Thursday, 1 September 2011


Shamli was  a quaint village. From across the hill it would appear as if huts and houses were rolled down from the top of the steep hill and they somehow managed to hang on to a relatively flatter portion. This was fortuitous because a few metres more they would have surely fallen over a cliff into the silvery river far below.

Lakshmi was born into a traditional farmer family. She was the youngest of six daughters before her parents were finally lucky to get a son, her brother Mohan. Farmer community often waited for a son to be born for keeping possession of the land within the family as also to have a male member to till the land.

Lakshmi, however, used to wonder why her parents ever wanted a son. She and her sisters worked at an apple orchard and a canning unit about five kms from the village and brought enough money home every month for the family to somehow afford two meals a day. They also studied up to sixth standard in the government run primary school. She and her sisters, when they received their monthly salary from the 'factory', were allowed by their father to keep up to 50 rupees to indulge in such things as buying bangles, ear-rings and bindis. Mohan, on the other hand, grew to be a lout. He never helped their father on the field. Even when he was sent to the school, he started spending the money given to him for fees and books on buying a glue like intoxicant simply called nasha.

Initially, Mohan was drugged only during school-time; but, lately, many a times Lakshmi had seen that he was in a stupor even at home. Despite his uselessness and hopelessness, Lakshmi noticed that her mother was partial to Mohan, being a boy. He was the heir-apparent of the family; when he would get married, he would demand and get dowry, whereas, for lakshmi and her sisters dowry had to be to offered to the parents of their bridegrooms. Even in the orchard where Lakshmi worked, men were paid 'daily-wages' at least thirty rupees more than women; all because men had greater physical prowess or so they thought.

Lakshmi knew this was not correct at all. She had seen the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) women, with their kids tied to their back, doing such 'manly' works as lifting and breaking rocks, using pick-axes, spades etc and then return home and cook meals for their men-folk. Mohan, her brother, might have been physically stronger but she could do twice the work that Mohan could do.

Lakshmi was not into nasha at all. However, She was not above fantasizing. She had seen a few Hindi movies and was fascinated by the life-style of the actresses. They looked like goddesses; she felt even better. No one in their village had ever seen an actress (they often referred to them as heroines) but, Lakshmi had heard that in a village called Ghata, about a hundred kilometres away, once a famous actress Madhuri Dixit had arrived to shoot a movie. People said she looked even more 'sundar' than she looked in the movies. Lakshmi never let her fantasies get the better of her. She was a great believer in her religion and kismet (fate) and knew that it was entirely Ram's will that she, Lakshmi, was born in Shamli and Madhuri and others lived in the City of Dreams, Mumbai.

Mohan, however, was different. His dreams had not stopped at seeing the movies. He actually dreamt of going to Mumbai and tasting life of that filmy city. He and his pals strongly believed that in Mumbai, money was literally lying on the roads and was waiting to be picked up. He had, helped by liberal doses of nasha, come to the conclusion that his future would never be in Shamli, but, in his dream city Mumbai. He had made good friends with a lorry cleaner Subhash. During the apple season, many lorries left from Shamli and other villages for Delhi and Subhash told Mohan that some were even sent to Mumbai too. Mohan had asked Subhash if he could take a lift with them up to Delhi and then, if possible, up to Mumbai. Subhash had informed him that their lorry was small, meant for hill roads; whereas, the ones that left for Mumbai were bigger and had three to four drivers who drove in turns so that the apples would reach without much time delay. Since Subhash was also in nasha, Mohan, during all his visits to Shamli had frequently procured it for Subhash. Therefore, he felt he had the right to ask Subhash if he could find for him a lift all the way from Delhi to Mumbai.

One day, it was all arranged, and Mohan simply went missing. Lakshmi was quick to realise that so was her carefully saved kitty bank. Her father also reported a few hundred rupees stolen from his almirah. The family was crestfallen, but, fell shy of lodging a police complaint. Everyone in the village knew that it didn't help to have the police involved in one's woes; for, the woes were sure to increase after police's interjection. It was, indeed, fortuitous for them not to have gone to the police because a few days later, during his next trip to Shamli, Subhash told them that Mohan had left for Mumbai. He assured them that Mumbai was a city of great fortune, like no other city in India, and very soon Mohan would be a big man.

