Monday, August 18, 2008

A safe place

Coming into this world is the moment after which the society takes over. The divides, the rich and poor, the differences start showing. In a mother’s womb, the poor womb or the rich womb, it is of no significance, the differences, the understanding that things could be good or bad. It is all quiet and safe in the warm and dark of the nest, and eyes are closed. When the darkness turns to light and the eyes open the maddening crowd takes over.

That summer day what I witnessed under Jogeshwari Bridge clung with me the whole day and for many days after. Why do they give birth when they cannot feed themselves, when they cannot shelter themselves? I was angry at all the poor, at the world, at all of them for the world a poor homeless baby is born into. I was angry for all the babies born on the roads. I wish they can stay in the womb for ever. The wombs where they are not poor, not home less, not without food, not caught in the traffic between the worlds and traffic of this world. I wish they could have the safety of a mother’s womb forever.

It was a day I was going to the Goregaon office. Goregaon office is closer from Powai, where I used to stay, and the office also starts a little late. My work primarily being with the big boss who in any case would take a little longer than others to come, not that he came late but that was his usual as he worked late, I decided to start from home at 9.

Machinder was on time as usual. And one thing which he never grudged me was the FM station which I played. I was the only one in that pool car who had the taste for old Hindi melodies and when alone we played and sometimes even sang with the radio.

The new link road was coming into being at a pace that will put a tortoise to sleep. In fact the World Bank, who is sponsoring the project, must want to sleep over it now. But I guess it is too late for them now, they will have to keep funding this slow monster till it relieves the tired roads of uptown Bombay.

Qualis (7075) was moving on nicely that day. The day was beautiful, as beautiful as a hot summer morning can be in Bombay. The town was slowly coming to life. The cars, taxis, auto-rickshaws, red BST monsters were all struggling for their space on the road with the extended shops, the parking lots carved out of whatever portion of the link road was finished, the municipality dumps waiting for the trucks, which never appeared to relive them of the load they accumulated at a rapid pace, the scavengers, both human and animals, at work which some municipality worker was being paid to do. There was a struggle on every inch of that road. Struggle to make a living on the road and to live on that road, both by the humans and the animals. Struggle by the millions of vehicles in that forever crawling traffic to use the road as a road.

We reached Jogeshwari Bridge without any incident, any incident out of the usual for a Bombay road. Here was waiting us a sea of stuck vehicles. Machinder smiled in a way that conveyed what I already knew, it will be a while before we move.

A traffic crossing on a Bombay road, or for that matter most of Indian cities but more so Bombay, is a small township in its own way. You can buy almost all basic necessities here. You are late for a party and you don’t have time for flowers, use the time you spend on a red light or a traffic jam. Books, all accessories for decorating a vehicle, newspapers, magazines, fruits, groundnuts, peanuts, sweet candies, pens, combs, nail cutters, key chains, guide maps for the city, electronic gadgets smuggled from China. Name a thing and it is there for you on every crossing in Bombay. It is also the business area of the beggars and the eunuchs (they don’t classify themselves as beggars, they are more like snatchers). As if the red light stops are made to be utilized for business. This kind of efficient use of time probably only happens in India and why not we spend a considerable time on the roads waiting for the vehicles to move. The working hours of the businessmen of a crossing get extended with a traffic jam. Traffic jams mean more business for the town that lives on crossing.

It literally is a town. With every inch on the pedestrian walk way occupied by those who come to the golden city chasing dreams, dreams of jobs, work and no hunger. There are small groups huddled together, identifying families and little territories marked by one or two bags of luggage lying around. Everywhere there are toddlers playing at their will, miraculously not getting crushed by the sea of vehicles. The million blowing horns and sounds of vehicles is music to this town. This is where they live. Live with a dream of making it big. Whatever big they aspire to be. Away from their roots, their lands, their own people, and away from their share of clean air, their air. This is where they eat, sleep, make love, give birth and this is where some die still holding on to that dream.

I sometimes wonder where they go in monsoons and especially when Bombay gets four months of it.

Now there was a commotion in the little groups of families under the bridge. Initially I could not make out what was happening. Slowly, the drama unfolded in front of me. I saw the pain on woman’s face and her pregnant belly at the same time and for only that instant. Suddenly, three ladies stood on three sides blocking the view from the traffic and the world with the sarees they were wearing. A small fire was lit and water kettle put on. The cries of the woman in labor were no match for the sound of the traffic. Every driver from every car was blowing their horn as if they were crying in pain, as if they were unknowingly sharing the woman’s labor, as if all of them were going to deliver a gift to this world together. Then I saw the midwife, I assume she was the midwife, lifting the baby up. I saw that tiny face with eye’s closed. In a moment the baby opened the eyes and took in view the world was offering this morning. I think the world scared the baby and the baby started to cry, and as if in answer to the baby's cry, the traffic moved.

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