January 14, 2009

Laburnum Road

After emerging from Mani Bhavan I paused for a moment and looked down the quiet road again. This time around I tried imagining Mahatma Gandhi leaning over the balcony in the year 1917 when it was time for the Carder to pass that way each day. It was the year Mahatma Gandhi first came to live in Mani Bhavan on Laburnum Road in Gamdevi, among the older neighbourhoods in Bombay.

Gandhiji was looking for Carders to card cotton into slivers for use in spinning cotton yarn. Writing in his The Story of my Experiments with Truth he said, “In Bombay, again, the same old problem of obtaining a supply of hand-made sliver presented itself. A carder twanging his bow used to pass daily by Shri. Revashankar’s residence (Mani Bhavan). I sent for him and learnt that he carded cotton for stuffing mattresses. He agreed to card cotton for slivers, but demanded a stiff price for it, which, however, I paid.”

This was the road the carder took each day in 1917 I tell myself, my gaze lingering in the silence of the shade that trees on either side of the quiet street lent this corner of an old city, a silence lent weight by the presence of a man the world would come to know as the Mahatma or the ‘Great Soul’.

Colonial-time bungalows with old-world sounding names on their gates stood in quiet symphony with the weight of pre-independence history. I passed each bungalow, pausing to look up, searching for life I could connect to a bygone era. There was no life I could detect in the stately windows, some of which showed signs of disrepair.

A few houses past Mani Bhavan rises Shireen Villa to my right, its gate rusting in its hinges. I slow down to admire the columns flanking the door. If I were to linger on I wonder if an old lady would materialize at the door to enquire of my presence at the gate. Moments pass but no door opens. None would, at least not at Shireen Villa. At times silence is a continuum for imagination to will a reality that no longer exists, and it is in the hoping and wishing that imagination fashions a moment into reality.

I step to the side of the road to let a car of tourists pass. The Mani Bhavan sees many a European tourist walk through its gates, and Asians as well, Japanese in particular. Many of the villas on Laburnum Road owe their architecture to the firm of Taraporewala and Bharucha.

Suddenly I hear excited shouts from across the road where Gool Villa stands, its sliding windows jarring the fa├žade. I cannot remember seeing the aluminum framed windows from an earlier visit; maybe they had escaped my attention the last time.

I see their colourful kites before I see them, four young boys delighting in their kites as they attempt to ride some wind. There’s none. So they run, trailing their kites behind them, and looking over their shoulders to see the kites rise up by a little only to fall to the ground as the tiny legs tire as much from the running as from dodging the parked cars.

Pappu’s kite is elegant in the only way that a kite costing two rupees, and made of light paper can be. It has a short, pink tail and is bordered by narrow white strips on two sides. Pappu seems the silent sort, hair oiled and combed neatly. He has a shy smile, preferring instead to let Dhiren do all the talking. Dressed in a red t-shirt and pink footwear Pappu’s choice of clothes complement his choice of kite.

Of the four only Dhiren, who stays in one of the buildings in the street, was still in his school uniform. His alert face, apart from his name and quick responses marked him out as a Gujarati, a guess I was prepared to stick with. He said he studies just round the corner. Manish, the youngest of the four was Jayesh’s brother, Dhiren told me excitedly, pointing to Manish first, and then to Jayesh who wore a light pink shirt. I noticed that Manish and Jayesh wore similar looking half pants, and that both wore no footwear.

Dhiren told me that they had bought the kites from a local kite seller in Gamdevi and that Pappu’s kite cost him two rupees. Then opening his hands wide he said, “The kite seller has this big kite for fifty rupees.” Then opening his hands wider Dhiren continued, “And this big for hundred rupees.” He looked to Pappu and Jayesh to confirm the size. They did, nodding their heads. “He even has one for two hundred rupees,” Dhiren continued, his voice rising a notch and hands stretching even wider until they could stretch no more.

There was still a little over ten days to go for Makar Sankranti, an auspicious Hindu festival usually celebrated in the middle of January, marking the beginning of the harvest season for Indian farmers and the transition of the Sun into Capricorn. On Makar Sankranti thousands of kites ascend the sky, particularly in Gujarat.

But for this quartet of enthusiastic kids the festival had already begun. Their exuberance was almost out of character with the quiet street. For a moment I wondered if the skies over Laburnum Road had seen kites on the auspicious day in the decades past, or if the Carder whose name I do not know brought string to give to children so that their kites may rise high.

As I step back on the road I wonder how Gool Villa got its name. I like the mystery my not knowing brings to my experience on the road.

Outside the gates of some of the villas cars are parked to the side of the street. Surely there’ll have been fewer cars in those days I thought, and that the Carder must have called attention to his presence by twanging his bow as Gandhiji wrote in his autobiography, or maybe even called out his services as he passed on the road I now walk along. His voice must have sounded through the mansions, reminding families as much of the Carder as of the time of the day it was. His absence, even for a day, would have been noticed for, at some time or the other each family on Laburnum Road will have needed his services to inject new life into their mattresses, lending a face to the voice that sounded in the street each day. Come to think of it, every fixture is but a constant, a bearing that life aligns to in charting its course for the day.

I can only guess as to the families that lived in these homes then, with nothing to go on but names on gates, names that now morph into faces that my imagination draws from other faces, even if wholly unrelated, but sharing the same surname, and where details escape me I draw my visual frames of reference from communities many of the names seemingly belong to – the Parsis, the Gujaratis.

