I don’t drive. It’s bad for my hair – turns gray, disastrous for my parent’s BP and the collective health of cursing maniacs who steer for their lives.
I do have a license. But considering I ‘earned’ it after a demanding test that lasted five short minutes and almost maimed two officials, I take a rickshaw. It gets me from here to there and, what d’you know, keeps me alive to tell my story.
It was a monsoon day when rain fell like blue fish from the sky, and people ran helter-skelter, even if not out of the rain – it’s a Mumbai trait. It was one of those days when God says ‘Mumbai, you need some cleaning’, and whooosh.
So I yodel for a rickshaw and with click of the meter we’re off, in a supersonic burst that would make Schumi bawl. ‘It’s not easy driving a rickshaw in Bombay saab, the driver tells my male friend, ‘you’ve to know where each pothole is.’ (If only he pointed them out to the municipal corporation.)
He rockets expertly past one wide-eyed, disappointed signal after another, till we reach breakneck speed in the literal sense of the word. Soon his karma and heartbeat catch up with him. A killer stab at the brakes and we skid into caterpillar traffic, right behind another rickshaw that preaches “Small family is happy family”. This is India after all.
In less than half a thought, a eunuch, pasty with rouge and rich in gold teeth, claps my mind awake, reminds me it’s Tuesday, and asks for change. Holding out her hand – a leathery parchment, its deep sad lifeline etching the memory of her weather-beaten life.
I’d give a rupee if she enlightens me on the Tuesday connection. She cackles loudly at my naiveté, that I even imagine she’ll accept a rupee – the bindi on her forehead costs more. No sooner the money is hers, she blesses us, my male friend and me. In a shower of “Aap ki jodi salamat rahein.” Which loosely translates to ‘May you be a happy couple’. And then, in a quick thoughtful move to celebrate our new union, our driver hits the button on his tape deck and a Bollywood ditty entertains half the city.
A 7 year old little actress in ragged costume who has adopted the street divider for her stage, stops dancing and sends me a well-practiced, milk-tooth smile. “Flowers?” she trills, followed by ‘Your eyes are beautiful’, dangling her jasmine garlands and sales pitch disguised as sweet compliment in my face. At the end of a Mumbai day, you’d buy too.
We hurrah past Linking Road, the shopping mecca, in an orchestra of honking, past ovals of sizzling ragda pattice – Indian fast food, and nubile shoppers in scarf- size clothing, probably shopping for more.
Another suburb speeds past and this time Shumacher would have a laughing fit at my use of the term. But my driver bravely noses in, between a hulking truck and a trumpeting BEST bus, with an inch to spare, and with a sneezing exhaust just where I wanted it, within kissing distance of my windpipe.
Another laughing traffic light. A Scooty – meteor of the suburban universe, cheats past, before a pair of men’s undies swamp my vision. Shorts madam?
Welcome to the bargain price walking market. For things you forgot to buy and some you won’t ever need. A stone-faced man sells chicken-shaped balloons. Others flog hair clips, afternoon newspapers, face tissues, dinky cars, Bisleri, coloring books, Washington apples, strawberries and an entire news-stand of magazines.
The music on the tinny radio changes. The landscape? By about five inches. In the next rickshaw a young couple practice mouth to mouth resuscitation. An Hindi film hero look-alike straddling a mean piece of metal studies his moustache in the rear-view mirror, then, quite nonchalantly, as though it is the best way to pass time in tightjaw traffic, whips out his plastic comb- Rs. 7 only – and sweeps it through his hair.
We roller coast over a backbreaker, er.. speedbreaker. A traffic policeman waves his hands frantically to the invisible prompting of a master puppeteer. A cow crosses the road, with not a straw for authority – the policeman – who marches over purposefully, then reverently touches its back, and urges His Stubbornness to hurry to the other side.
The signal blinks, the rickshaw’s off again. David turning his nose up at the Goliaths, careening through a side lane, and calmly over a sleeping liar of a road sign that says ‘Work in Progress’.
I’ve reached Santacruz and hey, I still have six minutes to spare, and yes, he can keep the change.
(Published in Snapshot column in the Times of India. A column on Mumbai and its many quirks.)
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