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Friday, May 30, 2014

The Rail Yard


There seemed to have been a sliver of hope when the last train pulled into the platform. But apart from a few drunk passengers and an old Marwadi merchant, nobody seemed to have got off from the train. The lights of the train went off and the ghost train moved out of the platform to be deposited in the yard that lay a few hundred meters away to the south. The RPF Havaldar finally called it a day and dozed off with his rifle on his helpdesk. The food stalls had long shut down and the autorickshaw drivers outside slept off, crouched on the seat meant for three-passengers-only( four if you paid extra). The slightest hope was extinguished as the rumble of the train became distant.

Manjula, 38, mother of three stood looking at the taillight of the train as it made its journey back to the yard. She felt disappointed, dejected, standing under the whirring fan of platform number 1. It had been a bad week. Every evening since May, young girls were appearing outside the station. Inexperienced but innocent, unwilling but attractive and most importantly under the protection of a madam named Rosie. Of all the girls, she hated Reshma the most. All of 18, she had taken the adda by storm. She was the new queen of the station and Manjula, although renowned in the circle was shaken. Nothing but laali ki dukaan saali Manjula spat each time her sisters mentioned Reshma and her strong marketing skills.

The older guys, the rich traders of Dalal street who disembarked at the station had until recently chosen Manjula because unlike others, Manjula was well known. She didn’t come cheap either so automatically, anything that was expensive would be good concluded the traders. They were used to commodifying everything around them. But she was indeed the expert and believed in exclusivity and human effort. She was a brand without a facebook page but commanded such loyalty for which, most brand managers would sell their B-school degrees. Her close friends did warn her though. Working beyond 35, just like it is in cricket, is not possible but she called herself Tendulkar of the Adda and continued. A reputation to maintain was fine, but in reality it was the three children for whom she had to continue working.

So, when she stood without having had her ‘bonnie’ at 130 am on the platform, she questioned her life choices. Forced into the dhanda since she was 15, Manjula had come a long way from a shanty in Kurla to a 1-room-kitchen-touching-highway flat in an old to be redeveloped building in Samta Nagar. The first few times meant sheer mental trauma. But it paid. And that was her answer, each time she questioned her decision. Until tonight. The month was almost over and reminder calls to pay the bills had already began. But money? was it the only thing bothering her tonight?

Was age catching up? Was it time for her to retire and look for employment elsewhere? Even the goddamn dance bars band hain!, she thought to herself. If she moved further north of Bombay, she could always get an employment in one of the unlicensed bars but then she risked arrest by the SSB. On the streets, it was simpler.

Have I lost it, to those girls, afterall?

Not far away from her, in a cabin under the staircase leading to the foot overbridge (FOB), looking nothing like a certain boy-wizard, sat Deptee(Deputy) Station Manager Ashok Sharma. Of medium build, hair neatly parted, dressed in white shirt and trousers, he sat behind his desk having his fourth cup of chai since his shift began at nine. On the flickering screen of the CCTV monitor number 5 (which streamed video from camera number, you guessed it, five) affixed over the stinking toilet on the northern end of the platform - stood a lady in a green saree. He had been staring at her since the past few hours. She seemed different than the rest but that was probably only him exaggerating. He wanted to get a better look. This pixelated view didn’t do her justice. He thought of going on an ‘inspection’ of the platform, but dismissed it, lest he scared her away from her current location. He stood up and went to the window to look at the platforms which appeared ghostly in their deserted and lifeless avatar.

Ashok was never the one to pick up girls, right from hi-iskool to graduate college, he was a shy man, engrossed in his copy of Quantitative Aptitude by Dr. R. S Agarwal for Competitive Examinations (S. Chand Publications). He had been a 27 year old virgin until he got married to Reena Kumari from Semaria, District: Bhojpur, State: Bihar. It had been ten years and yet he lived like a bachelor in the spacious Railway Quarters at Matunga allotted to him by the Indian Railways. He didn’t deem it fit for his kids to grow up in a city like Bombay. He felt homesick and hated the cutting chai made in adulterated milk but he had risen up the rank and being the Deptee earned him enough salutes to keep his morale sufficiently high.

