November 17, 2005


The steaming idlis at SEEPZ (Bombay) canteens were the only true ‘soft ware’ I came to fancy, with few parallels since. Fried rice and Pepsi for lunch, Idlis, Dosas, and Upma for breakfast, and the happy cheer of folks pouring out of companies that operated out of squat, gray buildings named SDF I, SDF II, and so on, rang out in a busy hum of a perpetual machine. Identity Cards hung from colourful neck straps, the names were cosmopolitan, reflecting the city makeup. Each morning as SEEPZ came into view, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus.

The place hasn’t changed much, the people have, they were bound to. SEEPZ Plus Plus is a new addition, and rose in the distance as 496 lurched and kicked dust and braked on its torturous journey through what must be one of the worst roads in all of India – the Jogeshwari link road. I cover my nose to keep out the dust. Its been over two years now that the link road is under renovation and construction. The three ‘choke points’ where bridges should have spanned the expanse, lie gaping; pillars hold up skies, green iron rods rise like claws, and thus they have lain. Roads grow painfully, a metre or so every fortnight. Travelling pain grows by miles in the same period as honking mess stretches interminably each morning and evening.

I turn my face away from the window and try and catch expressions on faces in the mass jammed in in the aisle. The conductor has stayed clear, issuing tickets from the rear of the bus, avoiding negotiating through the mass crowding the gangway. So, tickets have been passing to and fro since the bus left Kanjur Marg, giving up its last inch to accommodate yet another breathless soul who’d sprinted up to the footboard just as it left the stop opposite Huma Adlabs in Kanjur Marg.

“Ek SEEPZ dho”, said the man in light blue standing a short way off the bus-driver’s cabin, and stretching his hand the farthest he could, he passed a ten-rupee note to a person to his left whom he just about managed to reach at full stretch. The one in the cream coloured shirt took the note from him and stretched his hand to his left likewise, passing the note to a third person, in chocolate coloured shirt. “Ek SEEPZ dho,” he said before turning his face away to look out the window just past IIT Powai. The man in chocolate coloured shirt in turn passed the money to a fourth person behind me whom I couldn’t quite see in the crowd. I heard “Ek SEEPZ dho” behind me. Then it passed to the bus conductor. “Ek SEEPZ dho” again.

The conductor, a middle aged Maharastrian man, lean build, wore his uniform with the first button unbuttoned, showing white vest wet from sweating at the neck, and used his sharp voice to good effect in goading people into making space for new arrivals getting in.

“Go, go in front. There are people hanging out the door. They might get hit. Chala, pudhe chala,” he shouted out in marathi from time to time. He looked the kind who did no one any favours nor expected any in return, and wouldn’t be bothered with socializing or getting into conversation of any sort. The kind who felt strongly about morality but wouldn’t say anything about it unless in close company. He took the ten-rupee note and asked, “From which bus-stop?” It took a perplexed moment for the person to realize that no one had offered him the information, so he turned to the fellow-passenger in the chocolate coloured shirt, the one who had handed him the note, and asked him, “From which bus-stop?”

The chocolate-colour shirted guy had no clue either, and in turn asked the man who’d passed him the money, the one in the cream-coloured shirt, “From which bus-stop?”. He didn't know either, and in turn asked the one in the light blue shirt, all the way back to the lady who had requested the ticket after she had boarded the red bus, 496, from the front entrance because it was too crowded at the back. She answered, “Kanjur Marg.” And so it passed all the way back again, from light blue shirt to cream colour, then to the one in chocolate colour, and then to the fourth link, and eventually to the bus conductor, each pass was accompanied by ‘Kanjur Marg’. The BEST bus, for all its famed ruggedness, shook about then as it bumped into a pothole; the passenger load accentuated the shake. It felt like traveling in a rumbling belly whose sides may give away any moment.

“SEEPZ which gate? Main gate?,” asked the bus-conductor to the man, who turned to the one in the chocolate coloured shirt, asking, “SEEPZ which gate? Main gate?” Then it passed to the cream coloured shirt, then light blue, then the passenger, each time “SEEPZ which gate? Main gate?”

