October 16, 2006

BEST days

We moved to Bombay when I was ten. I missed the old place, as I’d missed others as we moved from city to city, but as young lads do, I made friends fast—school chums, colony playmates, tuition pals.

It’s not as easy to make new friends when you’re older, in a new place; I know that now. For my parents, old pals from our home town were a link to their youth. The only such lived in Colaba and we in Chembur. And so, ever so often, we’d do our mini-expedition into South Bombay. For a middle class family, a taxi all the way was an indulgence. My brother doesn’t have the use of his legs, so the local trains, with the foot overbridges, and of course, the crowds, were too much of a hassle. So we took the bus.

The most convenient was the 8 Ltd, which then, as now, ran between Chembur’s Ambedkar Udyan and Flora Fountain. But then, the busses that plied the route were all double-deckers. The pollution, we quickly discovered, gave me blinding headaches when I travelled the lower deck. So I would be handed my ticket money and packed off to the top. (My parents and brother didn’t have the option; carrying John up the narrow stair to the top was difficult.)

Those rides were my introduction to the larger city beyond the lazy tree-lined avenues of Chembur. Over the years, I’ve got to know many other sides of this vast metropolis, but so many of those first impressions still define it for me.

Alone in the top deck, without Dad to point out the sites, I learned to orient myself in the city. Street signs were way too small to read from a moving bus; many were obscured with cloth banners and branches and, besides, the names weren’t the ones that I found on the old map I pored over, and they weren’t the ones that the conductor bellowed as he rang his bell. Commerce, on the other hand, can always be relied on for visibility. So shop signs, and even better, banks (because they put their branch names on their signage), those temples to Mammon, helped me figure out the geography of this city of money, the city Dad had moved to, to give me a better start in life.

I’d have charged to the front of the bus, of course, to pretend, when I thought that no one was looking (I was all of ten, after all) that I was the driver. With the wind blowing in my face, I’d mark off the areas we passed through: the bottleneck just before Sion, where now a flyover doesn’t seem to have helped matters; then Sion Hospital, and King’s Circle, which in all the years since, I still haven’t been in; and the broad sweep of road before Dadar’s huge traffic island; and the road narrowing again; and the confusing jumble before I found Byculla, marked by a Chinese joint visited once and forever imprinted; and then the church, and another hospital before the chaos of Mohammad Ali Road, with its fragrant set of restaurants, before VT, which was my mark to reluctantly make my way to the lower deck. And then we’d take a taxi to my parents’ friends home, within sight of Radio Club, where the adults would chatter away, and I’d be waiting to get home.

We’d head back, usually, at night. The return journey started at Electric House, with the 6 Ltd. Unless it was very late, in which case Dad would splurge on a taxi. As much as I dredge my memory, I don’t recall much of those return trips. I guess I slept through them, because all I recall is a blur of light and speed. In later years, I’ve come to know those sights better, as the boy-who-had-to-be-at-school-by-seven changed to the man-who-worked-into-the-wee-hours-by-choice.

And, ever so often, just for the memory, I take a bus back through the length of the city, even it means I have to change to another one to get me home, across the creek.


Published in Outlook's City Limits Mumbai, October 16th, 2006.

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