He turned around and glanced at the wall clock, two hours to go, he thought to himself. Two hours later the first local would chug out from the yard and the machinery of the station would rouse from its slumber and get to work, barely resting until it was the time for the last train. He glanced at the monitor and there she was. Lost in deep thought, still standing right there. “Two hours” he muttered to himself before he took a deep breath and ventured out into the still night. The RPF sentry had dozed off on the helpdesk sponsored by Suvidha. Good. He walked briskly towards the end of the platform.

Who is this man? Not another havaldar please!” thought Manjula as she saw a man in white approach. He seemed to be some official-authority type man. She wasn’t new to dealing with them, these type of men who signed notices that said ‘By-Order’. They were easy to handle. Bigger egos than her customers. She knew the tricks well but tonight she wasn’t in the mood to negotiate for his permission to stay on the platform.

The green of saree was a brighter shade from the one that the camera had shown him. She is different, yes of course. She was looking at him hesitantly almost begging him to go away. “But I don’t mean any harm, I just wanted to take a good look at you, that’s all” But he couldn’t say it out loud. He walked up to her, hands clenched into tight fists, cleverly hidden in his pockets he couldn’t resist but ask “How much?”. He knew the hard disk in his office was recording this entire encounter so he tried to appear angry. Before she could answer with her fingers, as was the convention, he barked “mooh se bolo, haath se nahi!”

Taken aback by this question and his manner, Manjula blurted out “400”. She would’ve added another zero if this was evening but this man in white was her only hope. Puzzled by his unfazed look, she wondered if she had quoted the right amount.

“Yard ke peeche” he said curtly and turned on his heels. A myriad questions and possibilities ran through his head. Passing the Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) exam had been his greatest achievement in life, why he would risk his entire career (job security and pension and perks and quarters) he didn’t know. By the time he reached his cabin, he had made up his mind. He knew the easier route to the yard, like her, he wouldn’t need to walk across the tracks. Instead if he walked all the way to the south and took the FOB to PF 4, a paved road, restricted for passengers led right to the yard. His absence wouldn't be questioned and he could always say he was on a surprise inspection of the yard.

She got down from Platform and walked through the middle of the tracks. She was following the route of the last train. Where exactly, he hadn't specified but it was okay, she would find her way. A temporary shed built for the workmen in orange, behind the yard is where the man in white was seated. He beckoned her and didn’t speak at all. He handed four crisp 100 rupee notes to her and without a word, started unbuttoning his shirt. With his heart beating twice as fast, Ashok unzipped his pants and waited. For the next few minutes, his heart only beat faster. There were no sounds, akin to an adult film made before the Talkies era began. He was being cautious but each moment seemed worth the risk he had taken. The lady in green was good, no wait, excellent. She was a master, he couldn’t imagine how being impulsive could turn out to be this great. But it had to end and it did. And Ashok found himself, lying under a foggy night sky. The darkest hour of the morning had begun and within a few minutes, the motorman of the first train would wake up. He cleared up and thrust some more notes into her hand. He didn’t have to bid her goodbye, she was gone long before. His expressionless face belied all the excitement and pleasure that he had just experienced.

Manjula hurried back to the station exit, clutching the extra few notes. It was dark and she didn’t know how much it was. She woke up her regular autowallah and reached home only to discover that the man in white had added a generous zero to her remuneration. At the same time, Ashok sauntered into the yard to be greeted by the energetic young motorman of the first train. Acting pompous, as he was expected to, in an official manner he had cultivated in his long years of service, he climbed into the motorman’s cabin and informed him that he was inspecting the yard and expected to be dropped back to the station. The motorman nodded and felt privileged to give the Deptee a ride back and honked longer than required as he put the first local in motion and woke up the entire station.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Superman of King's Circle

I generally walk to places. I choose the bus over autos or taxis but even that involves walking to the bus stop. It’s not that I can’t afford taxis but I simply prefer walking. It is a great way to know a neighbourhood, and that's why to encourage this, we at Breakfree started Walks across Bombay this year. But, walking in Bombay isn’t easy, crossing the road, even at signals is difficult and each time I find myself jaywalking even when the figure on the signal has gone green.

As a child, I was taught Z for Zerba crossing. I didn’t know what that was, never having seen the white stripes painted on the road. Those were meant for pedestrians to walk on to cross over to the other side, when the signal went red. In the suburbs, the concept of a Zebra crossing never existed. I first saw them on a visit to Churchgate, though not many motorists bothered to stick to the boundary line and encroached upon it. Almost as if this would boost their chances of gaining a few precious seconds on their journey. As I grew up and started walking more and more, I began fighting with those who didn't toe the line, shouting at the taxi drivers who hoarded every inch of space reserved for pedestrians. But nothing ever came of it. 




