Salaam Mumbai

‘Ee hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh Babua,’ (This is the city of Mumbai, my boy) I crooned to myself as I, along with my family, stepped out of Dadar railway station of Mumbai. That was in 2003 and I was in the city for the first time as we went to visit a relative there. Before that, the city was known to me in those days without internet through glimpses I had of it in Hindi movies, bioscope, postcards of its landmarks and images in newspapers and magazines.

On that visit, I was struck by the city’s skyscrapers, the dizzy heights of which filled me with awe and wonder. No other city in India has them in such heights and numbers! But then the city has sea fronts on its sides. Walking along the breezy Juhu beach and Marine drive relieved me of the dizziness. The atmosphere was relaxing and I promised myself a visit to these spots next time I am in Mumbai. 

Mumbai is a city of contrast. The opulence of the billionaires is as much in contrast to the poverty in the slums as the high-rises are to the depth of the Arabian sea. Pomp and splendour coexist with the stench and squalor. Asia’s biggest slum, Dharavy, are there as much as are the castles of industrialists, film stars and cricketer. 

But the city welcomes all with a friendly spirit. Ask a taxi driver where he is from. He would probably be from UP or Bihar. The city respects industry and enterprise as also talent in art. If anyone has them, Maya ki nagariya mein Badle jhatpat badle muqaddar ka lekh babuwa (In this city of wealth, writing on one’s destiny changes very quickly), irrespective of who they are and where they are from. Few cities in the world lift one’s destiny the way Mumbai does. There are so many instances of people rising from rags to riches.

The city was a beacon of hope for the educated youth looking for job opportunities. Later IT revolution created jobs in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai and took away much of sheen from Mumbai. But the city still remains a destination for jobs in manufacturing and service as all major industries are headquartered there. Many of my relatives and friends are well settled in the city with jobs, condos, cars and other comforts of life.

The city is overcrowded and space is at a premium. One could see how people squeeze themselves in small compartments, which is not quite living in wretched conditions. They may have willingly embraced this life and are used to it. And who knows some of them might well be living their Mumbai dreams, trying to make it big in some walks of life? We hear stories of people making their beginnings in railway station and footpaths and later becoming successful in music, film, fashion or modelling.

Despite the paucity of space, the citizens of Mumbai zealously protect its green zones and wildlife. Sanjay Gandhi National Park spreads out to a large part of the city and leopards often come into conflict with people living in adjoining areas. Still the support of citizens for the forest and wildlife remains undiminished! Recent movement of Mumbai citizens for protection of Arrey forest is a shining example of their commitment to environment.

I have been to Mumbai many times later for personal and official work. My admiration for the city only grew with those visits and with time watching the way the city responds to situations of celebrations as well as of distress. The city’s legendary resilience enables it to come back to normal life quickly even after very tragic incidents. I had a feel of it when I had to board a train from Mumbai at CST railway station barely a month after 26/11 terror attack.

Trains are the fastest mode of travel in the city. The southern tip where the Gateway of India, Marine Drive and the Taj Palace Hotel are located is relatively calm and less congested. It is the ideal place for tourists to stay and relax with the view of the sea and get refreshed by the breeze from the Arabian sea.

Very often it is only a one-day trip for me to Mumbai and I have to return by the evening flight. Look downward from the flight, the city looks resplendent with lights from streets and high-rise buildings. Surrounded by the sea, the city lights remain concentrated, increasing the brightness of the place at night. I wish that the city retains its virtues and remains bright like this forever. ‘Jai ho Bambai dham ki.’ (Glory to the city of Mumbai.)

When Two Crows Chat – Humour

The time is not right for the crows of Tali park to engage in any activity. It is noon and the sun is beating down very hard, making everyone look for a shade. The park has a lake and clumps of trees that shelter a small population of crows. Two friends, Peter and Paul, slake their thirst in the lake and fly to a Peepal tree. There they perch on one of its branches and strike up a conversation on everyday things of their concern and life in general.

