A Working Sunday in the City
This was written on a Sunday evening in early 2005
It was Sunday. A working Sunday. The sort that one is supposed to hate.
I don’t remember how I felt that morning when I woke up. I began my day by making myself some coffee. My coffee is a convenient concoction - Instant coffee lured into the cup from an ancient bottle which has seen everything from black pepper to sugar in its lifetime, without using a spoon, and sugar from the sugar bottle, which always seems to be nearly empty, with some hot milk poured into this heady mix. The hotter the better, for two reasons: The first being that one doesn’t then have to stir the mix too much, to get everything to dissolve in the milk (I’m assuming it dissolves, I am not really sure about the exact chemical event), and the second being that the really hot, and therefore undrinkable coffee, gives me an excuse to prolong my attention on the sports page (and occasionally the center page editorial, which isn’t always about matters of heart stopping national importance).
The bath followed. I still don’t remember how I felt that morning, but it can’t have been bad, because I remembered to take my towel into the bathroom, and also decided that I should shave. It was a meticulous, methodical bath as far as baths go. So all in all, I guess I wasn’t all that unhappy with my lot in life, even if it was a working Sunday.
Work that Sunday was going to be long, hectic and eventful, what with 3 firms sitting in the same office and working on the same project! It had been that way for the whole week gone by, and was going to be the same for the next seven days as well.
I left the house and walked to the bus stop, passing my friend who ran the illegal newspaper stall on the road. I said my usual hellos, and fleetingly remembered the times when I'd bought a newspaper there, so that I would have the required change on the bus. The conductors on the bus never seem to have change for you on the one day when you hand them a tenner for a three and a half rupee fare. Bitter experience had taught me to buy the newspaper, or just ask my friend for change for a tenner than to risk the wrath of the bus conductor and his paper money. Today however, there was no trouble. I found a two-rupee coin in my trouser pocket, a one rupee coin near my key (which is never ever in the same place each day, but yet, never ever seems to get misplaced), and fifty paise on the television. A little thing, but it foretold good tidings for rest of the day.
I took the first bus that came my way, and stood as usual by the rear door (something that one is not supposed to do). The conductor however didn’t seem to mind, and so I got off as usual when the bus slows on the curve as it approaches the traffic light near the railway station. There is a wonderful bump in the road, which has seen tremendous repair efforts over the years, and yet has remained my steadfast ally in optimizing my journey time. I got off the bus as it slowed to move across the traffic light and ran across the road as though I owned it (also one of my daily habits, works every time as you can see). It caused no panic amongst the understanding Sunday morning traffic and I was on my way to the railway station.
This isn’t the real way to the railway station. Its just a convenient public short cut, which passes along a building full of industrial works which range from metal works with lathes and enormous drill machines, which smell of cutting oil, to a grinding and packaging facility for spices, which smells of spices (obviously). The whole route is a journey through an industrial smell, where individual products seem to try desperately hard to emerge from the collective factory odour.
So as I was saying, this is an illegal route to the railway station. After the encounter with the odours from the completely legal, respectable industrial area, one encounters the partly demolished railway boundary wall. This hole in the wall is a given, and numerous efforts of building and breaking down this wall have occurred in my lifetime. The stakes are high for all parties concerned – the industrial estate, which owns the land along this part of the railway wall, the railway, which owns the land on the other side of the wall, and the commuter, who’s journey to the station is cut by half due to this hole in the wall. By all evidence, the commuters have won, in spite of being the only party in the wrong in the legal sense for all of the years that this conflict has simmered (I don’t ever recall it raging to a boil). The railway seems to have decided to build a new Foot Over Bridge (FOB in railway parlance) to commemorate the existence of this hole in the wall. They will tell you that they’re doing it to stop people from crossing the solitary railway track that comes in the way of the commuter and his platform, but take it from me, they’re doing it because they’ve been compelled to see good sense by the persistent vandalism of the middle class commuter.
