Monday, February 27, 2012

Life in the City - Another Day, Another journey

Chapter 3 - Travel - A Way of Life  
Have you ever lived in a city that has a local train system? If you have, you would have witnessed what I write. If you haven't, close your eyes and imagine it. 

Every morning, during what Mumbaikars refer to as peak-time, there is a great spectacle to be witnessed. For this, you need to identify a busy local station - say Andheri. Then you hunt for the foot over-bridge that ferries thousands ( and this I say conservatively) across the railway lines that bisect Mumabi into East and West. On either sides are railings that allow you to crane your neck to check whether you can still manage to scramble on to the 8.35 Churchgate slow or the 8.40 Virar fast with just seconds to spare before it pulls out of the platform. Find a comfortable spot, where you are least likely to be jostled hard.( Psst, it is kind of impossible to avoid being cursed or rudely glared at for appearing immovable when the whole over-bridge seems to be in a permanent state of fluid motion). However,once you have found that sweet spot, wait. It won't be long. Trains move in and out of platforms in Andheri every other minute. When the next train pulls in, hold your breath. 

There is usually a reverent, almost automatic hush that lasts barely a second or two as the local slows down in its approach towards the platform. Ignore those that I shall call as 'Leapers', they who have no patience for the train to come to a halt, but jump out while it is still in motion. 

As the train grinds to a halt, it will appear like a worm freshly trampled upon- its innards, black, impossibly thick and sluggish mass oozing out on to the platform. A bird's eye view is highly recommended. Every day, Mumbai's trains unloads its burden of humanity and you feel you heard the train heaving a sigh of relief...Oh wait, that was you, releasing that breath you'd held in, all this while.

The choke that you feel as you wait to leap on to a train or off it, with a waiting crowd already three-person deep is something most detest...but stay away from it and you long to do it just one more time - for there is a sense of camaraderie even while people compete to sit on the curving edge of a bench-seat which has already seated its maximum of three. And then there's the rare faint smile or nod of recognition to look forward to, though you have never exchanged a word with the Elphinstone lady or Churchgate teacher ( so named because she always gets down at that station).

Those who call Mumbai home spend the better part of their day and therefore in sum total, their lives travelling - to study, to work, to meet friends and family. That's how life in the city becomes a set of repetitive acts, performed with strangers every day, in a manner that leaves you just another black head that formed the thick ooze of humanity on the railway platform. 

In under a minute, that choking platform turns vacant, few stragglers hang around, the black dots dispersed. And from my perch on the foot over-bridge, the wait for the next train begins..I want to witness that sight again, I want to revel in that feeling that I have the leisure to stand and stare while Mumbai breathes around me. 

(Photographs by Gregor Thomeczek, 2011)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Life in the City - Poetry in an Urban Jungle

Chapter 2 - Migrant Musings

The sun sets over the Juhu Beach leaving the sky a riot of colours - from the strongest pinks to the most radiant saffrons...and amidst all that a globe of fire dispassionately sinks into the sea. The Sun does not care that it's another date ticked off the calendar of my life..He has a date with the other side of the earth..There are people waiting there to wake up, find a new purpose to their life on a new day...

This thought is a bookmarked that often comes to haunt every other night before sleep overtakes me. I remember the last time it visited clearly..

I was standing carefully by the very edge of the beach, pleased with myself for calculating just how much the tide will invade the land..this way the waters just kiss my feet and don't drench me uncomfortably. The sand that faithfully sticks to the folds of the toes is uncomfortable but there was a time when I craved it...when the cold, pebbled beachfront in Brighton bit into the tender flesh underfoot. The chill in the air and the twinges of pain running up my feet then had made me crave the warm sneaky sands of Juhu..

I look around and there are few on the beach that appear to be there like me, philosophising on life. Most are families out for an evening of fun on the beach - children happily turning into mud bunnies while their mothers watch on, resigned to the tricky day of laundry ahead. Others for whom the beach is a catching-up point, much the same way I think of a Costa coffee or the Cafe Coffee Day across from the beach. It is much cheaper and come to think of it, affords complete privacy...where else can you be just a dot on a sandy landscape?

I have new companions for the hour as I walk trailing footprints across the spongy sand - prostitutes and peddlers, delicately whispering their rates to foreigners as they brush by, football-crazy teens and couples in love, who can't find a more private spot in the crowded metropolis. But then in Mumbai, every day you find new companions,some turn familiar faces travelling the same weary path that you are while others just bob up and about at strange times in strange places. Sometimes they leave a whiff of their presence, mostly, this city just swallows them whole...

