Monday, December 10, 2007

Near-Death Experiences in Bombay

I was in Bombay this past weekend and being the “when in Bombay, do as the Bombayites do” types, Friday evening found me at Dadar railway station trying to board a local suburban train in the direction of the evening returning-from-work rush. I’m not new to Bombay or the experience of traveling in such trains -- which incidentally can almost be considered an X-treme sport. But this time I not only had the disadvantage of having to fight the evening crowd but was also handicapped by a rather cumbersome travel bag that I was lugging around.

The train comes in, I grab onto the pole in the middle of the doorway with my right hand and try to squeeze myself into the compartment (already occupied by about a gazillion sweaty individuals). My bag is in my left hand trailing behind me.

There’s an old Spanish saying, “Donde comen seis, comen siete”. (Or something like that.) It translates to “Where six can eat, seven can eat.” This might seem like good logic. But I found out that evening, that “where a gazillion can fit, a gazillion plus one can’t always”! So the train starts moving, and I find that my only physical contact with it is my outstretched hand holding onto the bar in the middle of the doorway and about three toes of my right foot that have managed to find about three square inches of free space somewhere on the foot board. (I always knew real estate in Bombay was ridiculously hard to come by, but I was finding out just how bad it really was!)

“This won’t do,” I think to myself. “I’ll just take the next train. And if that’s too crowded, then the one after that, or the one after that...” Death by falling out of a train was never on my list of “Cool Ways to Die”. So I crane my neck around and what do you know -- suburban trains in Bombay can accelerate! And how! We were already moving too fast for me to get off under the best of conditions, and certainly not jumping backwards and with a heavy bag in hand. So much for Plan A.

That’s when exactly two thoughts hit my mind.

The first was -- “Think of something clever to say to these people around you. Last words are always important.”

The second was -- “Ummm, one hand’s keeping you alive and the other is holding onto your [very important] bag! What if someone reaches into your pocket right in front of your eyes, removes your wallet, takes out all the cash and the cards, waves them in front of you, stuffs them in his pocket and then puts your wallet back in! Which hand do you use to punch him?”

The people of Bombay are a good lot though. The guy in front me yells out to some people in front of him, something about “the person behind him being as good as off the train” and “what the hell were they doing not moving forward and giving us some space?” and were they “waiting for him to fall and die before they moved?” It was an impressive display from him, I must admit and people did inch forward and I managed to move from my three square inch hovel to a relatively decent one room house -- enough space to keep both my feet and somehow rest the bag on top of them. I was still by no means safe -- too close to the door, but at least not outside it any more). I had no idea when the next station even came (the platform was on the other side).

The station after that one, however, was on my side of the train. I got pushed out and then pushed back in again and was now living in a (comparatively) luxurious one bedroom apartment! I was just planning my house warming party when I realized it was time for me to alight. I used the good old “float-and-drift-with-the-tide” algorithm there and managed to escape alive, carried more by the crowd than by my own feet.

That is Bombay. And I love it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

At Least He Was Honest

It’s time to get back to blogging -- even if all I have to offer you today is a small snippet.

The other day, a bunch of us had gone to one of these small dhabas next to our office. The food in our office cafeteria is unworthy even to puke out -- so such places run a thriving business. We sat down at an empty (and surprisingly clean) table and tried to decide on what to order. (This, most of you’ll will agree, is an NP-Complete problem.)

Finally we settled on an order and summoned one of the waiters -- a young lad of about 12. He hurried to our table, pen and pad in hand, looking ready to jot down anything we could throw at him. One of us started calling out our order, one dish after the other. He didn’t put any of it to paper but instead, I could see each name was adding a further ounce of confusion and befuddlement to his face. After about four dishes he was completely lost.

“See,” I started kindly. “You have a pen and paper. Why don’t you just write down the order? There’s no way you’ll retain the entire thing in your mind.”

He just gives me a shyish smile.

“What’s the matter?”, I asked.

“Sir, I don’t know how to write!”

The mystery of why he was toting a pen and paper around may never be solved.