I was looking forward to my journey to the office that day. It was Sunday, and so I was pretty much guaranteed my favourite position at the door, in the compartment next to the southern ladies first class on the nine coach slow train of the central railway running between sundry locations and the ancient Victoria Terminus (variously known as Bori Bunder, Carnac Bunder, and more lately, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). Before you start getting ideas about my choice of compartment, let me assure you that pure logic can explain my choice of compartment. If you saw the popularity of the local trains in my city, you would be proud of my analytical approach to railway travel.
It is my contention, that the northern end of the doorway of the general compartment right next to the ladies first class compartment, in the local train, is the easiest and most convenient place to get into in the suburban railway train. Unless some people decide that they’re going to transgress the boundaries of gentlemanly decency and wait on the other side of the ladies compartment, capture my coveted place before the train is anywhere close to coming to a halt, and engage in vulgar plagiarism of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle hero, my idea works. As you can see, it’s a great theoretical proposition, because it fails in certain exceptional circumstances, but works in most other situations.
The premise is in two parts. The first part is about establishing the choice of the compartment and the second part is about the position of choice within that compartment. The usage of the word “within” here is debatable, as you will see when you study my proposition in depth, but since I am not going to print my proposition here, it will have to be your imagination or experience which helps you question the usage of the word “within” in that first sentence.
The throng of men and women waiting impatiently for their daily train to work was replaced by families that Sunday. This is probably the case on most Sundays, when “discretionary trips” form the majority of the suburban rail journeys. (As you can see, some of the transportation and urban planning jargon is beginning to rub off on me). Children and their parents on a weekend outing far outnumbered individual travelers, and changed the dynamics of train travel. I wondered what the children thought about the railway journey. The train wasn’t particularly attractive or colourful. Metal sheets, wooden benches and worn out handle bars dominated the interiors of the train, along with the advertising (the type which is seen only in railway trains and nowhere else!) can’t be that much fun, but I have never seen a listless child in a railway train yet. Children are either rushing to the nearest window, or making some pertinent point in their most persuasively vocal way. They usually get their way as well! Children have a inimitable style about them. They are never out of place anywhere.
Presently my attention was drawn to a couple of ladies and their brood of little kids – babes in arms, toddlers, and the some older ones. They seemed to be at home on the platform. They came and sat on one of the benches, which the railway department places on the platform, with a view of earning some minor advertising revenue and creating a major hindrance to the traveling hordes on working mornings and evenings. The children were milling around the bench. A couple of the younger ones placed a cloth on the platform, and began their game with stones. It was a simple game, and it caught my attention. I wanted to try and understand what they were playing. They would play along taking turns in throwing some stones on to the cloth. They had evidently agreed on a way of keeping score. I was just beginning to follow the score, when the two ladies got up from their benches and walked towards their kids. I looked up to see whether there was a train approaching the platform. There wasn’t. Instead it was one of those railway cops, waving his baton and sternly making his case, telling the ladies to get off his property, and on to the next train. The two families were on the platform now. Squatting in a circle, having their war conference, which quickly seemed peter out into leisurely gossip. The children resumed their game. The railway cop had caused the wandering kids to run towards their respective mothers in alarm. Peace returned with the passage of time, and my attention now wandered from the children’s game, to the railway indicator, which, ever the impostor, claimed that 9.16 was still expected. My Citizen quartz knew better. 9.16 had come and gone while the railway cop was defending his property. With nothing better to do, I went back to the children’s game, which now had an audience other than me. Two other kids from the brood had joined in, probably in line with their family allegiances.
Presently, the train was approaching the platform. Evidently, it was almost 9.16. I, along with most of the passengers on the platform turned my attention to the train. Children were rounded up, bags adjusted and strategies finalized. My strategy was the same as usual. Approach the door from the north, wait for everyone else to get in, and then, calmly place your foot in the door just before (or sometimes just after) the train resumes its journey. I can vouch that it is a method which works every time.