Image credit : http://www.unsplash.com

PAUL: Hello Peter, what’s up? Looking very worried nowadays?

PETER: Can’t you see why I’m worried? My wife laid eggs a few days back.

PAUL: Congrats! But that should make you happy. What’s bothering you, dear?

PETER:  Idiot, cuckoos. They’re too smart. They’re making sorties around here. If I look the other way, they’ll drop their eggs on our nest and fly away. But I’m chasing them. Too clever…ah? I’m Peter. Don’t mess with me.

PAUL: It’s all nature and instinct, Peter. Don’t get so worked up. It’s how they’re made.

PETER: What bloody instinct? Can’t they have their own nest? Can’t they raise their chicks? It’s all naughtiness and shirking responsibility and nothing else.

PAUL:  Oh, I see…you have made some new friends! But what about humans – your best friends? You’re at peace with them now?

PETER:  What are you talking, Paul? They’re endangering our lives. They’re using masks and throwing them on roads, footpaths and dustbins. We have to go out and forage for food. Who knows, one day we’ll be infected with the virus and meet the same fate as theirs.

PAUL: They’re getting vaccinated. Why still they need to wear masks, I don’t understand.

PETER: Even otherwise they’re masked. How does it matter whether they wear it or not? Let Corona go. But they must wear masks forever.

PAUL: Don’t be so cynical, Peter. Not all of them are like that. A few of them are.

PETER: Paul, most of them are. They’ve so many pretensions. They look so generous, gentle, and kind to each other, but that’s only a mask. Actually, they are jealous inside and harm each other every now and then. They show off too much. Lies come out of their mouths like fountains. They change colours faster than chameleons do. I caw strongly in protest, but it makes no impact. I hate these humans.

photo courtesy : http://www.unsplash.com

(A bat comes flying in suddenly and goes past them.)

PETER: Oh, Paul, see the bat. Be careful! They’re the real culprits. They’re the carriers of the virus.

PAUL: You talk with half knowledge, Peter. The virus they carry and the virus that’s spreading the infections are not the same. 

PETER:  Don’t teach me about them. After all the virus they carry only has changed into the current form. My point is why they won’t have it. Do they take bath? Do they come in the sun? Then they poop, hanging upside down and make themselves dirty. If they don’t have the virus, tell me who’ll have it.

PAUL: Peter, don’t talk non-sense. They don’t poop upside down. They get themselves in position for that. Then they pollinate and help plants bear fruits. Look at their positive sides as well.

PETER: You always argue with me and side with others.

PAUL: Who’ll argue with you except a friend like me? But I’m not arguing just for the sake of it.  

(They hear a cuckoo call not far from where they’ve sat.)

PETER: You heard it? Very musical and humans die to hear this ‘koo-koo’, which heralds the spring. By looks also, they are beautiful. But I don’t see a species more exploitative than them. They raise their chicks in others’ home…just imagine. Now for a change, help me chase her away. Otherwise, she’ll do just what I fear. 

PAUL: If not for a change, at least for a sport, I’ll be with you today.

Peter and Paul fly in the direction from which the calls have come. A cuckoo whooshes from a nearby tree and is soon followed by them. They chase her up to the jungle at a distance and she disappears into it. Then carried by the momentum, the two friends fly even further beyond the jungle until they become silhouetted against the blue heaven.

A Walk for Talk and Snaps

I would do it invariably every morning whenever I go home to Maynaguri – be it a day in summer or winter or a day in the rainy season. It is a walk through the path that leads from my home to a nearby village, which takes just a little more than half an hour.

The pathway has on its both sides agricultural fields, ponds, clumps of bamboo, plantations of sal and teak, and hamlets draped in thick foliage of banana, betel vines and all kinds of trees.

Kash phool on the pathway

Nature assumes wide variety of forms and colour in different seasons, changing from lush green during the rains to golden in winter with paddy covering the fields. My passion for photography only pushes me to go along this path, looking for a scene or a moment to capture in my mobile phone camera.