Last Sunday, while I was leading a walk around Matunga we came across the Superman of King's Circle. As we waited to cross over from the Koolar side, we stood and watched an old gentleman clad in a loose red t-shirt monitoring traffic. He stood right where the white stripes were painted and ensured that at each red light, all vehicles stopped and stopped behind the crossing. If a motorist broke the signal and rushed, he would turn around and shout after him. If an eager biker inched forward, he would face the music. Just when we were about to cross, he stood in the middle of the road and stretched his arm wide to stop a speeding BEST bus right before him. The driver slowed down and so did the other vehicles. After about 40 seconds, when the signal went green, he clapped his hands and motioned the vehicles to move. 

He would keep repeating this throughout the evening. Tirelessly, this retired gentleman went about doing a thankless job. I was inspired. His rage was inspiring. In a country, known for its callous attitudes towards basic issues and the infamous chalta-hain attitude, coming across such a man who could very well sit at home, have strong filter kaapi and read The Hindu can’t be anything but inspiring. We've become tolerant to bullshit. We sigh and tolerate traffic offenders, failed institutions, lethargic workers, people who spit on the road and litter the train compartments, mindless political propaganda against migrants, minorities and the list is endless. Where is the outrage? I wonder. We know very well to rant on social media (just like this post) but how many of us take matters into our hands and ensure the rules made for our safety and welfare are followed. We are highly intolerant of each other though, the vast diversity in terms of religion, culture, cuisine, language makes us uneasy, we prefer our own ilk more but we can tolerate every other thing that is really wrong in the country. This attitude, we must change. 


Monitoring and regulating traffic maybe the job of the traffic police but until we deploy highly driven, honest, well paid, traffic personnel at every junction working on an 8 hour shift, I highly doubt if pedestrians will be able to cross over to the other side by walking on that part of the road which is rightfully theirs. Therefore, when people like this man don the role of an informal traffic regulator, I feel that all hasn't been lost. If only, fellows behind the wheel were not in such a hurry and followed traffic rules - the road would be a great place. For a city facing traffic snarls daily, making its streets pedestrian and cyclists friendly could go a long way in solving this problem of congestion on the roads. A lot remains to be done, and I will not give up, but until then, I will be grateful to the Superman in the red t-shirt, who stands at King's Circle and tries.