Just as I was waiting patiently for everyone to implement their varied strategies for boarding the train (these ranged from the militant to the civilized) the peace was shattered by the crack of a baton and a piercing scream of one of the children. I turned around to see the ladies get up with a start. The children panicked and the littlest ones started crying. The railway cop had returned, and this time, he seemed to have decided against the frontal assault. He had apparently sneaked up on the ladies discussion from behind and cracked his baton on the empty metal seat (now you see why the railways have hollow metal seats on platforms). The ladies and the children bundled themselves into one of the general carriages. The children’s game, needless to say, had been disrupted in all the commotion. While the children’s attention was on the cop and his threats, a few of the passengers walked all over the children’s cloth. They probably didn’t notice the cloth, what with other exciting things on view, such as the train, the first class ladies compartment, and the people on the platform. One little girl finally turned, and before entering her railway compartment, quickly gathered up the cloth, and neatly folded it before taking it with her and disappearing into the darkness of the Sunday morning crowd.
All in all, it was a success. I had made it to a relatively empty compartment of the 9.16 slow train to the Victoria Terminus and even made it to my choice location on the train. However, since it was Sunday, and the usual ground condition of the week day rush hour did not apply, whether my position of choice, was in fact a position of choice, is open to debate. However, being a creature of habit, I began my forty three minute journey to the southern end of the city happily perched on my favoured compartment doorway next to the ladies first class compartment. The railway cop had his way and had successfully defended his property. The platform dwellers with the dirty feet had found somebody to feast their hungry eyes on, and the two families were on their way, continuing their journey from one home to the next.
I was looking forward to a quiet journey to the Victoria Terminus. There was no platform on my side of the train until Vidyavihar, which is one of the littlest stations on the network. Kurla, which isn’t one of the little stations at all, followed Vidyavihar. Kurla is one of the busiest stations in India. By my calculation, it handles 37 trains an hour, in its busiest 60 minute period, and deals with trains for 22 out of 24 hours in the day. The station manager at Kurla sits right in the middle of the station, cut off from the world, at the end of one of the island platforms, and his cabin shakes violently every time a train passes by (you can imagine the peak hour). I have been in his cabin, and I marveled at the man’s nonchalant disregard for the shattering enormity of the twelve-coach monster, replete with about four thousand people in a tearing hurry. Then came Sion (which is English translation for Shiv apparently, which is the actual name of the station. The railways as you can see, are a law unto themselves), which doesn’t bother me at all, because the platform falls on the other side. This was followed by the civilized suburb of Matunga, where civilized numbers of civilized people get in and out of the train, except around the time when college classes commence and end. Dadar, a station, which is so huge, that it is clearly visible from both Matunga as well as Parel, followed this. In fact, I have heard claims that such is the domination of Dadar on the average commuter's consciousness that people prepare for their daily pilgrimage from as far away as Vikhroli or Ghatkopar! Thankfully, I was able to ignore Dadar as well, since there too, the platform is on the other side. Parel is an underrated railway station, with a footbridge at one end only. It is also one of the two stations on the line, where the train never seems to stop long enough for everyone who wants to get off the train. The last few stragglers, seeking to emerge from the far reaches of the compartment, more often than not, have to alight from a moving train. Whoever wants to get on the train at Parel, needs to be plainly lucky to be able to do so. The other station where the train seems to perpetually show the same undue haste is Masjid Bunder (which literally translated means Mosque Port, a startlingly original effort, given that the area has a predominantly Muslim population, more than one mosque, and is also close to the docks). Chinchpokli, Currey Road and the haughty Byculla station followed in quick succession. Sandhurst Road comes along next. This is a peculiar station, for more than one reason. It shows beginnings of multi-storied ambition, and is named after a man, whose name wasn’t meant to be pronounced by the Indian tongue. Victoria Terminus was almost upon me, with only Masjid Bunder in between.
I got off the train at the Victoria Terminus, and for the umpteenth time, marveled at the magnificent industrial shed, which covered all 7 platforms. I would have marveled at the Grade I heritage headquarters building of the Central Railway too, but you can’t really see it from the platform. I joined the throng of passengers on the concourse at the southern end of the station. Today it was just a haphazard collection of individuals and families in all shapes and sizes, looking in many different directions, some with Sunday excitement, others with weekday purpose. The only people, who didn’t seem to have figured out the difference between the weekday and the Sunday, were the Ticket Checkers, some resplendent in the black coats, others, not so resplendent in their diabolical plain clothes avatar. Even if one is a perfectly legal traveler, it is impossible to not get drawn to these solitary individuals, who always stand facing the wrong way, looking deep into the multitude, seeking out offenders with their trained eye.