The people living in the hamlets do not only know me but also have known my parents and grandparents. In villages, people know each other for generations. Now I live in Hyderabad and can visit home only once a year.

Thus, when I come across an acquaintance, they would naturally smile and ask, ‘Oh, you have come.’
‘Yes, yesterday,’ I would say.
‘For how many days?’
‘Seven days.’
‘Only seven days?’
‘You’re now an officer, doing an important job. You must be a busy man now.’
‘But you’re free,’ I would say. ‘You don’t need anyone’s permission to go anywhere.’
‘So how many more years will you be there?’
‘Still more than ten years.’
‘You’ll be old by then.’

I break into a conversation and ask about their well-being and then take leave. To be recognised on the road by people is a privilege I do not have in Hyderabad.

Again, I tramp and look for something special to feast my eyes on and capture in my camera. Water lilies flower in the pond after it gets filled with water after the rains. In the autumn just before Durga puja, Kash phool (Kans Grass) adorns the fields with their white chiffon like flowers. Bengalis have a deep emotional connect with Kash phool as it heralds the festive season. I look at the flowers for a while and judge the spot and angle for capturing them in my camera.

Fishing in the paddy fields

But then there would be a moment which I need to capture immediately, or else the moment would be gone and opportunity missed. In the rainy season, it rains incessantly all day in North Bengal, leaving brief interludes when it would be drizzling.

I go out with an umbrella. As rivers and ponds overflow, fish comes with the flood to the agricultural fields. In those interludes between spells of rains, people come out with nets and fishing rods to catch fish in the streams and the paddy fields with knee deep water. I quickly position myself and take snaps for my recollection of the visit later or a Facebook post for my friends to enjoy the beauty of life in my native place.

After a brief stay at home, I have to return to Hyderabad. I have to wait for a year or so for this pathway to appear in a new form. But what I see year after year and season after season go into my mind’s album, and all the talk I have with people and snaps I get from the walk become a part of my lasting memories.

In Memory

They went before their turn,
Taken by a wave,
By its ugly churn;
A parting never was from too far
In a grave or a funeral pyre;
The moment that was,
Dark and grim,
When life was eclipsed
And death reigned supreme.

It was not long before
They would
Hear the birds sing,
Like you and I,
With a sip in the morning.
They would
Roam about the garden,
Like bees,
With the hum of a lovely tune.

A grandpa wanted
To see a little more of light;
A mom had
To make her little ones bright;
Scaling the mountains
Was for what a son
Was through the grind;
Crossing the oceans
Was what a daughter had in mind.
Dream in their eyes
And the hope of a new dawn;
All gone
Unseen, unsung,
Only mourned in a distance.

This world, this earth,
This cradle of life;
It sustains;
Also it kills;
Unjust and just,
Unsafe and safe,
Ugly and beautiful
It has twists and turns
In its tale.
Its army was let loose,
They proved too tough to quell;
Mask, sanitizer
Could not save them
From this hell.
Doctors, nurses among them
Heroes of the time
Went down fighting this battle.

We feel their presence
In the songs they had sung
In the dance their feet had sprung
In the flowers they had helped bloom
In every little path
They had trodden
To make our lives sublime
We remember them
In the starry nights
In love,
In tears,
Wishing them back again.

Kindness of Fellow Passengers

The scheduled arrival of the train was at 23:50 and the departure at 00:10. That means the train would arrive at the station just before midnight and depart 20 minutes later when it was the start of the next day. In other words, if you are going to the station today, you will board the train tonight and your journey will start in the wee hours of tomorrow. And that is perfectly fine if your ticket is booked accordingly for tomorrow. But if your ticket is for tonight, or to be precise, with journey date of today, alas, your train has already left!

Train in a station – representative image

My train had left thus, and as if that were not enough, I boarded the next day’s train with a wrong ticket! But what happened thereafter was heart-warming for me.

