Sunday, 17 July 2016

How Blue is my Sapphire

‘I am late, I am late. Excuse me, please give me way, I’m late,’ I murmured while running for my life. ‘I am really late,’ I kept murmuring as I kept pushing against people, trying to find space to board the Howrah Mail. I boarded my coach, on time even as the engine gave a sharp hoot indicating departure. I noticed the time on my watch 22:00 pm sharp. The summer vacations were coming to an end and I was returning to Mumbai. I occupied my seat and I plugged in my headphones to drown out the noise and pretended to sleep in the upper berth.

I woke up the next morning when the train reached Mughalsarai. My co-passenger was reading a newspaper while I was reading ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol. When the train reached Manikpur, a book seller boarded the coach and I was overjoyed. It was a pleasure to browse through his collection. I tried my hand at attempting small-talk. ‘Manohar,’ he announced his name. Finishing his evening tea, Manohar flung the paper cup out of the window with an extra force and stood up with his bag. No sooner had he stepped on to the aisle, the Howrah Mail came to a screeching halt. ‘Chain pulling,’ screamed someone from the rear as the engine made three sharp but short horns. ‘Typical Howrah Mail,’ Manohar exclaimed. By now, he was totally familiar with the peculiarity of this train, known for its extraordinary delays.

The train was empty, except for a few seats which were occupied by a few families and senior citizens. With steady steps, Manohar walked across to the other compartment. The other hawkers in this train always complained of loss while Manohar’s business of selling books was always a hit. In the night, the other passengers were laying their beds and preparing to sleep as we were reaching Itarsi. I was walking around the coach when a lady called out to Manohar, ‘Excuse me, I need to visit the toilet. If it is not much of a bother, could you please take care of him for some time? I should be back soon.’ Manohar smiled and assured the lady of his support. I was surprised and decided to sit on an empty seat.

Recognising the unknown face, the child started crying. His eyes glittered and the stern expression told everyone nearby that he was not in the mood to cajole the baby or accept apologies. He gripped the child’s hair firmly in his fist and dragged it. ‘No, leave the child alone,’ I screamed uselessly, while others looked on, shocked at his behaviour. He slapped a lady and gagged her. He turned to the child and slapped the baby, making the baby cry again. ‘You have to pay for your actions, child. When I said don’t cry, that meant don’t cry.’ He growled smiling. ‘It is just a baby and must be hungry,’ said the other passenger. ‘Shut up,’ he screamed, cutting short the other passenger’s lament even as he shoved the baby’s head against the frames of the coach. The other passenger stared stunned, his arms frozen mid-air and ready to grab anyone, his mouth open to abuse someone else.

‘Get ready to clean up blood,’ he warned everyone. ‘Enough,’ I screamed. He flashed a knife and in a fit of rage, plunged it into my biceps, causing me to stumble. I fell to the ground screaming in pain and I was unable to register that the knife was still in my bicep. Yet, I rose and chased him, with the knife still in my arm. Manohar, meanwhile, had escaped to the end of the coach and looked around. He heard me coming and turned around. There was no time to think. I pulled the knife from my arm and stabbed him on his chest when he turned around. He fell to the ground, moaning. I bent as I saw him gasping while cradling his bleeding arm. He died when the train reached Khandwa, an hour past midnight. At Bhusaval, the RPF boarded the train and detained me. ‘Why did you stab Manohar?’ He asked, even as he threw glasses of water on my face, hoping that I would respond to his question. I sat there silently, staring at the fan unable to register a response.

15 years had passed since then. I was returning from work and was patiently awaiting my local train. 
‘The train arriving on platform number 4 is Howrah Mail via Gaya,’ the announcement shocked me. Numbness hung over me like a thick fog. As the local train entered the platform, the numbness wore off and shame overtook me. I still felt numb when I recalled how Manohar passed away. I got the custody of my daughter. My daughter was 17 and still loved cellphone and Pokemon cartoons. ‘I want to watch Pokemon with you tonight,’ I said, hesitantly. She laughed and thought I was making fun of her until I sat down on the sofa and watched two episodes of Pokemon with her. I found the concept ridiculous at first and she felt odd watching the show with me. She then suggested that we watch other shows to unwind and it was a natural progression to watching more realistic shows such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones.

We liked the shows and I enjoyed the time I spent with my daughter. Game of Thrones got us talking like never before. I remembered it very well when she sent me WhatsApp messages about the jokes that were circulated on Game of Thrones. Some of them genuinely funny and I was thankful for the little crevices of hope that life offered. When she was busy at school, I was alone at home watching Aparichit on TV. I was midway through the film when she rang the doorbell and I opened it. Watching the protagonist making a character in the film struggle with the sins he had committed in the past reminded me of that night in the Howrah Mail.