It took them some time to get over the loss of Mohan. The father, as always was impassive but the mother was inconsolable. Lakshmi too missed her brother. He could sing the pahari songs really well and was a great hit at family gatherings and even at other people's celebrations. Now that he was gone, she reminisced about the time when he tried teaching her how to ride a bicycle, and other memorable acts of his.

One day, when Lakshmi returned home for lunch from the factory, she found Bhumi Ram sitting there and being treated to kheer by her mother. She really perked up at the sight of Bhumi Ram since he was the postman and his being there signalled a letter from someone. She couldn't believe her eyes that the letter was from Mohan to her father. He apologised for his sudden departure but said he had dreams, which could only be fulfilled in the great city of Mumbai. He said he was already doing good bijnus, and would have them all there in Mumbai in a big bungloo. At dinner time when the thalis were served to them in front of the choolha, the father was once again quiet as usual but the mother just couldn't hide her 'I-told-you-so' look. She said she had predicted that her honhaar (accomplished) son would one day bring joy and great fortune to the family.

It became a ritual receiving Mohan's letters periodically. The mother couldn't read but made one or the other daughter read them several times especially in front of the father. One day, it came out that Mohan had moved into a house and requested that one or more of them should visit him there to see the lovely sights of Mumbai. The father was ailing and mother couldn't ever think of leaving him alone. Gradually, it was decided that Lakshmi would visit Mohan in Mumbai. However, it was easier said than done. For Mohan it was easy to hitch-hike on apple lorries;  but, she was a girl and it was not practical. Finally, after much debate in which the other villagers too participated, it was decided that she would take a bus to Shimla, another to Kalka and then take a train to Mumbai. They told Subhash to take a letter to a relative in Kalka who would help with the train reservation.

Lakshmi had never been on such a long journey and she was both fearful and excited. Up to Shimla she had in the bus her own type of people. Even though the bus was very crowded, they guided her nicely. She had to wait a lot for a connecting bus to Kalka. Outside the Kalka Railway Station, her anxiety was the most intense but she met her uncle Sewak there whom she had seen when he had visited them last year with his family. He had even brought packed dinner for her since the train was to start late in the night.

She had an upper berth on the side in Second Class. She didn't mind it at all. Most often than not she slept. Sometimes only she sat with the old lady on the lower berth who was going to visit her daughter and son-in-law in Mumbai. But, she was more interested in looking out than talking to the old lady. She hadn't seen so much of flat land ever and her reaction was that it would be much easier tilling the plains than the hilly regions.

On the first night she slept peacefully because of the tiredness of two bus rides in the hills. However, on the second night she hardly slept with the anxiety of meeting Mohan at a strange station in a strange city.

As the train came to halt at Mumbai Central the morning of next to next day after they started, the din and flurry of activity were more than any that she was used to; even more than the time Mohan had taken her to the mela (fair) in the village. Mohan had written to her to wait for him in front of the compartment till he'd find her. But, such was the rush and confusion that it was difficult for her to stand there with her suitcase. Finally, she spotted him. He looked weaker and haggard but she was glad to see him. She hugged him. As they walked outside the station, she noticed that many coolies exchanged greetings with Mohan. She was alarmed. So, when they sat in the taxi, she asked him, "Mohan, are you a coolie too?" He said no; he had a fine bijnus.

It is only days later that she found that his bijnus was to stand in a queue everyday at the Reservation Counter, and get reservations done in fictitious names and sell them to passengers in need who gave him commission on every ticket. "But, doesn't the booking clerk suspect this?" she had asked. "No, he doesn't suspect. In fact he knows. I have to give him a cut on every ticket just like all the other agents do." She had another valid doubt, "What about the police?" He very confidently responded, "Police too have their cut."

