Yesterday, I had to say back at work till about 11 and because I was exhausted, I decided to walk to the train station and take a train back home, instead of getting into a cab. Walking helps me unwind. My job includes a decent amount of moving around, but the bigwigs I see are usually in their offices or at 5-star lounges. I don’t fault them; many of these people are too pressed for time. I once met a man at the airport because he didn’t have time to travel before his next flight! Plus, it’s not always the physical activity that drains, for me it’s the pressure of finding the right people, of staring at the screen till you find the right angle, the mental exhaustion from all of it. There are days when I just decide not to look at my phone any more when I get out of office. *Hint: if I’ve not returned a couple of calls or texts, this is why.
So I decided to walk. And I noticed how Mumbai changed around me, post 11. The place I work at is what can be called midtown, with a lot of offices and people in suits and high heels and cars. But on Thursday after office hours, they were all gone. Mumbai roads are never really all empty, so there were people, but I was able to more or less saunter across the crossing that I usually dare not cross on my own. Old trick: I just wait for another person and follow him/her when they cross.
Where there are cars parked and makeshift shops, there were now people making their beds. Some had pulled out rugs to lie on, others found a relatively clean spot on the pavement. Where there is incessant traffic during the day, municipality trucks were: workers cleaning the roads as much as they can. The waste, I noticed, was mostly vegetable and fruit peels and plastic.
The train station had a few stragglers from work like me, but I think I mostly saw daily wage earners going back home. There’s a policeman in the ladies’ compartments around that time. The good thing about this city is, people are helpful on the whole. And when you know there’s no fight to get a seat (the first class ladies compartment is always comparatively less crowded), they become nicer. An elderly woman had struck up a conversation with the girl selling hair accessories. I was in no mood to talk to anyone, so I took the empty carriage. They are linked and you can see into one from the other through the grilles. The policeman looked like he wanted to say something, but then decided to let me be. I’m thinking he wanted to ask me to sit in the one where he and the lady were, for safety, maybe.
Mumbai’s borderline schizophrenic , there are at least three of them living in here. There’s the city by the day, where everyone’s hurrying and rushing and doing their own thing to earn their daily bread. There’s the Mumbai of the clubs and pubs and hotels and fancy hangouts, some that change so radically from evening to nightfall you’ll wonder if it’s the same place. There’s the Mumbai of the streets at night, which is peaceful (everything’s relative in this city) and of the people who take over after the ones like us are done using the roads.
I thought riding a train at night in Mumbai can be a pretty nice experience. You’re not stuck in the city’s ever present traffic snarl (nights are usually traffic- less, but you never know when you get caught in one), it’s quieter and you can eat samosas at the station shops. Another thing, the last one out always turns off the fans and the lights. I don’t know if they do it in the men’s compartments, but the ladies almost always do it without fail. Given where I live, I’m barely ever the last one , but yesterday I did. There was no queue at the auto stand and the friendly woman who reached the one approaching auto at the same time as I let me take it. “I’ll just go to linking road (local shopping and hanging out spot), you get in.”
Unthinkable in normal hours.
As I got home, I looked around from my balcony—it had rained earlier and the dust layers on terraces and trees seemed to have been washed away. There was a moon. I looked at my phone and for sure, it said we were having a “clear” night—a rarity for the perpetually haze-ridden cities of Delhi and Mumbai. I was smiling to myself, thinking about how the city’s growing on me. The people here were right—everyone gets used to it in various degrees, some sooner than others.