Monday, July 21, 2008

Chapter 1: Footnotes removed

CHASE THE SHADOWS

All stories start off with an anomaly or an aberration. This one’s no better.

I cannot fathom how a mistaken platform could have set into motion a train of events that I, in fact, no one could have foreseen. But it did happen and starts off with a train indeed. Let’s come back to that in a few pages.

For now, I am in one of the infamous, dirty, environmentally unfriendly yellow black brutes that define the transportation of Bombay city (I do not believe in changing place names. For more information, continue reading). The traffic crawls, inching together in a long line of pollution spewing ants. I am trying to breach this serpentine queue with the help of my benevolent driver; who, by his incessant inconsequential chatter isn’t helping my cause a wee bit.

We are trying to reach V.T sweetie (Victoria Terminus. Bombay’s central and oldest station. Now named Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. Of course, we liberals still call it V.T. Am I incurring the wrath of a certain SS here, not the Nazi one folks), but I am despaired. I gotta board a train for Nagpur in exactly 25 minutes and I hate to admit it, but I am running late. My efforts in achieving this seemingly insurmountable task seem stymied.

I take a moment of my treasured time to glance around and take in the sights (Slums: The word itself screams out apathy. I have very strong views on the subject as you will soon find out). Jokes apart, think of the Victorian or Gothic or Saracen or whatever influenced architecture. It’s quite worthwhile and reminiscent of the colonial era.

All that we can conjure up is the image of the slums and we are obsessed about this sensitive issue (Guffaw). For everything and anything that happens we blame it on the slums. Power cuts which were unrelenting in the rest of the state, are now, forgive us Holy Father, torturing us in this harsh mega polis too (Well almost, the suburbs for sure. For amusement, I do the courtesy of calling up a friend who stays in New Bombay during his scheduled power cut and brag about the cooling prowess of the newest Hitachi air conditioner).

Shortage of water, lack of space on roads or lack of roads altogether, expensive real estate or no real estate, crimes, evils; lack and excesses of everything that can ail a city are undeservingly blamed on the slum dwellers (Our politicians deserve a fair share of the credit too).

Our city fathers love the word drive. It starts off with cleanliness drives, then come the literacy drives, health drives, human rights drives et al (No sexual drives unfortunately). After all this, when there is nothing better to be done, there come the eviction drives. After a couple of days of relentless flattening, small skirmishes, breaking news coverage, the city forgets the issue and moves on.

The evicted are back of course, with their mobile homes. Television sets, fans, cots and the entire armory. Let us not forget these people have somehow ended on the voter lists (A mystery; the answer to which still eludes me despite meticulous research) and thus hold quite an influential vote bank for some of our esteemed small time politicians, whose only claim to fame is a photograph in the newspapers talking of human rights violations. Their ignorance and reasoning could put Martin Luther King to shame.

If you want a crash course in the art of packing, unpacking, moving and then doing it all over again in a few hours; you gotta talk to these experts with inputs from our hawkers.

Darn! I warned you I have strong feelings on the subject.

I am about to miss the only train that has a ticket booked in my name and all I can think about is these (These, spoken with a mime that can be best described as when you inadvertently and unluckily step on a pile of cow shit) things. I feel hopeless and helpless. The ‘real’ Napster in the Italian Job comes to mind (Charlize was hot; the only reason why I watched the movie in the first place). I wish I could have put fours years of computer engineering to some better use!

Mind you, I am still taking in the sights. I pass through an area called Reay Road hoping against hope that it wasn’t named after some Lord Reay because the poor sod must be turning in his grave now (An old hackneyed joke. What’s happening to my appreciable sense of humor! I am telling you it’s the traffic).

There are slums on both sides of the road; a quarter or more of each side thus being occupied. This area is exclusively for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The city has a stupendous mix of localities where people of different religions or regions stay in harmony normally resembling an ethnic stew pot (During riots or clashes, these pots boil over). There are places of segregation where only one community resides (During the same riots, these areas turn into bastions or massacre grounds dependant upon demographic factors).