Photos by: Mohini Bhavsar and Biswajit Dey

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Malwani Sojourn in Dadar

Malwan, for the uninitiated is the southern coastal region of Maharashtra. Covering districts of Ratnagiri and Sindudurg, it is famous for its sun kissed, palm lined virgin beaches, the Alphonso and other varieties of Mango and of course the Malwani cuisine. People from Malwan speak a unique dialect also known Malwani which is a combination of Konkani and Marathi. The soil of Malwan is rich in iron and therefore red, the houses are made of red bricks and the sloping roofs are lined with red tiles. The staple food items include Rice and Fish preparations but Chicken (Kombdi) and Mutton preparations are also eaten quite frequently. 
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMQKsTeovyk]
But my introduction to Malwani was through the television. Numerous Marathi actors hail from this region and their plays, films and songs have an element of this roots. Vastraharan by Machindra Kambli is a masterpiece. It showcases the plight of a few Malvani actors trying to enact the Vastraharan scene from the Mahabharata. A large chunk of the mill workers came from the Konkan. The traces of their presence can be seen at Lalbaug and Parel where the traditional Malwani masala is prepared and sold along with other ingredients traditional to Malwani cooking. Numerous Malwani joints abound in Bombay, very few are authentic. 
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One such unassuming, humble place is Raju's Malvani Corner on Gokhale Road, Dadar, next to Hotel Sachin (which incidentally sells similar fare). Run by Narendra Govind Sawant since over 20 years, this isn't an eatery joint. It's a hand cart with a side kitchen, all set up on the corner of the pavement. Raju, as Narendra is known serves up plates of lip smacking Malwani chicken and fish. On the side, in a large wok filled with piping hot oil batches of vade are being fried. A vada is made of rice flour, udad dal and spices, fried until fluffy and enjoyed with the spicy curries. On a weekday, I trooped over with my friend Rithika to try out their famed Kombdi Vade. The seating, as you might have guessed is on the footpath. Plastic chairs and a table make the set up complete. The streetlight nearby provides good lighting. Perfect. 
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We called for Chicken Saguti and Chicken Sukka, both spicy curries native to Malwan(Although Saguti is served as Xacuti in Goa). The chicken pieces were on the bone and tasted quite awesome with the hot vadas. Our order came along with an extra bowl of curry. There were 4 vadas in a plate but we had to call for another one to polish off all the curry! Folks on the adjoining table called for rice instead. Deep friend Bombil or Bombay duck were next were served hot off the wok. Missed having the sol kadhi but I hear it is very good. Other options include fried Surmai, Prawns and Prawns pulao. The tables are located on a lane going off Gokhale road so it is generally peaceful to enjoy the meal. The only thing missing was the sound of the waves, of the surf breaking on the shore but then again Shivaji Park isn't very far from there . Service is prompt and the food is fresh. Some of the dishes are cooked at home in the Sawant household and hence run out by 9pm or so, especially on weekends. So to sample the best selling items, do visit early and let me know what you thought of the food! 
The items were reasonably priced, Chicken Saguti and Sukka - Rs. 100 each, a plate of Vade Rs. 35 and Bombay duck fry Rs. 70. 
Raju can be found on the corner of Gokhale Road and  Anant Patil Marg. 
Complete address: 1/23 Kubal Niwas, Gokhale Road, Anant Patil Marg, Dadar West, Mumbai, Dadar, Harishchandra Patil Rd, Chandrakant Dhuru Wadi, Dadar West, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400028 Phone:022 2446 2405 ( he is pinned on Google maps too)
Photos by Rithika Kumar

Chai Time in Fort

There are several times when a cutting chai isn't enough at four thirty, the lunch has long been processed and a hunger pang begins to set in. Over the past few years, at this hour, I have found myself hungry, low on cash and standing on the streets of South Bombay. This has led me to find some of the best budget places that offer a sumptuous evening time meal along with some good chai. If you are around, irrespective of whether hungry or not, you should visit these small places that hardly find a mention on the internet but serve authentic stuff. Also, I often end up taking most of my friends to these places if I am catching up, so ditch the 'Bucks and drop by here.



1. Café Bharat, Opp Churchgate Station

Tucked away in a small corner, next to a mini supermarket on Indian Merchant Chambers road Cafe Bharat is a bustling place, complete with a mezzanine floor. Generally overshadowed by the nearby Satkar and even fancier places all around, it goes unnoticed. The food served is simple, delectable and cheap. Puri Bhaji and Misal Pav rule the charts. I always prefer having a plate of Misal with Pav. Misal is nothing but Usal with some farsan thrown in. Usal is a spicy pulses curry eaten with rice otherwise. In this part of town, finding a good Misal Pav is rare unlike in Marathi strongholds like Dadar (Hotel Prakash) or Thane (Hotel Mamledaar). You may opt for the batata vada with some usal which again is a fantastic combination, not available at every outlet. The vada is made in the typical Maharashtrian way with the filling containing good amount of garlic and coriander.

Be prepared to share the table during peak hours.

Misal Pav: Rs. 30

Also, MLA Canteen, next to DGP office.

2. Hotel Deluxe, Pitha street, Fort



Now, Hotel Deluxe deserves not a small mention but an entire blog dedicated to their wondrous food items that they serve. One of the few places in Bombay serving Malabari cuisine, you can visit HD anytime of the day and come out satiated. Sadhya, Fish Thali, Fish Curry, Biryani are served and devoured with great delight during meal times but between 4-7 they have a special menu. Three baskets woven out of coconut leaves are laid on a small table next to the cash counter, filled with three types of snacks. Fried bananas, small vadas, chicken rolls, sweet preparations. The best part is that the options keep changing every day. One can even order for a plate of dosas which are served with a small bowl of fish curry or a dollop of chicken curry! Both curries, typical of Malabari cuisine with a good hint of curry leaves.

The chai is unique too. Served in a tall glass, it isn't milky but neither watery. It is frothy and packs a punch, I generally have it after my dosa and fish curry. I have had several good meals at this place about which I have blogged here and here. Also, it is probably the only place that remains open on Sundays when this bustling business district goes silent.

