June 11, 2010

Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part III

Continuing with my series, this is PART III of my ongoing attempt to note the books my fellow travellers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back.

Most book readers on Mumbai local trains will at some point give up on reading and pull their noses out of their books when the jostling gets too heavy each time the train halts at a station to ‘welcome’ more travellers, and instead prefer to close the book and reach for the overhead hand-hold to keep from being swept away in the oncoming rush. Each hand-hold might’ve been meant for one but that has never stopped more hands from clinging to it. If there's no wriggle space left in the hand-rest I reach for the bar above.

If you’ve tried to imagine what it must mean to a drowning man to be presented with a straw you need look no further than the hand-hold in Mumbai rush-hour local trains.

So you can imagine my surprise one day several years ago when I turned my head to find a short man hemmed in by five fellow travelers, including yours truly, yet oblivious to them all in the space he made for himself so he could carry on with reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Pushed from all sides equally helped him retain his balance.

I congratulated him on his effort, to which he smiled and said, “It's so good.” I nodded and smiled away. “Yes,” I said before adding, “Good enough to help survive the rush but not as good as The Fountainhead though.”

“I’ll be reading The Fountainhead next,” he said.

I was just out of high school when I first read The Fountainhead. The lot of us who chaffed under the rigour of conformity that’s the hallmark of schooling in India quickly developed a role model in Howard Roark and rallied around the possibilities his sense of independence, and commitment to charting his own stuttering way through the entrenched conformity of his profession, presented us with.

After The Fountainhead it was only natural that Atlas Shrugged passed hands. While I liked The Fountainhead more, a few of my friends plugged for Atlas Shrugged.

Squirming in the squeeze of the rush I turned my head to check the page he was on. Sensing my gaze he looked sideways at me and smiled. He worked in the paper industry, and if I recollect correctly the name was Ballarpur Paper Industries. The company has a presence in Mumbai and is known for the quality of its paper products. Before he got off the train he held up the book so I could take a picture.

Not everyone travelling on the local trains can or is inclined to make the effort the Ayn Rand fan made.

They’ll wait for some breathing space before they'll open their books to read, that is until they can release at least one hand from the support overhead, else like this traveler holding on to his copy of Mario Puzo’s The Family while hanging onto the support with both hands, they'll catch up with reading on the return journey if they get lucky with some reading space.

Mario Puzo is a regular among readers on the locals. His bestseller The Godfather was popular at one time. Now I do not see the book as often. It might have to do with television channels repeatedly running the film adaptation of the book. If it’s merely the story one is looking for then chances are few would pick up The Godfather after they’ve seen the film regardless of its merits. When talk turns to his bestseller, it is not the book that gets discussed but the film adaptation of the same. Francis Ford Coppola immortalized Vito and Michael Corleone. Like the Italian mafia, Bombay is about money.

A traveller once told me that Bombay runs on dalals, middlemen or brokers. And not surprisingly the Bombay Stock Exchange is located on Dalal Street.

My uncle once joked that Bombay runs on Vitamin M – Money. It is after all the commercial capital of India. Travelling to work by the local trains confirmed it for me. I first learnt the basics of the stock market from hearing Gujarati folks on the train discuss stocks, even conducting buying and selling over the phone while on their way to work. So when I saw a youth preparing to read Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, I was in little doubt that here was someone who’s just joined the Network Marketing brigade for the Vitamin M the practitioners will most likely have promised him. Amway, Herbalife and the lot.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad
is the one book that Network Marketing recruiters invariably use to bolster their projections of earnings to convince potential recruits to come aboard their teams. The recruiters, most with a steady job already, are dreaded for their persuasive skills, and persistence. In most instances they’re someone you know, making it harder to find wriggle space.

I was handed Rich Dad, Poor Dad once. I returned the book without reading it and was honest about it. I felt guilty when the astonished Network Marketing recruiter asked me, “YOU DON’T WANT TO MAKE MONEY?” which sounded more like an accusation for insulting the Bombay spirit no less!

Travelling on the Mumbai local trains in rush hour traffic requires one to be prepared to fight one's way in through crowds hanging on for dear life at the entrance, so it’s rare that someone will smile at you if he is not a Network Marketer looking to build his team. Now I can spot one from the distance.

The potential recruit is often pursued to a Catch-22 situation!

Speaking of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, I’m surprised with the frequency I see it being read on the Mumbai local trains, its signature red cover calling attention to its presence. The readers are usually between 20 and 40 years of age.

The youth in denims reading Heller's masterpiece one travelling day had a seat by the window, his back to the motion of the train. Travellers lucky enough to find seating on rush hour locals usually prefer to sit in the direction of the motion of the train for the breeze. It can get unbelievably stuffy in the rush hour crush. He wore full sleeves, and was most likely employed in Marketing or tasked with a client-facing role at his place of work for, given a choice no one in his right mind would choose to turn up in full sleeves on the local trains. I couldn't help wondering if the book in his hand mirrored his work life.

For some strange reason, even though there’s very little resemblance between the main protagonists, I’m been reminded of Larry Darell from Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge each time I remember Yossarian on seeing a fellow traveller read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in the train. They were both airmen, and the war changed them both, but they figured in different wars – Larry Darell in WWI and Yossarian in WWII, and faced different dilemmas, and went about it differently. The closest I might come to explaining why might possibly have to do with Heller’s reason for naming the protagonist Yossarian, to emphasize that he, Yossarian, was cut from a different cloth from the uniform he wore. Still!

