All my family members in Mumbai. Love you all!
Everyday I spent here in Mumbai - everyday of the past 5 years, everyday of finding myself holding onto that steel rod in a local train that displaces the working class from home to work and work to home - I would find myself bemused at man's intrinsic nature to survive! A city the size of Barbados, but holding more people than Greece; here survival becomes a daily routine, a routine that kept me immersed inside the sea of humanity, which found me neglecting my leaking roof, the crippled bed, and an ever shrinking room which would later turn too small to hold my 29 year old body. For every person in this ever shrinking metropolis, survival begins at bed, and ends there too!
As the rikshawala honks his way through traffic, with his left leg kept gracefully underneath his right (which usually reminds me of some Hindu Gods you see in wallpapers), I am again reminded of the many roles people play in this city, from spiritual Babas to underworld dons, the variety is thrilling and petrifying both at the same time. Naturally it brings light onto the role I played, of an irrational columnist in a newspaper, whose circulation three-quarters of Mumbai doesn't know about. And even the quarter who knows about the mediocre daily, surely will not have heard about P.Varghese, the columnist who has a habit of writing things having no particular interest to anyone. A sudden and mischievous honk pains my ears and mind, I look up and see a bewildered young man, probably in his twenties, caught stupendously in front of traffic. He had three bags, all stuffed up, perhaps a newbie into the city, perhaps one among thousands who migrate to Mumbai every week. His awkward situation at once reminded me of myself when I first joined the human parade, of my home, of my mother and her lovely lemon pickles and the ardent anticipation you associate only with migration.
I was 23 then, and busy packing, rejecting my mom's pleas to take another bottle of her luscious lemon pickle, complaining that I was already going full. It never discerned on me then that months after I would eat only meager rations of that pickle in a hope to let my mother's love stay alive beside me, within the sensual intimacy of spices and tastes. The 21 hour journey seemed a battle, against free time, against the insatiable desire to live my dreams and against the brutally stinky compartments that Indian Railways grants you with. But everyone in my compartment survived that trip, yet neither with joy nor with the anticipation that filled their faces in the beginning.
My first day at work was the only day I remember distinctly, partly because of a beginner's excitement and partly because it was the only day separated from monotony. Every subsequent day would seem similar to the day before, which would make me wonder the possibility of me turning into a keyed toy, with the key being turned every first day of a month. The keys were turned exactly 60 times till last month. It would have been 61 if I had waited for another week, but sometimes it takes nothing to think and everything to act, and with the news that my mother was not keeping well, there would always be something left out of that everything.
The rikshaw stopped. I took out my bags, they had significantly reduced in size and number after 5 years, which I again associated with the city - it possessed this devious charm to reduce the size of everything it touched. I witnessed this capability head-on after my first week in office. I was tormented then; by nostalgia, sadness and home-sickness. The city absorbed it all by next week and I was left with nothing but my job after the reduction process.
I stood at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, adoringly called LTT. For all human species migrating to Mumbai via railways, LTT significantly stood as the Gateway to Mumbai. The entry into the busiest city in India, into the third largest city in the World. And I remember my own unnoticeable entry, with five bags and a heart full of minute and sensitive hopes. I hoped of faring well, to bring my mother to stay with me, to move onto a good flat, to marry, to have a family. But very little did I know then, that if you are not careful with your life, life has a habit of stabbing you in the back. And indeed life did, which is the precise reason why I make this trip back to Kerala.
I am brought back to the present by the hoot of trains waiting to carry people into and out of the city. I have seen a lot of people make this journey. There are at least seven colleagues in my office who is not a true Mumbaikar, and every one of them goes home every six months. I would wonder then, whether I would ever make the 21 hour journey again. There is something about Mumbai which makes you hold onto it despite the extremities, for me it was the promise- the promise of a better life. And probably now the promise was outweighed by reality and I had no other alternative but to go back.
