March 13, 2006

The Village is King

If the two girls near the front of the bus hadn't hurried to the exit door, I might've gotten off the bus earlier as it slowed down on the turn opposite the Ghatkopar railway station to the west. They dithered at the exit and prevented those of us who're adept at stepping off a slowing bus from exiting. So, I stood in the gangway in front of a cursing man who was in a hurry to get off as the bus went past the railway station, losing precious minutes. As I sprinted back the way the bus had come, toward the railway station, I reached the platform just in time to see the slow train to Thane pulling out of the station. So, I bought some wafers (I particularly like Frito Lays Magic Masala) and sat out the next train to Thane 25 minutes later, at 7:45 pm. I had left my office at 6 pm, slept in the bus as it got stuck in a traffic jam past the Saki naka signal, woke up in the commotion as the bus took a turn in the traffic and headed to Ghatkopar station.

The station is crowded. I watch trains to Kalyan and Dombivali stop, disgorge, load, and pull out, making way for the next train. Minutes pass. I keep an eye on the electronic board for any announcement of the next train to Thane. Eventually the electronic board flashes 7:45 T. I get up from my seat and take my place on the platform just as the train arrives.

I manage to get in and squeeze into the corner by the door, for that's as far as I can manage to go, shielding myself from the shoving and the pushing. An old man in front of me puts his hands over his head to offer it what little protection those frail hands can. Then he looks up and smiles at me. I smile back. "Everyday massage," he says with a wry smile. "Ha ha. Unwanted one surely," I respond. He chuckles. I hold my breath within to expand my lungs. If I don't I'm afraid they might collapse in the pressure of bodies pushing me against the metal support. The train leaves. Shortly after, it pulls into Vikhroli. I let out my breath and take in a lungful quickly and hold it in to brace myself against the rush of people getting in at Vikhroli. Then Kanjur Marg. At Bhandup the crowd eases out. At Mulund it empties somewhat. I breathe easily now. A tallish young man, buck-toothed, gets in at Mulund and stands beside me. His shirt is splashed pink. They're first colours of holi that I've seen this year.

"Holi (the festival of colours) is tomorrow. You got splashed today itself," I say to him.

He smiles and says, "My friends did it a short while ago. I stay with them in Mulund."

His name is Mahendra. He is from Rajasthan and it's been five years in Mumbai that he's been working as a cook. "There're twelve of us with the thekedar," he tells me. "We take contracts for cooking at weddings, parties etc."

"April will be a busy time then," I say, referring to what is considered as a wedding season in India for the auspicious dates in the month. I'm getting married in April myself.

"It's already season time for us," he replies. "Tomorrow we're cooking for a client-party in Nallasopora at the pre-holi celebration, followed by the dinner. The guest list is over fifty people." They rely on contacts with local outfits around Bombay to supply them with the utensils needed to cook for a gathering or a party. These utensils are given out at a fixed rate on a daily basis. "Otherwise we'd have to carry our set of utensils around each time we're contracted for cooking in other suburbs," he said.

I ask him what the going rates are for such contracts. "It depends," he tells me. "The cost of each plate per person can vary from 150 rupees to 250 rupees. We cook at the client site. The raw material cost is borne by the client. They supply us vegetables and for whatever else we've agreed on as the menu for the event."

He lets on that should I need someone to cook for a party he’s available for hire. "I charge 400 rupees for a day’s work of cooking for upto 40 people. The next two months will be a busy time for me," he says as the train pulls into Thane. We get off the train and vanish into the crowd. The first colours of holi looked promising. Colours always promise even if they don't get as big on Holi day as they do up north as I learned from Sanjay on my way to the office earlier in the day today.

Bombay is home to a large population of North Indians. “Holi is a bigger occasion for us than even Diwali,” Sanjay Paswan, a rickshaw driver told me as we negotiated the early morning Saki naka traffic on my way to the office today. Sanjay is originally from Bodh Gaya in Bihar, a state he says is not a safe place to travel. “Whenever we had to board a night train in Bihar, we would go to the railway station early, in day time and stay on at the station until night even if it meant we had to while away our time on the platform for several hours. If we waited at home to travel to the station after dusk, there’s always a chance we’d be looted. The luggage offers a tempting target.” He said that Buddhists who ferry tourists to Bodh Gaya are honest, remarking, "After all how can they loot someone who's come to pay respects to their God - Buddha?"

He talked about his village back home where they grow 'wheat, and gram, and other things, but hardly any fruits except for a few bananas'. Then he narrated me his neighbour's woe, an old man from Mulund who complained to him early morning today, saying, 'Someone robbed me of my cattle-feed of twenty-five rupees I’d bought to feed my buffaloes. They were four bundles. I followed the trail of hay they left while spiriting it away and found the bundles stacked among fire wood.' I asked Sanjay why the old man did not retrieve his bundles of cattle-feed. Sanjay replied that there is a tradition which forbids retrieving wood or other similar material stolen for use in burning to produce ash on the eve of Holi. “Chacha (a term North Indians use out of respect for the elderly) said to me ‘Ab unko gaali du bhi tho kya du, Holi jo hai.’ (How do I scold them, after all it is for Holi).” This reminded me of my time in Almel, deep inside North Karnataka, when we sat up all night to shoo away marauders roaming roof-tops, scouring back-yards for fire-wood to steal on Holi eve. We could hear footsteps on the roof from time to time. My uncle kept up the vigil and I sat up with him. a kerosene lamp lighting up the room, its flame lent the whole setting a surreal feel. He said that they even steal doors if they can. I found the whole atmosphere thrilling.

Sanjay said that he missed the atmosphere ‘back home in Gaya.’ “Over there Holi begins over a week in advance. People get into the mood for playing with colours and there is much merriment. Today night they’ll burn wood that they'll have collected through the night yesterday, sometimes by stealing from others. Then we dance and sing the whole night, and use the ashes in smearing each other once the dawn breaks on Holi day, tomorrow. Then if the Panditji, after looking at the date-cycle in the holy book, tells us that we can play with colours tomorrow, then we’re done with smearing ash by noon and bring out the colours. Then it is a free for all, otherwise we use ash through the day and bring out the colours the next day,” he paused.

He came to Bombay in 1995, and initially worked in advertising, painting hoardings, and walls with advertising slogans. He married a Maharashtrian girl whom he met in the locality where he was staying. He has two children, and told me that his four-year old daughter loves his village more than Bombay, adding "Even I miss village life. We often use the word Azaad (freedom) without actually experiencing it. But when I return to Gaya, to my village, I experience true azaadi," he said turning to see my expression before continuing, "Here (Bombay) we don’t get to experience that kind of fun. Over here friends are few and far between. Over there (Gaya) the whole village is friends. Gaon Raja hai (The Village is King).”

He wished me a happy Holi. I wished him the same before getting off the rickshaw.