Meal for one: Under Rs. 50

Non veg options: MLA Canteen next to DGP office for Bhurji, Omlette Pav.

3. Hotel Poornima, on the junction of Bombay House

I am a sucker for south Indian snacks. I can have them at any time of the day. But finding good authentic, Matunga type fare is rare. Therefore, when I visited Poornima the first time, I knew I had found my SoIn place at SoBo. Entering Poornima is like stepping into an era goneby. The decor hasn't changed since the 90s (except for new steel tables on the floor and the cash register), there's no menu (sign of a real South Indian joint) but a board which states that it will be 50 naya paise for extra sambar and two waiters that recite the entire menu each time. They also have a mezzanine floor where orders are taken while on the ground, you have to serve yourself.

I love the Vegetable Upma here along with some coconut chutney. Worth trying are the Mysore Masala dosai, Idli Vadai and Onion Uthappa. And the best part is that they serve good, pure filter coffee (Although, recently they switched to paper cups and ditched the tumbler-dabara combo to save water and time). In the afternoons, they serve a very good veg-thali for Rs. 66.

A snack and coffee here should set you back by Rs. 50

Other Filter Coffee places worthy of mention: Hotel Ramanath, Colaba and Hotel Swagat, off PM Road, Fort.

4. Moti Halwai, Cawasji Patel Marg

Located at a short walk from Horniman Circle or Fountain, Moti is a fairly huge place that dishes up Chole Bature, Samosa Chaat, Kachori, Daal Pakwan and of course Chole Samosa. If you are in the mood for some heavy stuff, Moti should be your stop. They also have a wide variety of sweets on sale. I love trying out the warm Gulab Jamnus on display. Bhajiyas are passable so stick to the Samosa served with some Chole and finish off with a tall glass of special lassi(less creamier version is also available).

Alternatively, you could opt for the special chai which is quite strong and brewed fresh on order.

Meal for one should be again around Rs. 50-60 including a snack and a chai.

Puncham Puri at VT is a good option too.

There's also the Irani - Cafe Military on Nagindas Master Road that starts to serve beer along with Caramel Custard at around 4-5pm.

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I am sure there are plenty of other joints that serve equally delicious and cheap fare in and around Fort. If you have any recommendations, do let me know!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Mystery of the Missing Marble Canopy of Queen Victoria


The year was 1872 when the statue of Queen Victoria was revealed. As per a report that appeared in the Illustrated London News, 8 June, His Highness the Guicowar of Baroda (Maharaj Khanderao Gaikwad?) presented a statue of Queen Victoria to the Victoria Gardens and was unveiled by the Governor of Bombay (Philip Wodehouse). The Victoria and Albert Museum (Now Bhau Daji Lad Museum) was to be its intended home but later it was considered to be too exquisite to be kept indoors. It was later moved to the northern end of Esplanade Road (Mahatma Gandhi road now) and was site of reverence for the locals. 


However, in 1965 this statue along with statues of other foreign sovereigns and administrators were removed from public sites and kept indoors, mostly within government buildings. This statue however was moved back to the gardens of Bhau Daji Lad Museum, its initial home. 


In 1968, under the The Bombay Queen Victoria Statue Site (And Adjoining Land utilization for construction of Satellite Telecommunications, Exchanges of the Overseas Communications Service) Act, 1968 the land was transferred from the BMC to the State Government for the construction of the Overseas Communications building. This was to be known the VSNL building and now of course the Tata Communications building, that stands tall behind the gothic Central Telegraph Office. The adjoining chowk is named after the brave Chapekar Brothers of Pune, who assassinated the Plague commissioner of Pune and his military escort Lt. Ayerst in 1897.

Chapekhar Bothers
However, this post is not about the statue at all, in fact it is about the marble canopy under which the statue of Queen Victoria sat. 



On my last visit to the BDL, I was surprised to find her seated without the canopy and I wondered where it could’ve gone. Whether it was vandalised or just lost to the ravages of time (her majesty’s nose is missing). And then I forgot all about it, until I visited Juhu beach on Sunday. While running on the sand towards the Southern End, I saw something that made me stop in my track. 


