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.