Before the number, makes and sizes of cars in the city proliferated like roaches in an unkempt house; the wide, six-road junction at Churchgate Station never had subways networking the ground beneath its feet. They were, therefore, built more out of a need to make the impatient ride of these cars into the heart of Bombay’s business district smoother than a concern for the safety of the horde that tumbled out of slow and fast trains and washed across the roads going towards Flora Fountain, Nariman Point, Ballard Estate or Victoria Terminus, every two minutes through the day and flowed back in reverse, ditto, in the evening and late into the night to fill the waiting bogies that would carry them to near and far suburbs on the Western line and some to the Central suburbs as well if they crossed over to the Central Railway at Dadar Station. So the subways were bored underneath — wide enough to accommodate this hungry human tide that ebbed and flowed with more regularity than the waves that lash the Marine Drive promenade.
The steps leading down were wide and not too steep and they led gently to the subway illuminated by covered tube-lights fitted flush in the ceiling. The walls were tiled with glazed white tiles, interspersed with advertising kiosks. Initially, the commuters were reluctant to spend that extra three minutes taking the subway. Then the traffic cops barred the road by tying a rope to the railing of the pavement outside the station. The policeman would then hold the rope aloft when the pedestrian crossing light was red and let it fall to the ground when it turned green. This procedure was successful only in holding back those pedestrians who would never have crossed through the red anyway. The ones wanting to defy the signal went a bit ahead of the zebra crossing and dodged the cars to reach the other side. The cop could only shout for he was left holding the rope, which if he were to let go of then the rest of the crowd would swarm across. So another cop was put on duty and it added a moment of amusement to the otherwise harried lives of commuters for them to see him chasing recalcitrant pedestrians who dodged and jumped over the road dividers as he chased them with his baton all the while allowing other jaywalkers to calmly defy the don’t-walk signal, sometimes prompting the cop to chase one miscreant, while flinging his baton at another. By and by, the Mumbai crowds lived up to their reputation for being disciplined and they were herded into crossing the road like good citizens via the grand subway made especially for them. The percentage of subway-taking commuters increased and with this growing footfall the subway was gradually populated on either side by hawkers selling handkerchiefs, socks, shirts by the heap, export-reject garments, peanuts, sandwiches, cigarettes and gutka, newspapers, magazines, pirated books, plastic railway pass covers, hair clips and mosquito zappers that looked like mini tennis racquets and went static on contact. It also housed fortune-tellers, teen-patti gamblers, boot-polishers and beggars — all lined up in clearly-marked territories allocated and reserved by an unwritten law and enforced by an authority not visible to the common man.
That aforesaid authority stood everyday on the eleventh step leading down from the pavement outside the station. He was a man in his forties. He was thin, tall and dark in a copper-coloured kind of way. It’s a colour that emerges when wheat-coloured skin is subjected to years of neglect, malnutrition and the scorching sun. Ostensibly, he sold key chains, pocket calculators, cheap digital watches and colourful Chinese toys in bubble-wrap packing, but everyone who did business in the subway and those that wanted to do business in the subway knew that Shankar stood there all day to supervise and administer his fiefdom that extended from the first step that led down to the subway up to the last step that led out of it. They also knew the rates of the taxes due to him depending on the vantage value of their ‘plot’. His was the last word on disputes among the denizens and, at any hint of disobedience, the knife in his pocket would do the talking.
Once a week, Shankar went off for half a day. It was the time when he had to give accounts to the final powers that be, hand over their share, explain falls in collections, plan future take over strategies and take instructions and notices regarding the ‘business’. It was also the occasion when he would report on rebellious tenants in the trade. The next day, the official arms of the government would arrive on the spot, confiscate the goods of these recalcitrant guys and, if their luck had run out quite completely, they would be charged for obstructing public servants from doing their duty, roughed up and land themselves in the lock-up with a rather bleak forecast as to their future.
* * *
Dr Prakash had left for the hospital at three in the afternoon. His work kept him long hours and even if he was not required to work till so late — double shifts quite often — he often took on additional responsibilities. He especially liked to assist Dr Kapadia in the OT. It was such pleasure to see Dr Kapadia perform. For a performance it always was. He marvelled at the surgeon’s expertise — the deftness with which he cut, removed, replaced and stitched up transformed the operation into an art form. Dr Kapadia was not oblivious to the admiration his work generated and took special care to explain the finer points, the whys and whats of the procedures to junior doctors like Prakash before and after each operation. Prakash had been called for an emergency today and he knew it must be bed No. 8 in ward 10 that seemed to have been deteriorating last night.
The quickest way to get to town was by the local train and so he boarded the 3.15 Churchgate Fast. There were just two other passengers in the compartment, for it was the time of day when these trains ran more or less empty. An old man was nodding off to sleep by the window and the other was a student with his backpack impatient to reach Grant Road Station.
“Must be in Wilson College,” Prakash made an idle guess.
The old man would wake fitfully, look out to ensure he’d not overshot his destination and nod off again. There wasn’t much activity at the stations either. “They must need their hours of rest, too,” mused Prakash. “In another two hours the mad rush must start and the platforms as well as the compartments will be overflowing.”
The old man picked up his cloth bag and got off at Bombay Central, the student at Grant Road and Prakash was alone. This was the best part of the journey — Grant Road to Churchgate. Whatever the season of the year, this stretch always had the cool sea breeze breezing in from across Marine Drive, over the lawns of the three old clubs that stood between the sea front and the railway tracks. Prakash loved to stand at the door during this part of the journey. He was at the door today as well preparing to disembark soon. Marine Lines Station was mostly empty but for a beggar woman nursing her infant outside the stationmaster’s cabin. Two toddlers sat in the grime besides her. Someone was asleep on the concrete bench, his slippers forming a cushion under his head and his face covered with newspaper to keep the flies away. Two fisherwomen sat with empty wicker baskets near the place where the ladies’ second class would halt but they didn’t seem to want to get into this train. The peanut vendor had covered his basket with his gumcha and the charcoal in the earthen pot he placed on the peanuts to keep them warm was not lighted. Prakash could see the Arabian Sea glimmering in the sunlight across the drive. He could never get over this sight even though it was now eight years since he’d come to this city. The lights it threw about were almost blinding and the curve of Malabar Hill sloping into the sea was something Prakash sought out every time he travelled this way.