All thanks to Bombay being a permanent magnet for all downtrodden South East Asians (To be trodden down even more over here). You need asylum, are a defector, don’t have no money, come to Bombay honey. Allow me another stale joke here. It still circulates because it is good. It says that Bombay probably has more Bangladeshis than the original country itself. Mercifully, Pakis are unwelcome and absent.

Bombay doesn’t have roads; it has alleys between buildings and slums.

There is a magical clearing and my taxi lurches forward passing inconveniently close through two cumbersome trucks (Really close shave that. I even forgot to record my thoughts for that moment). A tot playing in his private asphalt park screams as he dives for the safety of his roadside shanty (He didn’t need to do that. My taxi was far off. These kids can’t resist showing off. In return, a smile and a hearty snarl to him).

We cross a few blocks and enter an area full of glossy multiplexes and malls and the usual junk made of glass and concrete.

What a brawl! From a chawl to a mall in the blink of an eyeball.

That’s our city on a silver platter to you. For anything that it maybe, it holds something very special for anyone who has lived here for howsoever much a brief time. When you travel in the overcrowded, stuffed, reeking (I have a hundred other flavored adjectives, or call it expletives, in my arsenal) trains fit for cattle; you hurl obloquy’s at everyone in sight. But then you develop a certain sense of camaraderie that you are all part of something magnanimous; you share the same feeling with ten million other sweating and stinking people.

The city of dreams. The city that turns millions of people into people of millions.

Ahhh! I am almost at my destination now. The cabbie has done a good job. Five minutes before time. Funny how engrossed I was in my own thoughts. I should do this soliloquizing more often in my oft boring lectures.

I get out with a typical flourish holding my minuscule bag in one hand. I heavily tip the cabbie despite the fact that tipping taxi drivers isn’t prevalent here (I am of a generous nature, see).

The sky is overcast and its windy, a combination I detest. This can be presumed to be heartening or relieving anywhere in India but Bombay. The rains flood us for days on end (The last time round; I didn’t have a bath for a week. I still remember the stench. And I was stuck in New Bombay where there was least flooding!) and the wind whips up the dust like a blazing twister stinging our precious eyes.

I don’t even know the platform number for my train (Not that I can be blamed about it. Platform numbers are confirmed only around the time of the departure). It’s about Five Thirty, rush hour. Made a mistake, shoulda taken the St. George entrance. This one has all the local commuters streaming in and out continuously. I take in a deep breath and wade inside (Careful Watson, these are deep waters). In an instance I am pulled limb to limb. Excruciating pain is exerted on my weak appendages as my little bag tries to break free. Despite this, I stand there defiant like Leonidas (Okay, without the six pack. But at least I don’t have to resort to a ‘Hoo’ every time I move one step forward). A coupla people get pushed around in the melee but I stabilize. Securing my bag, I look around for the electronic display boards.

Heck! They are on the other side of the station. I strain my ears to hear some kind of an announcement, tcchh, too much static. The babble of human mouths around me is so great that they couldn’t hear an air raid siren or better, Scarlett Johansson begging out for a fuck. I look out for the person best fit to answer my query, a porter.

There is a rapacious looking old bugger dressed in the reds of the coolies slightly ahead of me, waiting for a poor victim. He looks at my only bag and scowls; I ain’t a customer (At his age, I will need to push the trolley if I give him my light bag, with him inside it).

Nagpur ka train?” I ask.

He points outside, bares his tobacco stained broken teeth and says with a mischievous grin, “Not there” (Heck, another smartass. Age not withstanding, I would love to give him a piece of my mind. When cornered in such situations, I put my mastery of the English language to good use putting people in their places. Not now though. Got a train to catch).

I scream out, “Which platform?” (Okay, maybe it resembled more a desperate cry than a loud scream)

“13”, says he grinning even more. I could fit my curled fist into that mouth. Maybe harassing hapless passengers gives him a kick during the course of a dry, monotonous day. Whatever, I don’t care (Raining Blood by Slayer plays in the far reaches of my subconscious; curdling my blood).

