Monday, September 8, 2008

Pride Lost

There are certain things that you are proud of. This ‘thing(s)’ can be anything. They could be something materialistic, something achieved, something gained, something unique or something fought for. But the point that I am trying to make is that this pride is pretty much unshakeable. The mere mention of it makes you beam with pride, and automatically, as if on cue, your chest swells up and your head arcs up with pride and admiration. Also, you turn totally irrational and illogical in trying to prove any person wrong that maligns it.

Now, most of you are aware of how proud I am of my city. By my city, I mean Bombay. Irrespective of the bad roads, bad climate, incessant rains, massive traffic jams, lack of personal space, crumbling infrastructure, and other such problems that are weighing down Bombay, I am really very proud of the city. I take pride in the famed resilience (though, I have changed my stand on it now. I feel this resilience is quite idiotic, and the people responsible should be taken to task instead of suffering silently), the food, the crowds, the sea-fronts, the night-life (I am not in touch with this for quite some time, but I hear that it is, as usual, rocking), the bambaiyaa lingo, rude manner of talking, the helping nature of people, the film industry, and many other things that are associated with it. I can rave on and on about them. Out of all the things that I am full of pride for about Bombay, the one that tops the list is the transportation. There are many modes available, and though I am proud of the trains and buses as well, I am a tad bit partial about the taxis and autos.

I have been put through many harrowing experiences with taxis and especially autos in other cities, and have also heard and read about them from people from various cities all over India. But, I have never come across anyone who has had a horrible experience in Bombay. In Bangalore, the auto-walla makes you feel like he is making a big favour on you by taking you to your destination, and hence, he has every right to over charge you, even though his meter is already rigged to overcharge you. Ditto is the case in Pune. The biggest problem in Pune is to actually find an auto willing to take you to your destination. The difficulty is equal to the difficulty in finding vegetarian cuisine in China, if not more. Recently, in Pune, there have been many cases of arguments with auto-drivers ending with the passengers in hospital. Hitch-hiking is a concept alien to Bombay. It is as alien to any Bombayite as an original movie idea is to Bollywood. I learnt the distinct and crucial use of the thumb in Pune. In Bombay, all you need to do is come to the shoulder of the road, and lift your arm perpendicular your body. Within seconds, milliseconds sometimes, you will have many autos screeching to a halt, thereby causing vehicle behind them to veer dangerously and colourful expletives to fly. Seldom do you get an auto-walla who refuses to take you to your destination. And the refusal is done with such grief, that you too feel sorry for causing him so much sorrow. Taking an auto ride with fixed fares is another unfamiliar concept in Bombay. If an auto is taken with fixed fare, then the fare would be less than the average meter fare for that destination, and that too, over a long distance ride only. Overcharging is another demon that we Bombayites do not worry about, and night fare is also 1/4th extra of the meter fare, and the auto/taxis adhere to these rules strictly.

But, we are not here to discuss the righteousness of the taxis/autos of Bombay. No sir, we are here to talk about how I have lost pride in them recently. While coming back from my last out-station trip, I required a cab to take me to my house from the station. All the cabbies and autos outside Bandra Terminus refused to come to my area on meter fare. They had all come to an agreement by which they had fixed the fare to a particular area, and refused to accept anything below that price. And just like in movies, there was not a single cop in sight when one was needed. The pride in me was brutally murdered, and after the shock and trauma subsided, I brokered a deal with one of the cabbie, and got home. But, all through the way, my head was hung with shame.

During my stint in Bangalore, a bad auto experience which got me unnerved, resulted in the below conversation in my head, or something on these lines.

*BM - Bangalore Mayor.
*MM - Mumbai Mayor.
BM: How are you? How is your city?
MM: I am fine. The rains had disrupted the city yesterday, but we are getting along.
BM: Things seem as usual there then. I have called you regarding a problem here.
MM: Tell me, I am all ears.
BM: There is a new type of terror which has taken over my city. This terror has been a cause of concern for quite some time, and matters have now gone out of my hands.
MM: Anything that I can help you with?
BM: Actually, it’s only YOU who can help me. Can you send me a dozen of your auto and cab drivers to Bangalore to tackle the growing menace of the revolutionaries here? The city is in their iron grip, and causing terrors in the hearts and pockets of people.
MM: Hah, such a problem!! Don’t worry; I will dispatch two dozens of each right away. They will have rid your city of the menace within no time, and restore transportation in no time. They were quite effective in other cities too.
BM: Thank you. Here’s my gratitude for your help; 1000MW of power.
MM: Thank you.

