twice a week on the london underground, i make my way to university through the stations in mumbai.
seated by the window, i see the wheeler bookstalls, the samosa vendor running to collect change before the train leaves. i hear the boy selling fanta and coke, interrupting his cries with the dderrrring-dderrrrring of his bottle-opener striking the cola bottles. not a scratch on any of them. like me, a little girl is mesmerised by the sound, and she wants to have a go at doing it herself. the father rushes to the window, hands out a note through the bars and gets a bottle from him to pacify her. i strain to catch a glimpse, of another girl trying to catch up with the train; in her hand are strings of lemons and chillies, tied together with a piece of coal. “buy it, buy it,” she shouts over the rising noise of the engine, “it will keep evil away.” i think of all the things you can buy in mumbai.
just then a group of english school kids rush in even while the doors close. their uniforms neatly pressed, black stockings for their legs. i’m looking for mud stains, or ink leaking from fountain-pens loose in their pockets. one of them pops a pink chewing gum. some of the commuters look up at them, expressionless. i am sure their hearts have leapt to their mouths. at baker street station, behind the plain glass windows of the tube, we move again.
a lady sits close to me, smelling of fish fries. she is restless with her hands. after a while she takes the yellow box from her bag, peeks at the contents inside, and gives in to temptation. the trapped air begins to reek of vinegar and stale oil.
another lady pushes in on my left. when i look at her she smiles broadly. “please adjust, i have been standing for long.” i immediately oblige. her friend pushes a bag overhead, and leans next to her talking about her husband’s raise. the woman who has been knitting, seated opposite, pushes the glasses on her nose with the back of her hand. a sign that she is taking an interest in the conversation. it turns out her brother works in the same department. she puts the needles aside and gets a stainless steel container from her bag, to celebrate the new association. “i made them myself, steamed rice cakes with chutney, try them, come on.” the women are thrilled. “not until you have this first,” they challenge, and get their own lunchboxes out. in the crowded train compartment that has turned into a canteen in an instant, afternoon lunches are shared in the mornings.
a chill fills the air as the doors open again, the gossip, the women, their recipes, disappear. except for the train driverís announcements, there is silence all around. i look up and even the swinging handles are gone. then of course i remember, trains in mumbai donít use doors. the tube in london can do without the overhead support. in front of me, i marvel at the multi-coloured faces buried in novels or the free metro newspaper; we might have well been in an advertisement for benetton. in a corner near the emergency exit, i spy on someone gulping down a banana behind yesterday’s evening standard. the journey continues.
i get off the piccadilly line and take the lift to the street near university. hawkers have lined the roads today. fruit-vendors, newspaper boys, a man sells fresh mogras for girls and housewives, another irons clothes piled up on his cart. two stalls later a boy pours steaming hot tea from one steel glass to another. if he misses he will get burnt. but the liquid seems like flexi-rubber, expanding and contracting into the shiny glasses in his expert hands. a radio plays popular bollywood numbers for public entertainment. the voice fades out as i move away from one stall, and re-emerges as i approach another. by the time i get to my class, i will get to hear the complete song along with some of the commentary.
thatís when the lights turn green, and i see that i am not alone. a student-army marches across to the other side of the road, then splits into groups of twos’ and fours that walk into the library, the rest heading for classes in the other direction. just after i’ve swiped my card to enter the gates, i stop to look behind me. the hawkers look up from their carts and wink. i can make them disappear if i want to, or i can let them stay.
it all depends upon where i want to be.
you know you have a serious blogger’s block when you’ve forgotten how to update your entries.
i have been reading, writing, revising and re-writing a lot since my course began 10 weeks ago. somewhere along the way i stopped writing for myself. this is just an attempt to get me started again (i also decided to do away with the links for this post)…
thank you anne, for setting this as a class assignment for me. and thanks to the others who asked why i had disappeared. hopefully, this time i’m back for good :-)