I start to move. Not run per se, skedaddle or scamper or whatever you may call it. Whatever it is, a bull Minotaur would have been proud.

Only a couple of minutes left now. I jogged almost 4kms a day regularly until about a month back. My muscles are already close to bursting with the short sprint; sucking the air out of my lungs (The smoking negates all the strenuous exercise. Worth it, I say).

I shove the unlucky traveler who happens to come across me with my spare hand and somehow still lug on to my bag. A couple of people shout at me. Not justified words of exasperation, but proper sweet hardcore cuss words. I cry out a few apologies to the agitated and startled people (I can retort back. And I don’t give a damn about the inconvenienced. But this is no time to pick a fight).

The platforms pass by in a jiffy. I am still on the gallop. Some train honks its departure signal. I have a bad feeling about this.

One last burst. Number 13 is here. Just beyond the general bogeys are the reserved ones, all of the latter interconnected. I board the nearest reserved one. I can change bogeys later from the inside (One ulterior reason behind this is that I get to check out quite a few compartments. There might just be a good lone chick that could make this journey a little bearable).

My primary task being accomplished, I look around the bogey I have climbed into. My fellow passengers all glare at me (I am used to such things, such adulation! I have longish hair, kind of wavy, excessively so at the ends; a pair of neck-phones is always wrapped around my neck. I am thin, girls getting envious types thin and am profusely sweating and panting for breath right now. Effectively, screaming out for attention).

The sultry stale air inside the bogey does not help much. In addition to that, there is a dour smell that yells out alcohol. No problems with that. But it smells more of hooch than Jack Daniels or even RC. That is disgusting. I suspect it is the group of middle aged guys playing cards to the right. Morons, haven’t they heard of the golden paradigm? Drink anything but desi and travel. It stinketh. Heck, even I love to take a swig secretly on a journey once in a while. What use! No wasting my breath over it.

I flash a schoolboy grin at everyone, getting sneering lips and frowning eyes in retaliation. The grin persists though. I have boarded a train in the nick of time. I know more about anything and everything than the rest of the bogey combined. I shouldn’t care about such ignoramuses (Again, a standard comment to comfort myself when pinned down).

I move further and enter the air conditioned bogeys and spot a tall girl bearing an hour glass figure accentuated at the chest-line and rear end and sporting highlights in her hair (A very seductive combination; a good body and highlights. There is something about highlights. It all relates to her going down and the hair covering her face. The very thought makes me perspire).

My countenance changes to one with an air of maturity and authority. I turn to her and ask the bogey number. There is this slightest trace of huskiness in her voice. My senses tingle even more (A husky moan rings in my ears!).

It turns out to be mine. Oh Lord, thanks a lot! Now how about some charm and luck to relieve this poor female soul of her worries. My seat is diagonally opposite to hers. This could be a very profitable journey indeed.

I strike up a trivial conversation and within a minute know that she is a final year Arts Student at one of the South Bombay colleges. Time to churn up the old archives in my brain on Goethe, Dickens and Michelangelo et al. She seems pretty intelligent for her looks and for a change I stop thinking about my clandestine intentions (I ain’t no pervert. A higher calling is exchange of knowledge along with an intelligent conversation. Yeah, and if it gets me in bed with her, so much the better).

Somewhere in there amongst the lines. I get her name, Vinamrata, and since it’s a pretty big name to call out every time, her friends call her Nam.

We are discussing the intricate problems intertwined with the Education System when,

“Excuse me, what is your seat number?” It’s a young management executive complete with a black laptop bag and the whole shebang. They all look the same, ugly tie and formal wear at 38 Degree Celsius. Probably sleeps in it too.

“Its number 12,” I say, annoyed at the interruption.

“Can I have a look at your ticket?” and before I can definitely ask him to sod off, he continues, “Because even I have the same ticket number.”

With indifference, I hand it over to him.

He peers at it through his shitty glasses, looks at me, and back to the ticket. He has a quizzical expression on his face which turns to a puckered brow and then the slightest hint of a smirk.

