19 Jan 2013

Mumbai, Meri Jaan

Turns out the Mothership was right after all. When I moved to Bombay ('Mumbai', to the pedants) last September, she had been apprehensive. "It's a big, bad city," she said. "They're calling it the 'Narcopolis'", she said, "it'll corrupt you." She had a right to be worried of course, what with History and all, however rehabilitated I maybe. But not even hyper-imaginative Mother could have predicted the ease with which a little something here, a little something there, quickly spiraled into a Habit.

I suppose I could have gotten hooked on a greater evil. I should probably be thankful I'm not hawking handjobs on street corners in exchange for a hit; that I still have my health and my (ahem) looks. But addiction, any addiction, is shameful, a burden. And I fell for the most shameful one of them all: My name is Tharun James Jimani, and I'm a benefits scrounge.  

It started off harmlessly enough, like a stray pill somebody hands you at a party. I had been in Bombay three weeks and had had enough of spending hours (and a fortune in cab fare) stuck in traffic jams. I decided to take the advice of Ramu, the office boy, who never tires of telling me that the public transport system in Bombay is "cheap and besht". Don't be fooled by the fancy job description- Ramu is a leprechaun of lifestyle conveniences, and about the size of a football field.

So I gave Bombay's famed local trains a try, romanced as I have always been by their propensity to match-make if Saathiya is to be believed. Oh relax, this is not another dreary account of how dreary the daily commute is in one of the busiest cities in the world. I was ready for that. What I wasn't prepared for was how ridiculously exaggerated those accounts of travel tedium were. "Piece of cake," I thought, as I smiled enthusiastically at the gentleman with a phantom arm seated opposite me on my first foray onto the other side of the tracks- "cattle class" commute.    

"God, Mumbaikars are such whiners," I thought as I nodded in acknowledgement at the lady with the neck brace who had just entered the train. And then it struck me: the elderly blind man with the white cane, the little boy with the Forrest Gump- footwear, they were all special souls in there. I was travelling in the disabled folks' compartment. I looked frantically around to make sure nobody was standing, that I wasn't denying some poor diabetic his government-approved respite, and resolved to exit stage at the next station.

But guilt is a strange thing, and often drops in unannounced.  As the train slowed to a crawl entering Elphinstone Station, I stood up, getting ready to step out. And suddenly, out of nowhere, my right leg picked up a mannerism of its own: it went limp. Try as I might, cuss and threaten and cajole as I did, it refused to stand straight, to resume business as normal. Fuck, now my face is doing it too! For no discernible reason, my cheeks drooped in self-pity, my vocal chords emanated sighs and my right hand made a curious byline for some imagined point-of-most-pain on my leg, and stroked it sympathetically. My body put on the performance of a lifetime in a viciously satirical parody of my parasitic self, as I made the shameful trip from my seat to the door.

It happened again, and again. On a particularly busy night once; because I was exhausted and wanted a seat for certain on another inebriated night. It happened out of curiosity, out of laziness, out of a juvenile tendency to play truant, out of sheer boredom. It became a Habit. My adopted disabilities changed with my mood. I would be deaf one day, dying the next. "It's alright," I consoled myself, as my fingers felt around for words in mock-Braille on the pages of The Hotel New Hampshire   on my way to work one day, "it's not like I'm robbing them of anything, I never sit if one of them is left without a seat."

Excuses, all. Classic denial mode, as any ex-junkie will tell you. As ever, it would take an intervention to set me straight. It came in the shape of a lushly bearded Mullah, a couple of weeks ago. I was just moving in on a seat that had been recently vacated, on the handicapped section of a public bus this time (coz I like to mix things up every now and then, YOLO and what not), when suddenly, Mullah-man shoved me in the chest and fell onto my seat while I was left clutching at strangers to remain upright. I was incensed. I confronted him. "What the fuck dude," I said, "you can't just push people to get a seat."

Mullah-man went ballistic with all the indignation of the wrongfully-condemned. He let loose a volley of abuses, or gaalis as they call them in Hindi, while the whole bus looked on. I may not have caught the intricacies of which of my relatives he wanted me to fornicate with first and in which position, but I did get the gist: I couldn't speak Hindi, and that somehow made me an incestuous snob as opposed to the victim of casual physical assault on a moving bus.

I'd be lying if I said that's what turned the tide. My discomfort must have been obvious. A couple of passengers stepped in, having borne witness to Mullah-man's antics. They were true-blue Mumbaikars, standing up for the disenfranchised, discriminated-against foreigner, sticking it to the man. A few more joined in. There were calls for Mullah-man to apologize, to return to me what was rightfully mine by the order of public transport etiquette. Somebody grabbed his collar; he swatted away somebody's arm. I stood frozen, awed and frightened in equal measure by the riot I had seemingly instigated. And then somebody uttered the dreaded word. "Terrorist," he muttered, "saale terrorist."  

