The third thing that hits you after stepping into Bombay is the loss of personal space, the first two being the heavy humid air and the peculiar smell of Bombay. The three, combined with a view of dirty vehicles, stained buildings and metro-sexual males as far as the eye can see make me want to take a U-Turn back home to the cooler, cleaner, spacious climes and rugged people I am used to.To have been born, lived and died in Bombay means not to have lived at all. So deep and unshakable was my dislike for the city that a wise Aunt once prophesied 'If you feel so strongly about it, you just see, God will one day send you to Bombay only' and that only happened.
Tramping the roads in search of a room and jarred by the astronomical rents, I ended up in a Punjabi society in the hell hole of ‘Chakala’ with a room in an old lady's bungalow. The room, as an architectural friend would later tell me, was an illegal windowless partition in the kitchen. A big bed dominated the space, around which a chair, 2 shelves and a tiny desk were squeezed like lagoons encroaching on an island. A tiny grainy TV perched precariously on the shelves. All my needs could be met by just reaching out my hand from the bed. The bathroom was a hop away. Every morning I would wake up to 16x20 framed marriage pictures of my landlady’s 3 bearded Sikh sons and their decked up wives grinning down at me from each wall of the room. Also the old lady turned out to be a pill-popper, which meant serious Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome depending on when she was on her drugs and off them. All in all I was glad to stay out of the house most times and get involved with work and studies and take in the city one slow epiphany after another.
The first was to learning train travel. The first time I clambered onto a train my brain froze. It is unnerving to suddenly find the control of your body and limbs in the the hands of the masses pushing and pulling at you. As clichéd as it sounds, big cities is when the enormity of the population of India and the havoc mobs can cause hits you. On the trains, buses, streets, everywhere hundreds of bodies brush past you. To stop walking or moving in anyway is inviting disaster in Bombay.
By the third train ride you will be a pro, though somewhat baffled at how so many young women get on and off the coach same time as you looking perfectly groomed, while you look like,well... a train wreck. A friend and I used to take the Churchgate Fast to South Bombay often. Although broke and bewildered by the big city, South Bombay's balmy breeze and colonial architecture worked like revitalizing magic on people starved for beauty in the hellhole that is Andheri East. We hobbled aimlessly through the streets of South Bombay, saving taxi money to blow up at Leopold or having spent everything sitting for hours watching the sunset at Marine Drive. Hundreds of other girls walked around us perfectly groomed and as my friend put it, in a bubble of their own, seeming untouched by the humidity and pollution.
But one learns, observes the ladies compartment of the Churchgate Fast full of capacious handbags that carry a change of shoes from slippers to high heels, make up, hairbrushes, food, water, facewash, sometimes change of clothes and basically a survival kit good for a week after the Apocalypse. After becoming members of NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) we used the NCPA's luxurious bathrooms as our pit stops after the train travel and even caught a play, photo exhibition or music recital occasionally.
Soon the trains journeys ironically enough were the highlight of my Bombay life. Even on the muggiest of days, hanging at the door with the sultry wind on your face made Bombay tolerable. But the best part was the woman’s compartment. It is like that drop of water , when put under a microscope contains an entire ecosystem? The Ladies coach in a Bombay local bursts with activity. Women working on laptops, reading magazines, chopping vegetables, selling homemade snacks, telling prayer beads, or praying from their pocket size prayer books. Especially during the exam months, the train would be full of college students cramming last minute and quizzing each other for Vivas. Groups of office ladies coming from Fort and Flora Fountain would share sweets celebrating someone’s engagement. The worst cat fights also took place in the ladies coach and this is where I picked up some of my more colourful language. I’ve travelled once or twice in the men’s compartment when running late. It wasn't half as much fun.
There are many memorable train rides, the crazy one taken at peak time in a typical Bombay deluge of rain with water pouring into the packed compartment.
The risky one while going to work on Holi with vividly coloured boys running in and out of the compartment playing loud Holi music. I envied their Bhang induced fun.
One of the most memorable train rides was during the World Cup finals India Vs. Sri Lanka being played at Wankhede. I was on my way to the Press Club for the second innings of the match and the streets , stations and trains of bustling Bombay were eerily empty. The few of us in the ladies compartment smiled ruefully at our common plights making us travel when the rest of the nation was glued to their television sets. There was an air of camaraderie on the streets of Bombay. The radio was plugged into my ears as Sehwag came out to bat.
The Churchgate fast always stops outside Wankhede for a few minutes , today being no different. As Wankhade came we all looked out of the window at the troops of soldiers and police personnel strung like wedding lights all over the stadium. Then into my ears Sehwag was bowled out and I gave vent to expletives startling the women around. ‘Sehwag gaya , second ball’ I explained. We all rushed to the train doors, Wankhede loomed before us like a silent spectre, stunned into silence by the Sri Lankan’s blow. Then Kholi hit a 4 and the stadium erupted in joy and some of the shrillest shrieks came from the ladies compartment of the Churchgate Fast outside Wankhede.