It is 21:30 and I want to return home to Andheri after burying my friend Aliakber’s dad at the Masgaun graveyard yesterday. My friends suggest I go by train, since it after “rush” hour and it would be fastest. There is some sort of a Sufi Urus festival going on in Mahim, they say, and the traffic would be terrible. Well, for those of you not familiar with Mumbai, a cosmopolitan cocktail city of almost 13 million, there is always a festival going on somewhere and the traffic is almost always terrible. Still, the prospect of sitting in a hot, smelly cab for the usual 90 minutes it takes and likelihood of delays due to the Urus makes me consider the train; perhaps my eight year old Maaha Zainab will still be awake for me to horse around with. However, my last escapade with a local Mumbai train from Bandra to VT (Chatraparty Shivaji now) in 1996 cautions me. I vividly remember the pain and torment I went through that day. My good friend Badami reassures; It will be okay, it is past rush hour, and I will accompany you; I relent.
The 10 minute walk to the station via a Muslim slum gives me warning signs and my disquiet increases as our walk progresses. Mr. Badami is oblivious to the obvious signs of poverty along the way; the wet, littered streets as if it has just rained, the sounds of humanity in crowded place as they jostle for non existing space to maneuver in tiny, cramped hovels, the carefree laughter of dirty, half naked children as they chase each other amongst the squalor, precariously very close to 2 way traffic that miss them by inches, men bathing in public, their lower bodies covered in soap studded lungis, the acrid smell burning of firewood mixed with that of garlic and onions and spices and rotis…and shit. The smell of all omnipotent shit of Mumbai; you can’t escape it, ever; it follows you around like a shadow, if it is cloudy during the day, it will make sure it catches up with you when the moon shines bright at night.
Luck is not on my side; this is nothing new, luck has been very reluctant to befriend, being reclusive throughout my life, gracing me with its luxury very occasionally. 2 trains to Andheri have been cancelled, so we have to wait for the next one which will be by in about 15 minutes. This has gotten Badami Saheb nervous; for he keeps assuring me (and himself in the process, perhaps?) that “rush” hour has passed and I’ll be fine. When the train does come in, sounding and looking wounded, tired, it’s packed; people crammed inside and many more clinging to whatever they can at the entrance. Badami Sahem hustles in and I follow, using him as a shield. In the struggle and myhem to get in, I get an elbow on my nose that makes my head spin and eyes water, I feel suffocation settling in. Miraculously, I find myself inside the cabin, pinned in between a pot bellied man oblivious to the world as he bobs his headset head to old Hindi songs that is audible over the rattle of rail tracks and a very dark Tamil whose visible armpit hair I desperately try to keep my head averted from. It is warm, made warmer by the crush of bodies and the stench is unbelievable. Between the garlic fumes from the pot bellied hero who mouths lyrics, to stale sweat, to hundreds of body odors to unwashed feet, it hits me very hard and I feel like swooning. At the exact moment, a miracle occurs and a man shoves himself out of the middle seat and into the aisle preparing to get off at the next stop and I get squeezed into the vacant spot and out of danger; I begin breathing again.
I am now confronted by a feeding mother who stares at me unseeingly as her baby gets nourishment while another child, not much older than the one on her other lap, sleeps fitfully on the other as the train sways him side to side. The obvious father, a protective arm carelessly thrown over his wife’s shoulders sways to the rhythm as well, jerks his head up every time we stop at a passing station only to nod of to a dancing sleep as soon as the train starts moving again.
Mercifully, this all ends in about 40 minutes and I reach Andheri in one piece, with a sore nose and very crumpled clothes and terribly desperate for fresh air. I hire a waiting rickshaw, the driver speeds through the relatively light traffic and I get the cooler wind effects on my face.
At home, Maaza Zainab is still up and in a playful mood so I enjoy…