Aga Khan Palace, Pune

Aga Khan Palace, Pune

I apprehensively looked out of the smoky double-glass window of my AC Chair car compartment lest I should miss my station. The almost opaque glass helped little to see and make out the place that came on and went by outside the cold confines of my temperature-controlled bogey. Someone had told me that this was the only express train – fitted also with an air-conditioned car – that stopped at Chinchwad station. My journey so far – along with two heavy-weight boxes, a cabin bag, a laptop bag and couple of books and magazines pushed desperately into a Crossword carry bag – from Mumbai had been as uneventful as most parliamentary debates. I kept feeding on Kiran Desai’s “Inheritance of Loss” while also nibbling away at the superbly cold and semi-insipid bread and veg cutlet served to me by the attending staff covered in pale crimson uniform made darker by dirt. Their name-tags hung from their shirt pockets, looking directly at the ground, invisible to the mankind. Outside, in an orange-tinted haze, platforms came and escaped. Beside the shiny gray metal tracks, the landscape changed; from the sleek high rises in Parel to the shanties and multi-storied pile of tin and undercooked bricks enjoying, with sharp contrast, the hip-shaking services offered by Satellite TV; from the garbage mound in Dadar to the overwhelming vistas of Khandala; From the graffiti-spoiled pale bridges in Mumbai to the dark, water-spraying tunnels of Lonavla;I knew Pune approached. I knew because the size of human construction beside the tracks grew – from one story to two stories to five stories to ten stories. I dragged my heavy luggage slowly through the narrow alley negotiating my way carefully through the protruding ankles and bulging heads of dozing passengers, towards the inconsiderate door that kept on slamming back on anyone who tried to breach its line; a line that separated the air-conditioned and un-air-conditioned world. The foam-seated class and the wood-seated class. The cold-cutlet eating class and the hot-banana-peel eating class. The class that throws food onto the tracks and the class that searches for food on the tracks.

Blocking the toilet entrance, in shocking and shameful lack of consideration for public convenience were stacked up baggage of passengers who planned to alight some stops later. It didn’t matter if their “planned” stop was about an hour away. For them, it’s nothing short of an achievement to have “reserved” strategic places so that they are the ones to alight first. What a terrible desire to come first!

I pulled with great difficulty all my baggage through the narrow exit, made narrower by these inconsiderate souls. I looked at these people and thought whether they deserved to travel by an air-conditioned coach. Whether they deserved to earn the money they earned. While some merrily spilled groundnut skin on the floor, others thoughtlessly climbed on the seats with their shoes on, to remove baggage from overhead holds. Yet some others emptied Haldiram moong dal into their fat mouths and tossed the packets to the floor in disgusting nonchalance. Before the soliciting and universally irritating autowallahs mobbed me, I quickly exited the station and moved onto the road. I don’t know if I invented (or discovered) this theory, but I have certainly made it a popular strategy among my friends: that you get the best auto/taxi deal when you hire it from the road, rather than the station stand. When you hire an auto/taxi from the road, there is a significant chance that you are mistaken for a local and quoted the right price. On the other hand, if you actually are a stranger (which some of these unscrupulous elements can read accurately in a flash) and try to hire an auto/taxi from the station stand, you are likelier to be charged twice (or thrice or even more depending on how lost you look).However, this time, the trick didn’t work; at least for the first time. I flagged down an auto and asked him the price to Talawade (this is where I have my office). The guy was in absolute hurry, almost like a terrorist eager to witness the site of blast. He spat out “180” and almost ordered me to bend myself into his auto. I knew that the price he was quoting was almost double the “fair” value. I stopped just short of saying “F**k off” and continued walking in the other direction. The way I looked at him with scorn and almost laughed off his solicitation must have surely humiliated the auto guy. He came down to “120” in a flash and this time shouted at me to sit in his auto, tilting himself out of his cramped driving position, his fat figure looming out of the timid auto, like a fat worm peeping out of its hole. I shouted back and continued walking away from him.I later caught hold of a shaky old auto driver and thanked myself for doing to good job of reaching office without paying any new-comer premium.This was my experience so far, in reaching Pune. And it was all well for the first couple of weeks when the climate was pleasant with almost no humidity and the sun sporting a soothing glow. And then it rained. And it rained.What a rain it was! Buckets got emptied in the sky and the water crashed onto the city almost like water gushing out of a dam. The road to my apartment, which I thought was safe enough to save itself from drowning, disappeared along with the vacant plot by its side. In its place, there was water, flattening the terrain inside its belly. Tea-coloured plateau reigned till the concrete-lined horizon, punctuated intermittently by occasional braving cyclist or motorcyclist who waded through the wheel-deep muddy water.

Then I witnessed some misplaced bravado. A corolla stood at the bank of the waters by the roadside and in the drizzle, a semi-wet middle-aged executive stood in a pensive mood. All the four doors of the Toyota Corolla were open. I snail-paced my bike and peeped inside. There was a small pool inside which the driver of the car desperately tried to empty. I conjectured that the pot-bellied executive must have asked his driver to drive through the water, confident that the water wasn’t deep enough to cause havoc. Tch Tch!!!

My woes were, however, far worse than the pot-bellied executive. From my apartment, the office took a tiring and irritating 45 minutes, enough time for the rainwater to seep through every square inch of cloth and comfortably wet every square inch of the skin. Almost every day, I returned home, completely drenched – my neatly washed and pressed shirt polka-dotted by the spinning mud-spitting tires of four-wheelers that overtook me, my shoes filled up with water and making splotching noises when I walked, my office documents virtually floating in water inside the bag – all dripping and shaking.

Thus I continued my to and fro ordeal to office, completely submitted to the fury and vagary of Pune rain. More unfortunately, my car showed no signs of arriving. The driver who was supposed to drive it to Pune caught flu at the most inopportune moment and was down sine die.

Pune is a great city though. Once you get used to rain, and get used to get drenched, rains matter no more. You enjoy playing hide and seek with it; timing your stay in malls to avoid it; racing your bike just enough to escape it; stopping at the shop-shade at the right time. And I have been doing exactly that. The monstrous Pune rain, in the mean time, has taken pity on me and a few days off.

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