Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Longest Night

Genre: Non-fiction

Its yet another dark rainy Tuesday afternoon, common during Mumbai monsoons and at 2pm just after the lunch break, students in a class in VJTI in Matunga are discussing whether to sit for the next lecture or not, one eye on the heavy rain that is pouring outside. No unanimous decision is reached and half the class bunks the lecture and leaves while I am in the other half that decides to sit for one more hour before leaving, hoping the rain would subside by then. By the time the lecture is over, the rain has shown no signs of subsiding. Rather it is pouring harder, nothing unusual about it, we see days like these every monsoon. Me and Sid are taking a cab to Dadar station when dad calls on my mobile- "Do you want me to come to Dadar to pick you up? The trains may not be running". I shrug off his offer- "No need. I'll go to station and see. If trains are not running, I'll let you know". We reach Dadar station and heave a sigh of relief to see the indicators still showing Borivali Slow and Virar Fast as usual. We get into the First Class coach of 3.20 Borivali Slow and it runs smoothly through pouring rain to the first stop- Matunga Road and then to Mahim. After the usual 30 second stop, it departs and slowly ambles along and comes to a stop in the mangrove-filled area between Mahim and Bandra. 

Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour, the train shows no signs of moving. By now some passengers have jumped off the train and started walking on the tracks. Me and Sid discuss "How silly! Why can't they just wait inside rather than getting drenched like this." I call up dad and tell him the situation. He suggests coming to Dharavi overbridge by car and once he is there, I jump off the train and get on to the bridge and the car. We wait. An hour passes. And another. Dad says he is stuck somewhere in Chembur at the other end of town and suggests we do not wait for him and start moving ahead on our own. Now this is a bit worrying. We look around. Everyone has left the coach except us and one other man. We jump off the train onto the tracks, and not wanting to stay back alone, the Bihari man, we call him Gajodhar, also jumps with us. We walk along the length of the train towards Bandra and when we reach the driver's cabin, we realise the extraordinary situation at hand- the motorman has abandoned the train, locked the cabin and left! Now this is something I have never seen or heard happening in Mumbai rains. We walk along with hundreds of other passengers coming from various stranded trains until we reach the Mithi river bridge.

The railway bridge on Mithi river, though not very long, is treacherous. It has no walkway, no safety railings, in fact not even a firm base. There are metal sheets laid between the tracks, through which now we can see the usually quiet and stinky Mithi river now overflowing with water whose speed would put whitewater rafting locations to shame, and this just two feet below track level! There is no option, the river has to be crossed. Volunteers ask passengers to form a single human chain, holding each others hands, to carefully walk over the rickety metal sheets and cross the bridge. We somehow manage to do this, and think the ordeal is over since now we can safely perch ourselves at Bandra station, bot how wrong we are! The sight at Bandra station is one I have never seen before. All the tracks are filled with water upto platform levels and the entire station looks like Kumbh mela, overflowing with passengers occupying every single inch of available space. Now one thing is clear- there is no way trains are going to run anytime soon. We need to find alternate transport. We walk out of the station, hoping to walk to SV Road a few hundred meters away and take a bus from there, but wait! The entire road from station to SV Road is filled with knee deep water, and its dark. Impossible to walk through this. As if this is not enough, to add to our woes, Gajodhar has been following us all along and declares "I am new to this city. I don't know how to reach Borivali. I will come with you guys wherever you are going!"

