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Mumbai Meri Jaan

Mumbai Meri Jaan

January 21, 2013
Shame, fear and loathing on Mumbai's public transport network.


Turns out the Mothership was right after all. When I moved to Bombay ('Mumbai', to the pedants) last September, she had been apprehensive. "It's a big, bad city," she said. "They're calling it the 'Narcopolis'", she said, "it'll corrupt you." She had a right to be worried of course, what with History and all, however rehabilitated I maybe. But not even hyper-imaginative Mother could have predicted the ease with which a little something here, a little something there, quickly spiraled into a Habit.

I suppose I could have gotten hooked on a greater evil. I should probably be thankful I'm not hawking handjobs on street corners in exchange for a hit; that I still have my health and my (ahem) looks. But addiction, any addiction, is shameful, a burden. And I fell for the most shameful one of them all: My name is Tharun James Jimani, and I'm a benefits scrounge.

It started off harmlessly enough, like a stray pill somebody hands you at a party. I had been in Bombay three weeks and had had enough of spending hours (and a fortune in cab fare) stuck in traffic jams. I decided to take the advice of Ramu, the office boy, who never tires of telling me that the public transport system in Bombay is "cheap and besht". Don't be fooled by the fancy job description - Ramu is a leprechaun of lifestyle conveniences, and about the size of a football field.

So I gave Bombay's famed local trains a try, romanced as I have always been by their propensity to match-make if Saathiya is to be believed. Oh relax, this is not another dreary account of how dreary the daily commute is in one of the busiest cities in the world. I was ready for that. What I wasn't prepared for was how ridiculously exaggerated those accounts of travel tedium were. "Piece of cake," I thought, as I smiled enthusiastically at the gentleman with a phantom arm seated opposite me on my first foray onto the other side of the tracks - "cattle class" commute.

"God, Mumbaikars are such whiners," I thought as I nodded in acknowledgement at the lady with the neck brace who had just entered the train. And then it struck me: the elderly blind man with the white cane, the little boy with the Forrest Gump- footwear, they were all special souls in there. I was travelling in the disabled folks' compartment. I looked frantically around to make sure nobody was standing, that I wasn't denying some poor diabetic his government-approved respite, and resolved to exit stage at the next station.

But guilt is a strange thing, and often drops in unannounced.  As the train slowed to a crawl entering Elphinstone Station, I stood up, getting ready to step out. And suddenly, out of nowhere, my right leg picked up a mannerism of its own: it went limp. Try as I might, cuss and threaten and cajole as I did, it refused to stand straight, to resume business as normal. Fuck, now my face is doing it too! For no discernible reason, my cheeks drooped in self-pity, my vocal chords emanated sighs and my right hand made a curious byline for some imagined point-of-most-pain on my leg, and stroked it sympathetically. My body put on the performance of a lifetime in a viciously satirical parody of my parasitic self, as I made the shameful trip from my seat to the door.

It happened again, and again. On a particularly busy night once; because I was exhausted and wanted a seat for certain on another inebriated night. It happened out of curiosity, out of laziness, out of a juvenile tendency to play truant, out of sheer boredom. It became a Habit. My adopted disabilities changed with my mood. I would be deaf one day, dying the next. "It's alright," I consoled myself, as my fingers felt around for words in mock-Braille on the pages of The Hotel New Hampshire on my way to work one day, "it's not like I'm robbing them of anything, I never sit if one of them is left without a seat."

Excuses, all. Classic denial mode, as any ex-junkie will tell you. As ever, it would take an intervention to set me straight. It came in the shape of a lushly bearded Mullah, a couple of weeks ago. I was just moving in on a seat that had been recently vacated, on the handicapped section of a public bus this time (coz I like to mix things up every now and then, YOLO and what not), when suddenly, Mullah-man shoved me in the chest and fell onto my seat while I was left clutching at strangers to remain upright. I was incensed. I confronted him. "What the fuck dude," I said, "you can't just push people to get a seat."

Mullah-man went ballistic with all the indignation of the wrongfully-condemned. He let loose a volley of abuses, or gaalis as they call them in Hindi, while the whole bus looked on. I may not have caught the intricacies of which of my relatives he wanted me to fornicate with first and in which position, but I did get the gist: I couldn't speak Hindi, and that somehow made me an incestuous snob as opposed to the victim of casual physical assault on a moving bus.

I'd be lying if I said that's what turned the tide. My discomfort must have been obvious. A couple of passengers stepped in, having borne witness to Mullah-man's antics. They were true-blue Mumbaikars, standing up for the disenfranchised, discriminated-against foreigner, sticking it to the man. A few more joined in. There were calls for Mullah-man to apologize, to return to me what was rightfully mine by the order of public transport etiquette. Somebody grabbed his collar; he swatted away somebody's arm. I stood frozen, awed and frightened in equal measure by the riot I had seemingly instigated. And then somebody uttered the dreaded word. "Terrorist," he muttered, "saale terrorist."

I got out at the next stop, shook up but strangely calm. This too, I thought, this too is Bombay, all-consuming, all-accepting Bombay. Mullah-man may have had a bad leg, or a weak kidney for all I know. But his handicap was far more real: the thick beard that screamed "Muslim", the taqiyah he donned with pride, the mark on his forehead from a thousand sujuds. He should not have pushed me. But irrespective of his indiscretion, I had set in motion a chain of events that resulted in what can only have been traumatic for him, a reminder of the stigma that I frankly wasn't aware was so widespread.

