March 25, 2008
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
- A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
I don’t live in Mumbai anymore; although I was there for a considerable amount of time. But the memories are still fresh and warm. I remember old days sometime and wonder whether those days will ever be back.
There is a saying among the local people: the person who survives Mumbai survives anywhere in the world. It may be bit exaggerated by the people who love the city so much but there is also a little bit of truth in that. Many people don’t survive the city, they go back to the places from where they have come from. Even I got dejected after a few days. I stayed mainly for the reason - I had no where to go.
It took me sometime to adjust to the smaller houses, bigger crowd, faster life and the city that never sleeps.
“You are an outsider “chaiwala concluded at the tapri.
“How do you know?”
“By your accent “he said.
“Does that matter?” I was surprised.
“No I guess, everyone is an outsider here.“ I didn’t know whether it was literal or philosophical.
When I was a kid..
When I was a kid there was a school picnic whose sole purpose was to travel on a train. We went to Mangalore got on the train; and the teacher said – “The bogies of the train look similar; but they are not same. Only one has an engine. It pulls all the other dummy bogies, like a leader. I want every one of you to be a leader!”
“Ravi, are you a leader?” she asked me.
“If everyone becomes engine; who will become the dummy bogie?”. I asked her back.
She was not expecting this. She pondered for a moment. “I am sure you will!” finally she said.
And here I was in Mumbai day to day traveling in the train. I saw some people sitting on the roof; they were very close to the power line and probably very close to death. “Why would they do that?” I wondered.
“This is Mumbai my friend anything is possible here” fellow traveler said. That was my first time. Later I heard that line millions of times from various people.
A fine gentleman
One day while standing on the 5th platform at Andheri, I heard an announcement “The train coming on 5th platform will be redirected to platform number 3”
I was in a hurry; there was really no time for climbing the stairs and reaching platform 3. So I jumped on the tracks, and a fine gentleman with a suit from the other side of the track pulled me up.
“Thank you very much sir!” I said.
“Don’t you know it is against the law to cross the rails?” he asked me.
“I know, I am short of time, I need to attend an interview” I said.
“I am afraid you are going to be late for the interview” he told me.
“Even though you are crossing; you should not do it when the TC is on the platform!”
Then it dawned on me.
“Yes. I am “He took me to a small office on platform number 1.
“350 Rs fine with receipt. Or 50 Rs. and no receipt” he said.
“Are you a leader, Ravi?” My teacher’s voice ringed in my ear; got my receipt by paying 350 Rs.
Lady running on the platform
Some days later, I was standing near the door of a train about to leave the station – I saw a lady running, raising her sari, parallel to the train trying to get in. I tried to tell her, not to panic because there is a train every 3 minutes. But she seems to be reluctant to my advice and increased her speed. I extended my hand and pulled her in exactly as Sha-Rukh-Khan pulled Kajol in DDLJ.
While I was holding her, I found she was surprisingly muscular. On close inspection I realized to my horror that she is not a lady, but an eunuch.
He/She came surprisingly near me. I could smell the breath.
“Kya re, Salmaan Khan!” held me at a place no one dared before.
The grip was becoming stronger.
“You are hurting me!” I said.
“Give me five rupees”
“How about one rupee?” I tried to negotiate.
“How about squeezing you more!” made me immobile with the counter offer.
“Please don’t make me sterile like you!” begged him or her or whatever.
I gave five rupees; he jumped out at the next station.
Standing by the door of the moving train I used to watch outside world. The moving houses, running AIDS awareness hoardings, people squatting on tracks for morning needs, torn posters of adult movies – it was a different world. It fascinated me.
One day while I was standing by the door, a man, hiding behind a pole hit me hard with a stick. I lost my bag. Later I came to know that this is a NORMAL thing in Mumbai, which was not so normal from where I had come from.
There was nothing significant in the bag except for a relatively obscure book written by an unknown monk – “Love thy neighbor”. Later when I was roaming around FOUNTAIN I saw this book at many road side books sellers. I didn’t buy it.
The great gambler
When my friend from Mangalore visited me, I took him to Juhu. We roamed for a while on the beach; noticed a curious crowd at one place. They were gambling. It was a primitive sort of gambling; players need to guess the Joker among the 3 cards. Who ever identifies the Joker wins 10 times the money he stakes.
This looked like an interesting game to me; where the chances of winning are always one third which is a high probability in any kind of gambling.
We closely monitored the game for some time. Interestingly, I could guess the Joker each time. “Only a moron could lose in this game”, I told my friend.
So we started playing the game, and like morons we lost 5000 Rs! It was a big amount. My friend needed that money for a job agent. Finally I borrowed the amount from another friend. It took a long time to repay that amount. I could not borrow from mom, she would have killed me for that kind of money. In fact she would have killed me for lot less. Mom never came to know about this incident. (She will come to know now of course, after reading this article; almost a decade later. But she can’t kill me now, my wife won’t allow that! )
Years later I realized that every one among the crowd was a team, even the players! The only outsiders were me and my friend.
Not all human actions are rational (remember we have evolved from monkeys). During one of these low moments of my life I went to a dance bar with friends. I thought we were late because it was closed from the front. But then we entered from the back door (which was NORMAL of course).
