November 24, 2007

Aha Zindagi

Stepping out of a Mumbai restaurant one afternoon we hit the road, dodging vehicles before stepping onto the footpath where clear walking stretches beckoned, and getting off where they broke off to let an inside lane connect to another and so on.

I like walking on sidewalks lined by trees, a rare opportunity in Mumbai, often watching leaf patterns that light sneaking through sparse canopies makes on the uneven floor and the road. In watching leaf patterns ‘sweep’ the floor and the road in a lightly stepping breeze my spirit often matches its intent if not its rhythm. And it is not the only reason I avert my eyes to the footpath, sometimes I do it to dodge a homeless man asleep on the sidewalk like the one I passed the other day, muttering ‘Kya Zindagi !’ (What a Life!) under my breath even as I cast a backward glance at him without pausing on my way.

Another place, another time his image might have lingered on in my mind. The three of us walked on, I trailed behind. Approaching a bend in the path an advertisement fixed to a branch of a tree by the sidewalk caught my eye. A few steps and the letters in Hindi stood out clear ‘Aha Zindagi’ (Aha Life), loosely translated ‘Aha Zindagi’ is what I might say to a bloke who stays only ten minutes from where he works, and gets to step out to lunch at home, and whose only experience of Bombay rush-hour trains is from the Amol Palekar starrer Bataon Bataon Mein that he saw with his parents as a kid after promising them he would stay quiet the entire duration of the film – in short ‘Wow, what a life’.

I might have walked on after reading the advertisement if not for a movement in the corner of my eye. Turning my face away from the ‘Aha Zindagi’ in the tree I notice a cat reclining on the ledge of the compound wall to my left, licking itself lazily as if to whet its appetite for the meal of rice and dal that awaited His Majesty on the ledge behind its hind-quarters.

Watching His Majesty stretch out in between all the pampering he was administering himself I flip the camera open and mutter under my breath, ‘Truly ‘Aha Zindagi’”.

To read the board in the tree, click the image to open it enlarged.

November 14, 2007

A Prestige Issue

Each time I raise my head in a Bombay lane to see where I’m going it surprises me to see surroundings I didn’t know existed, more so when I have been that way before. I would have thought that a walk through a lane is good enough to notice everything there is to see along the lane - buildings, names of buildings, shops, names of shops, compound walls, gates, name plates, and any prominent landmarks like temples, and petrol pumps among other things.

Over time I’ve learnt that it is not so simple, at least not in Bombay (renamed Mumbai). One way to look at it is there is something new to see each time you pass that way unless of course you pass that way so frequently that you eventually see everything there is to see and get around to remembering it all.

Thinking of it I believe that unless I were to raise my head at the same spot along the lane each time I take it chances are I’ll notice something new even if it is only for a moment that I raise my head before returning my attention to the footpath. A slight delay in doing so and I run the risk of stepping on a sleeping form on the footpath, bumping into a tree that rises along the edge of the sidewalk, twisting my ankle where the floor has gone missing, stumbling against hawkers’ wares, stepping on dog-droppings or even worse human-droppings. Then there is this continuous stream of folks coming from the opposite direction that I need to dodge to avoid stumbling over.

So, much as I watch with a smile television footage of bumbling personalities of ‘note’ tripping over weak knees wobbly from age but reluctant to let go of levers of power, making a spectacle of themselves while the nation suffers the indignity of parading weak-kneed netas who literally need to be held up on their way to the dais where a speech exhorting the nation to march ahead with its head held high awaits, I would much rather avoid making a spectacle of myself on the footpath even if I’m a nobody. There is nothing graceful in a fall, even if it were an accident.

I’ve noticed people who’ve lost their footing while walking, tumbling to the pavement and on regaining their footing rushing on without meeting sympathetic eyes, driven along as much by embarrassment as by the indignity of it all. A fall is ungainly, an antithesis of all that is dignified, besides looking foolish. A certain fallibility is associated with a fall, any fall else how does one explain ‘he’s fallen in my eyes’, ‘it’s beneath my dignity’, ‘his self-esteem fell’, ‘a fallen woman’, ‘he fell from grace’?

So, when I took an infrequent path one day not far from the Matunga Road station, keeping my head down to avoid the indignity of falling over any of the many reasons ‘inhabiting’ Mumbai footpaths, I raised my head ever so momentarily only to be pleasantly surprised to see this building I had missed noticing earlier.

I smiled before dropping my head and turning my attention to the footpath for, there was little time or for that matter, space, to actually pause on the footpath and look around. To do so would mean suffering the indignity of being stared at by a stranger for blocking their way, or worse still being rudely shouldered aside.

In other words it would mean 'a loss of face', and with it prestige.

As to why it took me another trip that way several days later to notice the other building not far from the first one, well, I would have to start all over again to explain it!

Dignity is after all a prestige issue. So long!

November 01, 2007

October Heat

Off Matunga Road station on the Western Line, certain Mumbai pockets live on in relatively quiet lanes. Occasionally on rounding a bend in a lane buildings and houses with a distinctly early 1900s look grace the sidewalk, typically tracing their origins to the 1930s, 1940s, and the 1950s. It is not uncommon to find the year it went up prominently displayed over the entrance. I look out for them when passing by.

Returning by one such lane, I leisurely traced my feet on a sidewalk. It was to escape the heat of the midday Sun that I took to the sidewalk, walking under the shade of trees lining the path. Just as I moved aside to avoid stepping on a middle-aged man taking a nap on a plastic straw mat laid out on the footpath my eyes caught a headline in a page of a newspaper he had placed under his elbow that was jutting out of the mat and onto the pavement.

I didn’t stop to read it lest I stir him awake. I muttered ‘How Apt!’ before continuing on my way.

Later in the evening the skies rumbled before raining! Somebody up there must have read it and thought it appropriate to welcome November.

Welcome, November!

To read the headline, click the image to open it enlarged.