December 11, 2004

Like the Highway

I sit behind the closed door in the living room. Most of the trucks have left for wherever it is that they’ve to leave for. Yesterday night, the yard was full of them. Morning, it was empty, except for a straggler or two. I wonder if they are down with an upset stomach, like me.

I let the main door remain closed. There is no need to open it. I do not know anyone in the building where I stay with my uncle’s family, and I’ve little reason to believe that anyone knows anyone there either, and it is almost a year that I’ve been here.

There is no one at home today. I get up, walk across the room and put off the fan in the sitting room, push the curtains aside and edge the heavy glass door back by an inch or two. It opens into a verandah that extends out along the length of a rectangle, and together with our neighbour’s side of the common opening, it looks out on the Octroi Check Naka below. I stand there and look out into the morning sunshine.

A low compound wall separates our building from the naka, where trucks heading toward Bombay; the wall separates us from Mulund, a Bombay subhurb, drive onto one of the two weigh-in bridges, get their paperwork done by octroi agents at the many small one-room tenements huddled unevenly by the wall that runs along the length of a narrow pathway leading out from the residential buildings in Kopri, on to the Thane side of the octroi naka, then pay their octroi fees, and move on. If it is late and they’ve come from far away, many of them have, they stay back for the night. On busy days over 200 of them might be parked in neat rows, facing Mumbai. And you can see cooking stoves come to life, with truckers huddled around them, beside their trucks, some of which are colourfully done, others dusty from traveling long distances.

Occasionally, only occasionally, when there is a strong breeze whipping in into Thane from across the salt pans, this side of the Airoli bridge, strung out like a necklace in the western skies, I’ve imagined fragrances floating up from the hot tavas below. Fragrances of rotis, chapatis, and the like. It can only be my imagination, more so when I’m looking out from the sixth floor. When you delve into a deep world from the outside, especially from a high-rise, there is only so much you can get close; the gap is then bridged by imagination.

One of the ‘late’ trucks is now revving up. It is half past ten in the morning and I suppose it’ll be on its way soon. In the late morning silence, Bombay silence that is, with the wide empty parking space to itself, the truck has a lost feel to it, even if it isn’t. If the megapolis were to give you more space than what you would need to stand, without someone brushing past you, then you would feel lost soon enough. Here, it is the moving mass which gives you direction, and you join in and go with the flow, that way you are bound to reach somewhere, else there is no knowing where you might end up at, or for that matter, among whom.

Most days, I return home late at night. By then the octroi naka is choc bloc with loaded trucks and tempos, parked for the night. Truckers cooking, some settled in small circles, talking, others sleeping on the narrow flats atop cargo (only if you are dead tired, and won’t budge an inch, can you be certain of not rolling off those narrow flats), yet others checking their consignments, all of them combining to turn the place into a busy world of unique character in its own right.

The only sounds to be heard are those of trucks idling or revving up and of trucks arriving at the weigh-ins, then making way for another in the queue turning left off the Eastern Express highway, and into the octroi naka. Much honking goes on as they try to negotiate tight spaces between parked trucks and other trucks looking for parking spaces themselves. Horns of diverse pitch, each loud and piercing, cut the night air in the only way that horns in the middle of residential highrises can. You can ignore them only if you are a part of the activity that has given them voice space, not if you are looking in from the outside, like me. By the time they’ve settled down for the night, and I’ve drifted off to sleep, they start again. This time, they will be heading off to their next stop on the never ending highway.

Seven hours from now, the first of the lot will begin arriving at the weigh-ins. They’ll be different ones. But from where I’m standing and looking down, they’ll look no different from those that left early today; everything looks the same from above. It is as if, if you can be sufficiently high up and do not ever have to come down, to the down, then you can assure for yourself a familiar landscape, even if its elements are so different as to be unique in every way. It is what makes sameness different from all other experiences; to be able to recognize without having to recognize.