“Haan, SEEPZ main gate,” she answered, squeezed in near the front of the bus. And so it passed back again from one to another, and eventually to the bus conductor. The bus conductor reached into his leather bag, the kind that BEST bus conductors are issued, more of a pouch that hangs from their shoulder to their waist, placed the note carefully in the stack of notes, then opening the steel ticket box, he tore out a ticket, and punching it, he handed it over to the person who had given him the money, and who in turn passed it back to the one who had passed him the ten rupees; it exchanged hands all the way back to the lady in the front. She smiled a little smile as I turned to look out the window at apartments opposite Powai lake.

As the bus neared L&T Gardens, a man leaning forward near the front of the bus caught my attention. I had noticed him before. His hand was stretched out and a ten-rupee note lay between his fingers. He nudged a fellow passenger to his left, in grey shirt, and said, “Ek SEEPZ main gate dho, Panchkutir se.”

June 04, 2005

The White Rebel

In a month from now rains will move up from the West and shower Bombay. I looked out my window today morning. Opposite, a three story building is getting its pre-monsoon marammat. Over the last week, the housing society offloaded cement bags onto the terrace. Through the open door to the little room I could see the cement bags, neatly stocked. The last few days their number depleted as workers, daily wage labourers, men and women who travel where their jobs take them, stripped the terrace of its cement flooring, the parapets of their cement plastering, and re-laid them after laying the floor with red bricks and cement.

Today, they began scraping the fa├žade of the building, exposing the greys. Beyond the building a large dollop of gulmohar flowers just about raises its head and sways in the wind. Crows land among the blooms looking for twigs they can carry to build nests in the few trees that line this part of Bombay, most of them however scour narrow ledges of buildings where window guards extend out to accommodate clotheslines. They look for raised space between window openings and the window guards. Where they find them, upturned buckets, cardboard boxes and the like, they fly in metal wires of all kinds, and twigs if they can find them. They don’t waste time looking for twigs here. Wires are readily available, and there is only so much time before the Western skies spew venom. The nests got to be ready in that time. Then it is time for a scrap with the apartment owner if they discover the nests before the crows’ve laid eggs in them. Apartment owners know it isn’t easy to get their ‘tenants’ to leave once they have piled up the wires into comfortable curves. It’s a daily battle. I’ve seen two of those.

Sunjoy Monga reported seeing dead crows around Borivali; hundreds of dead crows. There is talk of some kind of virus striking crows. The Times of India carried a report about dead crows, quoting Monga, and subsequent member response on Birds of Bombay, the birding group on Surfbirds drew more sightings, of dead and dying crows. Then came news of the same from Goa, to south of Bombay. Sunjoy Monga signs off each posting to the newsgroup with ‘Cheers’.

Where I stay, I see mynahs. With Spring on its last legs, the mynahs have disappeared. Only the crows and sparrows are left, then there are the pigeons, Blue Rock Pigeons. Otherwise there are not many birds you can see in the city; I hear Koels though. I’ve heard more koels than I’ve seen. The sparrows keep to themselves, unless one of them gets it into her head (yup, females are the more aggressive in the lot I see around there) that pigeons are too much of a hassle to have around and that they need to do something about it. They crowd the pigeon and generally harangue it until they decide it’s about time they picked someone of their own size. They find squirrels a safe bet.

A solitary squirrel has made the place his home, using trees to move from one structure to another. The sparrows there just can’t seem to tolerate the squirrel. Between six and eight sparrows make up the volunteer army when they aren’t nibbling off the tender Tulsi shoots in clay flowerpots that my aunt nurtures for use in early morning prayers.

White clouds float across the sky. Each one is sized the same as the one in front and the one behind, and they appear to be marching to the same beat, in orderly rows. When there are many of them making their way across, their number enforces the kind of order you don’t see around the time Spring tiptoes in. But there is something to be said of a solitary cloud floating in the blue skies. The white rebel.

I cannot remember seeing too many of those lately. Moreover the black one is dying and nobody seems to know why.