I got out at the next stop, shook up but strangely calm. This too, I thought, this too is Bombay, all-consuming, all-accepting Bombay. Mullah-man may have had a bad leg, or a weak kidney for all I know. But his handicap was far more real: the thick beard that screamed "Muslim", the taqiyah he donned with pride, the mark on his forehead from a thousand sujuds. He should not have pushed me. But irrespective of his indiscretion, I had set in motion a chain of events that resulted in what can only have been traumatic for him, a reminder of the stigma that I frankly wasn't aware was so widespread.

If it weren't for angsty Mullah-man, I'd probably still be cruising the town in 'special' seats, suckling contentedly at the mammaries of the welfare state. I still get the itch, sometimes. But I've learned to deal with it: to pay a little extra and get the AC bus, or wake up a little early and take a slow train. I leave you with A.R. Rahman's "Chaiyya, Chaiyya", easily the classiest item number I've seen in a Bollywood movie, and set atop (what else?) a moving train snaking its way through the Nilgiri mountains. Welcome to Bombay.  

                          Icy Highs's Music Recco: "Chaiyya Chaiyya", Dil Se (1998)




Revacious said...

Duuude. I never thought "item number" would worm its place into wiki, the description seems to be dripping with irony & sarcasm..
Hope you have a great time in Bombay. Hope you never give into temptation again: those Mumbaikars could turn on you easily enough, once they realise you're sponging off disabled people :P
And Muslim-bashing is back in vogue: Welcome to the brainwashed, unthinking masses of zombies that urban India is.

Susan Kane said...

You are an excellent writer. If no one has ever told you that before, they should have.

Keep writing about your adventures. I looked forward to reading them.

icyHighs said...

Rev! It's really not that bad, kiddo, I LOVE this city!

Hey Susan, that's very kind. Thank you. :)

kbbuddingwriter said...

Sounds like you're enjoying the true Mumbai. Too bad I only lived in 'Bombay' and only for so long.
BTW, Bombay trains > French trains. True story.

Anonymous said...

You make me fall in love with you everytime you write.

icyHighs said...

Haha KK I believe you about French trains. Fucking communists, the lot of them.

Anonymous: I'll just have to write more then, won't I? :)

Talitha said...

Someone had a crazy day...welcome to Mumbai boss...what's the final verdict...like or dislike?
The wiki definition of item-song was hilarious...they ought to put that in some book!:)

icyHighs said...

Hi Talitha: I LOVE this city. Never felt more at home in India, ever. Agreed about the wiki page - writing stuff like that's a job I wouldn't mind having!

loverofwords said...

All I could think of when reading your post is all of the situations you are experiencing that could be turned into some terrific short/stories or novels.

goatman said...

Special transport for the walking wounded.
We would need a fleet of them here!

red dirt girl said...

Love this Icy ~ in fine form, you are. So when ARE you going to publish that book ???!!!

As for my 'prose' blog - LOL. Your comment made me laugh. I don't 'prose' very much or very often. You must have gotten a dose of my year-end-itiss when all those words stumble out of my brain. Rest assured, it's back to posting other people's poetry and such.

2013 will be interesting. Will keep you posted as it unfolds.

hugs and

icyHighs said...

Hi Loverofwords, that's the dream. :)

Hey Goatman, I blame McDonalds and cable TV! And the war, I guess.

icyHighs said...

Hey Red, 2013 is hopefully my 'big year' too. Good luck, and yes keep me posted.

Novel's out in May - it's called 'Cough Syrup Surrealism' - will let you know. Published by Fingerprint.

By the way, an anthology of short stories called ' Music of the stars and other love stories' is coming out in Feb. One of the short stories is mine - it's called 'An Absurd Romance. Published by Scholastic. Keep an eye out for it, if you're interested. :)

Workingdan said...

I think I'll just stick to the classic American way to travel and drive myself. The only one who can push me is me.

Another fantastic piece of writing! Keep it up!

icyHighs said...

Cheers Dan!

red dirt girl said...

Ohhh fantastic news for you on the publishing front. Will definitely look for it. Congratulations!! Can't think of a writer more deserving of his 15 minutes of fame :) Of course, you are going to parlay this into a life long career, complete with appropriate degrees, official prizes and endowments and an impressive 'body of work.'

I'm genuinely happy for you.


icyHighs said...

Haha thanks Red. Though nothing would make me happier than a big fat movie deal and never having to lift a finger again :)

austere said...

this one's bloody brilliant, Icy.
I hope your book makes you SO famous you're an invited speaker at the Jaipur Litfest and that year I shall go there to sit in the audience and clap.

icyHighs said...

Aww thanks Austere. I bet you say that to all your writer boys. :)

goatman said...

They still say "bloody"?

icyHighs said...

whats wrong with 'bloody'? i say bloody. well, actually i say 'bleddy'. like the rest of my countrymen.