The screech of releasing brakes echoed and later was subdued by the many noises that surrounded LTT. I felt the air of Mumbai hit plainly on my face, it was not the perfect goodbye, but I felt the heartbeats of 12 million souls, within that repugnant and humid air, fighting for survival, and even amidst it discharged within an aura of dreams. I felt the sweat of 6 million daily wage earners toiling ceaselessly to keep the city moving, I saw the thousands at Marine Drive and Bandstand taking a dip in astute calmness after their day of mind-numbing work, I heard the nervous breath of hundreds in the local train nearby, holding onto their hard earned space and waiting for their eventual flush-out onto their destination. Every eternal joy, every ceaseless struggle, every ephemeral dream was held inside the air that hit me. I felt plagued by it, drawn towards it, shackled by it and ultimately owned by it. I closed my eyes, I felt Mumbai for a final time!
91 tunnels and 2000 bridges stood before me and Kerala. The pleasure of cutting through one of the most sublime yet challenging terrains in the country spoke volumes about the technological and human capabilities of the nation. Yet shear irony stands in the fact that I made that journey in a railway compartment with half of the fans not working and toilets where taps were a luxury. Life was lived in extreme ironies all over the country and being in Mumbai for the past 5 years I knew of nothing else other than extreme irony. Irony of the richest person in the world and the poorest of poor sharing the same street, irony of elected politicians looting the voters, irony of life in motion and lives sacrificed to keep the system running. No other country could boast of such differences, of such diversity!
My mind was rejuvenated by delicate feelings of homecoming as the train buzzed through the Konkan stretch. Life seemed different all around. Here you could see the population India likes to forget - the producers of food. The population we depend upon for survival, yet for whose survival we seldom care about. I was at once ashamed to see vast acres of land cultivated by very few farmers, and on how diminutive their existence remains. They perform the mammoth task of bringing food to India's billions of hungry stomachs at the cost of themselves going hungry each passing day. The sacrifice to keep the system running begins within these fields. I wonder what would happen if every farmer in the country stopped cultivation to pursue higher dreams, if they moved into the cities, will the rich make grains? Thoughts are always plenty because of the ultimate boredom that prevails in a long train ride, with time turning slow, primarily due to the mounting hope of homecoming, I find myself thinking either about my life or about others, even though both makes very little difference.
'Don't go to that place again', my mother said. It had been five years since I last saw her. Age has certainly caught up with her. I remember how easily she carried two of my large trunks and ran along with me to catch the train. Things looked bleak now, and different. I knew she would ask me to stay, that is precisely what Vasco, my brother told me to do when he called me last month. It seemed a psychological persuasion at first, but my mother falling ill was the warning sign that times have changed. I look at her again and say,'I never will, promise.'
The answer seemed to bring a smile to her face. I smiled too. I remember all the pains this woman took to make me and Vasco what we are today. My father died when I was three and Vasco five. But I never did miss my father, my mother did everything, from buying households to dropping us at school. Mother was the first woman in our village to own a scooter, and would have probably been the tool of constant mockery by the elite men. But she went on. She worked in our 1.5 acre rubber farm in the morning, cooked for us afterwards, took us to school, herself taught at a secondary school, took us back home, bathed us, helped us do homework, heard our stories, tended household and never slept!
'Your promise is the best medicine', Vasco said, 'It would keep her well!'
Kerala was a new start, a new beginning, though very different from Mumbai. I began working in the farm from the next morning. Farming gives you a lot of free time, I write stories and send them to all sorts of publishers during free time. Vasco works as an accountant in a bank, he is married to our childhood friend Anne and has a bright boy named Joseph as their only asset. Together Vasco and I earn enough to live a moderate yet happy life. Though, sometimes I stop and think of Mumbai during my free time, of the ignobility you feel when living in the mega city. I wonder if I'd ever go back to that wonderful spectacle of humanity, of millions surviving together. The perpetual drama of grit, fitness and unquenchable dreams. A magical city capable of entrapping your vision and imagination with an overpowering resonance of life, a city which draws you towards it, the more you try to go away, a city which made me realize that what separates moments from memories were only a small millisecond of time!