Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hope and industry: An evening in Dadar...

The young well-built lad swung his bat ferociously making an unmistakable connect with the swinging white ball, which traveled up in the air some 15 meters and crashed into a window pane of a third floor apartment. Miraculously, the glass did not shatter. Instead, the ball bounced off the window pane and floated down to the ground sluggishly where 3 able bodied fielders vied with each other to catch it. They laughed and screamed, jostled and pushed each other for a vantage position. It was as though they were making space for themselves in a crowded Mumbai local train by digging into the ribs of the person next to them. All of them had their hands cupped to receive the ball, as though they were about to receive offerings at a temple. All of them wanted to be the catcher that had dismissed the burly batsman. The ball, though, had other ideas. It popped out of their collective hands and landed on the ground making a tinnish sound; the sound a table tennis ball would make. 

The batsman received a reprieve.
This was a match that took place under lights on Tulsi Pipe Road in Dadar, Mumbai in a paved courtyard, about 15m wide and 30m in length. This floodlit cricket ‘ground’ was enclosed on one side by a tin industrial shed and on two sides by tall apartment blocks. The cricketers played with a special, light ball which ensured that windows would not get broken. The lighter ball swung much more than a normal cricket ball would. 

The batsmen played with immense skill and strength and thrilled the large, wild audience that watched and cheered as they played. The boys, all from nearby dwellings, cried, shouted, laughed and thumped each other on their backs as they sweated their way through this sticky Sunday evening. We stood there for a while, appreciated and applauded the fun as well as the skill that was on display.

To me, this was the Mumbai I had known and loved as a young boy who had spent many of his summer holidays here. A Mumbai of people from Dadar, Byculla and Matunga, the Mumbaikars who make the place what it is; the sort of people that do not venture much into the Bandra and Worli sea-face locations of Bombay that is inhabited by Bombayites. The Mumbai I knew and liked contains stories from Byculla, Matunga and Dadar and does not include fancy lights, nightclubs, fashion shows, bling and Bollywood. The Mumbai I feel, smell and appreciate is a hub of dizzy activity where people get by, survive and maybe – just maybe – get ahead.

It is this Mumbai that I wanted to feel and experience when I went to Dadar a few weeks ago with my wife and a few friends. We had no particular objective or destination in mind. We just wanted to walk, smell and feel the Mumbai we all loved. We started our exploration at 6pm on a Sunday afternoon from Tulsi Pipe Road at the cricket ‘ground’, walked up to Shivaji Park and back.

We crossed a permanent makeshift – yes take that paradox and cope with it as I do, everyday – market under a flyover on Tulsi Pipe Road. A police van stood by the side of this dimly lit market to ensure that the improvised temporary stalls were appropriately lasting. There was a surreal sense to the irony and I could only smile as I walked through this under-the-flyover market. Smile I did until something harshly corrosive in the air made me simultaneously rub my eyes and clutch my throat. The acid in the air may have been released by the constant trampling of vegetable leaves (probably radish), marigold stems and green chilies. The air was pungent, yet the vendors shouted out loudly, announced their wares and advertised their prices. The pungent air did not trouble them at all. Each hawker sold the freshest produce at least price. Around them, people walked busily and briskly towards an unknown destination.

There, an old man slept peacefully in a bed made up of two slabs of stone, his head rested on one stone and his feet on the other; his torso, suspended in between. He slept, completely oblivious to the strong, sharp air and the frenzied chaos around him. He didn’t even move as a motor bike honked its way through this crowded market, missing him by just a few feet. ‘How did this bike even get there, leave alone maneuver through it,’ I thought.

We exited from this hyperactive and busy market and spilled into the main Dadar market to see a sea of humanity in front of us. From where I stood – a slightly elevated part of the road – all I could see was a sea of heads. 'Surely the people were stationary while the ground moved underneath them,' I thought. How else could we get through this human mass? We did, occasionally receiving a nudge in the ribs. Mumbaikars are adept at moving in small spaces; they dodge and weave lithely through even the tiniest of gaps. 

Sometimes I would exchange a glance and a nod with other people, but mostly everyone was focused on their individual destinations. I could not ascertain if people were happy, content, sad, tired, busy or dejected. It appeared as though all of them had a job that had to be accomplished and what I felt was intense industry in whatever people were doing.

This sense of industriousness included Ram Chand, a vegetable vendor, who smoothened his mustache proudly as he announced his produce and shouted out the price of his merchandise. He said to one of his prospective buyers that he would not entertain any bargaining and twirled his mustache flamboyantly as he said so.

We walked up through the markets and walked around Shivaji Park and saw people – many people – walking, laughing, talking and relaxing. 

Out in the maidan itself, we saw kids play cricket and soccer in fading light. All these kids had proper cricket kits and played with cricket balls that thudded against well oiled bats. A few of the netted cricket pitches were floodlit as young bowlers charged in – in whites – to bowl to well-protected young batsmen. “Get behind the ball. It is all about technique,” a coach shouted in Hindi at the recognized nursery of Mumbai’s cricket. That was exactly what the lads were already doing at the Tulsi Pipe Road ground against a lighter ball that swung maniacally and unpredictably in the air.

It was close to 10pm when we returned to where we had parked our car after dinner at Prakash Hotel. The market was still a hive of activity. The police van still stood there. The men inside it cast a protective eye on all the temporary stalls. The acid hung around in the still air; it would perhaps stay in the air until the trampled and crushed leaves could be gathered and taken away. Vendors still shouted their prices. Ram Chand continued to twirl his ostentatious mustache  The cricket match continued in the paved courtyard on Tulsi Pipe Road.

