with lipstick, eye shadow,

gold jewelry hanging like lost tildes

on a garbled passage of faces.

Pilgrims pause at a stationary caravan of vendors

to buy fruits, exotic drinks, packets of candy,

lucky amulets, all tiny totems

to leave at the mosque

in hopes of good fortune.

On their return toward shore, perched opposite the vendors,

lies an ordered line of beggars

holding precariously onto life—the lame,

the blind, the crippled, the horribly burned,

the withered, and very old, children in rags,

men with deep hollow eyes,

women with a lifetime of struggle gathered on their faces.

Small pots sit before each one.

The punctuation of this endless sentence of misery,

is a cluster of chanting mutilates,

prone on the baking pavement,

their stumps and limbs form twisted pinwheels,

their upper bodies bare and tan and sweating,

their muslin loin cloths, like Gandhi’s, white

against their darkly soiled bodies,

their grimaced faces flat against the hot dirty walkway,

eyes closed, muscles drawn tight.

One calls out a rhythmic plea (was that the Mahatma?),

the others chant in loud refrain.

Again, the call, again the refrain,

their song rehearses defiance against their putrid fortune.

They have pots, too, one at each cluster.

In each pot, a coin or two, their day’s earnings,

shed like detritus from the feet of shuffling pilgrims,

their offerings mostly left behind at the mosque.

Their song unheeded, the mutilates’sharvest

is small and insignificant,

like themselves in the heaving energy of Bombay. Note: The Haji Ali Mosque and tomb (dargah) is located on an islet near the heart of the city proper. The dargah is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Mumbai. Thousands of pilgrims of all faiths and from all over the world visit the site, especially on Thursdays and Fridays.


Tim Campbell was was selected as finalist in the nonfiction competition of the San Francisco Writers Conference. His essay appears in the SFWC Contest Anthology, What We've Believed (December, 2023). Essays have also been published in Catamaran, Smart Set, Kaleidoscope, and other literary journals and magazines. More of Tim's work can be found at He writes from Berkeley, CA.


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