Wednesday, August 30

Night Boat

I usually don't write honest pieces. They're true to facts but I tend to lather my emotions and thoughts with a heavy dose of attempted humour or misdirection. This post deserves some raw emotional honesty, though.

Yesterday, 29th August, a Tuesday (or should I say, another Tuesday) was about me making choices. It was raining quite heavily when I left for office, sheeted down the windows of the train throughout the 1-hour journey to Churchgate and kept going with renewed intensity by the time I made it to the entrance, looking verily like something that had drowned in a gutter and lain there a while before being discovered by a cat and dragged in. I made the choice to go to work as I suspected my boss would be there and not because I wanted to go.

I was right about my boss but that cardiac fizz of being right flattened out rather rapidly once I realised, around 11:30 am, that no one else from my team of 20 had bothered to make a similar effort. And, some of these guys live 5 minutes away. So, having arranged my bedraggled socks, shoes and bag to dry out, I sat and stared out the window. Ahh, that view... from my desk, I have one of the finest vistas in Bombay, with the Trident rising up on one side, the finger of Malabar Hill on the other and an extremely generous portion of the Arabian Sea up front, thrown in as a bonus. On a normal day, it's one of the most heart-swelling sights there is, especially when a line of boats bob away towards the setting sun.

Yesterday, it was as if Nature had taken a bucket of grey paint and splashed it across the glass. I could see nothing but the clouds drifting in, the rain smattering relentlessly into the window and the wind howling occasionally for good measure. I watched that scene for 3 hours before working up the courage to tell my boss that I was heading home. By then, the internet was agog with news of it being a 'bad one' and plenty of helpful pictures of flooded areas all over our filthy metrop. Images that were alarming and depressing in equal measure. I chose to mooch around for a while, had lunch and then left.

Churchgate was a sea of uncertain faces milling around, since trains stood silently on all four platforms but none looked ready to leave. The departure boards, normally flashing fluorescent figures like Helen's costumes on LSD, now stayed dark. It was ominous but I sensed resignation rather than panic. Just then, it was announced that the train on Platform 3 was a fast train to Virar and would leave in 10 minutes.

Now, here's where sense and conditioning came into play. Live in Bombay long enough and you tend to develop a reluctance to get on any train going to Virar. At the least, you'll hesitate, think twice and then, perhaps if it is the afternoon snooze time zone, board the train. With all these rationalisations running through my head, I chose to stand there and watch that train leave before turning around and returning to the office, since it did not look likely that any other train would depart.

I went back to the office at 2:30 pm and pootled around aimlessly, the drumming of the rain becoming background noise after a while. I honestly couldn't tell you what I did... read some articles, checked out some information handles on Twitter, listened to some music and... And, that's what I vaguely recall. It was like being in suspended animation, my brain deciding to spare itself for later hysteria.

By 4, most people had cleared out and headed home by road... because they could. I could have too. But, I chose to not spend crazy money attempting to get home through what I imagined would be flooded roads and insane traffic jams. I would outlast the storm and wait for the trains. Around 7 pm, I acknowledged that maybe the train service wouldn't resume for a long time. A few colleagues, also from my neck of the woods, were milling around too and it gave me false courage. Strength in fake numbers, as it were. We promised to try and leave together by road at 10 pm.

Until then, I hadn't thought about sustenance. However, realising it'd be a long night, I reluctantly ventured out. I say 'reluctantly' because getting my jeans wet for a third time in the day was highly unappealing. It's rather like walking around in cardboard trousers. But, hunger can't be ignored forever so I strolled through the neighbourhood, only to discover that the stock fast-food options had run out of supplies ages ago or were so backed up that they would run out by the time I placed an order. What I do remember with absolute clarity is a guard standing at attention in the rain outside the parking bay of a building. There was not a car in sight, so his devotion to the post was poetic, heroic and probably silly. However, his 1000-yard stare was enough to suggest that asking him why he was still around was a bad idea.

A colleague (living a stone's throw away) sent a text message inviting me to his place, where a warm meal and a bed was on offer. Call it a reluctance to impose, a growing unease around people and their families, indications of dementia or downright pigheaded stupidity. On a day of dumb choices, not taking him up on that offer must rank somewhere near the peak. I politely declined, keeping my message vague enough to leave me some self-respect were I to change my mind.

By 11 pm, said neighbourhood colleagues had given up the ghost and casually announced they'd kip down at work. Disappointed but unsurprised, I kept the feeble flame of hope alight. At midnight, word got around that a train for Virar had left, so I packed my bag and walked back to the station, better prepared to return than actually reach home. Once again, people were roaming around the place, but it was more a pond of them than a sea. I got a taste of deja vu - a train arrived on Platform 3 and the tannoy announced that it would be a slow train for Virar, leaving in 10 minutes.