It is like the familiar security of a highway; the milestones may be different, but the road remains the same.

April 24, 2004

The Shifting

This is the first time I’m seeing a crow this close up.

Sitting in the ‘dry’ cafeteria of my new office, a fourth floor view of Marol, I’m looking out the large tinted windows, the type where you can look out but cannot look in unless maybe if you press your eyes to the glass and fairly squash your nose in the bargain. This is a new building, part of which is still under construction.

The L, a short way off Chakala, sits beside the Andheri-Kurla road, a busy artery with significant cholesterol deposits. A part of our workforce of seven hundred have shifted here from Jacob’s, around a month ago. Our team came in today, and is beginning to find its feet back.

There are four of us in the team - one content, two tech and, one graphics. And here I’m in the cafetaria now, contemplating the scaffolding outside after spending a good deal of the Sunday morning looking for my PC.

I had passed cubicle after cubicle in a maze of green and yellow partitions, bending to read numbers off PCs - M007, M138, P472 and so forth. There were tens of them. Hundreds of them actually. In looking for the elusive one, I had lost my way in the maze more than once and read numbers I’d read before. Still no P134. I came across other new arrivals doing the same, exchanging sheepish smiles each time our paths crossed, which was often. It was not an easy task bending down to read numbers where women in swivel chairs sat at their PCs. So, I’d given up and headed for the reception, manned by two security guards. They ought to know, I thought.

“I’ll look up the list of PCs that came in yesterday,” he said.

I nodded, waiting while he opened a pad and ran his pen down the list.

“It’s not there,” he said, looking up at me.

“But they packed up my PC at J’s yesterday and told me it would be sent here the same day,” I said, reaching for the pad in his hand. He passed me the pad.

It wasn’t there. No P134.

“We’re expecting a delivery this afternoon. If they’ve packed it yesterday then it should be there in this lot. Check up with me later,” he replied as I returned the pad.

“Hmmm. Ok. Thanks anyway,” I said and headed back to the unrelenting grip of white light filling every corner of office space, even those corners that didn’t exist. That’s how I first noticed the innocuous corner door with the sign - pantry. And I’ve been sitting here ever since, with the crow for company. It is perched on the scaffolding that rises all the way up, to floors six and seven, passing within two feet of my window.

It is here that initial nonchalance at seeing the crow land on a metal pole has given way to an active ‘interested observer’ mode. And, as I watch the pesky bundle of black have an enthusiastic go at the rope holding one of the numerous joints making up this rusty skeleton of criss crossing ribs, the tea in the Styrofoam cup, tasting like thin old plastic, begins to go cold. If there is any taste to be found in tea from a fancy dispenser with colourful buttons and cryptic commands that are more labels than instructions, it’s because the dispenser looks good - and cool, and novel, and … expensive. It has too many other things going for it. The novelty remains even if the idea is old.

Anyways, I don’t drink much tea, maybe once a month or thereabouts. Moreover, one cannot even enjoy the imagined taste of ‘tea from a dispenser’ if you are sitting opposite tinted windows. Surely it would’ve made the communists happy - to reduce the vibrancy of diverse colours to a single tint. Where steam rising up from a porcelain cup should’ve tinted the blue skies in front of my face in a moist velvety haze on a sunny morning, instead a shade of dark, featureless entity drawn like a veil, now frames me for the world outside as I try to summon colours from tenuous memories of sunfilled days.

To be framed for the world outside, now made up of a single crow that cannot see me from two feet distance brings home the line: ‘If the whole world but me were blind then I would neither want riches nor clothes.’

I look at my watch. It’s a Timex Expedition gifted by a childhood friend, Anand, when he had come down from the USA. I’ve grown fond of it, wear it all the time, well, almost. If you wear anything long enough, it becomes a part of you.

The dial shows 13:50. I lean back and fix my eyes on the crow. There’s still time before I can go looking for my PC again.