Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chapter 11 - The Trip Back to Bombay

Chapter 11


At last it was time to make the trip back to Bombay. Surgery on my mother was performed successfully and I could now go back to Bombay, the city which afforded me a living, the city I loved and hated in turns. I was going back to the malls, back to the 24/7 existence, back to glitzy shopping complexes and sleek cars and unending entertainment on television.

Also back to Center One and the acrimonious fight that took place outside it more than a week back, a fight in which I had witnessed women power in its rawest. What made that woman so wild? I still wonder. Was she upset because of a small dent on her car, or was she ranting against mankind, or, menkind.

I was to travel on the Malabar Express to Mangalore by air-conditioned coach. From Mangalore I would board another train leaving for Bombay. In the summer rush period getting a train ticket was next to impossible. I wanted to avoid going by bus again after my harrowing experience while travelling towards Kerala. A train journey back would complete the circle, pass through Goa and Mangalore and offer more variety. Besides, I love train journeys and there are opportunities to stretch my legs should it feel too cramped.

The train journey by two-tier air-conditioned coach to Mangalore was the most pleasant I had on my peripatetic sojourn so far. It was comfortable and pampering. The coach smelled nice, too good, like an airplane. “Odorless coach” the inscription above door read. There were small comforts like bottle holders, and a plastic pouch to keep spectacles, watches, mobiles when sleeping. An attendant (with Jeeves-like detachment and butler-ish mannerisms) brought me fresh blankets and sheets.

With me on this leg of the journey was a non-resident Indians couple who was on a de-discovery trip to South India. They were the two very talkative people I have ever known in my life. I will call them Mr. and Mrs. Kumar, because in spite of all the words we bandied, I never asked them their names and addresses. There was another couple who were from Bombay, he was a journalist, she, delicately structured, seemed like a house wife. Another passenger was Ajit Nambiar, with whom I shared the same primary school and friends. As I said earlier, Kerala is a small world, everyone besides knowing everyone, would also assume an easy familiarity. There was also a youth, Biju George, a lawyer, built like a prize-fighter, whose wrist muscles were as thick as those of my thigh. We made a close-knit, readily-nodding-agreement group, always willing to put in the extra effort to commiserate, a group, the likes of which one often finds in Indian trains. The entire journey was spent in sling mud at the government for even the slightest problem such as bad weather.

Mr. and Mrs. Kumar lived in the USA, with their two daughters, who lived in adjacent houses and were neighbours. In fact, she confessed proudly in what I considered a put-on nasal American accent, “We have lunch with my youngest daaaaughter, and dinnah with my eldahhhhh daaaghter.”

When they sat down for dinner, Messrs. Kumar had repeated rounds of curry, sambhar, puris, rice, vegetables, curds, pickles, and an unimaginable repast right in the crowded train compartment. Out came bottle after bottle of eatables topped by curd and rice, eaten using the hand, which they licked clean South Indian style. I was amazed how they enjoyed eating so much, and the wide variety of South Indian cuisines I had seen emerging from their bags. Now I know what people carry in that bulging ten-piece luggage when they travel.

When a vendor came selling canned coconut water, the conversation turned to canned coconut water – “bad, youuu knawww, preservatives added,” Mrs. Kumar said prissily. “In the US we have canned sugarcane juice, banana juice, fresh, fresh orange juice, everything,” Mr. Kumar said sounding like an understudy of his wife, who busied herself circulating pictures of her daughters and her grandchildren.

The voluble Mr. Kumar, whose tongue, as a Malayalam saying goes, can’t be contained in his mouth, then went on to extol the virtues of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel. I remember wondering how these non-resident Indians living in the US were so steeped in the tradition of India while we, based in India, were so lost when it came to discovering our culture and tradition. In other words, while India is slowly being Americanised with fast-food joints, business process outsourcing outfits, and American clothes and fads, there are stubbornly traditional Indians in pockets of America who still cling to what used to be Indian lifestyles and values.

Mr. Kumar, who had a Ben Gurion look with his tufts of hair, then extolled the virtues of sky buses, escalators, and, hold your breath, helicopter services. They had it in the US and they should have it in India. Mr. Kumar was the enterprising sort and wanted to start a service in India providing emergency medical facilities for a fee.

