Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Day in the Life of a ‘Maximum City’

Cliches rule these days – and anyway it sounds good as a title.

I am writing this on the cusp of a new day in the 2 AC lower berth on the 0903 special Rajdhani which left Mumbai Central at 11.15 p.m. last night. We have just pulled out of Surat and are face to face with the black night again. 3.30 a.m. 3 Jan 2010. Sunday.

I am keying this in on my Lenovo IdeaPad S10-2 which I picked up at Delhi airport on the last day of 2009.

As I leave one city and head for the next I am appalled as well as humbled at the verities of Mumbai. The squalid Mumbai Central station hardly behoves its reputation. I was thinking to myself, if someone asked me why I came at 9 p.m. to catch a train at 11 p.m. I decided to offer by way of explanation, ‘So I would have time to duck if someone started spraying bullets.’ Pity no one asked.

But the city was redeemed by its taxi drivers which ferried me like Charon across the river of forgetfulness from one location to the next all in the space of a day. From Antop Hill, Wadala to Don Bosco , Matunga I was only charged Rs 15. The meter wasn’t down and when I pointed it out the chap just kept silent. He later said it was the first day he had taken his taxi out in the new year (so how could he cheat me?)

On a drive from Bandra to NCPA, Nariman point a bearded taxi driver from Kerala gleefully pointed out all the landmarks along Marine drive – Haji Ali, Lata Mangueshkar’s house on Peddar road, Siddhivinayak temple, Jaslok hospital. We used to call it the Queen’s necklace because the lights on the drive seemed like a necklace at nights. This detail was lost on the driver. When we reached, I took out the money to pay him the charge of around Rs 240. I had taken my luggage from the backseat and was about to leave when the driver darted back into the backseat and produced a crisp 50-rupee-note. He said in broken English that it was on the seat and it was mine. I was speechless. I can still see him gesticulating wildly, wishing me ‘happy journey.’

How can Bombay be complete without Edgar De Mello or simply ‘Uncle Edgar’ for us. Now in his 80’s uncle Edgar sits in his house at Eucress Buliding, Wadala on the 7th floor. He and his wife aunty Yoma took care of me when I was a boarder in Don Bosco high school, Matunga. Aunty and uncle gave us our childhood. Aunty Yoma slipped away years and back – a void uncle Edgar has not been able to fill or come to terms with even now. Last night as I slept in the gone-to-seed house I heard echoes of happy days, days of joy and laughter. ‘Peep- peep pom-pom’-- uncle’s cheery voice used to boom around the corner as he was coming up the landing. Today TS Eliot’s lines from Hollow Men echo, ‘What is man?/ A tattered coat upon a stick.’

It is a joy to listen to uncle speak about the good old days, the days when he was young, when Bombay was young. He is remarkably cogent about every detail about the explosion on Bombay Dock with the blowing up of 2 loads of TNT on board the Fort Stikine in 1940. He was working as a dockyard hand in those days and India was sending ammunition to the front to assist Montgomery to put Rommel on the run. With a fierce sense of pride he threw his resignation letter at an Englishman who had wrongly accused him of spilling paint on the floor. ‘Don’t talk about Indians that way,’ Edgar told him. And again he was out of a job. He was then given a job in Burmah Shell where he worked till he retired, and where he met my dad who also worked there. They continue to be good friends, and uncle waits for dad’s calls.

Sometimes we hardly know much about those who are dearest to us. And then they are gone. I felt that way about mum. Especially on this trip, returning to this city was a way of reclaiming my past, my childhood, when mum in her blue dress used to hold my hand and walk me through the busy streets of Fort and Colaba. How much our parents do for us before we even begin to realize it! This trip seemed a return to the roots, as it were, where clarity dawns about one’s origins and one’s past, a reflection of which provides anchorage for the future.

No comments: