BEST No. 51
By Anoop Kumar Another sweltering summer day was drawing to a close. I love summers… or rather, I hate monsoons. For some reason, clear skies have always inspired hope and clouds have spelled gloom for me, like for many others, as I have come to learn. But Indian summers have a point beyond which, in-spite of hating the grey, downcast heavens, there’s no choice but to yearn for rains. That point had long passed! I thought I’d be happy that I wasn’t in Delhi. The capital is notorious for its extreme weather and having witnessed first-hand, the veracity in the accounts we hear about the chilling wintry mornings in Delhi, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to endure two months of blistering heat. But when you reduce the temperature somewhat and throw in considerable humidity, it’s no good either. Oh, and guess what, you do that and you get the weather of Mumbai, our financial capital. Now, if you read the description of Mumbai on Wikipedia, the very last line of the introduction says that it is a melting pot of various communities and cultures. It was indeed a melting pot of another sort this summer, believe me!
So, what was I doing in Mumbai? Well you see, I’m part of what’s becoming, if it’s not already, another middle-class cliché. I’m pursuing MBA, after having completed Engineering. The journey is more or less standard, with some deliberate differences in everyone’s case; Middle-class Indian family, studies decently in 10th, scores well in the same, takes up science, score pretty well in 12th as well… et voila! 4 years later you have another addition to the huge pool of accidental-engineers! Quite a lot of us realize, that that wasn’t exactly what we signed up for, within months, if not weeks. This is a well-documented cliché, we know Bollywood profited nicely by showcasing it. But the author of that story, is a member of my species — MBA post Engineering. Well, time will tell us whether this combination is worthwhile. It apparently earns money and I guess, that’s probably why most of us came here in the first place. No matter how we ‘present’ our reasonings to explain this anomaly, the truth is that Gandhi was the incentive.
I meant the currency notes by the way when I referred his name. Clarification is required, as history can be re-written any day and people will happily replace the facts in their minds. You see, Nolan got it right in Inception; you plant a small doubt which questions the facts as we know it and it grows, we spin stories and before you realize, his name could well be destroyed. Imagine, the Gandhi name losing whatever’s left of its influence. I wonder who would stand to gain if that were to happen! Sounds something like an Orwellian dystopia? If you’re wondering why I digressed, it’s because I’d like to keep an open mind. The same ‘representatives’ who vehemently resisted the introduction of certain bills, a decade ago, suddenly woke up and changed their tunes. That’s fine. After all which other oxymoron can rival ‘clean politics’? What’s troubling is, seeing the tendency of selective blindness, amongst the literate Indian, to such facts of recent history. What good does universal suffrage do, if the ones exercising it, from the lowest to the highest strata of the country don’t use their brains while casting their votes? Well, I know one counter-argument to that, is that there is a dearth of good options. So strictly speaking, we chose lesser of the two evils. It’d be good to remind ourselves not to forget, that it was indeed always a choice between two sub-optimal options and not as the people wielding the power would want us to believe. They’ve bought the lies they were selling us. I don’t take away anything good that the government has done in their current stint, but they’re far from perfect. I’ve said before, I have no political leanings, but like Varys said to Daenerys — As long as I have eyes, I’ll use them.
Digressed too much. Back to the busy streets of Mumbai. Since I’m doing my MBA, summers usually mean Summers (it uses up 2 valuable seconds to say Internship along with it and it sounds slick, so let’s call it Summers, with a capital S). To avoid complications, let me say I worked in company X, since I learnt the hard way, not to blab too much (Inside joke, cue for you to laugh at someone’s traumatic experience. Might as well put this as one of the reasons and send around tapes. That was a joke, relax. Where would I find tapes?) The company X has a regional office in Fort Mumbai, near Kala Ghoda. Circumstances (poor planning and lethargy) led me to take up accommodation in, wait for it, Pali Hill in Bandra West. But we’ll come to that later. Naturally these 14–15 km need to be traversed by public transport. You could of course try an Uber. Normal UberPOOL rates would be roughly 200 bucks. But well, company X like many other firms in the area, leaves you at 5–5:30 pm (luckily). And due to excessive demand, the fares will be ‘slightly’ higher. Surge rates are a meagre 800 bucks, (for Pool folks). A slight increment. I could swear I heard my mother’s voice — don’t spend money unnecessarily. And so, my wait begins. For the bus, BEST No. 51, which like most Indian things, will never be on schedule. Why not take the ‘Local’? I did. Let’s just say, I have inherited a lot of patience from my father, bordering on inaction. That’s ideal for a bus, not for the Mumbai Locals. And well, bus rides are learning experiences if you know what to look for.
