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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When you live at the destination called home, often times the many roads leading to it are lost on the local residents. Then a traveller makes aware of it’s existence. There exist those roads that take somebody to the varying milestones led by it, some right into our own neighbourhoods.

zindagi yu.n huii basar tanhaa
qaafilaa saath, aur safar tanhaa

Thank You Anil P.