Issue No. 20 | Spring 2019
The day in July, late monsoon time in Bombay, began on a promise —morning clear, heavy rain in the evening, the weather app read. There were no portents whatsoever of witnessing a suicide or talking to a ghost. I got out of bed and dressed, had chai and glucose biscuits, and then headed for the park called Joggers Park. It was serene, and you could watch the sea from a distance, the marshy stench not quite strong so early in the morning. The park had a simple manicured garden, a dirt jogging track flanked by a concrete path, and a tiny arch bridge across a duck pond with real ducks who never quacked. Beyond the park lay a rocky beach that extended up to the shoreline. My mother used to love this park. In an article, that sat framed on my bedroom wall, for the Bombay times, she wrote: The character of the park is positive— joggers, walkers, lovers, singles, little children, all come to draw on the feeling of space the tiny park provides in this packed and overflowing maximum city. I often bring my daughter here. She’s five and loves it too. Ma did that sometimes in her writing —claiming to take me to places she never did. I spent a lot of my childhood patiently waiting for her stories and articles to come out, for they allowed me an access to her in a way our regular life—where she was always exhausted and irritable, did not.
The laugh club in sarees and track suits edged towards me, their arms flailing over their heads, beckoning to join in to take Ma’s place, to fight grief with senseless laughter. I waved at them and walked over to the other side of the park to stretch. Two men sat precariously mounted on a window ledge on the 7th floor of an apartment building, right outside the park fence, painting the patch around it. I marveled at the sight —no harness, no helmet, the sun rays glistening off their bare backs. 'They won’t survive the fall,’ I thought of the two men. Then I thought how it’d been three hundred and eighty-four days since my mother died; and nineteen days past since I was supposed to do something about it. Do the dead care about commemoration? I pushed my shoulder down, arched my back and felt the tension at the base of the neck. I paced my breathing and it echoed in my ears. The neck muscles began to ease; I stayed in that position, looking up. The flowers of the spanning Gulmohar tree nearby were blooming red, a rickshaw honked, a lady screamed, and the laugh club laughter rang through the air.
My father called, the only time he knew I would take his call. He now lived just outside of Bombay, in a weird little monastic gated community.
“Shoma, did you go to the temple?” he asked.
“Yes, I did.”
“You said you did not have time on Sunday.”
“I made time.”
“How many people did you feed?”
“Fifty? How much did that cost?”
“I mean fifteen. I just told them it was an offering for Ma’s death anniversary, and they did the rest,” I said.
“Told who? What do you mean? Why didn’t you go to Thakkars? They called me asking.”
“I have to go Baba. I am late for work,” I said
Before hanging up I heard him say, “You did not do it, I know.”
Click. The knots began creeping at the back of my neck, my head started throbbing. He did not know that in less than a month I would be on a flight to America, to Boston for graduate school in business administration.
I walked to the station; a grand old british-colonial structure blotched with betel nut red paan stains and graffiti. The queue at the ticket counter was long; beggars and drifters everywhere. Stray dogs sprawled around; the hawkers plying and tempting, little scraggly children, some handicapped, some goofing and some begging, while the world around them rushed past. Two little boys came running towards me asking for money. I shook my head as I did not have change. They smiled, showed me their tongue, and ran after someone else. I watched them for few seconds. Ma always carried cookies and candies to give in her bag.
I looked around for a particular beggar from two nights ago. He was an old man with a dirty cloth tied round his foot, blood seeping and soaking it. He would not express the pain, but would simply have his hand out, begging for alms. I was carrying first aid and an antiseptic lotion (even though I knew he would have preferred money, but Ma never gave money), and was hoping to see him again. The gesture would have been insufficient but gratifying. Ma would have approved. A train was pulling in to the platform, I looked around for him one last time and then ran, pushing my way through the crowd in to the ladies’ compartment, to a spot near the entrance. Bombay local trains doors don’t close.
I did not realize it then. So many crossed the railway tracks. The train was moving with a steady momentum but slow enough to take in what was happening. He was in a dark shirt, standing between the tracks parallel to ours, facing the oncoming train coming from the opposite direction. His features were indecipherable, but his form is forever etched in my mind —lean with square shoulders. His actions did not seem deliberate; he just stood there, not moving. I watched the train approach from the opposite end on the said track, not quite registering. What sick game was he playing? The train was headed straight towards him. The urgent cries began ringing in my head and around. My throat was sore. I realized I was screaming too. But by then my train had moved along. I looked back, trying to discern the horror felt but only half witnessed. That oncoming train was slowing down. In my compartment there was groaning all around, then a general hush and heavy breathing, everything seemed in slow motion, the breathing, the dampness of self and around. The women by the door, we looked at each other. “Maybe he moved away just in time,” I heard a voice say. Our train gathered speed. I held on to the railings tightly than ever before. The woman next to me was trembling, “Shree Ram, Jai Ram!” she chanted her god’s name. Ladies far inside the compartment began asking details about what happened. Cacophony ensued. The next stop came and then few more. The dismay dispersed as the train moved on. I continued on to work, what else could I do.