So, I would wait in front of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (quite a mouthful. Formerly the Prince of Wales Museum, of Western India). Behind me the Elphinstone College, stood in all its 150-year old glory. The sun was completing its arduous journey down the clear, blue summer sky and the Gothic architecture of the college was casting mesmerizing shadows right across the road to one of the entrances of the museum. Right from where I would wait for the bus, I could see what ‘appeared’ to be a Buddha Statue (a head, inclined on a platform). Appeared, lest I’m wrong about it, because people can be touchy about things like these in our country. Seeing the statue smile serenely at Mumbaikars bustling about busily, made me smile at the juxtaposition — the preacher of detachment, smiling upon hundreds of people passing by every single day, who are anything, but detached of earthly affairs. But then it’s normal in Mumbai, co-existence of obvious juxtapositions and paradoxical realities; this is but a small example. Come to think of it, it’s true for our entire country. But that discussion is for another day. That day, I was standing there, listening to Civil Twilight on my phone, watching people go about their day — commuters, tourists, shoppers and suddenly two girls, with smartphones and a sense of urgency came up to me and asked, “Which way is FS?” Well A, I hate unnecessary acronyms while talking. Might as well have asked WWIFS, go figure what we mean. Perhaps it’s an outsider’s viewpoint and it’s normal for Mumbaikars. You definitely won’t get away with that in a smaller city like say Vadodara, where I’m originally from. And B, those phones can do more than just capture your pouts. But they were cute and in a hurry and so was I (in a hurry and no more cues for you), so I held my silence, pointed them in the right direction and continued waiting.
And then in the distance, I could make out the number of the bus. 51; finally. From Colaba to Santa Cruz. On and on it came and finally slowing down, just enough for me to climb aboard. Not many people take that particular bus, from that spot. The first thing you realize when you climb the bus, is that inertia is not to be trifled with. No matter who you are, BEST welcomes you with a lurch. I looked for a seat on the right side of the bus, with good reason. But that day, no luck. Only seats available, were on the left side. The conductor recognized me and came up, the usual chat, why not the Local? And I thought, sure, when I feel that there’s a lack of excitement in my life I’ll do that. Probably end up two stops ahead because I waited on the wrong end, or have my laptop stolen. I gave him the usual reply, that it’s more convenient. He smiles, wondering which planet is this guy from. And off we went.
Why is the bus ride a learning experience? Well let’s talk about outside the bus. You get to see Mumbai for the melting pot of cultures and communities it is. Locals, at that time, peak hour during the evenings, it’s mostly full of the working class, reading newspapers, discussing politics or cricket, playing Candy Crush and mostly scanning the compartment for an inch of extra space to occupy. In a bus you get to see a lot more, if you use your eyes. For e.g. let’s come inside this particular bus. That particular evening, the man in front of me presented a curious case. He was fiddling on his phone, using Facebook Messenger. I don’t pry, but he wasn’t exactly attempting to keep his conversation private. What caught my attention was that, it was a heartfelt romantic chat… with another guy (judging from the name). I don’t judge people by their preferences, but something seemed off about this person. The guy on the other end asked for a photo and the person in front of me replied in Hindi, “Why is it so, that if a boy’s account approaches you on social media, it’s believable but if it’s a girl’s account, guys want photos or videos?” The guy on the other end didn’t respond at once and the person in front of me wrote, “Sorry, main aapke feelings ko hurt nahi karna chahti thi.” I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. See, the message loses its essence in English, as like Malayalam (my native tongue), all the verbs are gender neutral.
For the benefit of non-Hindi speakers, what’s hilarious about the message was, that he had used the words that a girl would use to talk. I damn near burst out laughing. So, here’s an Angel Priya, trying God knows what. See how you learn life-lessons on a bus? Always ask for a photo, probably with that day’s newspaper.
By that time the bus was running parallel to FS (wonder if those two made it). A lot many people are walking as fast as their legs allow, in the same direction, toward the same destination. VT or CST or CSMT, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, for that’s where the Central Line of Mumbai Locals starts from/ends at. One of the more famous buildings of the country, be it movies filmed or terror attacks, or the sheer architectural beauty — it’s a feast for the eyes. The bus stops right before crossing the well-directed crossroads, right in front of CST. Once again, a juxtaposition — the order above the ground is near-absolute; almost zero pedestrians and all drivers eagerly waiting for the lights to switch. If you want to see the opposite theme, take the subway and cross the road, because that’s where the pedestrians vanish to. Absolute chaos. Hawkers selling their goods, commuters eating whatever they can find to be affordable or worth their money and an incessant flow of humanity in either direction. Here you’ll probably hear what Adiga mentions as the voice of the city. Coming back above the ground, to our journey. Next stop, Crawford Market. Even if there were no stop there, the bus would inevitably have to stop. No opposing themes to see here, it’s just absolute, unadulterated pandemonium. It’s like someone emptied a bag of marbles on the road and off they skittled in all directions. Everything from fruits to exotic pets is supposed to be sold there. And there’s no dearth of takers as you’d notice, were you there at 6 in the evening. The bus moves, slowly, but steadily on and takes a left and we are on the western end of Masjid Bander, the hub of iron and steel distributors as well as diamond traders. Supposed transactions in the region touches millions of INR in a day, but if you were to visit any of them, you couldn’t really deduce the wealth by the attire or their tiny shabby offices; they’re almost purposefully misleading. From here the bus moves on, passing by Mohammed Ali Road all the way to Byculla. It’s an assault on your senses, travelling through these pockets of the city. The stench of gutters near the footpaths mingle with the aroma of delicacies sold year-around, peaking in the month of Ramzan; the layers black hijabs and burqas being sold form a canvas against which there are rows of toys and sweets and spices and dates and whatnot; the cacophony of horns and shouts of labourers heaving heavy goods across the roads compete with beautiful Azan echoing from a multitude of directions. You sort of marvel at your brain, how does it process these flowing pieces of data near instantly and also associate it with a religion, a community, a place or a person.