“It is this mentality of poverty that is defeating, you know,” he said in his originally Indian accent, unadulterated, unlike his wife’s. “I can show you how to put poverty behind you.”

He had these wonderfully simple solutions to all of India’s problems. And he expressed them in all earnestness, in the voice of a ten year old reciting a memorised speech in class.  His enthusiasm is infectious and we all nod our heads in agreement. We look rather silly, nodding our heads and being agreeable.

Ajit Nambiar, my school mate, had worked in the Persian Gulf as I had. We had a lot of experiences to share, which included our school teachers, common friends, and acquaintances. He was five years junior to me, and I do not remember him clearly. But we have many common friends. He reminisced about the pranks he had played, which included locking the school helper in the bathroom for hours. He also seemed bitter over a longstanding row with a teacher who later became the principal of the school. Now he is ailing from a back ailment because of which he is in semi-retirement.

Biju George, attired in shorts and a tee-shirt, has a legal practice and is an ethical kind of lawyer who is interested in legal activism. He says to me that legal activism was making progress in all areas of life. It required many a public interest litigations to fight the deep penetration of corruption. He was optimistic about the future of India. He said that though the parliament, and the executive had failed the country, the judicial estate of which he was a part would make reforms possible and make graft punishable. Amen. I hope there are many like him out there. He specializes in public interest litigation in banking. Recently, he tells me, he had unearthed a scam in a co-operative bank where the senior officers were found cheating borrowers by levying exorbitant interest for late payment of loan instalments.

Then the conversation (all speaking at the top of their voices, because of the train sounds), turned to cold remedies, and then… hemorrhoids. “In America, they cut it with a blade you know,” said Mr. Kumar and I shuddered, “Such foolish people.” He made no pretensions and spoke naturally in an Indian accent. To this Mrs. Kumar said exasperatedly in her affected nasal accent, “Youuu are tooo muchhh.”

The differences between the second class sleeper compartment and air-conditioned three tier compartment were stark. I guess the Indian Railways treat second class sleeper travellers who form the majority with disdain, bordering on contempt. In second class compartments there aren’t attendants; there are several streams of beggars, vendors, and persons travelling without proper reservations in the sleeper compartment, which is meant for travellers with confirmed seat reservations.

And here I was enjoying the services of an attendant who brought me blankets and clean sheets! If I was in the second class sleeper compartment I wouldn’t even have had a place to keep my spectacles, or mobiles phones. There were nice little, little Rexene pouches in air-conditioned class for that purpose. Above the door of the coach was written “odourless coach” and true to the legend it was well maintained and smelled nice. As a constant traveller by second class sleeper coach, I must say I felt a bit cheated. Obviously, since the second class sleeper coaches I travelled stank.

I went to sleep on a top berth and, lulled by the murmur of wheels, immediately went to sleep. Except for a few sleepy interregnums to change sides, I slept undisturbed till 7.30 a. m. the next morning, comfortably ensconced in a clean white sheet and a pillow. I felt relaxed and rested when I got down.

I disembarked at Mangalore station and outside it; I was instantly adopted by my protector and escort in Mangalore – Munna. “Munnabhai” as I would call him, would be my rickshaw escort around Mangalore, no, not to be confused with Bangalore, the computer city which I had passed on the way to Kerala.  I form sudden associations with rickshaw drivers. I communicate with them on a very subtle level, asking about their families and about their town and, Munnabhai, obviously liked it. I have such a friend in Panjim, Goa, named Prakash, who waits for me outside my hotel and is willing to take me anywhere for a little less than the normal rickshaw fare. Come to think of it I have taken a liking for rickshaw drivers anywhere in India except in Delhi where they are a bit high-handed, the region’s self-importance may be to blame.

Anyway, Munnabhai took a liking for me, and immediately took charge of my affairs and for a measly Rupees hundred more, proceeded to buy me a ticket to Bombay by train for the next day and a suitable hotel room for a day’s stay. May be he was impressed by my Police sunglasses that I had bought in Bangalore for Rupees One Hundred and Twenty, or, may be, he liked me because I called him “Munnabhai,” the hero of the eponymous film starring Sanjay Dutt. I don’t know which. Ah well, Sometimes you never know what people like or dislike. It’s still a big mystery to me as to why Munnabhai adopted me.