That was in the summer of 2005 when I was on a trip to Nainital for a few days. Travelling from Hyderabad, I, along with my family, had a stopover at Lucknow on the way to the hill station. While departing from Lucknow, a traffic jam on the road delayed our arrival at the railway station, and we boarded the Howrah-Kathgodam Express just a minute and a half before departure without checking the reservation chart for our names.

As the train started, we proceeded to occupy our seats in the Sleeper Class carriage. I saw that two of my fellow passengers had already occupied the berths booked by me. As I asked them to vacate my berths, they showed me their tickets. To my surprise, I found that the seat numbers in their tickets were exactly the same as those of mine.

My mind went blank. It took me some time to realize my mistake – I booked my ticket for 22 June when I should have done it for the next day because my journey was in the early hours of 23 June.

The train picked up speed and the passengers began to settle in their seats. With my wife and two-years old son journeying along with me, I could not afford to get off the train at the next station. I got a little panicky. I showed my ticket to some of my co-passengers and asked whether I would be allowed to travel with that ticket. They said, ‘Aapke pas ticket hai na? Kyu nehi allow karega? (You’ve the ticket. Why won’t they allow you?)’

But the prospect of making a 10-hours long journey at night along with a kid, standing or sitting, filled me with anxiety. Sensing my distress, one of them assured me, ‘Please be seated. We’ll have some arrangements for you shortly.’

They were a large group of men and women travelling together by the train that night. Almost half an hour later, one of them called me over and mentioned two seat numbers for us. Two women of the group magnanimously vacated their berths and accommodated themselves elsewhere along with their children.

I cursed myself for not being careful enough about my itinerary and was getting ready to offer an explanation to the ticket examiner, pay a hefty fine or just be scolded by him. However, he did not come to check the tickets after midnight.

It is almost sixteen years since then and I have had my share of unanticipated troubles in the travels afterwards – my illness, a sudden call of strike by localites, vagaries of the weather, cancellation of train and all that. Those are, however, the hassles that come with travelling and I was prepared for them. But some troubles cannot be overcome without the help of others and one cannot be grateful enough when help comes from the strangers. In this context, this act of kindness by my fellow passengers sixteen years back still moves me. And it reaffirms my faith in the goodness of people and makes me go out into the world with confidence.

Dance of Rain

Monsoon has set in! The dark clouds are hovering over our heads, threatening more rains. It is usually after the summer months of heat and dust that rainy days start, bringing relief to the part of the earth we live in. However, it was a little different this year here at Hyderabad and also most other parts of the country. The summer was quite an extension of the spring, cool and pleasant, with disturbances in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian sea causing spells of showers, keeping the mercury down.

So after a very enjoyable summer, monsoon rains are here and are pouring with the rhyme and rhythm of their own. People caught in the middle of the road are scurrying for cover. The bird that perched on the branch of a tree seems to go into deep meditation, fluttering its wings from time to time to shed water from its feathers. I am reminded of the rainy days of my childhood.

Rains in my village

My childhood was spent in the Dooars region of West Bengal in the floodplains of the Himalayas. There the monsoon clouds hit the mountains, causing precipitation, and as a result, it pours profusely for two months and more. The rains would start in the evening and continue incessantly throughout the night. And then what a sight to behold in the morning! My village has lakes, ponds and also a river. The ponds would be filled to the brim! The cacophony of frogs would be heard all over! The rills would cut through the ground in front of my home! The river would suddenly swell up and the water would gush, forming a swirl!

I loved to frolic in the rains. Along with other children, I would go around the neighbours’ homes in our hamlet. The houses were made with slant tin roofs. Through the troughs of the roofs, water would pour in gushing torrents. We would stand just under them and bathe, holding our hands close to our chests.

After ponds were filled, on a sunny day, diving into the water and swimming was a way to release our energies. The water lilies would flower! They have long stems that extend from the bottom of the pond up to the surface of water. We would make garlands of the stems with the flowers at the bottom and wear them for some time before throwing them away.

