Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The 8:57 Local

[This was something I wrote a couple of years back when I was in Delhi, and feeling homesick for Bombay. Tweaked it a bit and submitted it to a short story contest, where it was accepted. Ended up not picking up the souvenir book where it was published, but knowing it was printed is good enough for me.

Fiction, but based totally on experience.]

Though she had been living in the city for nearly four years, Shireen hated Mumbai with the same intensity as she had when she had first arrived. At that time, her colleagues had assured her that it was just a matter of time before she fell in love with the city –“Mumbai grows on you”, they’d told her. Sure it did– in exactly the same way an unwelcome fungal infection.

As if the obscenely late hours she kept, and the hour long commute each way was not bad enough, the place she lived in only made things worse. The Queen of the Suburbs, Bandra was called. The only address worthy of a young, single, ambitious professional, she was told. Almost half her salary went in paying the rent for her 1BHK accommodation, smaller by far than the servants’ quarters in her father’s government bungalow in Delhi. And she had nothing to show for it!

Bandra had the restaurants and the movie theaters, but what use were either when there was nobody she could go out with? All her ex-classmates and colleagues were either married with kids, or lived elsewhere. And she knew nobody else. A small town girl at heart, Shireen initially thought she would soon make new friends. But nobody had time for anything more than a quick hello.

Take the ladies on the 8:57 local. She had traveled with them every morning for nearly three years, but never once had they as much as acknowledged her existence. Without meaning to, she heard enough of their conversations to find out that they had all graduated from the same school and sang on the same church choir. Sure she did not have anything in common with them, but would it kill them to smile at her once in awhile?

When she was still new to the city, she had tried to make eye contact with them, but they had always pretended to have been looking past her, while in fact, she knew perfectly well that they had been sizing her up.

It got to a point where Shireen stopped taking the train to work so she could avoid being snubbed by them. The alternative was the Borivili fast- she hated being squeezed from all directions, but it was preferable to being treated like she was invisible.

The only saving grace about Mumbai was the opportunity for professional growth. The city was the financial nerve-centre, and Shireen loved being where the action was. But gradually, she was starting to wonder if it was all worth it. Working seventy-hour weeks as she did, she did not have a social life to speak of, and the total lack of human contact was getting to her. Perhaps it was time to start thinking seriously about moving to another city – a city where she could lead a normal life.

She sneaked a glance at her watch– six o’ clock – where had the last nine hours gone? She hadn’t completed even half the work she had been intending to do. She really couldn’t leave so early. But she had promised her mother that she would look her school friend up, and the friend was leaving for the States tonight. Reluctantly, she turned off her laptop and picked up her handbag.

“Leaving early, are we?”, asked a colleague.

‘Sod off”, Shireen wanted to say. Instead, she retorted, “Yup, I’ve taken the day off and just came for a couple of hours to finish something.”

“Hee hee hee. Joke. Have fun with your boyfriend, if you have got yourself one.”

Shireen was still fuming when she boarded the Bandra local. ‘So this is what it feels like to leave on time’, she thought to herself as she asked the people to move in so she could squeeze herself into the tiny space. She closed her eyes and tried to relax– she barely knew her mother’s friend, but it would be nice to talk to someone who was genuinely interested in her.

“Hey, haven’t I seen you before?”, the voice on her right enquired. “You were a regular on the 8:57 local, weren’t you?”

The voice sounded familiar. One of the ‘8:57 local’ women! She nodded.

“I thought you looked familiar. Where did you go? We were wondering what had happened to you? Did you move away, or something?”

“I started taking the fast.”

“The fast! I could never take the fast. Too crowded!”

“The 8:57 local was too slow.” Shireen was defensive. “Ever since I started taking the fast, I have been able to sleep an additional fifteen minutes.”

“You are brave. I would not dream of taking the fast. In any case, the 8:57 is a part of my life. I have been taking it ever since I started working.”

Shireen nodded mutely. No words seemed required.

“Anyway, enough of that. I have news for you. My daughter is getting married next month, and I am throwing a celebratory party on the train on Friday. Do come, if you can. We’d love to catch up with you.”

“Me?” But…”

“Come off it. Can’t you forego fifteen minutes of sleep?”

“But… but… We don’t even know each other.”

“So what? We’ve travelled together for months haven’t we?”

“But we’ve never even spoken to each other. I don’t even know your name.”

“Is that important? We’ve been a part of each other’s lives. That is all that matters.”

“But why did you never attempt to talk to me?” Shireen’s tone was almost accusatory.

“Well, we never thought you would want to mix with us. You come from a very different background, don’t you? But all that is the past. You will come for the party, wouldn’t you?”

Things were moving too fast. Was this the real Mumbai? The real Bandra? Had she finally come home? Those people had been right– Mumbai did have a heart, even if it was buried deep under layers of ambition and efficiency.

‘Say Home. Say it softly. It is a prayer.’

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