From all the duties I am assuming as a new Dad, one of the million ones is to be a driver to drop Samaira to birthday parties. The trip this time is to a residential locality near one of the beach line homes in South Mumbai.
Since I am not invited for the kiddy party, my simple job is to simply drop and move on to do my own thing, until I get the call to pick up.
This time I'm kinda happy because I am in the middle of the place I grew up in. I call up a few friends, who I have known since over 25 years, but life has moved on, and priorities have changed. So I'm pretty used to not getting positive responses from them now, and trust me, it doesn't hurt either. It's now a matter of acceptance.
Predictably, all of them are either busy, travelling or don't pick up the call.
Parking is an issue, so I drive across the lanes, until I'm pretty far from the drop location, but this area is very familiar.
Not much has changed, yet so much had.
It brings back memories of growing up, of cycle no. 28 for two rupees an hour, or defeating the fear to climb a jungle gym, cricket matches, escaping home for a late night bike ride and lots more.
The dark lane behind August Kranti Ground has a slot free, just enough to allow my car to sneak in. The cop on duty looks along suspiciously. As the door slams shut, I look at him in the eye, and turn away my gaze. I had seen cops guard that building earlier too, and I was reminded of the days when my dad asked me not to run on the road, or police uncle will catch me and put me in jail.
My look is a mix of emotions.
Of mock, because I know now that he can't arrest me for running on the road. Unless of course I had chain snatched.
I also felt of fear, for no reason at all. Its just something that I had grown up with and I guess I didn't shrug off the feeling ever.
But most importantly that of relief, because I smiled, and he reciprocated.
Both my hands in my pocket, I looked around, walking rather lazily.
My body language was unapproachable, and I was creeping into a shell. There were things I wanted to defy.
Identity for instance.
I enter the playground), and it seemed so much smaller now. The path was slightly downhill. I recalled my elder sister Farhana, pushing me down the bicycle, minus the balance wheels, and I freewheeling down, petrified like it was the last day of my life, somehow managing to hold my balance and Viola! I had learned to ride.
Groups of men, mostly laborers sat in circles, and I really don't know what they discussed then and I couldn't figure out what the discussed now. I tread carefully near them, trying not to get noticed, but they mostly sat in silence. I figured it was some sort of community meeting, where they seek a certain time of solace, after work. It seemed like this was a daily ritual, despite of whatever came in between, contrary to the call that wasn't picked up because the meeting to close a deal was more important.
I walk to another segment. This was mostly for kids in primary school. With jungle gyms, swings, and slides. Somehow these areas mould you as a child. I still recall not being able to sit on the swing for any longer, if I had a child waiting for his turn after I get done. I would simply leap out and walk away guarding my privacy, somewhere today also, I'm not tolerant of people stepping into my space easily, and nor am I any kind of extrovert, completely opposite of what many people think I am.
The jungle gym was a challenge to me. My younger sister, Sweetina, was a pro, at it. She went from one pole to another pole, like Tarzan, while I simply used the excuse of being shorter to get away.
"If you do this exercise, you'll get taller" they'd tell me, so I would try, but couldn't get past more than the safe distance, and hurried back, just to save my ass (literally).
A little too late, I realized that height was a major virtue to have, and I gave it my all. Looking back I overcame the fear of the poles, but I couldn't overcome the 5 feet 5 inch mark, till date.
I smiled silently and moved on looking at a tallest part of my shadow.
Another part of the garden, was a greener pasture. I could visualize mom and dad sitting there, talking, and waiting for us to get done with our games. This was where I sometimes saw, how deeply my parents loved each other, and how they valued the time they gave to themselves.
I was at the end of the playground now, as I crossed the road, I was amazed to see that Imperial 'Dabba' school was now an upmarket Pre-School and Activity Centres, affiliated to some London counterpart. Imperial 'Dabba' was not the name of the school. It was a threat.
"If you don't do well in your studies, we will put you in Imperial dabba".
It was the school for the kids of vegetable vendors, laundry walas, and other sundry people. I don't mean to be derogatory, because eventually I landed up spending a good part of my childhood with these guys, playing cricket, and they were bloody good at their game. Far better than some of the boys at my school in their Nike's and branded gear, and for all I know, they must be doing better in life, than I am.
I now pass by the shops, and I look around if I can recognize the few faces I could recall. Shop to shop, I pass by, just to see no known faces. The oil-ghee wala, the electrician, the chana wala, the quiet 'permit bars', the bhaijiya wala, the vegetable vendors...I see no face I recognize. Some shops looked familiar, but most of them had changed interiors and facades.