There’s little or no crowd about. In the late afternoon light I see trees come alive in the shadows they throw on the walls of the villas. It is in the shadows that I sense the life I seek on my walk down Laburnum Road. In the shadows the branches lack features. There’s a certain quiet to the featureless, a certain silence. It is a kind of silence that comes from stillness, the lack of any movement where you might expect some. It is not the silence of the street as much as it is the silence of an empty house. In watching the shadows on the walls it is as if I am watching to see if the wall responds to the caress of the trees.

Like the Carder who once walked down Laburnum Road, his passing a fixture in the daily lives of families that lived on the street. Now, come late afternoon, the shadows the trees cast on the villas are temporary fixtures that at once promise a certainty in their transience.

Note: Over a week ago PBS wrote in to inform me of the launch on January 5 of their six-part Story of India series by Michael Wood, projecting their India effort as “seeking in the present for clues to her past, and in the past for clues to her future.” The show runs on Mondays. For local timings head over to the PBS Engage blog.

January 11, 2009

Fishing for Some Morning Luck

One early morning recently as I hurried to board a suburban local train I stumbled upon an unlikely scene.

For a place that’s usually abuzz with tea stall owners making brisk business from rickshaw drivers warming to their early morning shifts with a glass of steaming tea, occasionally joined by office goers heading into the railway station for a ride to their destinations around Bombay, the sight of a man squatting to the side of the road, two dogs silently watching him chop fish on a makeshift board was an uncommon sight.

I cannot remember seeing a food stall whipping up fish curry among those serving tea out of makeshift tin shops that crowd the approach to the railway station. The dogs were oblivious to office goers hurrying past them so intent were they on the possibilities the morning held.

It was apparent the fish were not for sale but that did not stop a man from enquiring if they were. In all the time the dogs watched silently. The man paid them scant attention. It is very likely he will have tossed a piece of fish each to reward their patience once he was done with his job.

If you’ve lived in Bombay for some time and are an early riser and have to take a train to work then you’ll have seen fish vendors get off the luggage compartment with baskets of fish that they’ve furiously haggled for at docks where fishing trawlers land their catch in time for the early morning markets. Others source their baskets from fish markets around town before making their way to suburban railway stations for a ride down the Central and Western lines for suburbs to vend their wares in small fish markets there, usually squatting by the side of a road with the basket of fish at their feet.

It is rare that a rickshaw, a three-wheeler transport, will ferry them over to their designated spot in the fish market for, the strong smell of fish left behind in trails of melting ice seeping from the cane basket can render stout hearts queasy at the thought of putting up with it on their journey to their homes or elsewhere. In the morning rush hour every passenger matters to the rickshaw driver and it is unlikely he'll risk the day by ferrying fish in the backseat. So the fisherwomen walk to the fish market, challenged by crows and silent dogs along the way.

Waiting for a train one morning I watched two fisherwomen get off the luggage compartment with a basket of fish each balanced on their heads. As passengers heading out of the station crowded the covered stairway that leads up to the over-bridge they met with another stream of passengers making their way down to the railway platform, a common sight in rush-hour passenger traffic. In the ensuing logjam the two women paused for the stream to move up the steps. They had barely taken three steps up the stairs when a crow swooped in on the basket and made off with a fish through an opening in the covered staircase without breaking ‘stride’. For a while afterwards I was startled at the ingenuity and the speed of the enterprising crow that had made off with the fish in one fell swoop. This could not have been a one off for it must have known before of the opening in the covered staircase that would enable it to fly on without breaking ‘stride’ so to say.

Since then I’ve kept an eye out for enterprising crows that mill about railway platforms but without much luck. I believe it takes as much enterprise to make off with a fish in the uncertain dynamics of suburban railway stations as with retaining the prize fish from competing crows that haven’t been able to pull of a stunner themselves. A few months ago I witnessed just this.

Waiting in the compartment for the train to start on its journey I saw a crow with a fish in its beak land in a tree by the railway tracks. Soon enough three crows followed it to the tree. While two perched on branches on either side of the crow with the morning catch the third one waited on the ground, looking up, and ready to make off with the fish should it drop to the ground in the inevitable struggle for the booty between the three above. The morning Sun lit up the branch. Elsewhere the speakers reverberated with announcements of trains pulling into the station.

However the enterprising crow held the fish firm against the branch while pecking furiously at it. In between fending off opportunistic jabs by the two crows it quickly swallowed a few pieces of fish. Beneath, the third crow remained attentive to the drama unfolding in the branch above, alert for some morning luck to come its way. After fending off more charges by the two crows intent on sharing the spoils even as it swallowed more of the fish, the enterprising crow quickly lifted its beak and with quick bobs of its head regurgitated portions of fish it had gulped down. As pieces of fish covered with saliva fell to the ground, followed by the two crows that had jabbed for a piece of the meal without success, a virtual scramble ensued on the ground between the three.

Sensing an opportunity for some peace the crow in the tree proceeded to finish its breakfast while its pursuers battled it out below.

Note: Last week PBS wrote in to inform me of the launch on January 5 of their six-part Story of India series by Michael Wood, projecting their India effort as “seeking in the present for clues to her past, and in the past for clues to her future.” The show runs on Mondays. For local timings head over to the PBS Engage blog.