Autorickshaws & Poetry

A week ago, the autorickshaw I was in, rushed through a red light. It was the early hours of the day, before peak hour so there weren’t that many vehicles on the road. But there were kids on their way to school, older people taking morning walks and Mumbai’s early morning workers stumbling out of sleep to serve the city. I yelled at him to slow down. He yelled back, “Nobody cares!”. I pointed out all the people he was endangering. He said, “Mare toh mare, koi farak nahin padta” (Let them die, no one cares). Furious, I spent the rest of the morning fretting about the callous, entitlement of North Indian men flooding into Mumbai with no talent, skill or work ethic, enraged that the streets weren’t paved with money or people waiting to laud them as Raja Beta.

It has been overwhelming returning to working, travelling, shopping the way I did before the pandemic. I feel older than the two years since I last did these things. I also can’t bring my mind to the stillness I was able to experience during the isolation. I have not been able to read. My books of poetry sit untouched since my Clubhouse presence dwindled. There’s nobody to curate poetry for, no one’s writing to savour & enjoy. Just endless webpages to maximise my employability and all the shows binge-watched to kill time till I lie down in dead slumber.

I complained to the driver of the next autorickshaw I boarded about the poisonous attitude of people, post pandemic. He listened sagely as he navigated potholes and pedestrians. Then he explained how many customers egged on autorickshaw drivers to break traffic rules, in a tearing hurry to get to their destinations or in a bid to save money on the fare. Of course, he’s right.

I burst the privilege cocoon of a roomful of people a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t set out trying to do that; it just happened. When I saw the crestfallen shock in their faces, I wondered if I could have been kinder. I still wonder. Blindness to one’s privilege hurts other people. But privileged people are people too. And realising one’s latent cruelty is hard. The thing is privilege can protect you from the tragedies of other people. But it can’t protect your life from mundanity, for what is a bored life but a mundane one?

This week I took an autorickshaw, burdened by my own thoughts. The driver, an older man kept his counsel too. It was only some time later, I noticed that he’d been discreetly having a phone conversation into his ear buds. Curious as always, I strained to identify the language. It sounded familiar but not known. I guessed from the accent more than the words. But before I could ask him, he switched to another call. As if sensing the change in my mood (he couldn’t have known, he didn’t have an inside rear view mirror to see my face), his volume was louder, his tone more aggressive as he argued in Hindi about a work arrangement. I waited impatiently till he finished, gritting my teeth at the sheer violence in the language. When he finished, I asked him if the first language he’d spoken in was Bengali. “Yes,” he said. I asked him where he was from. “Calcutta” he said. Undeterred by his lack of reaction, I pushed on asking how long he had been in Mumbai. And true to my experience of Bengalis, he opened up and began telling me about his family & his journey in Mumbai. It was delightful, the love & quiet pragmatism in his voice, speaking of a person from a sentimental place, channeling a more practical side for sustenance. That’s what Mumbai is, even to people who have lived in it two decades. I pressed on, asking how things were in his home state politically. “Isn’t it really difficult for your community now?” I asked pointedly, referring to his skull cap. Proudly, he spoke about his state pushing back against the more fundamentalist regime. And in the end, he asked me where I was from. “Tamil Nadu” I said automatically, “Another state that did the same”. Then I corrected myself and said, “Actually I am from Mumbai. What a mess has been made of this city.” He nodded his head. Us two, uneasily at home in a place that is an uneasy home for everybody.

I carry the card of many identity cultures. It is simultaneously a burden and a privilege. I have no clear answer to “Where are you really from?”. When people from one part of the country misbehave, in my disgust is mingled the shame of having a connection to them. Then there are the multiple classes I juggle fully knowing that even being able to travel between them means I come home to the highest class of all. That realisation is still as crushing for me  as it was for that roomful of people realising it for the first time.

Today I looked at my bookshelf, a new home for my beloveds since moving back home earlier this month. I touched the spines of forgotten loves, restacked some in more intuitive order. And I opened a book of poetry. The last one I bought before Clubhouse dwindled, before the summer evaporated into the oppressive monsoon, just before I last saw my favorite tree. It is ‘Another 100 Lyrics by Gulzar, translated by Sunjoy Shekhar‘. I picked this one up, thinking it would be more accessible for me to read Hindi that I’d heard in songs before. Before I realised it, I was immersed in the pieces, not even looking at the English translations, but savouring new meanings in the songs of my childhood.

I paused at one – डाकिया डाक लाया (पलकों की चान में). The last stanza moves from the Hindi I’m most familiar with, to a more rural hinterland dialect. And in that moment, I could suddenly see the first angry autorickshaw driver and the poetry stretching between him and people he left back home. I felt the yearning of people who loved someone for whom I felt revulsion. And in the English translation, I found the lines,

these long nights of separation are full of despair
and this accursed monsoon,
these rains conspire to fill my eyes with tears
ah, I burn in a pyre of fire, unloved
quit your work and run to me, beloved
run to me…come
see, the new year’s about to ring in
it’s nearly summer now

I echo this very sentiment expressed with exactly the same metaphors in my poetry. Me, an English speaker in Mumbai. And she, a Hindi speaker in the rural hinterland. Our poetry is the same. I thought about the people I teach, the ones that teach me. The ones who pay me to do things, those I pay to do things. We’re all carrying such magnificent stories of yearning and loss and love and hope and friendship and pain. I feel less angry about what is mine, what someone else is trying to take away. I am overcome by the exquisite pain of shared tragedies, the difficulty of clutching hope in a city where there isn’t room to stand. But I’m not angry, I’m not bored, I’m not tired. That’s a life less mundane. A life that is seeking the same wonderous things that people everywhere are. I’m so glad for poetry.

I’ll leave you with this other poem from the book, beautifully rendered in song in the film Masoom.

For my readers who don’t follow Hindi, here is the translation of the lyrics by Sunjoy Shekhar. The film is a remake of ‘Man, Woman & Child’ by Eric Segal.

there’s a story in these two eyes
coursing through two limpid little pools
telling their tale to all and sundry
a little in words
a little in sounds
a handful of clouds, a little rain
and a story

a little familiar, a little new
comes to an end where the tears stop rolling
a fresh story in every telling, and yet
a tale, age-old
a handful of clouds, a little rain
and a story

a night comes to an end, another descends
a long-forgotten incident finds a voice again
this is then the story of these two eyes
a handful of clouds, a little rain
and a story

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