“Oh yes, even your ticket number is the same, and even the bogey number. Just that it is of a different train. Your ticket here says the Howrah Mail and this train unfortunately happens to be the Vidarbha Express.”

With a klaxon ringing loud in my ears, I turn to Nam. To my consternation her look affirms the man’s claims.

It is difficult to surmise how it feels when you run in opposite directions at a station within a span of 10 minutes. It feels idiotic, humiliating in the least. I can reproach myself for not looking at the display board when I got onto the train, for trusting the porter who inadvertently gave me the platform number of the more popular train to Nagpur and not the Howrah Mail which goes to Calcutta via Nagpur. I, Nikhil Kanetkar (Sorry, in the chaos of the journey, I forgot to introduce myself. My friends call me Nikhil Kane (pronounced Cane) or only Kane or Nick Kane which has somehow over the years become distorted to Nikon and that’s what they call me now), a library of knowledge, progenitor of a hundred brilliant ideas and an IQ of 180 foiled by sheer happenstance.

No time for blame. The time spent in recrimination is best spent in not repeating that mistake (Or something like that, Rudolf Gloder in Making History by Stephen Fry).

I rush through the infuriating crowd slowing down for a nanosecond near the Electronic Display board. One part of my brain registers the platform number while the other half computes the distance to the platform, probable time left for the train’s departure, various interrupts like the crowd etc.

I can see a train starting to pull out of the station. I will use a revised version of last time’s technique and get onto any bogey. Within ten or so minutes the train will stop at Dadar for a couple of minutes. Will change there.

Great minds always think of the larger picture. I am a few meters away from the rapidly moving train. As my brain processes the required velocity and jump distance, it overlooks a minor thing: Indians, and their dirty habits. My brain sends the required parameters to my limbs and at the moment of leaping; my feet in all their exercised glory step over a fruit skin. Without an alternative solution developed by my brain to this contingency, my feet do what they think best. They slip. I lose my balance and fall, head on.

I raise my head and see the train move out. My momentous journey has come to an end.

Everything seems to have stopped still around me. Even the frenetic crowd seems to have thinned down. Bruised, humiliated, I get myself on my dear, once proud, feet.

I gather my bag and head to the nearest tap. My upper lip is numb and badly cut. I sluice the dust and the blood off (All this after I check my headphones. That is Priority Number 1). I brush the grime on my clothes and set my totally devastated hair right. It already feels much better.

I make my way across the station and stare at the interiors, which many people, including me, overlook most times. A defeated warrior emerges from the station and heads to the taxi stand.

Given my feelings on the subject of monsoons in Bombay; the misty and nippy air does cheer me up (I am from Konkan, between the sea and the Sahyadri Hills to the East. The monsoons transform it into a very beautiful place indeed. I always long to be there in June when it starts).

A huge beastly black cloud hovers up in the sky (I am in half a mind to scream, ‘The Martians are here, run for your lives. It’s Independence Day all over again. Except, not one person here will understand the joke). I utter a short prayer to Zeus, the Greek Lord God who also happens to control rain (Not Indra, the Indian Rain God, mind you. My trust in Indian Gods is lesser than the Indian people which in turn is lesser than the telemarketers that hound us, who incidentally also happen to be Indian. End of matter there, I can keep going on for lines); I don’t have a windcheater, or an umbrella. Please let it not rain, please let it be a huge passing cloud on its way to bomb Santacruz, let the people there drown. Just don’t want to get wet after this ordeal.

Indra gets angry at my rebuke, and it begins. The trickles converge into massive droplets and plummet down. All the acid of Bombay as a shower of blessings. People around me run helter skelter with their hands, newspapers, books, bags protecting their heads (Idiots. No respect for books. They deserve to have it the other way round).

I on the other hand am calm, and walk steadily yet purposefully towards a taxi (Don’t want to trip over again. I have also heard a theory that you get wetter if you run). My hair is plastered down with a ton of sulphuric acid by the time I am in it.