When I told Cyrus, about the incident, he shrugged and said, “Maybe he moved away just in time.”
I nodded. “yea, maybe.”
“This city is getting crazier by the day. Remember that news about a girl few months ago, who was pushed out of the train,” he said.
I looked at Cyrus—fair skinned, almost pink, with hazel eyes, such a sweet Parsi Boy, my Ma used to say. We had worked together for three years. There was a time when we were in love and he used to be mine. But then he got married to someone else because he wasn’t allowed to marry outside his religion. I was angry for a while, then my mother was runover by a speeding truck, and I was angry about that.
“Yea I think so,” I replied.
“Well, I was on that same train that day. I only realized that later after reading the news,”
“What happened to her?”
“I think she survived, but maybe lost a leg. I don’t know. I mean I was on the same train as her, and I don’t remember the train ever slowing down between the stops. That bothered me,” he said and became silent.
“But today looked like suicide. That doesn’t happen like the other stuff,” I said. Cyrus shuffled his feet and gestured a shrug. He knew better than to bring up Ma.
“Anyway, you are leaving soon. There —you will have to worry about other crazy things, like Guns and Trump,” Cyrus said, and we sad-smiled at that.
It had started raining. We sipped our chai and discussed the possible new immigration laws of America, but my mind was back on the train watching the man on the tracks.
It was announced that the trains were shutting down, so all employees were to use the company shuttle buses. The rain got worse and I kept working —fielding calls and technical questions from our client in America even though my shift was long over. When it was time for the last shuttle I packed my laptop and looked out the window —grim and so very wet.
There were four of us on the mini shuttle bus, the other three were men. The bus started slowly and painfully along the narrow desolate lane to join the chaos on the main road ahead. Roads were flooding. We were stuck in traffic. Cars, rickshaws, and buses seemed to be jutting out of the main road at odd angles. A pitiful fraternity. Order and civility barely afloat, the honking was deafening. The rain was incessant. Vehicles started breaking down, their occupants got out, some began walking and others looked around for a ride. I looked out the window at the stranded lot.
Our shuttle driver and his young helper boy began offering rides at a price ranging between 100 and 600 Rupees depending on the distance. They weren’t supposed to do that. This was a private shuttle service of the company. The helper boy was swaying out the mini bus, his hands gripping the sides, his feet balancing on the footboard of the door. He was unfazed by the rain and yelling the cost of rides in a singsong manner. The bus rattled, the boy swayed, and my heart fluttered nervously for the boy. I heard an old lady scream outside in remonstration, “How can you ask for such a high price, you are trying to make money off our plight. This is not even your bus.” Her saree was soaked, her thick gray hair disheveled. The driver remained unmoved. The helper boy laughed. It was wrong to ask for money this way but neither my colleagues nor I got involved. We just sat there, mute, like propped up cardboard cutouts gently rocking to the motions of the bus. It was going to be a long ride.
A half hour later our shuttle bus was packed and dripping. I wanted to scream at the driver, “This is a company shuttle —you can't just let these people in!” I felt a few stares down my way, as if the other passengers had heard my petty mind. There were barely any women on the bus and there were all sorts of men. I folded my arms across my chest. Hmpf. My elbows were touching the man next to me. The man apologized and tried to shrink.
An hour or ten later I got off at a stop, in Bandra East. My home was 3 miles away. It was still raining. I made my way to the skywalk, a tall pedestrian bridge about 2 miles long. One of the first of its kind built in my city. In light, the structure extended and snaked over a wide and busy intersection, and then lush green mangroves and a farming field of sorts flanked one side of the skywalk, and on the other side, a slum flourished. I climbed up the narrow, slippery wet metal stairs watching the cars pass underneath; it was like crossing a river of lights, a lovely sight but little relief, for the slum beneath the skywalk lay in darkness. A heavyset woman came waddling along from the opposite end. She stopped and grimaced at something that lay near the railing, she chanted her god’s name and hurried along. I wondered what she saw. She seemed detached from the feeling she expressed when she chanted the holy name of Lord Rama. I thought of the woman in the train that morning who had done the same after the incident. The woman walked past me and vanished. I turned around. Two men were slowly climbing the stairs, looking up at me; I turned my gaze and looked ahead. At the far end, beyond the void, which opened to the train station, I saw a lot more people, but my end was bleak.
“Tonight's the night. Tonight, I'll be another statistic!'” I said to myself as I let my mind play out, in slow motion, dramatic scenes of getting accosted, mugged and molested by the men behind me on this desolate skywalk. A fear that I carried for so long. Suddenly a weak voice, almost a whisper, jolted me back to reality. “Hey Miss, hey hey little Miss!”
