It was pitch-dark below the belly of the A-320. Some twinkling lights occasionally tried in vain to illuminate what seemed like a vast expanse of molten pitch. I was shivering in 22 degrees inside the metal-fibre frame, though comfortably insulated from the minus 53 that froze the nothingness outside into an eerie cold mass. The alternate red and neon lights blinked away relentlessly below the wings spread out into darkness. The coarse revving of the turbines deposited in my ear shutting it off from all the vibrations in the air. The cosy confinement of the business class had gone mute. I looked away from the window. A shapely hostess stood at the end of the aisle. From behind the half-down shutters of my eyes, I could see she was coming towards me.
With a sudden jerk, someone pulled my earplugs away. The engine blades churned right inside my brains and their intense grinding filled my senses. “I am your captain speaking. We are about to land at the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai in about 15 minutes. Cabin crew, prepare for landing”. The ‘Fasten seat belt’ sign glowed after a soft beep. The hostess stopped near me – “Seats upright sir”. I looked at her face. She could probably look more beautiful sans the multi-storied makeup that covered her face. The forced smile looked genuine though. I looked around. I was the only one with a reclined seat. In a business class, you sometimes travel with people who have forgotten how to sleep and relax. Most of them either almost banged their heads onto the sleek flatness of their laptop screens or poured over the stale newspaper. Stale because it was 11.30 at night.
I looked down through the window. Scraps of gold floated on the molten pitch. Mumbai breathed 3000 feet below me. From the height, the stark contrasts of the city were gone. Slums and high-rises merged. The sea-front floodlights, the lined neon street lights, the incandescent flicker of the shanty bulb, the fluorescent glow from the high-rises – all mixed together as different hues of a bright golden colour dabbled on the black canvas. Mumbai looked like a beautiful pendant of intricate gold work hanging on the neck of darkness. I could now see the complete outline of Mumbai, slowly rotating below me like a jewelry on display table, as the plane tilted about 20 degrees to take a U-turn to align its levitated structure with the ultraviolet landing lights hugging the runway at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
Cut to my journey the next day to Andheri station. About 20 minutes drive (under abnormal circumstances) from where I stayed. I, of course, took a normal ride unaware of what awaited me just one kilometer down the road. Now I was inside the openness of an auto, engulfed in the smoke that the truck roaring by my side kept on spitting. The monotony of idling engines sometimes was broken by some autowallah going full throttle on neutral – probably to vent frustration or probably to prepare the carburetor for a long innings ahead. For the starter, it could seem as if Mumbai has come to a halt. But make no mistakes. It is business time for the dusky little girl with her hands covered with flowers, the boy clutching ‘Mid-day’ in his hands and running around frantically in the narrow lanes created by the motionless vehicles or the woman who thrusts her seemingly ailing child into your face to force sympathy out of your indifferent demeanour and the purse out of your pocket. Probably these people wouldn’t have a living if you didn’t have traffic jams.
Ten minutes – that is the time the auto remained helplessly enclosed within the towering fences of gigantic red buses. In the mean time, the driver tried all possible manoeuvres to move the vehicle out of the jungle of smoking beasts. Probably it would have been a better idea to just lift the little three-wheeled thing off the ground and carry it out of the mess. The driver had other plans though. He turned, swerved and rubbed his vehicle against other autos that were groaning in frustration, having accepted their fates a little while ago. No luck! Like sand poured into a bottle, the vehicles optimally filled the space – as if someone had run a complex non-linear optimization program on the chaotic dispersal.
Then it moved. As it did with a sudden jerk, I slipped backwards on the smooth polyethylene seat, made smoother by hours of rubbing against the fleshy human body part, under various surface area and pressure conditions. As the rapid acceleration and deceleration kept me oscillating, I wondered if the auto ever moved sidewards, how perfect a sinusoidal curve would my head trace in the air!
The Auto stopped a couple of metres short of the station – at the bank of the human river that flowed from everywhere into the lane leading to the station. The river cut across the criss-crossing roads and the stream of autos and the monstrous ‘BEST’ buses that desperately kept on honking even as their blaring honks evaporated into the gargantuan cacophony. As I got down, the swarming and churning humanity engulfed me. Once you are part of that human stream, you do not exactly decide your movements any more. Like tributaries merging into a raging river, you lose identity and just drift along. I wanted to move out of the swarm and have a little space for myself. But I had to keep moving. What I just wanted, as I later realized, perhaps is in least supply in the island city.
I couldn’t see the ground that lay beneath me. All I could see was a plateau of black dots rising and falling in perfect synchronization, probably dictated by the shape of the terrain underneath. The over-bridge stairs looked like a dotted conveyor belt that kept on moving up before disintegrating into flying pieces of human beings. Now walking flat on the bridge, I could see the ‘Churchgate-Fast’ train snaking into the platform. As I ran towards the stairs that emptied itself just near the bank of the platform, I was intercepted again by a mass of seemingly conjoined human beings. Another train has just emptied it onto the platform. The carpet of human beings dragged itself up with a frantic zeal. I calculated. If I divide the breadth of the staircase into 10 strips, there would be just one strip open for people moving downwards. The rest nine probably was booked by some supernatural dictum for the huge carpet that was moving up.
It was a strange feeling. Rather condescending. I have got into moving trains several times in my life. In fact, I enjoy doing that. Allow the train to pick up speed and run along its doors till you have swiftly lifted yourself up inside. I knew my acceleration was way above what a clumsy and bulky Indian Railways’ pet could ever make. And here I was, moving quarter-inch at a time through the narrow strip allowed to me while the overloaded local was zipping past me with amazing pick up. I could do nothing to catch the train. I cursed myself. I would never enjoy catching a running local for sure.
