To keep myself going, I visit aamchi Mumbai every month , squeezing some time out of my not-so-busy schedule, which obviously is not very difficult. Being unemployed as of now and given the frequency of my travel, I certainly can’t ask for kingfishers to fly me home and so I often settle for the bhartiya rail. 26/11 , 9 p.m. – I boarded the train from Hyderabad Deccan , and even at an average of 2visit/per month – my excitement remained intact .
Being a single-lady traveler, I always get a separate “women-only ” cell and though this ensures some comfort, the continuous yapping makes my journey troublesome. As a remedy, I was quick to put on my earphones and engross myself into the oshotimes ,I had just bought from the station .
It was hardly 10:15 p.m.; My inbox started overflowing with “where are u “, “are u ok” messages. I guess that the network had just sprung back to life. I wondered what they were for….only to know after sometime about some terror strike at Mumbai ! I felt uneasy but dint bother much, and was back to my business. To be frank after living through the 1992 riots, 1993 blasts and years of travel in those explosive-laden local trains - this wasn’t something new. Inevitable almost .
The next morning, things sounded worse .Usually I don’t encourage anyone to specially come and pick me up from the station, but this time my protests stood in vain. I reached my city. This city with millions looked strangely deserted. I was not used to this Mumbai .I am used to that Mumbai - where you can’t walk without hurting someone or getting yourself hurt , where getting in and getting off a train is a everyday battle - preceded by small rituals like tying a knot with the duppata around the waist or rolling up the sleeves of the shirt, and yes - taking that one deep deep breath before the plunge . Today I missed all of that.
On the TV I watched at the symbols of this city being murdered one by one. The Taj was a place where I had spent evenings- sometimes as a guest and sometimes working in its back areas wearing chef-coats and cravats as part of my HM curriculum. I remembered those nights with friends which were spent, after college at the marine drive looking at the expanse of the dark Arabian Sea bejeweled with the lights of this city. Night-outs with friends on the stairway of the British library - sipping tea , chatting and cherishing every moment …a time when Mumbai was Bombay , and it was as Bindaas as we were.
I spent much time at home , too beleaguered to venture out. But things moved on and they did because there wasn’t an option. I travelled to CST to shop for some junk jewellery from the colaba market . The stations and trains were again overflowing with people. Some may have lost their lives..but it was hard to notice the few missing amongst the thousands. The same rituals were repeated -people pushed , they fought for the “fourth” seat and the little kids who have been begging since years were again on duty with the all time favourite “pardesi-pardesi” on their lips , and their little fingers expertly manufacturing music from two lifeless pieces of flat stones.
But If I say Mumbai was back..I would be dishonest. As the train picked up speed , I felt something was amiss. It wasn’t the Mumbai I have lived in, which even after mishaps, limped back to being itself. People looked at burkha-clad women and any man with a beard with distrust . Any black bag on the steel rack above was looked with suspicion –and some exchanged glances over it .The fruit baskets covered with old sarees by the local bhaji wali (who were always trusted) – now were asked to be exposed by some passengers. People feared each other .Any rumour could have led to an stampede at that moment . I have never felt suffocated even in most packed compartments - it was an expertise built over the years. But this time , I felt my heart pounding so loud that I thought the girl standing next to me would hear it but as I looked around I saw and heard many such hearts. The undercurrent was obvious – though on the exterior we all stood there composed, busy with our mobiles and indifferent towards everything.
In spite of many cancellations on my things to do list, the dinner date with my friends was still on- in a place not so far from my home. We finished late, as always, (almost 1 pm) and my friends dropped me a little distance away from my house. As I walked back, at this hour - the city was alive and kicking . The aroma of fresh butter sliding and melting on the hot tava from the pav bhaji stalls stilled filled the air ,serving customers of all ages, religions and classes . Men and women took a stroll , in their night clothes . People slept peacefully on the cold foothpaths ...
I walked back …confident and casual. In a single day, my outlook in the same city was volatile , just as lives of millions around me.
The irony was I felt safe on the street at this dark hour , perhaps I wasn’t so only in its broad daylight…