In the afternoon when rain would let up, it was a great fun to play in the grounds that would be slippery after rains. We would play football, splashing water in the puddles. Trying to kick the ball but not quite making it and instead slipping and falling on the ground was perhaps the ultimate game and had no parallel!

Pond with water lily

The rivers would overflow and the fish would come to the ponds and agricultural fields. To catch fish with fishing rods required patience what with sitting in a corner for a long time, making the baits and waiting for the right moment to lift the rod. Far easier was to place a basket of bamboo with an opening, through which the fish would only enter and not come out, against the flow of water in a channel in the evening and collect your prized catch in the morning. The fish would always flow with the current.

School hours used to be cut short because of rains. The teacher would come to the class and do roll call. And notice would come also immediately and we knew what it was for. The matron would clang the bell, ‘dhong dhong’ twice and then ‘dhong dhong…dhong’ in close succession, sending music to our ears.

Today life has brought me to the city of Hyderbad. An average rainfall here causes water-logging in the streets, traffic jams and all sorts of things. Sometimes I get caught in the rains while driving my car or scooty. I enjoy the showers by making a detour on the roads. I often get drenched. Then I fondly remember the dance of rain in my childhood.

Golconda Fort – A Travel in Time

Surreal! That unmistakable feeling overwhelms me every time I visit the Golconda Fort – and it is not just once or twice that I have been to this historical place at Hyderabad. Outings on holidays or sight-seeing with a relative have occasioned these visits quite often and I have never felt less enthusiastic about it.

The fort was once the stronghold of Qutb Sahi Dynasty. Imagining the regal presence of the Sultans in it is a travel in time and I get transported five centuries back. But soon I stumble upon the relics of stone and I am knocked down to the present!

Inside Golconda Fort (photo credit : Arief)

It was first built as a mud fort by Kakatiyas dynasty of Warangal. Its control passed on the Bahmani dynasty of Karnataka in 1363. The commander of that dynasty, Sultan Quli Qutub Shah, declared independence in 1518 and established Qutub Shahi dynasty. He developed the fort and the township inside it with rocks naturally found in the region.

As I drive into the fort, I can see a comprehensive defence strategy at work in every aspect of its build. The S-shaped gateway one km away from the fort ensured no free entry of the enemy into the precinct without resistance from sentinels hidden in its bends.

The high fortified walls made of granite have defied the vagaries of time and stood strong. Rocks were carved into blocks to build those impregnable walls. I wonder how many people worked for how many years to build those walls and how many elephants might have been employed to move those rocks.

The gate Balahisar opens to the township inside the fort, which looks quite gigantic. It had reservoirs and water supply system that pumped water to the top of the fort where Sultans lived.

The Sultans needed to always beware of the enemy and conspirators, so they had to keep their eyes and ears open all the times. The acoustics engineering to capture the sound was mind boggling. The sound at the portico just after the entrance to the fort called clapping portico could reach the top of the fort!

Relics of the fort (photo credit : Arief)

And warfare in the days of the Sultans meant pitched battles in large fields with guns and cannons, and with soldiers attacking the enemy riding horses and carrying swords, rapiers and all sorts of hand weapons. An ambush or a guerrilla attack was also used to take the enemy by surprise. The fort served as the reserve for the weaponry and was also where the kings lived with his consorts, descendants and all trusted lieutenants.

How the world has changed in the last 500 years! Modern warfare involves the use of missiles or fighter jets unlike that in the past and that would make such known reserve of weapons and palace of the kings the prime targets of airstrikes.

The once impregnable Golconda is now in ruins with only the relics remaining to tell the story of its glorious past. Canons fell silent long back and now lie abandoned! And the fort so painstakingly built is now home to nocturnal creatures and is at the mercy of current dispensation for preservation. Valour, power, prestige or empire – all are transitory. Everything succumbs to the all-consuming demon of our existence…TIME.

Welcoming the Rains

A whoosh of wind,
Icy, fresh;
Blows away the blind
And washes my face.

A smell of soil,
Earthy, soft,
Wafts into my nostril
And makes me glide aloft.