If it weren't for angsty Mullah-man, I'd probably still be cruising the town in 'special' seats, suckling contentedly at the mammaries of the welfare state. I still get the itch, sometimes. But I've learned to deal with it: to pay a little extra and get the AC bus, or wake up a little early and take a slow train. I leave you with A.R. Rahman's "Chaiyya, Chaiyya", easily the classiest item number I've seen in a Bollywood movie, and set atop (what else?) a moving train snaking its way through the Nilgiri mountains. Welcome to Bombay.

16 Comments

  • Sonali Thakker
    By
    Sonali Thakker
    02.06.14 02:27 AM
    This has got to be the most engaging article I've read in a long long time,
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    24.02.13 05:57 AM
    @TJ,

    TO be very precise its a Plot for our storyline. Don't ye wannabe famous?

    "Ohne fleis keine preis"
  • Tharun Jimani
    By
    Tharun Jimani
    24.02.13 03:01 AM
    Sounds like a plan, rajpriya :)
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    11.02.13 02:45 PM
    @TJ,
    We should give it a serious try. We will split the responsibility in to two, each contributing what we are good at. You create the fun part, me the serious. “Men need their space to move freely without being pushed to a wall. Therefore there is urgency to safeguard our territory. Of course women will not go empty handed, they will be considered for reasonable concessions because we men are dependent on them for food, shelter and most of all we need actresses for our home theatre.

    That outlines more or less our subject. Keep in touch. I might be able to influence my connections to make Bollywood a hit worthy of a first time Hollywood Oscar. You the Director, me the producer. Your efforts will be rewarded with Bratwurst and any German Beer of you choice for a lifetime

    We need to dream with our eyes wide open to become famous. I am not kidding.
  • Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    By
    Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    11.02.13 01:11 PM
    Hi Rajpriya,
    It's certainly an interesting theme, shall we say we'll both try writing a piece?

    Hi Ashwini, thanks for reading. It's an experience that stays with you for sure!
  • Ashwini
    By
    Ashwini
    10.02.13 04:34 AM
    This post reminded me of my good old local train travel days in Mumbai. You have very neatly captured the true essence of Mumbai...
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    07.02.13 04:25 PM
    @TJ,

    Just curious to know if you found the time to faint in front of a hospital? That’s not the only reason I am writing to you. There were many posts here on NRI that were hilarious. However, I am missing one important subject that needs to be written on.

    We have heard enough and more about we Indians being bad, dirty, incorrigible, uneducated, foolish, idiots, cheaters, beaters, and a lot more. However, don’t we Indians give those words their real meaning or to find their real use?

    All of them want us to change to be like so many things that are strange and sound absolutely idiotic in our minds. For example if we do something like the west they start telling us we ape them.

    What ever we do is always wrong because we are Indians. Why don’t the rest of the world accept us as we are and learn to ape us Indians. Informing a wife you have mistress on Facebook or a tweet is bitter a western thing. An Indian wife knows her man is having a mistress and asks says so what?

    We speak English so that Indians would understand what we are talking. Who the hell cares when the west finds it funny or don’t understand?

    Jumping queues is unique Indian idea. This uniqueness follows Indians even when they are born on foreign soil. I don’t know if have you heard the story of a western automobile engineer who met an Indian doctor and said to him why do you Indian doctors make so much of money. We too change valves in a car engine just like you do on humans.

    The Indian doctor said to him I am sure you won’t try changing valves with the engine still running.

    The crux of the matter is I wonder if you can pen a hilarious article on we Indians be allowed to be Indians and enjoy the funny side?
  • Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    By
    Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    07.02.13 11:39 AM
    I agree. It's a strange sort of love-hate. Much as we like to crib about the locals in Bombay, we're also quite happy they're as functional as they are. And a guaranteed conversation-starter!
  • guspazhachinar
    By
    guspazhachinar
    24.01.13 09:02 PM
    Killer post, dude! I've literally gotten used to cribbing about the local trains, even though they save a hell lot of your time in a place like Bombay!
  • Tharun Jimani
    By
    Tharun Jimani
    23.01.13 07:41 PM
    Haha that's quite a compliment Rajpriya, thank you. All day offers sound great but now I just HAVE to try out the hospital scene. :)
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    23.01.13 02:12 PM
    @TJJ,

    I think you’ve heard it’s difficult to make a German laugh. However, when I made some of my close German friends read “Mumbai Meri Jaan” they burst into a fit of laughter.

    They told me a story of an unemployed German guy they know who faints at the entrance of different hospitals in his area, gets admitted and spends a few days for free full board. A useful tip for your next episode in Mumbai.

    By the way don’t forget to take an offer for your Bit burger or Warsteiner Beer and Bratwurst FOB for one whole day when you are next in Germany. Great post.
  • Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    By
    Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    23.01.13 01:06 PM
    Haha, thanks for reading Nithin bhai!
  • nithin
    By
    nithin
    22.01.13 09:39 PM
    good one Tharun....I think you should have punched him on the way out :)
  • Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    By
    Tharun James Jimani (@icyhighs)
    22.01.13 12:10 PM
    And I'm thrilled to be here, Igirit. :)

    Thanks for reading, Harry.
  • HARRY
    By
    HARRY
    22.01.13 02:18 AM
    @ Tharun

    So... Which relative did he asked you to fornicate with and in which position. That is Iconic sentence. You are super bad Dude, that's all I can say. LOL

    HARRY

    PS Couldn't stop laughing while reading your article. Nice one.
  • Igirit
    By
    Igirit
    21.01.13 11:55 AM
    Bombay is thrilled to have you! :)

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