Traffic slows to a standstill and the taxi makes its way through the potholed roads. Need to hurry up. The potholes are just about filling up. I would give it an hour before the drains choke up and start spewing their dirtiness onto the roads.

In a semi-slumber state, I dream of hills, the inescapable mist, the fresh breeze mating with the fragrance of wet Earth, the waterfalls, gushing down, fair and sparkling, the rivers; red in their fierceness and the green, most of all, the green. The evergreen forests strike up a lush green that no painter, no computer or image processor, but only your mind can recreate.

It seems like no time before I reach my destination. A great colony with a quaint garden (A rarity in this part of town) in a not so good area. I live in Everdale Apartments at Sewri in Central Mumbai a few kilometers away from Dadar. I didn’t board the train at Dadar as I intended to buy a few gift CD’s for a couple of friends; which never materialized thanks to the traffic.

I share digs with a classmate of mine, Rufus the Roof Pus. Commuting to my engineering college all the way in New Bombay is a pain everyday but easily compensated by the charm of staying in a central area. Another reason is it belongs to an uncle of Rufus’s who’s settled in the USA and its free. A 15 grand a month apartment for free. Sewri also happens to be almost centrally located, being 20 minutes from Mondy’s or Leopold’s and 25 minutes from Toto’s. We measure distances in terms of the time required to the best watering holes of the city!

Rufus is going to have a gala time laughing at me. He warned me about the traffic, said a friend of his had informed him that there was some major pre-monsoon digging work going around near Dockyard Road. Needless to say, I ignored his warning.

I stumble my way through the stairs onto our first floor apartment. The bugger ain’t home. He must have gone to the Sports Bar at Phoenix Mills to watch the ongoing Euro Cup match.

I take a shower, a cozy warm water bath that instantly rejuvenates my battered ego. Supper is a packet of instant Maggi noodles with a hot cup of lemon tea.

The rains are pouring outside. I can only hear the ceaseless thudding as all windows are closed. I hope Rufus returns before the outpour worsens and the Lower Parel area floods over.

I am dog-tired, yet can’t muster any semblance of a sleep. I pick some unknown author’s book from Rufus’s table. One that I haven’t read (A rare occurrence that). It takes precisely one page of benevolent bullshit before I slip into a coma.

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5 Comments:

At October 31, 2008 at 5:03 PM , Blogger Pagan Winter said...

I am waiting...

 
At December 10, 2008 at 11:22 PM , Blogger sonya said...

Here, I give u my honest unsullied opinion (n hope that’s what u were looking for) ...first few lines reminded me of Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone-esque humor...ofcourse with a better narrative and richer vocabulary (for a boy :P) ...but the humor got much better ( I was proved wrong) ...n it was downright amusing (in a good way)...
So your protagonist is a Maharashtrian fella...tht explains the undertone of 'library of knowledge' persona in his narrative...we are a community of sophisticatedly brilliant people:P and the pervert-ish side to the character...well I guess boys just can’t help it...at least he is embracing it..
I am no writer but if I had to offer some critique I wld say u cld work on the length...it might need some more editing
I might a bit prejudice in my opinion because I have a certain proclivity toward themes involving Mumbai...In all I thought it was certainly an entertaining and a very enjoyable read :)

Sonia

 
At December 14, 2008 at 11:46 PM , Blogger Wendol said...

@ Sonya, thanks! Although Chetan Bhagat is kinda demeaning ;-) He is the lastest thing on planet Earth I would like to emulate. You will see the layered and varied emotional spectrum of Nikhil in the next chapter! But your review is highly inspiring.
As a note of thank you to my only two readers, expect Chapter 2 and maybe 3 in your inbox soon enough, and I mean soon enough :-)

 
At December 15, 2008 at 1:58 PM , Blogger Pagan Winter said...

Now now... Don't be so pessimistic...

Initially I too thought that I had only 2 readers. But it turns out that I was completely wrong!
I actually had 3 ! ! !
Sahi na...?!

 
At December 16, 2008 at 3:27 PM , Blogger Wendol said...

Woh teesra main hi tha :-P

 

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