I go out on a high
And behold the sight.
Thunder rumbles in the sky,
And plays sound and light.

A drizzle falls in streaks,
I hear its strain.
Nobly, gracefully,
Here comes the rain!

A Horrific Bus Robbery

The many bus journeys I made during my college days for going home were largely safe and incident free. So, I hardly had any foreboding of something horrific happening to me while on a trip home on a night of winter in 2002. I studied engineering at Bengal Engineering College at Shibpore, Howrah, from where I used to go to Esplanade to board a bus to Siliguri in the evening. A 14-hours journey up to Siliguri and beyond would then take me to my hometown, Maynaguri, by the next morning.

Then as a college student, it was usually during summer and puja vacations that I used to go home. But this time, a few unexpected holidays in December made me homeward bound. As usual, I boarded a bus to Siliguri at Esplande bus stand. I still vividly remember that it was a cold night, making the passengers in the Volvo Bus sit in their seats, wrapped in warm clothes. The bus made a pit-stop at Krishnanagar, 100 km away from Kolkata, where we had dinner, and then left for the destination. I closed my eyelids, but the glare of headlights of the buses coming from the opposite direction fell into my eyes now and again, keeping me awake. I tossed and turned in my seat for some time and eventually drifted off to sleep.

It was about two o’clock. I was suddenly jolted out of my sleep! Some men were beating at the bus and shouting, ‘Grab them, hit them.’ Before I could make out anything, three or four of them, their faces covered with clothes, barged in to the bus through the door in the front, brandishing knives and pistols. The driver and conductors rushed to the back, fearing for their safety! I realized that the men were dacoits out to rob us of our belongings. They started lifting the bags and suitcases stowed in the shelves above the passengers’ seats. A man in the front row tried to prevent a dacoit from taking away the suitcases. What the robber did immediately still sends shivers down my spine! He swung his knife, nicking the man’s chin, thus making his intentions clear!

The robbers shouted in Hindi, ‘Kagaz Nikal (bring out your notes).’ Then they went about extorting money from the passengers. Seated by the window in one of the middle rows, I kept a bag in the aisle. I lifted it and stowed it below the seat in front of me. And as they came in, I brought out two hundred-rupee notes from my wallet and stretched my hand with the money towards them, apprehensive about their being satisfied with the offer. But to my relief, one of them collected it and hurried towards the back rows. They did not ask for more!

The robbers went about terrorizing passengers with knives and pistols and extorting money. But all of a sudden, a whistle was heard! A train was coming through the track that ran parallel to the bus route. The robbers seemed very worried! They screamed, ‘Train! Train!’ and rushed to the door! All of them got off the bus in a jiffy and went away as the train whizzed past us. The passengers in the bus heaved sighs of relief!

Our bus went to a police station near Farakka to register an FIR. And after registering the FIR, which took almost three hours, we left for Siliguri. It was in the evening that day as opposed to the morning usually that I reached home. The robbers were armed with knives and pistols, and the robbery happened all of a sudden when the passengers were asleep. But the train came to our rescue! What frightened them, I still do not know. Did they fear that the train would stop and people would go after them? Maybe they were afraid. But thank God the train came to our rescue at the right time that night!

A Bachelor

Five-days old stubble,
A heap of rubble,
He doesn’t care to trim;
He has no desire to be posh and prim.

With all things he plays shuttle;
His room is a jigsaw puzzle.

Clothes tucked in bookshelves
And computer on floor,
Books strewn in wardrobes
And kitchenware in store.

Mosquito net strung all the time
Over his bed,
He has made his life sublime
Without any sweat.

He never stays put with patience,
Floating always is his existence.
Busy without business,
People call him a bohemian par excellence.

Parents like to see him marry,
But it doesn’t seem to be his worry.
They pray for him to find his partner,
But Cupid simply doesn’t seem to care.

Everything so bizarre,
Wonder
Who is this boulevardier?
He is a bachelor,
Is a bachelor,
Is a bachelor.