Me and Sid look at each other and decide to go back to the station. On platform 2, there is one local train standing amidst deep water, powered down but filled with passengers. We tell Gajodhar to wait inside this train as it will go to Borivali while we go to use the washroom. Making sure he is well inside the train, we run away from that platform as fast as we can. Its around 8pm already when uncle finally manages to get through one call to my mobile through the congested network. He says he is travelling by car with his boss and should be crossing Bandra shortly, and ask me and Sid to manage reaching SV Road somehow. We walk out to the bus station. As we are discussing the possibilities, one BEST bus driver decides he will brave out the deep water on the road outside and take his bus to Bandstand! Immediately we hop onboard along with a hundred other passengers and ask him to drop us beyond the flooded street on to SV Road. As promised, he revs up the engines, turns on the headlights and pierces the bus through nearly three feet deep water and stops safely near SV Road where a majority of the passengers get off. We walk to the decided spot on SV Road and wait for uncle. We wait and wait. An hour passes. We see hordes and hordes of people walking and realise the situation doesn't seem good anywhere in the city. Around 9.30pm, uncle comes in his boss's car and we are overjoyed to find dry shelter and a ride home. Or so we think.

The driver decides to continue on SV Road since the highway is jam packed, but traffic cops divert us on to Linking Road citing water logging ahead. So far so good. There is traffic but its crawling at a decent pace. It takes an hour to reach Khar. From here, we are diverted into some small lanes where we get stuck and how. An hour passes but there are no signs of movement. Uncle's boss doesn't live far from here but we have a long way to go. So he suggests we rather get off and start walking like the others and after initial hesitation, we give in. Its around midnight now, the rain has stopped for a bit but some areas have power cut, so it is dark, wet and terribly crowded. By midnight we make our way to SV Road and start walking northwards with the huge crowd. Students, office goers, businessmen in expensive suits, celebrities, everyone is walking together, Mother Nature has brought everyone to one level. Upto Santacruz the walk goes fine but then its trouble. SV Road around Juhu airport is flooded with two feet of water but thankfully there is help at hand. hard working folks from Mumbai Fire Brigade have formed a human chain, have ropes set out for people to hold on to, and are guarding open manhole covers. In one single line, hundreds and hundreds of people slowly cross the long waterlogged stretch. We are hungry, dead tired but our survival instinct keeps us going and we reach Andheri station by 3am.

Once at Andheri, we hope the trains have started running again so we head straight to the station, but no luck. There are trains parked on every platform, packed with passengers, but with no signs of moving. Also, walking further is not possible since the cops have closed SV Road north of Andheri station due to excessive water logging. There is no option but to find shelter somewhere close by. Sid lives in Andheri but far from the station, so the ordeal is not over for him either. Luckily soon he finds a truck driver who is willing to take people onboard and drive towards where Sid lives, so he hops onboard. Me and uncle cross over to the east side and head to a building nearby where one of our relatives live. We walk into the colony, dead tired, in the dark owing to powercut, and find our way up the stairs and ring the doorbell. No answer. Ring again. No answer. Finally we ring the doorbell of their neighbours who wake up startled. We ask them to phone our relatives and wake them from sleep! They do it, and finally the door opens and we get a place to sleep for the night, or whatever was left of it, since it was already 4am. We wake up and head to Andheri station by 10am, and turns out, by then train services north of Andheri is just beginning to restart, although not as per timetable. After a half hour wait, the train we are onboard starts, and slowly but steadily drops us at Malad station, from where its a five minute walk to Home Sweet Home! 

Thus ended the ordeal. The journey that took 20 hours to travel 20 kilometers. Thus ended the night the city suffered as one, came out in the dead hours to help each other and stand united. Thus ended the longest night Mumbai city has seen. The night of 26th July 2005.  

Thursday, July 14, 2011

When Will This Stop?

Genre: Current Affairs

So, yesterday Mumbai once again witnessed serial bomb blasts. 1993, 2003, 2005, 2008 and now again. Once again the common citizens of the city have lost lives even as the culprit of the previous attacks enjoys VIP treatment in special jail and the netas of the state "offer deep condolences", their lazy fat asses safely tucked behind a wall of security personnel. This has reached a stage when I no longer feel enraged at the terrorists doing these attacks. The rage is entirely towards the spineless incapable government, of the state as well in Delhi. As someone had rightly said, Civilizations fall not so much because of the strength of the enemy outside, as through the weakness and decay within. 

