Every morning, I drive to work around 9:15 a.m. Every morning, I pledge to keep my cool and not honk or curse at autorickshaws flouting lane discipline. Every morning, I break my promise and vociferously hate Bombay roads.
The other day, I had high fever and didn’t go to work. Later, around afternoon, a couple of friends had to leave for the airport. But they weren’t getting autos or taxis because Raj Thackeray had been arrested. The city was tense and people were scared. My friends, both of who are from Delhi, contemplated cancelling tickets. Since I was home, though, I insisted on dropping them to the airport. You see, we don’t have a TV in the house and I don’t read newspapers all that much. So, without these agencies that are designed to paralyze you with fear, one generally believes that things out there are not quite so bad.
We left home after a late, lazy lunch of parathas, daal, and tea. We spoke of this and that, trying hard not to let the discomfort show. What if we got stoned? Or lynched? What if my car was surrounded by a mob and they banged on it? What if we had to abandon Bandra midway and run for our lives? What if…?
I, however, insisted that we’d be okay. My friend got irritated and asked me how I could be so sure that nothing would happen. After all, in times such as this, things did happen. I told him that I wasn’t sure that nothing would happen, only that nothing would happen to me. I believe that.
We left from our house and the roads were free. No autos, no trucks, not too many buses. No crowds, no pedestrians, not even cows perambulating slowly. No-one on cycles, no kid trying to dash across in traffic, no traffic police at cross-roads yelling at bikers to not jump the light. No bumping or grinding into potholes, no jostling for space, no edging into other lanes. There was no trace of it being a Bombay road. There was no trace of it being Bombay.
Yes, the drive was smooth and easy. We reached the international airport in 15 minutes. Yet, I didn’t feel good. I felt horrible, as if something inside of me had been scooped out and filled with something heavy and dead.
For the first time, I saw the road as something more than inconvenience. For the first time, I understood what a crowded road stood for – an entity that would make space for you, no matter what. A Scorpio would nudge to the side to make place for a bus, an auto could squeeze in between two cars, a biker could weave through a couple of trucks, and yet on the side, a man could be pulling his handcart at his own pace. Yes, there were sharp turns and potholes and slopes and rain and flooding, yet the road was a place where you managed somehow – sometimes with people, and sometimes despite them. The roads didn’t make you complacent. You were on the lookout until the time you finally parked the car outside your home. It was that playground where rules got made up with every kind of game. You saw how ugly people could get when they wouldn’t stop for an old lady to cross the road. You saw the unabashed kindness where a stranger would help you change tyres on the highway. The roads choked with populace; but they also throbbed with purpose. They intimidated during traffic; they exhilarated unexpectedly at times. The road was the teacher that didn’t have favorites. The road, warts and all, ugly and dysfunctional, was still the only great equalizer.
And that day, it was empty.
When we reached home, we had a heated discussion on what was wrong. I want people to like my city; I want people to love it. I want people to understand that that man, the one who says ‘This is my city, not yours’ is wrong. I want people to know, really, really know that you can’t shake off the city from your skin even if you leave it. That Bombay, at some point in time, doesn’t remain a city anymore. It’s that feeling, that seamless rhythm of enthusiasm that courses through your veins long after you’ve thought of a brilliant idea suddenly. Bombay, the city, the experience, the ache and longing, remains. I usually have a mind full of words to explain all this.
But that day, it was empty.
We spent a fitful night. No-one really ate too much and I think I remained wide awake until the wee hours of the morning. I wondered whether we should go to office the next day.
But there I was, bright and early, with really parched eyes. My heart still felt heavy and I wondered whether I should step out. Suddenly I heard a man yell. He was a construction worker and was shouting at his friend to throw him a bottle of water. As far as I knew, two people were at work already. And I wouldn’t feel okay completely until I got out of the house.
So I got dressed and walked out the gate. There was a line of auto-rickshaw people, one of who asked me where I wanted to go.
“Marol”, I asked him.
“SEEPZ se loonga madam…Chandivali main bahut traffic hai.”, he replied. I nodded and got in.
And there they were – the crowded buses and happy bikers and silly people running across the road. The Swifts and Scorpios and trucks and a Maruti 800 with a ‘Built for Speed’ sticker in flaming orange. Stalls selling samosa pav and poori bhaaji to hungry workers. Large cauldrons of steaming chai simmering on black stoves and angry traffic cops at crossroads.
There was a lot of cacophony, heat and dust, and just about everything looked so bedraggled. The roads were as badly off as ever. But….scanning the road for traffic was like checking the pulse of the city. It was like this – your child had got into a fight and had been beaten up so badly that he’d fainted. You checked the pulse and it was feeble. You think that you might lose your baby and you’re angry at the thought of someone you love being snatched away. But more acute is the sense of pain and loss. You don’t know how you’d carry on if your baby was no more. But slowly, your baby comes back. The next day, when I saw the dust and heard the honks, when I felt the ‘business as usual’ buzz palpable around me, I heard my baby bawling and kicking and acting rowdy. But all I felt is relief. If I could, I’d just pick up the city and hug it really, really tight and never let it go.
Later, one will pick one’s battles – one will take on the bully who hurt your child, one will teach one’s child how to behave…but for right now, you just hold on and send a little prayer.
My baby’s back.