MM hangs the phone and immediately picks up the red phone which is a hotline to auto and taxi union offices. They, in turn, pick out the best two dozen auto and taxi drivers and brief them about the mission on hand, and dispatch them in an aircraft to Bangalore immediately. And within some years the Mayor of Bombay becomes the Chief Minister of for overcoming the power problem in the state. Everyone is happy.

Now, this conversation will never take place, not even in my head. Because, the pride is lost; it has died a painful harrowing death. Please bear two minutes of silence for it.

P.S: Notice how I refrain from using Mumbai in place of Bombay. I guess am still stuck to the old name.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Thousand miles

Though the title is analogous to something deep and meaningful, be rest assured this is far from it. This post is actually a travelogue of the trip which I took over the past long weekend. And for the title, well, I travelled a little more than 1600 kilometres, but a post title as ‘1600 kilometres’ seemed senseless to me. So I converted the kilometres to miles and arrived at this title. Now you see the logic in it.

Day 1:
The journey began on Thursday afternoon from Pune to Mumbai. This being the last working day before the long weekend, everyone was geared up for some or the other location to hit. After all, this was the first chance of a holiday since May Day. I should have anticipated the crowd and left earlier than I actually did. It took me a full 90 minutes to get a vehicle to take me to Mumbai. Not that there was a dearth of transportation, but the presence of touts at the rendezvous point had sky rocketed the prices for any vehicle other than the state transport buses, which were already full. With due credit to NWKSTRC, I made it just in time to home to throw out the dirty laundry from Pune, pack some clothes, put on a fresh pair, shove some food into my growling stomach, and rush to Dadar to catch the train for Ahmedabad. The train journey was fine, except that it was late by half an hour and a toddler in my compartment took ill and bawled through the night, automatically vetoing everyone’s sleep. Next day morning, I overheard someone say that the kid’s mom was a ‘Jeans Waali Mummy’, and hence the all-night bawling. Quite an expression, I say.

Day 2:
Reached Ahmedabad by 7 AM, and boarded the cab which was booked for taking us around. Within 10 minutes of disembarking the train, we were off to Himmatnagar, a small town, some 2 hours away from Ahmedabad. A special mention must be made here of the good conditions of the highways of the state. There was a heavy downpour in the state some days back, but even then, the roads were in excellent conditions. I have driven and/or navigated in six-seven states of India, and feel that it is relatively safer to drive on Gujarat highways. I had a discussion with my driver too on this, partly to keep myself and the driver awake and active. I have had quite a few experiences of drowsy drivers on my regular trips from Pune, that I lose my sleep, by default, whenever I am in any vehicle smaller than a bus.
By 9.30 AM, we reached my uncle’s village. It is a small, sleepy village, nothing more than a speck on the state-map. After some breakfast along with a couple of hours of rest, we were off to the local temple. Once we were back from the temple, we had our lunch. The taste of the food was different than the food I usually have. In fact, it was different than what I have at home too. A discussion was promptly started on this, and the general consensus was that ‘Everything tastes different in village, and tastes better too’. Later, we were off to Mahudi. The best thing about this place is the offering to the Lord. It’s a sweet delicacy, which is to be completely consumed in the temple premises itself, post-offering. When I was a kid, I used to insist going to this place for this sole reason only. The next location on the agenda was Aaglod. They have a very beautiful temple here and the peace and serenity is something for which people often go to the Himalayas, or so I felt.
The next place to visit was the highlight of the Day-2. It was the visit to the farm. This farm belongs to the uncle at whose house we were put up. This uncle is a tax professional from Mumbai, and farming is one of his hobbies. Actually what started out as a wish-fulfilment has become a hobby for him and it also gets him out of the hustle-bustle of Mumbai for at least a week, every month. His father had a dream of having a mango farm of their own, and in order to fulfil this wish the farm being discussed was developed.
No matter how many times I visit this farm, it never ceases to amaze me. On one side, you have the sprawling mango trees, with raw mangoes hanging on the branches by the dozens, and on the other side you have the egg-plants, lady-fingers, lemons, oranges, sweet-limes, custard-apples, papayas, Indian gooseberries, bitter-gourds, spiky-gourds, fennel, bamboos, etc, etc. I was born and brought up in Mumbai, and seeing all such wonders from nature in their natural form simply amazes me. Earlier, I used to think that after the initial visits, the amazement might wear off, but no, I still stare at nature’s abundance with wonder. After taking a walk around the whole farm, I took out a char-pai, and spread myself on it. Believe me when I say this, nothing relaxes you more than a quick nap on the char-pai, under the shade of trees, in the middle of a big farm, with a gentle breeze blowing along with the occasional cry of peacocks and mynas.
After the walk back from the farm to the house, we had a quite dinner, and were off to sleep by 10 PM. The surprising thing here is that I dozed off to glory at 10 PM. I never get sleep that early.