I close my eyes..and a new thought is gaining a life of its own - Is Mumbai a figment of my imagination? Have I created an ugly but genial, crowded but entirely private city in my head? If I blink a couple of times will the beach in front of me fold into a nice undulating rug that I can then stow in my bag and carry away?? Are the people that cross me imagined creatures, with life kissed into them only at the time of the hour of the day that they are scheduled to play a minor role in my personal drama?? Is there a big brass box stowed in someone's attic where they all retire to once their part is over?

Perhaps it is the smell of weed that I detect hanging in the air as I move further inland on the beach away from the waters...I'm lightheaded...but my hunt for poetry in an urban jungle continues...

( Photographs Courtesy: Gregor Thomeczek, 2011)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Life in the City - Maximum City, Maximum Independence

Chapter 1 - The Migration.

Mumbai has been the 'go-to' city of my life ever since I can remember. As a kid,a Malayali kid to be exact, Mumbai was at first the stopover airport on our annual trips to visit dad ( in the Gulf of course!). Kochi, my hometown did not have an international airport in the first two decades of my life. So any trip by flight had to be routed through Mumbai. That's how the Mumbai airport became the first dot on my map of Mumbai. Perhaps its a legacy of the number of touchdowns on the tarmac of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport that even today landing in Mumbai feels like homecoming (more than even the Kochi touchdown).

The second dot was perhaps the Juhu beach with its Pav Bhajiwallahs and the garish multicoloured gola stalls. However, the increasing number of dots denoting my increasing familiarity with the city was not the reason I ended up being a Mumbaikar.

Small town living naturally inspires dreamy minds to seek out the big bad city. A place where no one knows you and few care to find out. I guess it is an intrinsic need to see if you can live outside the protective cocoon of home - in a sense a declaration of independence or rather, adulthood. So when I first packed my bags for Pune to study, Mumbai became the natural progression for work. Somehow Delhi was the big, bad city in my mind - Mumbai was like the warm welcoming aunt who took you in and then let you be.

Personally, I think the Cs also were pretty favourable - Climate, Cuisine and Culture - vastly different but comfortingly similar. And Amma had, in that subtle and very practical tone of hers ingrained into me time and again that Delhi was too far - air tickets very expensive and train journeys home could take up the best part of any leave from work.

So there..Sometimes rebellions too become PG-rated. Moving out becomes your personal rebellion but the choice of city based on parents' approval becomes your deference to their wisdom. 

In the first heady years, the thrill of living in Mumbai was increased thousand-fold by the new-found independence to stay out late or return home any time, without seeking prior permission. The money in the purse that smelt of hardwork and not dole and most importantly, being treated like an adult without a chaperone around.

That is how Mumbai became the canvas of my life - the heroine of a long-love story - jilted a couple of times, but ever-faithful, ever welcoming. I sought other cities time and again...but returned, sometimes to lick wounds, other times out of choice not desperation.

Life in the City - Serialised

For a while now, I have been thinking about a change...change in style, format, layout..well those are merely cosmetic now, are they not? So now I think I have hit on an answer to get over the writer's stumble - calling it a block just seems more I say stumble..

Very often what we don't realise that writer's stumble emerges from the lack of anything new to say. Think about something interesting and it doesn't take over five minutes to have your thoughts translate logically from your head onto the screen - putting pen on paper has never been more obsolete.

Talking of which, I wonder if I'd even recognise my handwriting anymore? Except in those scrawls they call signatures, often shaky and completely out of character as they appear on credit card slips. And it's not just the loss of money they signify that makes it appear shaky. It is also that there is no clever art of penmanship there. A pen is just a handy tool to say IOU. I digress, as I always do...

So now the idea is to serialise life - not that everyday is adventurous..and unlike many twits that tweet about brushing their teeth or walking their dog, I'm not going to bore you with the mundane...But there is so much to living in a city...our interactions, our frustrations, private anxieties, petty peeves that I have begun to realise are pretty universal. Where I have a related photo, that too shall be added to the text. If not, I'll strive to leave it blank!

You might be wondering why I had to write a blog about writing a blog..well, call it practice of years - the curtain raiser is a must before any significant there...this is an announcement. Every day or every other day, I shall make this my private record and you shall be the fly on the wall in the life of a single, always ready-to-mingle girl out in the city!

If you find the ride exciting, join me and we shall discuss things threadbare! Nothing like a good debate to keep things exciting...Every post in the series, I'm thinking should be titled Life in the City. Otherwise how will it be a series? :)

Stay tuned,