The path felt the same, but these roads weren't mine. They had forgotten me, and as much as I wanted to believe that I hadn't, I guess a lot of it was forgotten by me too, and I was simply trying to catch up with twelve years of metamorphosis.
My home is a few meters away. I still call it home, and not house, building, or apartment, because if I truly felt connected and grounded in this world, this is the place.
A door plate that said...
Yasin H Merchant
93, Mama Chambers
Ground Floor, Gowalia Tank
Don't bother to google this..It doesn't exist.
I look hard, my quest to see a face I recognize was getting desperate. Finally I see him.
A cold drink wala I knew.
Greyed and looking into the blank, expressionless. I should have felt happy, and content. I wanted to say Hi!, and ask him if he remembered me.
But I didn't. I was clouded with a dark emotion.
I turned away my face. I didn't want him to recognize me.
I walked faster, looking the other way.
More shops. More alleys. More missing pieces of my childhood memories that had now turned into a jigsaw. I somehow managed to put a few pieces together, but failed, miserably.
The temple bells tinkled. The sound didn't seem a bit different. For a change, it felt like time stood still here. I looked at the temple from a distance. I had defied going in earlier also.My faiths were different. I felt it would be cheating on my multiple beliefs if I stepped in there.
The deep dark well was still there. The well in which we would throw stones in and analyse how deep it was.
The fear of falling in, appeared in many dreams. I was tempted to take a peek, but I didn't.
I'm tired now, and I buy a bottle of mango juice. Somewhere I felt a sense of self worth. I could buy something, without asking the price and knowing if I had that much in my pocket. Even previously it was the same, I wouldn't need to check if I had that much in my pocket, because I would go to the shop, counting my coins carefully again and again, to ensure I could afford it, and save myself any embarrassment.
When I had gotten of my school bus, in my boyish mischief, I would walk along uncaring I had once had a chai wala spill boiling hot tea on me. The shop was still here, luckily the mark it had left on my chest, wasn't. Was that the reason i didn't sip hot tea even today? I wonder. I guess not. Childhood couldn't leave so many marks on you. Can they? Unanswered I scamper away.
I smell kababs. A pungent smell of spices overtakes the air. I look around. This couldn't be. It was just the same. I had never eaten them, and I always wanted to. I look around frantically. Where is he? My eyes search for him everywhere. I see him. I run across the road, half not seeing the car, that screeches pass, and I ignore the look of the driver. If I would ever dream about tasty kababs, this was the aroma I had in mind. Nothing could replace it. I could see myself munching into them.
I reach out to my pocket to hand over the money to him, almost deciding my order, and then I change my mind.
I walk on. I couldn't eat here.
The adult in me didn't allow me, for reasons unexplained. Somewhere I consoled myself. What if they tasted really bad? A huge part of this fairy tale childhood was suddenly diminish, and I simply couldn't afford this part to leave me anymore.
Or was it my ego that had set in?
How could I eat at a road side joint, frequented by road dwellers?
Ashamed of my pride, I turn away.
The church is a block away.
The bottle of mango juice was half empty, my pessimist mind didn't say - Half full.
I give it to the beggar and she receives it smilingly. I wonder if she had ever tasted it before. I wonder if she will give it to her kids, or have it herself. And as I wonder, I am lost in the steps of the church. The same St. Stephen's Church that I used to frequent every Sunday with my sisters and mother, until the rebel in me took over, and I stopped going there.
Why didn't I stop now?
Why was I willingly ready to step in the church, and not the temple. They are both places of God.
What about all those claims I make about believing in free religion?
Was that a fake side of me?
My excitement to enter and kneel on one of the back rows ends with disappointment, as I look at the shut gates. It was past the opening hours. Ironically, God had shut his doors on me today.
The phone buzzes. Shwetal and Samaira are ready to go home now.
My one hour is up.
I rush back the same path.
Only this time emotionless.
I wonder what memories I will create for you? I wonder if you will look back at your childhood pleasantly. I hope you do. Its a great time to live. It never comes back, they say.
Then again....it does come back.
We just don't have the eyes to look at it as a child anymore.
If we did I would have said Hi, to Sanjay, the cold drink wala, maybe had a bite into those mouth watering kababs, and been happy to just pray at the door of the church and felt I did my turn at thanking God today, for this wonderful life.
But I didn't...