Exactly a week ago, I was headed back to Bandra from Cotton Green.
I was slowly ambling down the lane after leaving Wadia Baug,
an old Parsi neighborhood nestled amidst pristine greenery that breathes life
into the suffocating industrial boroughs of central Bombay.
Inclement skies above me enshrouded the evening sun with darker shades of
evergreying cloud, and soon the wispy rays of sunlight surrendered to
a torrent of sudden tropical rain. This was when I decided it would be
wiser to hail a passing cab rather than brave the onslaught alone.
Being where I was, I simply took it for granted that the makeshift
taxi-stand outside the colony would send forth yet another symbol of
all that is everlasting and symbolic of my city; the forever
black-and-yellow Fiat, complete with white-clad driver, elbow sticking
out and a beedi between his fingers. And so the sound of an engine
down the road signaled that my universal cab-hailing gesture (in the
monsoons this is usually akin to a frantic hand wildly gesticulating
from beneath an umbrella) had been acknowledged, and I'd soon be
rescued from the rain. Along came the taxi and for the very first time
in my tryst with the city, I hopped into a cab that wasn't a Fiat. As
I unwound from a relaxed afternoon lunch at my aunt's place, and eased
my bag into the Santro, as potholes and puddles & passersby passed us
by, an inevitable realization dawned and a conversation ensued.
The driver was from a remote village in the North, his
great-grandfather had come here at the turn of the century to work in
a mill. He was followed by his grandfather and his father, and then
finally the prodigal son, whose fortunes died a few decades ago when
mills started their decline. Today, ghosts of this once-upon-a-past
dot the central boroughs of Bombay like foggy whispers of a time that
was yet silently haunt a place long forgotten; amidst ruins that echo
the toil and industry of nameless faces who share a closer, more
intimate relationship than you and I in an anonymous city that forever
screams for release from the memories of its burden. A Santro, is
something I kept remarking to myself. And to think that yet another
evergreen symbol of one of Earth's greatest cities is now under the
hammer of time, soon to be replaced by the next generation of cleaner,
greener, more efficient cars. Going, going, almost gone but not quite
yet, the Premier Padmini still lives and is the heartbeat of the city.
Let's shift perspective a little. Think of a starship visiting Earth's
largest and busiest cities. Any intelligent alien civilization dawning
upon cities like Bombay, London & New York wouldn't be wrong to
observe the surface of these cities and assume that the dominant
life-forms in these cities are respectively made of metal,
black-and-yellow, black and yellow... that they swallow whole
two-legged bipeds, move around a bit, and spit them out again! How
ironic that we humans, master-marauders and plunderers of the planet;
the most dangerous species to walk this solar system in sheer
destructive capability alone, are relegated to mere cab-food as
observed by our celestial neighbors!
Back to terrestrial reality, a very uplifting conversation ensued
between the cabbie and me, talking about his aspirations for his
family. He was the first one in generations to actually bring his
family to live with him in Bombay, rather than visit once a year.
Starting life as a cab-driver who paid daily rent to a cab-owner,
he toiled and saved for a better day, till he bought his first cab and
found freedom. That freedom from the cab owner was just another mask,
for his fate was now sealed to an even larger, more ruthless,
faceless, tryant; the co-op bank. But of course, as all good stories
have it, his happy ending was that he now owns four cabs (driven by
his blood-brother and 2 cousins), is educating both his children in an
English medium school, has taken out LIC and Mediclaim policies
covering himself, his brother and both cousins in case of calamity or
misfortune so their respective families are protected from loss of
income... and the list goes on. I observed with a smile as he reached
across to the passenger side, and how the fancy digital meter had to
be cranked clockwise to reset the fare, a modern twist reminiscent of
not-quite-invisible rituals that are ensconced in our collective human
consciousness and that of this city. Here was someone who had every
right to live in and struggle and earn his daily bread as you or I.
And he toiled his daily routine with a conviction of reality laced
with fortitude and compassion for those around him. He was beaming,
and he had a smile, and achieved so much, yet knew his journey had
only begun... and as the rain pelted the windshield, my journey had
come to an end.
Yes, I've lived in and have been visiting Bombay ever since I was
born, and grew up, moved away, and kept coming back. The city has its
own magnetic allure and in one aggressive canvas paints a dance that
amalgamates the essence of India and all we have to offer. So this is
where I was, in a new icon of an old and ever-changing city what
testifies defiance to the platitude, "the more things change, the more
they remain the same."