After Byculla, the crowd thins marginally. Next major junction we hit is Dadar. There are several stops in between. Crisscrossed by flyovers, rails and roads branching out in all directions, rest assured that the journey would be slow. The horizon is seldom visible, often obstructed by old buildings, which judging by the paint-job, have witnessed many a summer. Frequently, you do see the skyscrapers that Mumbai boasts; although the delight with which you’d have tried to peek the top of the building, the first time you passed-by, pales with time; their splendour still appeals to you, it’s just that, there are plenty of them and you certainly won’t crane your neck for each. Occasionally punctuating the landscape are churches, mosques, gardens, malls and guess what, new skyscrapers. Dadar, like Crawford market, seems to be teeming with people, in-spite of the lateness of the hour. Well, late is not the apt word, in Mumbai’s context. The Local has a major stop there, hence the rush is predictable. It’s a similar scene; markets, malls and of course, people. But the roads are wider and rush being slightly less, the bus has no problem in maintaining a decent speed. Other than Angel Priya alighting, nothing of consequence happened there. Off we went to Mahim.
Earlier I mentioned, I would try to find a seat on the right side of the bus. The reason was that I was new to the city and the problem with sitting on the left side is that at each stop, there would be someone who’d ask you, if the bus stopped and so-and-so place. The problem is not saying that you don’t know, the problem is that the bus barely stops properly; you say you don’t know and the person is already cursing your ancestors, as he/she wants to get on the right bus, within those few crucial seconds, which, in your ignorance, you’ve wasted! At Mahim however, something happened that changed by perspective. There was a lady, probably in her 40s, who, upon seeing the bus promptly jumped up and shouted, does the bus go to Santa Cruz? Normally people ask for a stop in between, that I understand. But the board clearly states that the bus is headed for Santa Cruz. This is another level of laziness, I thought. But even as the thought crossed my mind and the retort, “Why don’t you read the board!” died in my throat, I noticed something. I don’t know if it was her attire or the way she was completely ignoring the board while looking at us passengers pleadingly, her reply to my unspoken retort crossed my mind. “Because I can’t read!” Of course, I could be wrong. But there is a high chance that the woman or any person asking you such questions on an Indian road, is illiterate. Even as I nodded to her, I felt my heart going out to her, or rather people like her. Who knows what circumstances might’ve robbed her of the chance at basic education. We millennials feel that we’re entitled, people say. I used to laugh at that idea. But that’s true I thought at that instant. The way my instinctive response was toward the people, signified that I took things like a primary education, general awareness, using latest technology etc., for granted. 130 crore people. Not everyone is lucky enough to be born even a middle-class Indian. Words from Adiga’s White Tiger surfaced in front of my eyes again.
You see, as a kid, when you don’t know the world, you feel compassion, kindness and sympathy toward the less-privileged. At least if you were born poor enough to see them around. It’s difficult to un-see them in Mumbai. Even if you come down from Antilla, few metres and reality will hit you. The thing is, that compassion, kindness and sympathy get lost with time. You grow up and you have your own problems. Grades, Career, you secret-crush in the college, the lack of identity, the purpose in life and so it goes up and up. You see the problems you have. You don’t see the privileges you had. An educated India is worthless; we need a well-formed India. I don’t know if anyone of you took the National Pledge in school days. We had a daily assembly and at the end or start of it, there was this tradition of mechanically speaking the words. As I passed the stops in-between, heading towards Pali Hill, I glanced toward my left, looking at the Bandra-Worli Sea link, doused in spectacular lights, the pledge comes drifting back…
“India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage. I shall always strive to be worthy of it. I shall give my parents, teachers and all elders respect and treat everyone with courtesy… “
The sea-link meant more than just an engineering marvel that night. Future. It signified a brighter future. I could be a hypocrite, blaming the leaders for their inaction but the reality is that, they can’t do it. We have to. Each and every one of us. It’s a mammoth task, but it will be worth it. As the bus speeds away, closer to my destination, I smiled inwardly, repeating the last lines of the pledge again.
“…To my country and my people, I pledge my devotion. In their well-being and prosperity alone, lies my happiness.”
About the author: Anoop is from the Batch of 2017–19. You might find him with a novel, a Rubik’s cube, pondering over Sicilian Defense or listening to Linkin Park on repeat. His diverse tastes are probably a result of confusion in his childhood, as to what to do in life.