Monday, July 17, 2006

Riding the Lifeline

[Written on Friday, July 14, four days after the bomb blasts of July 11]

12:11 pm. Jet Airways flight 9W350 hurtles down the runway at Vadodara airport. An hour or so later, after some circling in a holding pattern, it descends through the monsoon clouds over Thane Creek, lined up on final on Rwy 27, buffeted by mild crosswinds.

Cops are crawling all over the terminal. Even on the tarmac, machine-gun toting soldiers are spaced at regular intervals. As the cab departs the terminus, it has to check in with the cops. Apparently there’s a list of the license tags of all cabs that come into the airport. The cop and the cabbie harangue a bit in Hindi, but finally locate his tag number on the list. “Kuthe challa?” to me, says the cop, switching to Marathi. “Hmm? Andheri Westla.” “Nav?” “Mazha nav? My name?” I wonder why he switched to Marathi. Oh well. I give him my name, as the cab heads towards the Western Express Highway. Like I was going to tell him my real name if I were a wanted terrorist. All that to keep the PM safe, I surmise.

4:58 pm. I’ve just purchased a round-trip First Class train ticket from Andheri to Churchgate and back. Rs. 156. The lines were surprisingly short. The ticket windows at Andheri are almost always crowded. I take the bridge over the seething mass of people to platform 5, where the next Fast to Churchgate is anticipated, and make my way to the front of the platform, where the front First Class coach will arrive. The platform is alive. People standing, chatting, talking on mobile phones, purchasing snacks and water, giving alms to beggars, selling newspapers, expectorating loudly. The trilingual announcement forms a repetitive background drone, listing the stops the train will make, almost like a soothing lullaby “… will go directly from Andheri to Bandra, Bandra to Dadar, Dadar to Mumbai Central …”

The train arrives a few minutes late. Second class is jam packed, but First actually has some seats. I glance nervously at the luggage racks – nothing there. I stand at the favorite spot from my college days, right at the open doorway, one hand clutching the doorframe, leaning slightly out, facing ahead. The inevitable layer of sweat and grime evaporates in a few seconds in the slipstream.

The coach is quiet as the familiar urban landscape rushes past. Green trees and weeds line the wide strip of railway property that runs down the length the western side of the megapolis. Shanties and chawls mark the edge. Santacruz station whizzes past. After Bandra, I prepare for the olfactory assault as one crosses the bridge over Mahim creek, the mouth of Mumbai’s much discussed Mithi River (whose health has become everyone’s concern after last year’s floods). The filthy swill swirls below, dark grey, carrying the effluence of millions.

We slow down approaching Mahim station, and I peer across the platforms to see if there is any sign of those dark moments of Tuesday. There’s some construction going on at platform 1, but nothing else seems untoward. Bombay’s trains have carried over twelve million people since then. Inexorable, life must go on.

As the train trundles past the platform I turn and look at the other side. Perched on top of the railing at the edge of the balcony on the second floor of a chawl by the tracks sits a young man, shirtless, playing a flute. It's a surreal sight, and I blink in surprise. Krishna himself, playing a mournful dirge? I laugh at my own melodrama.

5:32 pm. The train enters the cavernous mouth of the Churchgate terminus, on platform 4. A wall of humanity waits on either side, and well before it has stopped, with yells and shouts, like some charging battalion, people leap into the compartment to secure a seat. Those waiting to disembark either remain seated, or, like me, stand away from the door, backs to the entrance, and let the shouting hordes rush past. A few minutes later the train will head back out on its 100 km journey to the distant suburb of Virar, bearing its precious human cargo. Merchants, traders, fisherwomen, housewives, bankers, students, beggars, vendors. The millions who inhabit this unique city. Aaamchi Mumbai. Bombay. Bambai, meri jaan.

[The ride back, on the 8:10 Borivili Fast is hellish, even in First Class. By Bombay Central, the compartment is packed. At Dadar, of course, tons more people squeeze into the sweaty mess. Soon there's no room to move. I dangle my (mercifully light) camera from my right thumb, which is clutching the handrail above my head. There's 5 people squished against me. With every lurch the perspiring mass sways back and forth like a glistening animal. I try not to think about just such a compartment, a few days back, and lives coming to an end in a sudden white flash. Today, people are talking in the various languages of Bombay. One fellow has been on the phone almost continuously since we left Churchgate. Hardly anyone disembarks at Bandra. At Andheri, with a loud roar, a vast torrent is disgorged, vomit-like from the doorway. I ride the wave out, almost gasping for air that doesn't smell of armpit and sweat and hairoil, followed by a quick, instinctive check to ensure that the contents of my pockets are still with me. I feel like a wrung cloth, lifted out of the tub, before it's put up on the clothesline to dry.]


Heather said...

I think this is one of the best posts you have ever written. It was beautifully written. It almost felt like one of those short stories you read in English class.

How many Indian languages do you actually speak?

Gashwin said...

Thanks Heather, glad you enjoyed it.

I speak Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi quite fluently. I can follow Urdu (which is just like Hindi except for the script and the predilection for Persian and Arabic words instead of Sanskritic ones), and read it, very slowly. And in a slow Punjabi conversation (were such a thing to really exist!) I could follow the gist of things. That's about it.