Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Local Chugs On

By Joy C Raphael

loves. Bombay is the elixir of life. Bombay is an aphrodisiac. Bombay is El Dorado. Bombay has perhaps the largest conglomeration of hovels on this planet. And there is much, much more about Bombay. These are the many faces of Bombay that can be seen in the city’s local trains. They are a montage of life of the rich and the poor, the big and the small, the powerful and the powerless and the hungry and the well-nourished.

The first- and second-class compartments of the Virar-Churchgate fast local are packed, back to back, front to front, face to face, shoulder to shoulder. As the local races along the track at breakneck speed, covering the distance of 60 kilometres in 80 minutes, the compartment transform into a microcosm of Bombay, which is a microcosm of India and its 1.1 billion people — its poverty, its wealth, its diverse castes and creeds and its languages with their numerous dialects.

A frazzled, bent, wiry, little, old woman in a tattered and grime-soaked sari, laboriously walks through the humans glued together in the compartment, like sardines in a basket, with palms cupped. This old woman mirrors Bombay’s poverty that smiles and shines in the slums of Dharavi, Sion-Koliwada and elsewhere.

She is in front of the pot-bellied, bald, well-dressed Gujarati. He tightly holds a briefcase on his lap as if it was the repository of gold ingots. Barely having the strength to stand, she pleads: “Give me something. I am hungry. I want to eat.” The words crack from the sorrow and despair of poverty, neglect and suffering.

With an inscrutable expression, he digs into the back-pocket of his trousers. Bringing out his shiny leather wallet, he carefully picks up a coin from it as if it was a piece of gold and drops it into her cupped palms. Perhaps, he did not grasp the essence of the warning imprinted in the minds of all Bombayites:”Beware of pickpockets in the local trains.”

The Gujarati gentleman epitomises the wealth of Bombay, strewn around the jungle of apartment buildings whose residents look down as if they were modern gods come to conquer everything below them with their money.

Two youths speak with an accent that suggests they are Biharis — the hate objects of the Thackerays and their hoodlums who think Bombay is their fiefdom where their writ is supreme and where they are unchallenged. Stuck to one of them is a man with vermillion marks on his forehead reading the Daily Thanthi. Next to him are two Bengalis, conversing animatedly in their own language. And there is a group of Keralities sitting nearby, arguing in Malayalam. The compartment is a Babel of tongues. Everyone seems to be babbling. There’s music in that babble. And there’s life it and everywhere around.

There’s love in the compartment. In the aisle, oblivious to the maddening crowd around them and their pulls and pushes, a young couple lisp sweet nothings into each other’s ears. To ensure that no one touches his lady love, the young man remains stuck to her, his arms thrown around her in a protective gesture. They are in their own world. No one bothers to throw an intrusive look at them. That’s respect for privacy, Bombay ishtyle.

There’s music in the compartment. A middle-aged man sings songs from Bollywood movies. The passion is from the deeps of his heart. One of his companions plays the harmonium. Another clangs a cymbal with great gusto. Some commuters clap in perfect rhythm to the music.

There’s gambling. A group plays cards. They shout at each other. They curse each other. After each round, the winner howls with glee. The losers loudly slap his back and laugh.

There’s devotion in the compartment. A middle-aged man standing in the aisle, one hand firmly grasping the edge of the nearest seat, endlessly recites extempore passages in Sanskrit from some Hindu holy book. Few understand him. But they listen with rapt attention to his sonorous voice carrying the holy words. God has descended from the heavens into the compartment.

There’s selling too. A bhelpuri-hawker pushes his way through the crowd, tightly holding his basket, shouting hoarsely, “bhelpuri, bhelpuri”. A little away, a salesman tries to get someone to buy cheap ballpoint pens.

As the train tears through Bombay’s railway corridor, countless moving pictures in bright colours will flash through any regular commuter’s mindscape: the fisticuffs that erupt when one commuter pushes another; the bloodied noses and the scratched faces; the abuses that freely flow from some as their movement is obstructed when the train stops at a station; the eunuchs clapping hands as they seek money, and their obscene gestures when money is refused; the complaints of commuters about the water scarcity and the high price of potatoes and onions; the cacophony of the ringing tones of mobile phones; peons take orders from their bosses, managers direct their subordinates and business deals are discussed through them; the rapes that periodically make media headlines.

The local train is a rich and multicoloured tableau of Bombay. It’s is a way of life that has endured for decades. No one or nothing can ever disrupt it: not even exploding bombs raining fire and metal, death and destruction.

On 11 July 2006, an attempt was made to blow up this way of life in these jam-packed boxes on rails. Many compartments of different local trains were bombed and mutilated beyond recognition. Scores died. The limbs of some were strewn across the rail tracks in many parts of the city. Hundreds were wounded. There were tears. There was anger. And there was fear and panic everywhere.

“Living in Bombay now is like playing Russian roulette,” said a friend that day. But that visceral fear lasted only for a few hours. The next day, the compartments were full. There was singing, dancing and shouting once more.

The terror had vanished. The bombers had been defeated, though the costs were high. Bombay once again proved that it could endure all the terror and the grief as it has over the centuries ever since some koli fisherman laid its firm foundations.

Bombay will live on. The terrorists and the Thackerays, the pickpockets, the killers and the rapists will come and go. Bombay’s soul, the local trains, will run forever.

(The author is the edits page editor of Oman Tribune)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Liked this... Enjoyable to the core and brings to anyone an idea of Bombay.
-- Abha Iyengar (