Seeing the tall and strapping Munnabhai and my Police sunglasses, the hotel staff scampered around me in a show of warmth and courteousness. Was he some kind of local “bhai,” euphemism for a gang lord? Munnabhai left, promising to come the next afternoon to collect me and leave me at the train terminus. He seemed popular enough for his new friend, i.e., me, to be given the best room, with an uninterrupted view of a vast stretch of swaying coconut palms below. Funny how coconut palms looks so neat and inviting from high above. For millenniums the fronds were woven into a tight flat mat which was used to thatch huts.

Yes, coconut palms formed a green canopy below me. I opened my window to a world below that seemed right out of a picture post card. Below me was a green stretch of trees bearing the favourite food of South Indians in such neat and serrated arrays, waving gently in some musical symphony. As far as the eye could see there was a sea of this dark green vegetation. There wasn’t a single commercial establishment this side of my hotel room and all I could see of human habitation was the red tiled roofs of a few nearby single-storied houses. I felt at peace with everything.

Right then I felt as if Mangalore was heaven, the finest discovery I had made in this journey. The people were polite and sweet to the extent of being syrupy. I saw an argument about right of way just outside the hotel, as I was being driven in by Munnabhai. The argument was so polite that, I first thought that both parties were exchanging pleasantries. Such wonderful camaraderie, even when having an argument! Unbelievable. What gave them away were the nervous gestures they were making with their hands. I can bet my last Rupee that neither “mother” nor “sister” was mentioned, as it would have been in Bombay.

Cochin was in your face whereas Mangalore was politeness personified. From my hotel window, after having unpacked, I could still see the feuding pair standing there and making entreaties with elaborate gestures. Ah! Such was the pleasure of Mangalore town’s discourses on the right of way. The next day I checked the spot to see if they had been standing there the whole night, engaged in an argument they were too polite to conclude. Cochin is the ambitious metropolitan city whereas Mangalore is where I would want to retire. Cochin is the place people would enquire about your wealth; Mangalore is the place people would enquire about your health.

Coconut palms, heady breeze, and politeness bordering on flattery had me so hooked that I wished I could spend more time in Mangalore than I could. Well, I can come back to it some other time. The night was spent in the hotel watching a Discovery documentary on the CIA’s “band of brothers.” In the evening I explored the town a bit more and saw that high-rise apartments were coming up in place of tiled houses and that Malayalis were running hotels in Mangalore while the Mangaloreans were managing hotels in Bombay. That way, Mangalore, being closer to Kerala than the rest of Karnataka has a lot in common with Calicut and Cochin, which are also port cities.

Outside a shop in Mangalore is this advertisement printed on a sheet of paper, stuck untidily on a cardboard, dangling from a thread.

“Paying guest for ladies required.”

Obviously the murderous attack on the English language continues here as elsewhere.

The next morning after I had a bath and a change of clothes, I went down to the reception and wonder of wonders, Munnabhai was there waiting for me. What had I done to inspire him to such devotion I do not know. I hadn’t tipped him much; I had only talked with him as a human being. I do that quite a lot. I know how hard a rickshaw driver’s life is, or, that of any driver for that matter. I can imagine the patient wait for a customer, and when one turns up, the haggling over fares, and the unreasonable demands. If they are a bit rough, it is because they have to tackle all kinds of God’s creations. Gangsters, temperamental women, errant school children, lovers, thieves, so on, are their regular customers. So I can imagine.

I talk to them. They know more about the locality than any shopkeeper. In any city in Indian I can get into a rickshaw and tell the driver to take me to an affordable and decent hotel and be rest assured that he would do so. I am friendly and ask them how much they earn and pay them a tip which delights them. That is sure to make them loyalty personified. I have the loyalty of such rickshaw drivers all over the country. Sterling human beings, Prakash in Panjim, Pednekar in Pune, who on a business trip volunteered to drive me through the scattered industrial areas and offered to guard my brief case so that I didn’t have to lug it to appointments. Now, I have Munnabhai in Mangalore.

I must remember to give him a big tip today.

Munnabhai helped me with my bags. Imagine anyone, least of all, a rickshaw driver doing that in Bombay. He carried all my bags into the rickshaw as I settled the hotel bill. I still don’t understand it. Is it movies that inspire the likes of Munnabhai or do people have kindness and goodness in them the way he has? That is something to mull over on the train back to Bombay.

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