I spent 5 of those minutes standing outside the compartment, staring, watching it fill up. Just like that lonely parking guard. Convincing myself this was the cherry missing on my rainy-day sundae. Eventually, I boarded the train, so full of misgivings, a part of me (clearly the intelligent, pragmatic one) would have happily waited at the station for another option or heck, gone back to the office! But the other part of me wanted an adventure. So, I wedged myself somewhere in between a few gents, made my apologies in advance and prayed my ribs were strong enough to resist the inevitable crush of countless, desperate bodies pouring into the bogie, beseeching and pushing their way in, simply to go home.

You know, I've lived in Bombay for 9 years and it's not like we don't get a bout of heavy rain that affects the city, every monsoon. Yesterday though, brought back memories of 2005. I was fortunate to only read about that one, take in stories of sky turning into sea, think about those swept away into drains, the ones drowned in their cars and the many who braved the torrent to walk, like zombie homing pigeons on suicide missions. At some point on that train last night, I remember thinking the only thing to change since then is how much more pragmatic citizens have become, choosing to stay back at work during the worst of it, rather than take any stupid decisions. That's all... 12 years... and all we have to show for it is pragmatism, along with a few more working pumping stations. If that does not tell you how docile the Indian or Bombay middle-class is, nothing will. Revolutions have been flagged off on fewer cord-woods of frustration.

The corporation running the city is headed up by politicians, so I have no respect for them and won't expect better from those democratically elected gang of third rate criminals. But I saluted the Western Railway, particularly the unknown motorman who drove the train last night. Somewhere after Bombay Central, the train slowed down to walking speed and people in my bogie began to grumble. Until the street light illuminated the water. An awful silence swept through the crowd as everyone realised what was going on... the train was cleaving through 4-5 feet of black water, the tracks completely invisible, the journey probably based on guesswork and faith in the wheels staying on the rails. It is a snapshot of time that will stay with me.

That passage between Bombay Central and Mahim was an Experience. I felt dreadful. I felt fear. I was alive. I distinctly remember one passage of time that may not have been more than 3 minutes but felt much, much longer. On the Western Line, there are a few points where the voltage differs. At these places, the power goes off, the lights go out and the fans stop working. Normally, the train's momentum ensures that this powerlessness is momentary. But, when the train is inching forward at the proverbial snail's pace, it gets rather hairy. When this took place outside Elphinstone Road Station, looking at he water splashing a few inches below the foot-board, I wondered what'd happen if the power didn't return at that moment.

And so, the train made its way to my station, a normal ride of 40 - 50 minutes that took over 2 hours last night. I'd been awake for more than 18 hours. I'd gotten soaked and semi-dry 3 times. I'd been pushed, pulled, pummelled and trapped like a rat. By the time I stepped onto the platform, I was Craving.

I craved a lungful of green smoke, to breathe it in deeply enough to fill every inch of space, to let it out in a slow jet and feel my feet melt. I craved raw whisky; sweet, sour and sharp and to feel it burn its way down. I craved an embrace, so I could cry hysterically in my exhaustion. I craved lips to caress with my own, skin I'd taste with my tongue, dark crevices whose muskiness I'd bury myself in and a body I'd worship the way I know best.

I had forgotten what an intense cocktail of desire that could be... forgotten what it was to be human.

I settled for the whisky.

Song for the moment: So gaya yeh jahan - Tezaab OST (Someone on the train was humming it)

Monday, August 14

I still care for you

I cannot recall offhand the last time I wrote about football. But here goes nothing.

Like most anyone, I went through the "passionate fan" phase, donating an enormous amount of wishful prayers up & above to ensure that Manchester United won. The gods, being the smart cookies they undoubtedly are, seem to have spent their time answering prayers of the kind of people who peddle chaos on a daily basis, which is one way of understanding the state of the world today.

But man, was I into the whole EPL scene! Looking back, it seems rather droll that I cared so much, or at all. But, yes, it hurt when MU lost, particularly to Arsenal, Leeds or Liverpool (back then, there weren't too many other teams to worry about). I certainly felt a kick in the teeth when Chelsea won those 2 titles under JM. Watching the team get dismantled so casually in 2 Champions League finals made me sad though the pendulum swung the other way when Owen scored that spine-tingling last minute goal against MC. But, truth be told, I'd stopped caring too much long before Aguero's last minute goal gave MC the title.