Now the moment I say this, some smart Alec will come up with the straight-out-of-Civics-textbook statement that "it is we who elected this government, so whatever is happening is our fault, and next time we should ensure we bring the right people to power". True, very true theoretically, but if only things were as simple as that in reality. Did "we" really elect this government to power? Talking of myself, I did not. In the last election, many of us did not vote for the well-known corrupt candidate. We went by the "We want change" principle and voted for an IIT engineer who was contesting the election with the utopian idea of "Be the change you want to see". But what happened? He lost badly and like every time, the same corrupt politician won the election. How? Votebanks. In this "largest democracy in the world", most of the winners are decided much ahead of the election date. How and why does this happen?  

Take an example. Before every election, a politician from a certain party visits a slum locality near my residence and offers the people living there a cash incentive and foodgrains to vote for him. If he did this to me, it wouldn't swing me in favour of voting for him, because for me principles matter more than the money. But does the same apply for my maid who lives in that slum? No. For her, the money matters more than principles. Why? Because she is poor. Why? Because she is uneducated. Can I do something about this? Yes, encourage her to send her kids to school so that they don't get pulled into this same quicksand. In the meantime, how do the existing politicians afford to spend so much money on their votebanks? Because they are shamelessly corrupt and accumulate millions of rupees in bribes. Can we stop this? Theoretically yes. How? By getting a strong anti-corruption bill passed in the Parliament. Will it happen? No. Why? Because the sitting MPs will reject any bill that plugs their "source of income". Why? Because they are in power and they can unanimously do what they want to. Can we remove them from power and get someone else in? Theoretically yes, but practically nearly impossible. Why? Because they have vote banks. Why do so many people vote for corrupt politicians for money? Because they are poor. Why? Because they have not got enough opporunities to get educated. Can we get them all educated? Possible, but a Herculean task. Will the existing government want to sincerely do it? No. Because that would mean digging their own grave. Why educate everyone and make them rise up to vote on principles and get thrown out of power when its easier to "buy" their votes with little money? 

In short, this is a very messy vicious spiral. If India aspires to truly become a world superpower, this spiral has to stop. How to do it is a very difficult question to answer but someone has to do it. Someone who? We, the citizens of India. We need to realize voting is not the only way to bring about change. Do we have that potential to bring about the change? Yes, we do. Incidentally, the people of India showed what potential they have to come together and unite for a cause yesterday itself, in the aftermath of the serial bomb blasts. While the TV news channels were busy shouting out irrelevant stuff about how they were the first to report the blasts and assorted bullshit, scores of unknown heroes, common men and women from across the country, had risen to the occasion to quickly send out accurate information and help anyone and everyone in need, on Twitter. Within minutes of the blasts, hundreds of unnamed citizens had given out their phone numbers and addresses on the social networking site offering complete strangers either a place to come over to stay, a ride back home from work, food, first aid, blood etc. Someone came up with this brilliant idea of collecting this information from the tweets into a Google doc spreadsheet and within one hour there was a list of over 250 people in different parts of Mumbai whom people affected by the blasts could contact for help. This particular document soon went viral and many of you must have noticed it being shared on Facebook too. This is the power of social networking. This is a small trailer of what the citizens of India can do when united for a cause. But to bring about a pathbreaking change such as overthrowing a government, it will not be enough for just the Facebook-Twitter junta of India to unite. It will require encouraging the very large poor and illiterate population of the country too to join in and fight for principles. This will need someone who can bring the whole country together. Something like what Hitler did in post World War I Germany. And in the current scenario, I can think of only one personality in India who has that influence over the entire nation that people will come out and do whatever he asks them to do- yes, Sachin Tendulkar! But I don't see him doing that anytime soon, so we have no option but to wait until that one messiah comes up and unites the entire nation against the corrupt leadership. India needs an Egypt type revolution. 

Until then, keep outraging, take out candle marches, talk about "the spirit of Mumbai" and keep paying taxes on time so that the netas can continue to afford to travel with their security cordons and Kasab can enjoy one more serving of his favorite biryani.  
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