I met him at a book reading in Fort. He was in Bombay, working on a story, and had decided to accompany a friend for that event. The friend asked if I’d escort him to Churchgate station and put him in a Bandra-bound local. I said yes in an instant. I was heading there myself, so no bother at all. And if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity of showing off my city to a visitor, even if he was a stranger.
We made our way past the narrow lanes in the Fort district, down the narrow pathway on Azad Maidan, past the khao galli, heading straight toward Churchgate station. It was a short 15-minute walk but he marveled at every small detail along the route.
The stone buildings in the Fort district, which bore elegant traces of the colonial rule; the bazaar-like feel when walking along the pavements; the sense of freedom when crossing Azad Maidan. He remarked how peaceful and calming it all felt, when Bombay is anything but that. It helped that it was past 8 pm, a time when the area is largely devoid of a sea of humanity.
He lamented that the VSNL building, made of concrete, stood out like a sore sight, amidst all that history and stone it was surrounded with. But he was ecstatic that both Sterling and Eros had retained their old-world charm in the era of commercial multiplexes. And the sight of Churchgate station turned him into a wondrous five-year-old.
It was past 8 pm, but the subway was bustling with life, oblivious to the time of the day. He asked if some Chinese food in the subway would be a good idea for grub. He had spotted a few stalls and the tummy had responded likewise. And I, who had taken this route for almost a decade, had no eye for such stalls ever. I cautioned against it, citing the usual boring excuse of hygiene and quality. He didn’t argue.
Once we reached the station, he paused for a few minutes to soak in the energy and the atmosphere. He needed to purchase a ticket. He was impressed with how quickly he received the change. We proceeded to walk the length of the platform to get to the First Class compartments. Another daily and ordinary ritual for me, but his awe hadn’t diminished. I saw dirt and squalor; he seemed at ease, unperturbed. I winced at the paan-splattered walls and pillars; he glanced at the ceiling to absorb its vastness.
I got closer to the edge of the platform in wait for the train to arrive. But he had other plans. He said, “Why stand in wait when we have a lovely stone bench to sit on and wait.” And thus, we sat on a bench, I would typically overlook in my daily rush for a local train. I suppose they built it a year or so ago when they extended the length of the third platform. But I was always too busy making a dash for the train just pulling into the station.
I was too busy getting worked up about how dirty the city is that I forgot to appreciate its finer points. I was too busy getting to and fro to work and back that I forgot how much I loved Bombay. I was too busy counting the deadlines in my head that I forgot to look around and needed a walk with a stranger to rekindle the romance.
*First featured in MumbaiMag.