A tall structure nearly 20 feet in height, made of white marble stood in the lawn of one of the bungalows facing the beach. It couldn’t be, I thought to myself as I slowed down and traced my steps to the boundary wall of that bungalow. The intricately carved marble canopy stood in front of me, I could make out engravings in Gujarati on the side panel but it was too far off to read clearly. 


A photo of that panel later, with the help of a friend we could decipher words such as Gaekwad, Baroda, 18something and I concluded that it was indeed the canopy made from Sicilian marble in 1872 by Matthew Noble, a famous sculptor from London.



I stood on my toes and peered in to find a lady taking a walk around of the lawn. I called out to her and asked her if it was indeed the canopy, she said ‘I think so, I could confirm and tell you, why don't you come tomorrow?’ On further enquiry it was revealed that the bungalow belonged to the Singhania family (Raymond group) and the canopy had travelled from their residences across Bombay, last being Breach Candy. An online source does mention that the canopy was indeed bought by an Indian industrialist and stands empty in his garden. When I combined Queen Victoria + Vijaypat Singhania on a google search, a small mention of the canopy being present at the Singhania bungalow at Breach Candy showed up on TripAdvisor! Although this needs to be updated it validated the latest info that I had gathered. 


I would urge anyone interested in colonial art and history to make a trip to the surprisingly clean Juhu beach to see this magnificent structure. Although it is a reminder of the relations between the rulers of the princely state and the British Empire, it is also symbolic of the wealth possessed by the king which enabled him to commission such a lavish work of art. Entry into the lawns would be ideal to appreciate the intricacies of the structure better( the news report mentions - The Royal arms are sculptured on the front of the pedestal, and the Star of India on the centre of the canopy. On the enriched part immediately above the statue are the rose of England and lotus of India, accompanied by the mottoes. "God and My Right" and "The Light of Heaven our Guide." Other accessories have been introduced into the design, such as the oak and ivy leaves, respectively the symbols of strength and friendship, adorning the plinths and capitals of the columns; with the oak, ivy, and lotus leaves enriching the mouldings that surround the whole. On the four panels at the sides and back of the canopy are inscriptions in four different languages - namely, in English and in three Indian languages) a look from the periphery is also satisfactory.

But, personally what is even more satisfying is this find. After having wondered about it, the mystery has been solved and I am glad to know that it stands under the shade of many trees, facing the Arabian Sea, in open view, for anyone who notices it. 


Photo credits: Biswajit Dey(@busydey) - Queen Victoria at BDL
Rest - Wikimedia commons and personal clicks 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Palolem on a Personal Note



The first time I read about Palolem was in an article written by Frederick Noronha in a travel book brought out by the Outlook group back in '08. It seemed fascinating, I asked my mother who hails from Goa if she had heard of it, she told me that she hadn't. It seemed puzzling to me, so I asked her if she had heard about Cancona. And that seemed to work, she recalled her time spent at her Aunt's house in Cancona when she was quite young. She spoke very fondly of her aunt, who wasn't related to her but was a neighbour while they lived in Mahim. But as it is with most neighbours, she was as good as a close relative. Years passed and she eventually moved to Ulhasnagar and from there to Cancona where she ran a small eatery. Mom fished out two photos of her, one taken at her home while the other taken at Mallikarjun Temple. Rajani Naik, a plump, jolly looking woman smiled at me. She had a exuberant smile and I wondered if I would ever meet her. 

Last year, in November just before heading on an impromptu visit to Palolem I decided to locate the Naik family. I had photographs, their full names and some very vague directions to their house from the bus stand at Cancona. Nevertheless, by habit I ran a google search and I was surprised to see her name in a PDF file listing beneficiaries of a house renovation scheme of the Goan State government. It also contained her full address and the name of the locality - Chawadi. I was very eager on making this trip now, apart from the beach itself, this trip had acquired a new meaning. 

