My first memories of Bombay were when we arrived at Victoria Terminus from Jamshedpur via the Bombay Mail. The journey had taken almost 2 days, but in those days travelling by sleeper class was one of the most fun things we could do. It signified the start of a holiday. Something new, something different from the cosy sofa where I would lie curled up reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys with a faithful bottle of Lehar Pepsi next to me.
I would climb onto the side upper bunk, which till this date remains my favourite part of the train and watch everybody who passed by and the lives of the other people in the compartment. The sleeper class is a place full of magic realism. I remember one early morning, the man below and across me just got off from the train floor where he was sleeping with a thick kambal to keep off the cold and the rats; he got off the floor, shrugged off the kambal, fumbled for a bit and then proceeded to urinate in the cabin, right in front of him. At dawn, the compartment doors would open, and along with the cold morning air, wiry men would clamber up with steaming kettles and earthen cups of chai. My first memories of chai. Mom would gleefully order, and I would complain about not getting a sip, to no avail. It was only chocolate milk for us. Or Maaza, or Pepsi. One of my fondest memories of the train are when Archi and I kept taking moongphalis and putting them in people’s hair as they passed by. We eventually got caught, but what fun it was.
So we arrived in Bombay, with the customary haggling with the coolie, the tired trek to a taxi, far, far away. We crammed into said taxi and as the first light of dawn was breaking on a city I remember smelled tangy, salty & musty, we were off. I was in the corner, taking as little place as possible, Dad in front, Archi safely on the other end where I wouldn’t ‘tease’ her. And then I saw them. These strange, tall, black symbols of technology and progress – blinking slowly in orange. On every large road, they were there flanking it. I had vague memories of it from TV and books, so I knew that they were traffic lights and didn’t ask about them. I only stared, my hair flying in the wind, as orange blinking light after orange blinking light passed me by. And I remember, as clear as day, that I wanted to come back to this city when I grew up.
I was driving earlier than usual in the morning the other day, and it happened again, line after line of orange blinking lights, the wind in my hair. Sometimes, your childhood dreams come true without you actually working towards it and then you remember suddenly that you had dreamt this once. It brought me closer to the city that has given me everything.
A place that is more home, than home is.
Reminds me of how excited we all got when the news first broke that we were moving to Jamshedpur. We lived in a small coal colony called West Bokaro. I spent most of my first 5 years there. I have very few memories of the place and what happened in it, but the ones I have, are like they were yesterday. The sun filtering in from the verandah as I chased Mum into the kitchen, got placed on the sill, and ate half a box of freshly baked sponge cake. The neighbours voices as they called out to me. The little boy who pushed me down the pre-school stairs. Walking with Dad to the local club and asking for Gopot, my first fizzy cola. Kitty parties where my parents, Mehmood Uncle, Dolly Aunty and some other close friend would laugh for hours. Harsh hiding the stereo system under the guest-house bed and leaving me completely puzzled about where this lovely Wham music was coming from. Jumping on the sofa. Riding on Chris’ giant, sexy Yezdi – virtually sitting on the headlamps. I have no idea how he convinced Mom that it was safe, but anyway.
But we left all of that for a better life. From a coal town to an industrial hub. And I went from there to a commercial hub. And then to its suburbs. Who knows what the future holds. But as I approach 30 years of walking this earth, I am ever grateful for living in interesting times. But I would like to go back home, sooner, rather than later.