India is not an easy place. Maut kee tarah, we say in Hindi. Like death. We all know India is not the Americas or Australia and that, no matter how much one wishes, Mumbai cannot change and become Washington. You probably wonder why I moved here then.

Nigeria was calmer, yet unsettling. It was like a content wife who occasionally gazed through the window. You see, I was always staring through my life’s window. I was always looking towards America and her promise of a transformed, novel life. I was also looking towards Australia and its cold receptiveness and marble-tiled promenades. But it is not very easy to get an American or Australian visa, and the thing that keeps us pressed to look out was ever there – a strong sense of desperation that filled us, that made us restless. The wish to get out stretched improbably, and it didn’t specify a soft landing.

When I thought of India, I said, “Well, India is great too,” with a certain forced admiration, almost as if trying to convince myself anywhere was better. You see, I came to look for opportunities in India. Since America proved difficult to access and anywhere else in Europe, the UK, for example, was inscrutable. But I had to become somebody in life, and outside of Nigeria was the best chance I could get. Or so I thought.

If India was hell, Mumbai was a broader version of it. The moment I came out of the airport in Mumbai, I sensed a faux air of indecisiveness beginning to hover above me like a dark cloud. A handful of it gurgled down my throat. It made me cough.

“Are you okay, Sir?” a police officer asked. I did not need to reply. I was pensive all through the ride from the airport, managing to ditch the red-faced and betelnut-chewing taxi driver who said he would take me anywhere for a small fee. But I ended up walking off, along the busy highway, dialling Stephen. It was an impulsive thing to do.

Yes, I knew Stephen was in prison in Goa. He must be sucking stale beans with salty tap water. But I called his number still, hoping against hope. “He could pick,” I muttered. “I just need to dial long enough.” I think I called for several minutes, about two hours I think, my feet itching, and finally sitting down in a tea shop where everybody probably spoke Marathi as Stephen had told me earlier.

What had he done to land himself in an Indian prison?

A Goan prison was not an everyday prison for petty thieves: once you go there, you become alone in the world. Your friends are the first people to delete your number from their contacts. Then your enemies are next, they post content on their social media and tag you. They think you ended up in a Goan prison because you were being punished by whatever god they worshipped. And what led to that end wouldn’t matter because you are already within the four walls, and you can’t justify yourself anymore. Then your family, they cry for the first few weeks, then they leave you. Just like that, I tell you. No one, everybody knows, goes into a Goan prison without investigation. Everybody fears investigation.

You become shit.

I punched in Stephen’s number again before I finished the tea. I stayed at a motel, somewhere in Andheri, which smelled of neglect and crushed lemon. I needed to see Stephen. Stephen was the only thing that mattered to my life now – wasn’t he the one who had arranged my coming here in the first place?

I met him once in Bariga, a little over seven months before I reached Mumbai. He was lean, with patches of prickly hair at his jaw. When he spoke, his breath smelled of tight spaces – like the insides of a camphor-ridden vacant room. I don’t really know how to describe him or why I believed he was dependable. Perhaps it was the way he spoke: authoritatively. He spoke as though he was filled with wisdom. And I always had a pen and paper in hand when I listened. I would sit there, jotting down what he said. Perhaps it was this desperation that scared him away.

The week after I collected my passport in Lagos, he came to India. We spoke last on WhatsApp before he travelled to Goa to enjoy his life and, instead, ended up in prison. “You know, Uche,” his friend, Arjun, a brown-skinned young man from Gujarat, who said he was a Siddi, said over the phone, “Stephen went to Goa. And then, he was caught. I already deleted his contact. The police, you see, will begin an investigation. Majhyasarakhe vha, majhya mitra. Be like me.” Then he hung up the phone.

I was divided between doing as Arjun had done, or waiting, hoping something would change. I kept trying for Stephen’s phone. Again and again. Before I boarded, two minutes before departure, as I trotted with my leather bag, I called Stephen’s phone and kept hoping. I needed to ask him what plans he had. As we met, frequently, at Glory Restaurant in Bariga, I pestered him over where to stay, what work to do, how many years I would work, whether I could work in the local government and things like that.

If he had connections in Bollywood. He said he had some links to some big shots in Bollywood. Stephen sounded so tired as he replied, his head mostly lolling backwards. “Calm down, bro,” he said. “Everything will be in place. You will stay under my roof for a few months first. You learn the language well. Better to speak Marathi in Maharashtra. You watch the place, but you never interact, not yet. I will be there to put you through,” he said, as he stood, with a lilt – something I nearly saw as excitement.

“I will be there to put you through.”

Excerpted with permission from The Nigerian Mafia Mumbai, Onyeka Nwelue, Abibiman Publishing UK.