The train gave a familiar lurch as it readied to move. Prakash automatically tightened his hold on the railing near the door still intent on gazing as long as he could at the diamond-encrusted sea. The train had not yet left the platform but it was beginning to gather speed. Suddenly, Prakash saw a teenaged rag-picker with a large sack slung across his shoulder running alongside the train. He’d not noticed him at the platform and Prakash didn’t know from where he had materialised. First, the enormous sack landed at Prakash’s feet. Then the boy put out his hand to grip the vertical steel bar in the middle of the entrance while flinging himself into the door. His hand missed the bar and he began to slip down between the train and the platform. With horror Prakash watched as the tall wiry body turned face upwards and then twisted back again. His legs were under the footboard and both his hands were outstretched. Instinctively, Prakash bent to grab his hands. Their hands met. Prakash was flung across the door and was wedged with his arms on either side of the steel bar tightly gripping the bony hands of the young boy who had also desperately grasped his wrists with both hands. Prakash’s head had banged with great force against the iron door and, through his semi-consciousness, he saw that the boy had been dragged into the train as it left the station and picked up its normal speed. Both of them slid down and collapsed on the floor, their hands still interlocked.
“You were called to attend to an emergency, not to become a casualty case yourself,” smiled Dr Kapadia as he called on Prakash at the hospital. “Lucky, your wounds are superficial and the concussions were not very serious. But your friend Shankar was an unholy mess when they brought him in. I’d not given him more than a 30 per cent chance. We had to amputate one leg and he is in Ward 9, heavily sedated still. We’re waiting for him to recover from that. He’ll need two more surgeries probably next week. You’ll be up and about by then and maybe fit enough to assist me. So get well soon.”
Indeed, Prakash was fit enough to assist the surgeon in a week’s time. He had suffered a gash on his face running from the left side of his temple almost down to his chin. It had taken 20 stitches to sew that up and the scar would probably be permanent. But Prakash considered it a small price to pay for a situation where he could easily have lost his life. He wondered sometimes that if he had not needed to act in a split second and had time to think and weigh the consequences, whether he would have as readily put out his hand to help the rag-picker. But where did such thoughts lead you? Perhaps at times it was better to act without knowing any better.
The operation was complicated. Recovery took four more weeks but by the end of the period Shankar was able to move around slowly with the help of crutches and was discharged on to the streets of Mumbai.
Dr Prakash was busier than ever with his work at the hospital and only on rare occasions did he give in to thoughts of what the boy would do with his life; for surely now, minus one limb, he would not be able to resume his earlier occupation. Dr Prakash then took up an attractive assignment in Delhi and, far removed from the city, the incident was also pushed into a deep recess of his consciousness.
When, years later, Dr Kapadia was asked to suggest a good, hardworking and dedicated doctor to take up a senior position in surgery at the government hospital — a position that was very rewarding in terms of work but not in terms of pay — the first name that came to his mind was that of this young intern who’d been his student 23 years ago. And Dr Prakash returned to Bombay with his family.
* * *
Shankar stood as usual on the 11th step leading down from the pavement outside Churchgate Station. It was the best position at the subway. From here he could see the pavement outside as well as the length of the subway and right up to the last step leading out at the other end. So, in a way, it afforded him a bird’s-eye view of his entire domain. Only in a manner of speaking, of course, for why would a bird ever want to come underground, that too in a place that was so full of commotion most times of the day and late into the night as well. By now he knew almost everyone that passed by. He knew what time the regulars went rushing towards the office and when they returned rushing by again to get back home. He could tell by the click of the secretary’s heel on the tiled steps whether she had an easy day at the office or if she’d borne the brunt of her boss’s frustration at being unable to talk back to his boss from whom he’d received an earful this morning. He knew the faces of the pickpockets and petty thieves and they knew that he knew them. There was a tacit understanding between them to maintain the status quo and so each went about his business without interfering in the other’s. But he was fully aware of how far each of them was willing to go and what they would not stop short of to attain their hits.
Quite unconsciously now, after so many years of the same routine, he also marked out and filed away in his alert mind any unfamiliar faces that went by for further reference if necessary. So he saw a middle-aged couple ascending the subway at 10 pm. It was obvious to anyone who might have cared to notice that they were not regular commuters. They must have come for that foreign film at Eros Theatre, thought Shankar. The man seemed to know his way around but the woman was surely new to the city. She didn’t look like a Mumbaiite. The way she carelessly carried her purse was indication enough. Easy picking for the boys tonight, he said to himself. The pickpockets had seen them, too, and two of them were descending from the pavement above. A minute more and they’ll meet, Shankar calculated. One will bump against them ‘by mistake’ and then walk off in the opposite direction. The fine invisible blade having done its work will reveal the consequences only when they get home. Hopefully, they wouldn’t notice right then and there or else things might get very ugly. As the couple neared, he looked at the man. Handsome, lean and well dressed but he had a scar running from his temple right down to his jaw.
The pickpocket was about to pass by 11th step when a crutch barred his way. Shanker didn’t need to speak further. The couple walked passed without a look in his direction and went up to Churchgate Station to meet the 10.15 Bandra Slow.
© anjali purohit 2008
(First published in Urban Voice 3: Bombay, New Writing)