Day 3:
Day 3 began with the gentle cry of the peacocks, which had entered the neighbour’s courtyard. Another surprise that hit me here is that no one in particular seemed to be bothered about the peacocks. Peacocks are part of this village, as much as stray dogs and mosquitoes are part of big cities.
After a sumptuous breakfast, we hit the roads for our next destination, Ambaji. It is a two hour drive from Himmatnagar, with lush, green farms on either side of the roads. It looked like the farms in Punjab shown in Hindi films, albeit the crop was different. Enroute, we made a stop at Posina. This place too has a temple. The problem here is that Posina is a very remote tribal village, and today being Poornima, it was day of festivities for the local-folk. So, the entire village had gathered at the centre of the village, dressed in their traditional best. How I wish I had a camera in my hand at that time, and I would have got a picture for you. No amount of words would do justice to describe their attire. It like, you have to see it to believe it. Another shocking thing was the precariously perched cell-phone in the dhotis. Cell-phone penetration figures are indeed true. The other problem was our driver. Now this driver had some incidences in his past with the people of this particular tribal caste, and hence he had turned as white as a chalk on seeing the crowd. His condition was analogous to the condition of the driver who had seen the wild elephant in the middle of the road during our trip to Wayanad. Anyways, nothing untoward occurred, and we were safely allowed to pass, but we did get some crazy and weird looks.
This day was one of the rare occasions when there was a Poornima, accompanied with a partial lunar eclipse. I do not know what effects do eclipses have on people, but what I do know is that temples all over the world shut down, approximately 12 hours before the eclipse begins. We knew that Ambaji temple would close by 4 PM, but were not quite sure of it. On reaching there, we straightaway made our way to the temple. Had we been late by 15 minutes, we would not have got to enter the temple. Like the cliché goes; ‘Made it just in time’. Once the temple business was over, we took to the local market for some browsing.
They make a mean masala-ultra-spicy-phudina-jaljeera-soda here. These are ones which are not meant for the weak-stomached. While on my second glass of this concoction, I saw a young tribal boy who was holding the hand of an equally young tribal girl and sprinting towards me. This couple was being followed by all the folks of that community present and the others present in the market joined the crowd. I couldn’t make the head or tail of this. So, while on my third glass of the stomach-exploder, I enquired with the vendor. He said this is an age-old tradition of the tribal community of Banaskanta (the people living on the banks of river Banas). On the occasion of festivals, young prospective groom grabs the hand of the girl whom he likes, and if the girl accepts the pitch, she runs along with him; otherwise, she simply jerks her hand free from the boy’s hands. Now, if she accepts the boy’s proposition, the entire community witness to this, runs behind them to prevent this mad-dash to marital bliss. The community does not even make a half-hearted to catch them, but are simply following tradition. This, my friends, is their version of a marriage. This simple act of running away by the couple binds them in holy matrimony for the rest of their lives. No kundli matching, no background checking, no income inquiries, no purohit, no mahurat, nothing at all. As simple as that. And the bonus to the parents is that they don’t have to spend a single rupee on the marriage ceremony. Thinking of the bride, she is only given a few nano-seconds to make the decision of a lifetime, but nevertheless, she makes it. I am sure this is the simplest and easiest way to get married.
Our return train to Mumbai was from Abu Road. The journey from Ambaji to Abu Road is a 40 minutes ride, and we reached well before the scheduled departure of the train. Here too, we made our way to the local market. Abu Road is quite famous for the Malai-Ghevar and Rabdi. They are very very tasty, and can make any foodie go weak in the knees. I ate some, and got quite a lot of it packed for home. The train was 15 minutes off schedule, but it did cover the time gap. The train ride was pretty slick. My family had not yet decided to whether to crucify me or break off my limbs, one at time, if their experience of the Gareeb-Rath turns out to be ghastly. In the end, all I can say is that I am still alive, and all my limbs are intact, thank you.

Day 4:
I was awake before the train reached Mumbai city limits. I spent the time staring aimlessly outside the window. As soon as the train trudged in to Bandra terminus, I was hit with this stark realization that the past three days flew by in a wiz. Tomorrow, I will again be on my way to Pune for regular office. I had bought the tickets and made the plan for this trip months in advance. But, on recalling the past three days, I had a broad grin on my face. All the efforts were really worth the trip.