In front of me, a few paces ahead, on the side, near the railing, I saw an old man sitting, the base of his back resting against the railing, his arms spread on the floor in front supporting his weight. That was what the woman must have seen.
“Miss! Would you please help me…I know I am wretched,” he said. I slowed down. I was surprised by the man’s English. It was clear and precise, not a mendicant’s appeal. Was I imagining it? Who uses the word wretched? It was a word in my head, it was a word Ma used. How was your day Ma—wretched. How’s the article coming along Ma—wretched. Oh Bombay —Wretched, wretched, wretched, but still fabulous she’d say. I turned around and walked back to the old man. He smiled, “You will help me Miss!” I smiled in spite of myself. The two men, I had seen climbing the stairs, walked past me, giving me incredulous looks. They looked perturbed. I looked at the old man. Did they not see him?
The rain was coming down harder. I waited. Leaning against the railing he began to hoist himself up, he was struggling to do so. I waited. I wasn't going to touch him. He was thin and pale, and his back was hunched. When he looked up, I could barely make out his face; his long disheveled gray hair, wet from the rain, was pasted across his forehead covering his eyes. I started getting uncomfortable because his frightful state wasn’t as disconcerting as my languid inclination to help. As I stood there waiting, I thought of his plight, of what he might want, and it scared me. We were separated by a vast expanse of suffering, and yet under the lashing rains suddenly I felt an indiscernible bond. Was he my redemption for the day? Was he? He smiled again.
He began speaking with a certain sense of urgency, convinced that I was open to helping him. He pulled his hands back into a fold and said, “Would you please do me a favor, it might cause you some inconvenience… but I see you are wet already.” I nodded with a thousand reproaches, rationalizations and justifications zooming through my mind, “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,”
Slowly and with much pain he unfolded his hands and pointed to the road below, towards the traffic lights. My gaze followed his hand to where I had gotten off my bus. “There are a few pandus —policemen there, yes?” I nodded again. He coughed, and I crouched down to get closer to the old man. His voice was growing fainter, the voice in my head following along — ‘he will throttle you, push you off the railing… take your money, gayi tu aaj…’ He looked up at me, tears in his sad eyes. He folded his hands again, “Would you inform them that you see a dead man lying on the skywalk?”
I stayed still for a few moments and refocused; I stared at him, or had it been a body all along. I wanted to touch him to be sure. I looked around hoping someone else would walk by. Anyone, please anyone. But there was no one. I hesitated with my hands, not sure of what to do with them; eventually I nodded again, got up, and climbed down the stairs. It was still raining. I crossed the road and walked towards the police patrol car parked ahead under the bridge. I must have been screaming. One of the pandus came rushing over wondering if I needed to be rescued. I told him about the man and waited. My throat felt dry and I was panting. He stood watching me for a few seconds. I stared back at him. Please help him. He finally turned and spoke to his colleagues in Marathi, I understand Marathi, “Hey, it seems there is a dead guy on the bridge.” I stood there, unsure of what to do. I watched the policemen slowly taking out their umbrellas and raincoats, talking, and looking my way. I looked up at the skywalk. I thought of going back. It seemed like the right thing to do.
“Miss, it is late, really late. The rain just won’t stop. You should go home,” the pandu said kindly, and forcefully hailed down a taxi. I saw him give the driver some money. I wanted to explain something about the man on the skywalk. I wanted to tell him about my day, tell him about the other man on the railway tracks. That something was wrong with today. But the policeman opened the door with a smile and asked me to get in, “Go home,” he said.
The taxi driver asked, “Kahan?”
“Joggers Park,” I responded. I felt him looking at me through the rear-view mirror.
The taxi picked up speed, I rolled down the window to feel the raindrops on my face. What was wrong with today? We drove past cars, buses, people, concrete structures and jammed corners. The phantasm of shrouded wretchedness overpowered the senses. The knots at the back of my neck felt like lead, my head was throbbing.
How many times in the past had I walked past a form that did not move. Any help they had begged. Ma was missing a week before we found her begging on the streets, that’s when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The day she was killed I was away on a work trip and my father had her cremated before I got home (you didn’t need to see her like that he had explained) –that was the reason for our estrangement. Why wasn’t he home watching her? How much had she really suffered? Did the truck stop? Had she laid on the road waiting for help? And how long? Questions, regrets, and guilt. How does one commemorate the dead?
I got out the taxi. The park gates were closed but I knew another way in. Inside, I stared at the dark sea. The rain had subsided. The consolation of leaving Bombay, of a brand-new beginning in a new country did not come to mind. I looked around me. I was surprised to see that there were quite a few people in the park silently staring at the sea, again like propped up cardboard cutouts gently swaying with the sea breeze.
Extending my arms above my head, locking my fingers, palm up, I stretched with all my might. With each stretch I breathed in deeply, chanting my mother’s name, over and over again. I postponed life and all my plans for it and simply mourned.