That Saturday afternoon, after some very poor Goan pulao at one of the shacks I hired an auto to go to Chawadi. At the auto stand, I began my enquiry. I approached two pilots standing there with their bikes, I asked them about the Naik's and one of them seemed to know her. I showed them the photographs and he quite blatantly stated that she was bed ridden, very ill and would pass away any moment. He offered to take me there for Rs. 30 since it was 3km away from the auto stand. I hesitated, doubting his recognition. I enquired about her son and he seemed to recognise him too. He directed me to the eatery that wasn't too far away. The Khanaval or as an eatery is locally known was located in a small lane, just off the main market road. A ramshackle structure, complete with red tiled roof. Inside there was a small eating hall with plastic tables and a smaller kitchen from which wafted the smell of fried fish. I entered and approached the man frying fish, he was her elder son, S. I recognized him from the photo. I quickly introduced myself and showed him the photographs. He was elated, he remembered my mother's vacation there. He must've been a child back then but remembered everybody quite fondly. 





The Goan hospitality soon kicked in and I was ushered to the nearest table and a fish thali was quickly laid out in front of me. It was simple but delectable food, very reminiscent of my grandma's cooking. A welcome change from the tasteless, expensive food served at the shacks back at the beach. My companions for the meal was an eclectic mix of professionals. Bank officials, Insurance agents, traders and even the local Postman was present. I wiped my plate clean and her son, S offered to take me to their home. In a few moments we were zipping across grasslands and fields, drongos flitted about on wires as we made our way through the typical Goan countryside. We pulled in front of the house, made of brick and a corrugated tin roof. He led me inside and we turned to the right, into a small room with pink walls. A marathi dance competition played on the 14 inch CRT, an old fan whirred overhead and on the small cot lay a frail old lady.

S, tried to explain to his mother who I was.. It took her a few moments and eventually she remembered my mother, her siblings and Mahim. S returned to the eatery to clean up and promised to meet me later. Rajani aaji(Grandma) enquired about the other siblings and explained how she had ended up like this. She had fallen down on her tailbone six months ago, to relieve her pain they saw a doctor. The doctor saw nothing but a minor injury and recommended rest and iodex. The injury was far more serious than what the doctor diagnosed. In a few months, they realised that water had formed near her spine. Sooner, she lost mobility in both her legs and she was bed ridden. Her appetite dropped and she lost weight rapidly, from her plump figure she had reduced to only skin and bones. Wrinkled flesh hung from her arms and she was completely immobile, below the waist. Her eyes welled up with tears as she recounted her story. She spoke in a slow, tired voice but she was absolutely coherent. We spoke about a lot of things, of her life and times in Bombay, her move to Goa, the death of her younger son, of the vacation that my mom had spent there. She explained sadly that she had to wear diapers, and the room had to be sanitised regularly. It did smell like a hospital ward but it did not bother me. I held her hand while she spoke.

She had stopped eating completely and her diet largely consisted of water and some juices. We both marvelled at how we had ended up meeting after all these years and how computers were such a wonder. She told me that she was exhausted of living and she just wanted to close her eyes and sleep peacefully. I assured her that she would get well very soon and be walking about. But we both knew that it wasn't going to be so. It was incredible how close I felt to her, someone whom I had never met but had only heard of. We seemed like old friends, sharing stories of our lives with each other, catching up as they say. I updated her on all the recent happenings related to my mother’s siblings, the passing away of my grandfather and other such details. After what seemed like almost an hour, we sat for a few moments in silence and watched kids perform a mix of hiphop and bollywood dance moves on the TV. Her daughter in law served me tea and I drank in silence. 

Just after tea, I bade farewell and decided against taking her photograph as I had initially planned in order to show it to my mother. I didn't want her to see her favourite aunt like this. A passing biker gave me a lift upto Chawadi and S greeted me with a pack of cashewnuts. He asked me to visit again and told me that I now had family back in Cancona, so I could count on them when in Goa. He dropped me back to Palolem, another 3 km away. We exchanged numbers and promised to meet again. As I walked back to my beach hut, I couldn't stop thinking about the past few hours. How many memories I was taking with me, how incredible it all had been. I really hoped that she would get well soon.

On reaching Bombay, I passed on his number to my mother and my aunt. They rang him up after a few days and he informed them that Rajani aaji passed away on Wednesday. We were mildly shocked at the turn of events, but also quite relieved. Her suffering had ended and she was free. The entire meeting seemed all a matter of chance, had I gone there the weekend after, I might have never met her, she would’ve always remained a legend to me. She wouldn’t have known that my mother still remembered her fondly and her memories were cherished, even after all these years. For me, it was another lesson that travel had taught me. It was important to reach out to the people who once meant something to you, and had drifted away over time for some reason or the other, it didn't matter how far they were. You just have to make that trip, before it is too late.




Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cutting Chai on SV Road

I looked up from my laptop and saw her moving away. She was nearing the glass door that led to the lobby which led to the main gate which opened out to the SV Road. This office on the ground floor didn't give us the time to meet in the elevator and share that little awkward time, which definitely leaves some possibility for small talk. There were no water coolers either and Chotu, from housekeeping got us a glass of water when we asked him to. So no small talk there too, no ice to break. The restrooms were at the each end of the hall, separate for Gents and Ladies. But there was the lobby, so I thought of running to meet her in the lobby and ask her if she wanted to have the pumpkin spiced latte at the new Starbucks that everyone cool seemed to be raving about. I personally didn't like pumpkin except in the Sambar from Ram Ashraya. She seemed the sort who hung out at 'Bucks and had frozen yoghurt for dinner. But by the time, I locked my screen and wore my shoes ( I like to sit without my shoes, even at the dinner table but would that be okay if I were at Starbucks?) she was out of sight.

I thought of running bare feet and accosting her in the lobby or maybe on SV Road directly but then thought against it. Tomorrow, I would set a reminder and wear my shoes and lock my screen much in advance, I promised myself. All this excitement had left my weak bladder flustered so I slipped on my shoes and made my way to the far end of the room, the Gentswala Toilet. There were no urinals, only two Englishstyle toilets and a wash basin and above it, hung a mirror that reflected the light of the setting sun. I made way to the commode, picked up the lid and without bothering to shut the door behind me, emptied my tired bladder into it. As I was enjoying the feeling of eternal relief flowing through me, I heard the door of the restroom open.

In sauntered a happy looking Sumesh, the Associate Area Manager and my team leader, singing an old Dev Anand song. He seemed in an unusually good mood(we were no where close to our targets) and hollered out to me. "Bhaeee, waat is up with you yaar! Waat you doing?" When you were talking to Sumesh, he considered you his brother. Clients, chotu, colleagues, interns and even occasionally our boss everyone became his brother. Our MICA return boss frowned each time that happened and continued to work, he was not to be bothered by such things.

What I was doing was quite evident so I instead asked him why he was in such a exuberant mood as I zipped up and came out to wash my hands. He was looking at himself in the mirror, surveying his right cheek, looking for any hints of the five 'o clock shadow. There was none, his fair cheek shone like that of an adolescent boy after his first shave. "Bhai, kuch nahi yaar, bus ek chotti see meeting hain" he replied as he tried to comb the last remaining strands of hair over his balding plate. Could a meeting make anyone so cheerful, I wondered in my head.

I didn't like this fellow too much so I said bye to him and made my way out for a chai as he whipped out his iPhone and tried to command Siri in a fake accent, which Siri always had a hard time figuring out. Chottu was useless, I thought. He would never bring us chai. The chai stall was across the road, across the compound overlooking the talao. I pushed the glass door and reached the lobby. On the black fake leather sofa, I saw her sitting, furiously typing something into her phone. She barely noticed me and I didn't want to interrupt. Tomorrow was the day, I promised myself and walked over to the tapri.

The chai had been boiled over three times minimum since four 'o  clock, there was just a hint of ginger in it but it was comfortably hot. A few cormorants were basking in the evening sun, perched on the defunct fountains that were installed as a beautification project by the Municipality public. I tried to spot any other evening visitors but there were none. I turned around and looked at the office entrance, the glass building seemed dusty, it reflected hazy moving images of the traffic back to SV Road but concealed very well all that happened within itself. Right then, the watchman was swung the gates open. I saw a shiny new green sedan pull out on the SV Road. The unmistakable shiny green sedan belonged to Mr. Sumesh which he had purchased last month for 8.76 lacs, which everyone at the office was aware of.

It took a u-turn and turned south, it was about to pass me, I wanted to look back towards the talao and avoid his gloating goodbye. But right then through the windshield I caught a glimpse of her. She was seated next to him, smiling stupidly as he probably droned about his trip to Pattaya and the villa that he rented out just for himself (and the two Thai women, that all male colleagues were familiar with). The sedan sped past the stall and I caught a glimpse of his gloating smile. I hated that look, him only showing me the thenga was remaining, I thought angrily. I ordered another cutting and let the hot brew soothe my burning insides as I watched them drive towards Hill road.