Long after I read The Razor’s Edge, its epigraph, a line from a verse in the Katha-Upanishad, still moves me. It read, The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.

Later, he inserted a bookmark where he'd stopped reading, closed the book and made his way to the exit. On the local trains, the exit and the entrance are the same.

When classes are in session college and high school students traveling on the local trains to their institutions, and poring over their textbooks at exam time is a common sight.

However it is uncommon to find professionals poring over Computer Programming tomes on rush hour locals, unless of course they’re heading for an interview at one of the many IT firms in the city.

I thought it likely that my fellow traveler, concentrating on C# Programming, was indeed heading for an interview. C# Essentials is quick reckoner.

Like with Ayn Rand’s works, books on chess are a rare sight on the local trains. In the crowded compartments travellers are too busy managing their time on the train in minimizing discomfort to self and fellow traveller while maneuvering their positions through human walls in ensuring their exit at their destinations to actually summon the energy required to make sense of complicated positions on the 64 squares. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a youth opposite me deep in thought in Techniques Of End Games In Chess.

He was seated so that helped him. It was a weekend. And that helped too. I had stepped into the compartment after being out on my feet for hours in Lalbaug to photograph the immersion processions winding their way through the formerly vibrant mill district that helped make Bombay into a powerhouse.

It’s years now since I last bent over a chess board in concentration. There was a time when I was in the reserves of my school chess team, waiting for opportunities to play the top board at Inter-school chess tournaments. I traveled as a stand-by with the team during chess tournaments while never really getting an opportunity to play the top board. No one fell sick on my team. So that was that.

Not once did the chess enthusiast lift his head from the book, not even when the train stopped to let passengers in. He sat in absolute silence, occasionally running his fingers down one side of his face before switching to the other side. Seeing him immersed in the end game techniques I floated back in time to when I first learnt chess from Soviet chess books that Vinayak had stocked in his pad after he left his brother’s residence on landing a job in a nearby town.

I was eight when I believe I first met Vinayak. Vinayak was the younger brother of my father’s colleague at work. His brother was married. But Vinayak was a bachelor, possibly just out of college.

He was lean, so lean that he actually hunched inwards when he walked, his bell-bottoms trailing behind him. His sideburns fell over his ear in the best tradition of the Bacchan look. He was an enigma, no less. He was known to be brilliant when he put his mind to a task. He barely spoke. No one knew what went on his head. At times I doubted if he did either. He was fair, sharp nose and all. After school I would find my way to his house, generally loafing around and looking over countless printed circuit boards and fancy looking electronic components that his brother used to build gadgets or repair radios and tape recorders. At the time he possibly had every EFY (Electronics For You) magazine that ever made it to print. He was a hobbyist, Vinayak’s brother that is. And at eight years I pretty much had a free run of their place.

A year or two later we moved town after Dad transferred in his job. Within two years of our moving town, Vinayak, now barely in his twenties, landed a job at a bank in the town we had moved to. I had turned eleven.

Twice a week I would pull away from playing Kabaddi or Cricket or any of the many games in vogue at the time and walk three kilometers to his pad to play chess, and back the same way.

Left to himself his home had embraced cigarette smoke like one would a long lost friend. Cigarette butts littered the room. On a plank he had hammered into the wall an unusually wide range of books on chess graced the wall. Most were of Soviet imprint. The only glossy books we ever saw in those days were the Soviet Woman and Sputnik. There was one other Soviet magazine I cannot quite recollect now. I think it was the Soviet Times.

Like a Master introducing a new recruit to a secret cult, Vinayak would open the books by turn and tutor me into chess openings, middle game play, and end game finishes. Tal, Spassky, Korchnoi were no longer alien names but active protagonists facing off with their opponents as we played their games on the board. Every once in a while, Vinayak would turn his head without taking his eyes off the board and drag deeply on his cigarette, his cheeks sinking to the bone, eyes narrowing to slits before his face momentarily disappeared behind a wall of smoke curling up lazily to the ceiling. He was never in a hurry with anything.

He rarely spoke, smiled often, and had a twinkle in his eye each time I fell for his piece sacrifice. He would throw up his hands if I attempted to reverse my moves. “No you can’t take it back. Think before you play a move.”

It would be some time before I learnt to resist his poisoned pawns, and even longer before I came around to the fact that it paid to defend my pawns, and that there’re rewards to be had in pushing them to the opponent's 6th rank, then to the 7th. And that it was important to look for opportunities to create passed pawns.

Learnings that did not lose their way in the smoke.

Note: Read PART I and PART II in my series noting the books my fellow travelers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back, and sometimes on their way elsewhere around the city.

A Request: I started out photographing travelers reading books few years ago to build up sufficient numbers that could be converted into posts. I’m all for this concept and my series involving traveling readers pictured with their books being taken forward by others in their cities and I would appreciate it very much if you would note/credit and link back here if this inspired you to do a series or a variation of the series of your own.

Since this is a part of my larger India Book Project involving books and the reading people, I’ll be counting on the link-back for continued and further participation of new readers.

Related Posts in my India Book Project Series

1. Granthayan, A Mobile Book Store
2. Indian Copy