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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Upwardly mobile dance of Mumbai

It’s happening in the UK; it’s happening in Goa and it’s happening in Mumbai. The natives are being wiped out. In Mumbai, you will hear Marathi being spoken in a few pockets in the ladies compartments in the trains, in municipal offices and fast shrinking areas in the suburbs. The irony is after Bombay was re-named Mumbai, the demography changed even faster. Every day, trains and buses deposit entire families with all their worldly belongings tied in bundles along with pots, pans and bedding. They come prepared to take up residence on pavements, in railway stations until they can move to a slum, a tenement and then join in the upwardly mobile dance that is Mumbai. The goal is wealth; the route is making money.

So they wake up early, finish part of their household chores, rush out to bus, rickshaw or taxi, get to the trains, rush out to bus rickshaw or taxi, or hurry on foot, land up at their place of work, sign the muster, get to the desk and work, work, work, till lunchtime. Eat at a stall, or canteen or the packed lunch in a tiffin carrier that miraculously makes it way from their home to their desk at the dot of lunchtime. Then it’s work, work, work, till end of office hours for some lucky ones.

The rest work beyond office hours to meet deadlines and targets set by their bosses. Rush home via walkathon/bus/ rickshaw/taxi to the trains. Buy some veggies and groceries. Rush home via walkathon/bus/ rickshaw/taxi. Finish the remaining chores at home, set the alarm clock and crash into bed. Off days are spent resting or relaxing or shopping for the following week. And that’s their life by and large. Work, work, work, until pay-day. Year after year until promotion. Changing jobs for better prospects and working harder than ever. Finding the energy somehow to get through the day with a little dignity and a whole mind.

They have an unwritten survival guide to Mumbai. If you don’t have the time to spend an average of 23 minutes in a queue at the railway station booking office, you can invest in a booklet of coupons which you can get stamped at a machine. Or you can buy a pass. Once in the station you can get a fast or a slow train depending on your destination. The trains roll in and out carrying unbelievable quantities of people speaking every language under the sun.

There are rules of behaviour in the train and any breakage of those rules results in physical retribution that is immediate and painful. When you get into the train behind wildly writhing bodies, your goal may have been reached, but you cannot stand still and gloat. Travelling the trains of Mumbai is Life and Life never stops, neither can you when you enter the compartment. You have to keep trotting with tiny steps moving forward to allow those behind you to get in.

You may stand near the door if you are getting off at the next station. If you are not, you will be damaged. You plaster yourself to the side of the passage to let those inside gallop out and those out to gallop in. Protect your person. The word “sorry” is never uttered, so do not expect it. Better still do not utter it, just do not make eye contact.

If you are afraid of picking up eye infections, colds or hair lice don’t stand or sit downwind. If you cannot bear the noise carry an I-pod and stuff your ears with earphones.

Auto-rickshaws travel has become an art form too. You get in and make sure the meter is down. Mumbai rickshaws were the most convenient form of quick travel in the suburbs, but now technology has set in and meters can be fixed to run like the blazes so you end up paying three times the regular amount. If you feel the meter is running too fast you stop the rickshaw in mid-journey, tell him he is a dirty cheat and pay him his fare. If he makes a scene tell him you are willing to finish it at the nearest police station.

You cannot show weakness in Mumbai. The goal is wealth. Everyone needs money. Yours is as good as any. From beggars to billionaires, you will find that everyone is able and willing to separate you from it. Mumbai teaches you the trick of anticipation. Scent trouble before it touches you.

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