I used the subway as usual, and wondered which of the little TV clips would keep me company as I made my way to the other end towards the Capitol cinema, and thence to the Azad Maidan. You see, they’ve installed these TV screens through out the subway, and it is hard to miss the public messages, interspersed with the infinitely more entertaining advertisements. It’s usually a choice between a glamorous Marathi film actress (who I am reliably informed, has also done a few bollywood potboilers) explaining the virtues of separating wet and dry garbage, complete with illustrated examples of both dry and wet garbage; a famous bollywood star telling everyone how wonderful Bombay is, and how we should all keep it clean; a delightful advertisement of a detergent soap; and a not so delightful advertisement of a clothing store, where a ridiculously beautiful customer tries on an unbelievable number of clothes in the store and dances in each of the outfits to music switched on by the store salesmen, to the point where she draws applause from the salesmen. For some reason, the quality of the sound in the advertisements is superior. I passed all the usual stores, selling everything from Bhelpuri, to lottery tickets, to shirts and trousers, to holiday packages, all in the subway. All of them were already up and running, and I suddenly realized that it was already past 10 am in the morning. I hurried along to the Azad Maidan, ignoring the patient men and women handing out pamphlets and cards at the subway landing. Children in their Boy Scout uniforms regulating the pedestrian traffic near the school were absent today, since it was a Sunday. I noticed a sign for a public meeting scheduled for later in the evening in the school assembly hall written boldy on the blackboard at the entrance.
I turned into Azad Maidan, and walked through all the cricket at the Bombay Gymkhana ground to my left and the various club pitches to my right. From schoolboys to office teams, everyone seemed to be engaged in pitched battle, in their most earnest whites. Maidan cricket is an exciting sight, and I always enjoy the walk through Azad Maidan. I have often wondered how nobody ever seems to get hit in the jumble of pitches and fielders. Mid On for one game often finds himself next to first slip or Cover Point from another game. Add thousands of passers by to this, and you’d think you had a surefire formula for somebody or the other being constantly injured by the stray cricket ball. Yet, in all my years of using this way, I have never seen a passer by being hit by a cricket ball. I have seen a fielder being hit by a ball from another match, but never a passer by. I guess God approves of cricket.
I crossed the original Mahatma Gandhi Road of Bombay (also known as Fashion Street!) for the short walk past the Cross Maidan and onto Churchgate. As I was walking past Cross Maidan, the familiar gait of one of the batsmen playing in the match nearest to my way caught my eye. I stopped to check who he was. I watched him face up to an off spinner. He left one ball outside off stump, watching it carefully into the wicketkeeper’s gloves. I looked around to see what field had been set for him. It seemed well spread out, with a solitary slip and a sweeper square on the off side. The next ball was driven imperiously to man on the square cover boundary in the classical elegant right-hander's way with bended back leg, the weight transferred beautifully onto the front foot, and an easy graceful follow thru. A quiet single ensued.
By now I was sure. It was Wasim Jaffer. Wasim Jaffer played Test cricket for India in 2002, and is one of the premier opening batsmen in the country. He’s the mainstay of the Mumbai batting, and I was watching him bat in the local Purshottam Shield game along with another upcoming Bombay batsman. I watched the whole over. Jaffer’s partner essayed a cover drive, just as Jaffer had, against the break, out into the offside, but he miscued it and it went to cover point. The over ended, and I dragged myself away to my office, but not before confirming that it was a Purshottam Shield game, and that it would be over that day.
That was also when I decided that I would have to write about that morning. I haven’t been able to understand why. I have seen cricketers playing on the maidans before, Test cricketers, first class cricketers, even promising talented school boys whom I have identified from newspaper articles which carry their exploits and their photographs. I have seen beggars before, and I have been traveling on the train for the past eight years.
It was a story that i had to tell.
My story, of my city.
A Working Sunday in the City
- » Published on September 08, 2007
- » Type: Opinion
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