She insisted that it didn't sound like a very good bijnus. He said he was lucky to be promoted. Earlier, at the same railway station he was a Pusher. She wanted to know what a Pusher did. It turned out that many people travel in the General Compartment, where they are allowed to travel without reservation. The only problem is that the number of people getting in normally exceeds by a few hundred the capacity of the compartment. Hence, a Pusher, well versed with the right push at the right time, charges a passenger about Rupees Fifty or so, to be pushed inside the comaprtment. Once inside, there is never any chance of anyone being pushed out since the traffic is always one way. Many weeks later when she travelled by the local trains, she found that one has to get in and get out with the general flow of other passengers. Else, one can be stranded either inside or outside.

When they reached his house, she was in for another shock. It was in Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum, with such inhuman conditions that she nearly vomited. He shared a ten feet by eight feet room with three other men; two were Pushers and one was an Agent like him. When they spread their mats on the floor to sleep there was hardly any place for anything else. When the mats were lifted, a kerosene stove was brought out from under a stool (the only piece of furniture in the room) to make meals. The washing of dishes was to be done common at the end of the floor where there were also toilets and baths. Water was available for about ten minutes in the mornings and evenings. There were some utensils and plastic bottles kept in the room for storing water. The four trunks of the four men were kept on one side in a row. Mohan asked her to keep her suitcase there and to ensure that just like the trunks it should be always locked.

Gradually, Lakshmi came to know that Mohan didn't want to waste money on toilet and bath (one has to pay everytime for the use). He and his friends found that there are always leaking pipes at the Railway Station and all you require was a small soap to make yourself clean. As far as urinating and relieving oneself was concerned, Mohan had found that Mumbai is a very friendly city. Nearly all his friends (and not just the room mates) did it anywhere and everywhere.

She was normally left in the room when he went on bijnus. However, on the sunday after she came, he took her sightseeing. There were people in mad rush even on a sunday but it was nice and a little peaceful at the Gateway (a 1911 monument to commemorate the visit of King George V) and she saw the sea for the first time. Mohan bought her singdana (roasted peanuts) and she felt that was life. For the duration of time she sat there and looked at the Taj Hotel, the ships at anchorage, the people gayly walking by, the cameramen asking her if she wanted her and Mohan's picture to be taken, the boats on the side of the Gateway, which Mohan told ferried people to famous Elephanta Caves; she forgot all about the life at the chawl, the daily struggle to live, cook, bathe etc. She looked at the cars of the rich people coming out of Taj hotel. They looked exactly like what she had seen in the movies.

Mohan had gone to see a taxi driver friend just a few metres away and told her to wait for him at the other end of the Gateway. That's the time when she heard the explosion; no actually felt it in her bones. Suddenly, there was carnage all around her. She had blood splattered on her face and she was knocked unconscious. Her last recollection was that of a girl being killed  by shrapnel at a spot where Lakshmi had stood only a minute ago.

When she came to her senses it was in a hospital. She screamed. Where was Mohan? It was much later she found that he was not only instantly killed but his body was blown to bits.

Mohan's room-mates were all from Bihar. They were very nice to her and arranged for his cremation when after much delay they could receive the body. It was in no condition to be kept for funeral later. She had sent a telegram home but she knew no one could have made in time for the funeral. After the funeral, the next day, she sent another telegram informing them about the date of her return. There was nothing much to be sorted out since Mohan didn't have much.

Next week, she was on her way back by train to Kalka. She didn't have to be pushed in the General Compartment as Mohan's friends had managed reservation for her through their contacts.

When she seated herself, this time on the lower berth, through her tears she took out from her suitcase the picture of Mohan and her taken at the Gateway just before the explosion. He looked so happy as if he owned the Gateway, if not the city of Mumbai.

She, however, felt, that in the City of Dreams you don't really own anything except your dreams. And one day, you have a rude awakening. As the train picked up speed she looked at the chawls next to the train track, some as precariously placed, as the dreams.

Note: All characters in the above story are imaginary and have no resemblance with any person dead or alive. However, the incident of explosion at Gateway of India actually took place on 25 Aug 2003.

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