It was painful to watch live action fighting or death scenes nowadays since I felt always numb since I experienced it first-hand that night. Yet, when she asked about why I was shivering, I froze. ’15 years ago, I was travelling to Pune from my hometown. When the train was nearing Itarsi, a bookseller tried to kill an infant. In a fit of rage, driven by this deep sense of desire to protect the baby, I killed the bookseller,’ I said. The confession produced mixed feelings within me and I sought forgiveness though I knew I should not be forgiven. Yet, I couldn’t hold back my tears. My daughter placed her right hand on my shoulders and said, ‘Well, I can only say “thank you” for protecting the infant’s life, more than yours. Today, I have found my true hero.’ Her reassuring words calmed me down as I continued to cry in happiness.

Indeed, all of us live with our past and allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am.

P.S.: This was my submission to Times of India's "Write India" initiative, a short story competition. Backed by a team of published authors, the process requires the participants to work on a certain prompt given by an author every month. The prompt for this story (in red font above) was given by Anita Nair in May 2016. 

Monday, 11 July 2016

Mumbai Untravelled: Banganga Tank

God with wives from across caste lines, a temple aided by Muslims, a burial ground for Hindu ascetics and a fresh water tank surrounded by the sea in Mumbai, sounds impossible? Welcome to Banganga, one of the oldest continuously inhabited neighbourhoods of Mumbai. 

During the 30 minute ride from Mumbai CST to Walkeshwar Depot, I kept wondering about the origin of Malabar Hill. At the depot, I recounted an earlier conversation with a conservation architect, who explained that the hills that mark the area, are not known so because they have anything to do with the Malabar region of Kerala. Devotees from the south of Konkan would visit the Banganga and in those days, anyone coming from the south was known as a Malabari.  

As I landed at the Walkeshwar Depot and looked around, I was prepared to be surprised. The beginning of the walk at Banganga led me to initially believe that it was a walk for the spiritually inclined. While it does help if you lean towards history, mythology and spirituality, the walk in itself is quite secular in composition. It transcends the boundaries of religion as we know it. In one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Mumbai, it was surprising to find temples in an onion shape, reflecting Islamic influences or finding some displaying Buddhist symbols while negotiating through myths, some of which find common ground across religions.

The Khandoba Temple 
The walk begins with the priest applying turmeric vibhutis on my forehead, even as the devotees chant ‘Jai Malhar’ at the Khandoba temple, the pastoral God of Jejuri. Gliding through the snaky lanes, the next stopover was the Jabareshwar Mahadev Temple. The Jabareshwar Mahadev Temple is a smart pun for the name ‘Jabareshwar’, which conveys the illusion of power only to be punctured with a local legend of the temple being forcibly taken over and being named so by a trader named Nathubai Ramdas in 1840. 

Goddess Shantadurga
My next stopover was the temple of Goddess Shantadurga, the patron Goddess of the Goud Saraswat Brahmins. Although the temple seemed to be a fairly modern structure, the meditative vibes around the temple gave me a fresh lease of life to walk.

After a while, I admit the temple hopping made me restless. I stopped over to ask, ‘Banganga kahaan hain?’ and the corner shopkeeper points me towards a small side lane by telling me, ‘Down the stairs to your right.’ I smiled and headed downstairs. Arriving here, I find myself greeted by tall deepsthambhas, pillars that hold diyas. Looking around, I realised that the Banganga is the place where one takes several steps back in time even as one marvels at the paradox of traditional life co-existing with unplanned modernisation.

The chiming of the bells and the mantra-chanting pujaris and the occasional strains of Indian classical music, playing on radio greet me to the tank where Lord Rama stopped over en route to Lanka. Lakshmana, the brother of Sri Rama, is said to have shot an arrow into the ground, leading to the formation of the natural spring of Banganga. The source of the spring is largely believed to be a tributary of the River Ganga and the mossy green waters of Banganga are said to be just as sacred as the Ganga itself and is widely known for its healing powers.

The Banganga Tank
Next up on the agenda was the most important and oldest temple of the vicinity, the much reconstructed Walkeshwar Temple. On being advised to worship Lord Shiva and finding no idol, Lord Rama proceeded to make a linga with the sand available around him. This ‘Valuka Iswar’, which lends the place its name of Walkeshwar, is derived from the word for an idol made of sand.

Sitting on the staircase leading to the Banganga Tank, I wondered about how mindless development has ruined the area of its spiritual essence, which also marks the juxtaposition of Mumbai. My mind turned to thinking of simpler times when deepasthambhas must have dotted the skyline when temples did not look out of place in a concrete jungle. Despite all, the Banganga stands silently as a testament narrating the city’s growth from nothingness to being the financial capital to those who care to listen.