I waited for the next. The digital display silently announced the arrival of the next local in 5 minutes. Learning from what I just witnessed while haplessly climbing down the stairs, I braced myself for the impact. Bending forward, I looked expectantly into the tracks woven into one another into a complicated maze of steel. Hugging the shape of the track, as the local curved its lithe steel body at the horizon, I looked at the overhead watch; dot on time. The 12-coach train with people bulging out from the entrance doors and hanging on with alarmingly low foothold area silently slid into the station. It looked to me like a giant centipede moving in for a silent kill.
Taking cue from others, I prepared myself for the attack like a seasoned, embattled soldier. Someone told me last night that it was my last chance before the rush gets unbearable and catching a FAST local becomes as easy as milking a bull. I didn’t have the luxury of time to afford a slow one as I was already getting late to office. I moved closer to the edge of the platform and started running along with the train keeping myself just short of the entrance door decorated with hanging people. I thought, I didn’t know it was that simple! Given my vantage position, I would be the first one to enter the local and seconds later I would find myself happily seated while others would still be pushing and elbowing each other. On retrospection, I think that thought was probably the most horrible assumption anyone ever made. Even before I finished my thought, a huge wave of people gushed out of the local, pushing its way frantically through the narrow canal formed by the people on platform waiting to board. After the local finished offloading, before I realized, I was trailing behind three deformed semicircular rings of people bombarding themselves onto the train that was ready to move any time now. I pushed my way hard trying to compress the human mass in front of me into the train. The mini riot that played itself out at regular gaps along the length of the train was getting to me. I was frustrated and disgusted. Is this how human beings are supposed to be treated? I had seen the neighbourhood chicken farm owner transport his chickens in his wire-meshed cages in a fashion remarkably similar to what I was undergoing. Hanging precariously with just one hand supporting my entire body-weight, I pushed forward to earn myself a foothold as the local tore past the platform. The inside seemed to me as a compressed and hardened mass that hardly responded to my incessant push. A nervous anticipation caught me. What if the crowd was to swell outwards for some reason? I would be instantly thrown out of the moving train. The aching fingers were now close to being numb. I threw my right arm around the steel bar that sat just in the middle of the entrance and held the arm by my left hand trying to lock myself to the train.
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That is Mumbai, my friends, inhabited by close to two crore restless souls running back and forth at maddening speeds. It’s amazing how the seemingly crumbling infrastructure packs into it millions of space-hungry people. It’s a city where land probably is costlier than diamond. In a city obsessed with financial markets, I wondered whether it was more difficult to grab a local train seat than do an arbitrage trading. Probably it was finding and occupying a seat in a local that required a much faster response time.
The stark contrast between the rich and the poor is nowhere more pronounced than it is in Mumbai. Sleek multi-storied buildings rise from stinking slums and BMWs rub against naked street kids. Highways flow into filthy roads and gigantic flyovers take off from narrow, congested lanes. I was trying to figure out my place on the spectrum.
Mumbai is also city of rules. Never have I seen a city that is so obsessed with the rules of living. You need to know that the alternate yellow and red striped carriages are for those who have earned themselves a coveted first-class pass. Or for the riches who have paid an astronomical sum for a one time thrill ride. You need to know what ‘T’ stands for – Titwala, Thane or Thakurli. You need to know that as an Andheri passenger you are not supposed to get onto a Virar-bound train. And if you ever did that by mistake, you should look at Andheri not as the first station you want to get down at. You need to know which stations are ignored by the fast train. You need to know the multiplying factor and the minor adjustments afterwards that need to be applied to the auto meter reading. You need to know that you should take an auto or a taxi from the ‘queue’ and not from soliciting low-morals if you are not exactly insensitive to paying three times more. You need to know that you can pass on your bag inside the packed local train to the overhead luggage holds and get it back without moving an inch forward. You need to know that you should take your glasses off long before your try to board a local; unless of course those are old and you are looking for an excuse to get yourself a new pair. Once you are inside, you need to know how much space you can ask for when you are the fourth person to sit on a second class bench, how to inch forward in the 3 square meters of space occupied by about 50 people; or how to elbow your way slowly deep into the interiors and place yourself at the vantage position between a pair of facing benches so that you can easily slip your BACK into the gap as soon as someone stood up. And perhaps most importantly, you need to know which station follows what, when exactly you leave your seat and move towards the door, which side of the universe does the platform come and which way you must go once you have climbed up to the over-bridge; East or West. That is one hell of a question.
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The massive engines by my side roared to life as the plane taxied and aligned itself to the polished runway extending towards the evening sky. As if kicked from behind with a tremendous force, the Boeing-737 rocketed forward with enormous thrust while my eyes were still transfixed on the slums bordering the airport – the multi-storied pile of tin, brick and asbestos housing thousands of ordinary human beings. Human beings for whom, Mumbai held a promise – of a livelihood; and survival. A couple of kids perched on a tin-roof waved to me as the runway below started falling fast. The Bhelpuri stalls on Juhu beach that now looked like the scattered toys of a kid, the Hilton hotel and the Air India building at a distance overlooking the sparkling Queen’s Necklace, the gateway and the BSE: the miniature Mumbai was now filled with early twinkling lights. The imposing structures reduced to calm and reclusive models of themselves belying the chaos of struggle, sweat, dreams and hopes that played itself out on every square inch of the city. Millions probably would be scurrying about in the city like ants on a table splattered with strawberry syrup. Minutes back I was one of them. I let out a deep sign and looked away. And closed my eyes.
Suddenly, like water rushing into the broken titanic, waves of people gushed into the plane. The quiet interior was filled with a maddening rush. The deafening cacophony of pushing, elbowing, shouting, talking, singing, discussing, complaining and a hundred mobiles ringing downed the turbine roar. Yet no one pushed or elbowed me. The local was flying.