The sleeping old man was gone though. In his place were two young girls, one each on the two stones that had propped up the old man. They were probably ten years old. In poor dim light, as their parents sold vegetables or food nearby, they read from an English text book. Their heads bobbed up and down as they tried to learn their lessons, probably for their school exams the following day. I stood there, mesmerized, as they recited their lesson. I could not make out what it was they were memorizing. Perhaps it was a poem. Perhaps it was a story, an essay. I did not want to pry, so my friends and I smiled in appreciation and turned away slowly. I do not know why, but I was filled with hope...

The cricket players on Tulsi Pipe Road shouted one last time. It wasn’t clear who won. But everyone was happy and amidst much back slapping and mirth, the flood lights were turned off. Elsewhere, in an apartment, another light came on in this city of industry: home to several million hopes.

--Mohan (@mohank)

Saturday, April 06, 2013

If only we cared...

I stood unsteady on the balcony of our 18th floor apartment and held the rails tight because of the mild vertigo I suffer from. My wife was baking an inventive dessert our guests that evening wouldn’t be able to pronounce. Having given up desserts just over four weeks ago, the thought of a violent clash of the cherries, chocolate and coffee was enough to drive me into paroxysms of desire. I desperately needed something between me and this dessert preparation.

The balcony looks out west into a vast green expanse – somewhat of a luxury in Mumbai – and down onto a man made lake created when developers emptied a quarry that existed there. All around me, I could see a glimpse of life in the other apartments. The foul, pungent stench of stagnant water, heat, acrid dust, open drains, sweat and shit -- human and animal -- was strong enough to overpower any smell, including the beautifully mutinous fragrance coming from within the house. The outside smells formed a perfect antidote to my craving, and was a ready example of the paradox that life in Mumbai represents.

Like the dust and smoke, there was nowhere for the smells to go. They hung around uninvited, creating a haze: a confused cohort awaiting instructions from an unknown someone. In less than two minutes, I was also sweating profusely and my t-shirt clung to me. The haze reminded me of the pub I used to frequent in South Kensington in London in the days when customers could still smoke in pubs; and it seemed everyone smoked. The dense pall would represent a smoke-mixture: from the open fireplace, cigarettes, cigars and pipes. It would lift to eye level, hang around my face and sting it repeatedly.

If I looked around, all the balconies like mine offered to me the stories they contained, encouraging the casual voyeur in me, fueling my understanding of life and people around me.

The smell of cigarette smoke made me turn in the direction it wafted from. I looked to see a young couple smoking on their balcony. The young man wore dark-rimmed, thick glasses that rested uncomfortably on a very large, bulbous nose. The woman puffed on her cigarette lazily and appeared to relish her experience while the man appeared to be hurried. Soon the reason became obvious as the man lit another cigarette even though the present one was still only two-thirds complete. 'Isn't there enough in the air we breathe to additionally introduce tar into our lungs especially on a sweltering day like today,' I thought. I would have asked the same question of myself if I had been the one smoking. And when the couple were done, they turned inwards and without even looking back, casually flicked the stubs outward; the cigarette ends spiraled pitifully to the road below.

Elsewhere, a woman watered plants. Pointlessly. Wastefully. She must have just had a shower, for a thin towel covered her hair. Did she have curly hair? Straight? I did not know and the towel wouldn't let me in on those secrets. ‘Did she know the plants would retain as much water as a sieve in this afternoon heat?’ I wanted to ask.

There I could see a pot-bellied man in his vest. He stretched lazily. Perhaps he had just had his lunch. He had in his hands a small packet. His gold ring glimmered as the sun’s rays bounced off it. He tore open the packet and emptied its contents into his palm, briskly slapped his palms to his face and hurled its contents into his mouth. He then flung the empty packet out his balcony and rubbed his palms, satiated. The piece of plastic sailed lifelessly and rested on the pavement below. The man returned to the comfort of his air-conditioned living room, perhaps happy that it was still neat, well-accessorized and completely devoid of plastic wrappers.

Somewhere else, a maid hung out the washing with quiet care, picking up a piece of clothing from a clothes basket, untangling it, shaking it vigorously to straighten it, and finally straining to reach the clothes line. Sweat poured from her face.  Occasionally, she would catch her back as she strained it. It was clear she had a sore back. Just as clear as the fact that these clothes were hung on a balcony that faced the road, for the world see. Yellowed, crinkled, sometimes bright white fabric stories forced into the vision of those who happened to look up. I was sure they had another option to this balcony and wondered why they didn't use it. This relentless sun would surely reach an inward-facing balcony too? The maid, though, was too focused on her immediate task to worry about and look at anything else other than the clothes basket below and the clothes line above.

As my arms got wetter with my sweat, I watch everyone disappear indoors, gradually. The heat my body gave out must have smelt of blood because a mosquito landed on my arm and I idly wonder how it got to the 18th floor. I admire its resilience and strength; instead of swatting it, as a reward, I offer the mosquito use of my hand for a full minute before blowing its drunken, swollen body away. The lack of wind may have helped its flight up 18 floors. Or perhaps the mosquito had arrived in one of the three lifts in our building, two of which may not be used by "workers and maids."

By now, I find myself begging for some air to cool the sweat off. One part of me is also playing a game, to see how long I can hold out in this quiet heat that is made oppressive with so many stories. Ahead, I see the green of the lake and think it would be lovely if it had a fountain in the middle; a fountain to circulate the water so it didn't stagnate. What I see, though, is still water that could be beautiful if only someone cared: If the maid that hung the clothes despite a sprain in her back stopped to stare. If the person who flicked that cigarette butts cared. If the person that watered plants on a hot day cared.  If the man who flung the plastic wrapper onto the road cared.

And if I cared...

-- Mohan (@mohank)