Why did that happen? Well, real life takes over, for one. You move cities and countries, prioritise people you know over people who will never know you exist, start working, struggle with how different this phase of life is, and so on and so forth. We grow up and old and our sporting heroes grow old with us. Then, one day, they fade away, leaving us behind with a sackful of memories and the choice of whether to re-enthuse ourselves with yet another generation of athletes. More often than not, we don't.

I also feel like caring about a football team on another continent needs one to be slightly batty. And, after a point in life, one always finds plenty of other things to be batty about. So, it only makes sense to follow teams from a distance, appreciating the wins and not chucking toys out of the pram during defeats. Besides, it's been easy to not bother too much about MU for a while now.

After SAF's retirement and the wasteland of 3 seasons, last year was going nowhere until the Europa League win and Champions League return. Honestly, the team finished 24-freakin-points! behind the leaders. But JM is ruthless and relentless in some ways and has 'spent' the summer putting a good squad together. Losing to Madrid may have been the best thing to happen, not so much for the players, but certainly for the average fan. A reality check is useful particularly thanks to this new, endless footballing brouhaha. I say 'new' because it wasn't like this 10 years ago. When a season was over, things quietened down for 2-3 months, gave people a chance to focus on other areas and got them refreshed and recharged by August. That was a healthy deal.

Now, all one sees on a daily basis, is content. The footballer's uncle's gardener makes an innocuous statement and the media happily devotes 3 days of fraudulent and downright meaningless think pieces to it. It reeks of desperation and does the game no favours. Everything is a rumour or a misquote. The whole carnival of madness may be putting food on the table for countless alleged sports journalists but only serves to turn older fans away even faster.

Anyway, losing to Madrid before the season began helped stave off doom and crisis articles till at least September, I reckon. Though, on the strength of MU's first EPL game, it just could be an interesting season. There are quite a few exciting and attacking options in the team, supported by a bevy of stolid, no-nonsense chaps. If the team can avoid losing their heads over the deluge of hysterical reactions that follow every result, maybe 2017-18 will be a genuinely good season.

Sadly, there are a couple of nutters at the workplace who are serious MU fans. The type who are liable to text at 2:30 am about a potential signing, a win, a loss, an ingrowing toenail, yada, yada, yada. So, while I'm not expending my energies caring about football, I do spend quite a bit of time pretending to. Such it goes.

Song for the moment: Barfly - Ray LaMontagne 

Saturday, August 12

Cracks in the Pavement

When John Denver's voice hits the 'T' of "Take me home...", it's a force of nature coming to life. The melancholic and wistful lilt in that line supported by the lyrics of the song give it some serious flavour.

Why am I blathering on about Denver and country roads? Because I am home again. And while that may no longer bring about even so much as an eyebrow squiggle from you, the thought of being physically present in Pune makes me kind of happy. Seeing as how this world is rolling downhill steadily, I'll take that kind of happiness any day, thank you very much.

I've been making customary trips home since 2009. While the distance between Bombay and Pune is minuscule enough to not warrant much emotional hullabaloo, even I have to admit that the effort needed to get from point to point is increasingly exhausting. It's not as much a function of age as it is one of population. The number of people making the up-down journey on normal Sat-Suns alone is staggering.  So, what happens when it's not normal?

The 3-day weekends, festivals or the end of the year are perfectly horrid times. Never-ending queues, be it at the bus station or amidst the vehicles somewhere between Chembur and the endless horizon, rankle the soul. It's got to a point where I can't wait to get out of the city but it kills me a bit to get on the bus too. The prospect of spending almost 5 hours tolerating the body odour, loud phone conversations and sly seat encroachment of the smarmy, corpulent neighbour is as appealing to me as reading it was to you.

No, trains are not a good fit for me because work timings are uncertain. If anything, MSRTC Shivneri is one of the small blessings in my life because of how reliable the service is, though pricey as heck.

The weariness, sore back, numb feet, dry throat and general irritability fueled my thoughts as I stomped home at 2 am this morning. Of course, I was jolly delighted about the 2 gents who were also walking along my way as they looked like the kind of people whom street dogs would prefer to attack. Elders and betters first, I always say.

And yet, I will never understand how all of that just melts away the moment I step into the silent, slumbering house. I let out a significant sigh of relief, change into comfortable sleepwear, raid the fridge, make the bed and it's finally a good night. There will be real filter coffee waiting in the morning, the chirping of birds entwined with the plants in my window and that wonderful light that's peculiar to Pune in the rains.

Be it ever so painful to reach, there's no place like home I guess.

Song for the moment: Ordinary World - Duran Duran