The environment inside was gloomy. There was a stage in the center where few girls were dancing; they were not interested in dance. As a matter of fact they seemed as if they were not interested in life itself. Some of them were wearing garlands made of currency notes.
One fat guy sitting in the corner was throwing cash artistically at the dancing girls. “Why would someone do that?” I asked my friend.
“This is Mumbai my friend, anything is …. “my friend started.
“I know, I know “ I said. “Let’s get out of here”
“Probably you need something refined”. He concluded; so we went to a disc. The atmosphere here was different. The crowd was young; most of them were either software engineers or call center guys.
The atmosphere was more live. Every one was dancing and smoking. It was full of smoke. Almost like heaven. I saw a girl smoking.
“Every day 1200 people die because of smoking” I told her.
“I am not going to die today” she replied.
She was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a person having thick mustache. The person in the picture really intimidated me. “Is that your grandpa?” I asked her.
“No. This is Friedrich Nietzsche moron!”
She was either an intelligent person or trying to look smarter. Anyway she succeeded in her efforts.
Then there were some people drinking from a thin glass tube I had last seen in my chemistry labs. “What is that?” I asked my friend.
“Tequila “ he said.
“How is it?”
“One word” he replied “Heaven!”
“Let me try that”
“Follow the 3 steps” he said “Lick the salt; drink tequila; taste lemon”
“Great” I said, tried tequila and till date I don’t know what happened next. Later when I felt little bit okay, my friend asked me “how was it?”
“One word” I said “Heaven!!”
Cripple at Churchgate
One day at Churchgate, I saw a cripple on a train that was about to start. Some good people offered him change. Most people didn’t offer him anything. This may be a bad day.
It was very difficult for the cripple to move around. He was literally crawling. He looked like a young man, may be my own age. What choices did we make that has resulted in these outcomes? – I wondered. I thanked God silently, felt sad for the cripple. Contrary to my character I took a 10 Rs note from my pocket.
And then suddenly train started moving. What would the cripple do now? Probably he may have to get down at the next station. The incoming crowd at the next station would give him a tough time.
Then an incident happened that changed me for ever.
To my horror the cripple stood erect, almost my height, walked straight towards me as a perfectly normal person, looked straight in my eyes, winked, snatched the 10 RS note jumped out from the running train and vanished in the human crowd.
This is the second biggest shock I ever got! (The first one was the electrical shock I had got some time back trying to remove the insulator of a live wire with teeth.)
Before this incident deep inside me there was a person who believed in every fellow human being and universal brotherhood. This incident killed that person.
Spirit of the city
In those days, no one was listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan except Anu Malik who would promptly copy his songs. These copied songs would become super hits. Some time Anu Malik would copy a song twice! Then some upcoming artist would copy Anu Malik, and Anu Malik would threaten to sue this new artist for copying the already copied songs. Mithun was acting in every other B grade movie. I was sad for this 3 time national film award winner’s decline.
The days were bad. One time a political leader died in the hospital. His followers destroyed the whole hospital. Subsequently the followers promised the hospital authorities that they will rebuild the hospital free of cost with one condition that hospital would bring back the dead guy!!
This kind of reasoning made me crazy. I was slowly losing my mind.
“Where are you?” my aunt called on my cell.
“I am at Andheri station” I said.
“Come home straight; there was a bomb blast near Dadar” she said.
I took an auto and went home straight. Next day I was scared to board the train; to my surprise trains were running normal as if nothing had happened. Tiffin careers were there along with the beggars, office people, flower vendors, small time crooks, singing babas, TCs, news paper distributors - it was a regular crowd.
And then I realized: No amount of bombing could kill the spirit of this city.
A new man
One time I was in a crowded train. The moment I said I will be getting down at Andheri, four guys held me tight, made me immobile. It was a Virar train. They didn’t allow me to get down at Andheri.
This is a kind of crowd management trick, not from the railways but from general public. I learned this later.Only people travelling long distance catch the Virar train, rest of us would take either Andheri or Borivali train.
I got down at Borivali; and TC promptly caught me for not having ticket till Borivali. I told him I was not allowed to get down at Andheri.
“I hear this story every day;” he said “Why, I heard this one today morning itself.” He was indifferent my pleadings.
“What now?” I asked him subsequently.
“350 Rs fine; and I will give you a receipt” he said.
Long time back when Gandhi was a kid, a British inspector gave a surprise visit to his school. He gave a dictation to the class. All the kids wrote the answer properly, except Gandhi who could not spell the word – “kettle” correctly. The school teacher hinted him to copy from the neighboring student. But Gandhi would not do it. Later this incident influenced him a lot to define his character.
I don’t know why I am telling this story, but I wonder sometime - Are we all that great?
“Listen my friend” I told the TC “you can keep this 20 Rs, and…and..” words were not coming out.
“..and what?” he asked me curiously.
“..and I don’t need a receipt!” I finally said.
He gave me a long look; pocketed the money with a remarkable speed. “Now, aren’t you a smart boy? Why did you lie to me earlier?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Run along boy, before I catch you for not having ticket!” he winked at me and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.
I waited for sometime. Something unusual to happen - but nothing happened. I heard the announcement for the next train. The train was full. There was a curious looking boy on the roof, he gave an inquisitive look.
“Can you give me a hand?” - I offered my hand.
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