On 26 November 2008, a young man walked into a train station and changed the lives of millions of people forever. I am one of those people, because I am a Mumbaiker. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t look it up until you finish the story. This story is in memory of the unsung Mumbaiker who travels by train, squeezes forbidden affections into communal tensions and bears the hated distinction of having ‘the Mumbai spirit’. For today’s A to Z Challenge, V is for Victoria Terminus. Always.
V is for Victoria Terminus
The car pulls into the lane. Karthik frowns at me, as I get in. He doesn’t like me standing here by myself. He’s given up trying to convince me. I haven’t given up trying to convince him, though. I never even tried. There is nothing to worry about. Anything that can happen to me here, can also happen to me on the main road.
“Look, it’s all lit up.”
He says, pointing to the obvious, unmissable.
I’ve succeeded in missing it. I’m adept at it. It takes great perseverance. Or simply many years of steeping in the fabled Mumbai spirit. We learn to unsee things that are right in front of our eyes. We learn to get past things we can’t afford to dwell on.
We stop for dinner at Worli. This takes some doing, though, since Karthik is hungry already and it will be at least an hour before we get back home. Nothing will be open at that hour. Chembur, like the Chennai extension that it is, sleeps early. He tries to convince me to eat while we’re in town. Worli is a good compromise. Still South Bombay but far enough from the wretched place.
And because he has been patient, I compromise and agree to go to that restaurant. Karthik looks positively jubilant and then immediately, he’s contrite.
“The smell won’t bother you? What will you eat?”
“I’m sure they have vegetarian biryani. Or pulao.”
“I don’t think they make biryani or pulao in Lebanon.”
I settle for a wraps, which I know they have vegetarian versions, of. Karthik practically swoons when his chicken shawarma arrives. It smells so good. I work my way through a wrap that tastes like cardboard covered grass.
Karthik is very happy as we drive back home. He starts to reminisce about the best foods he’s ever had.
“You know, Hyderabadi biryani is really okay. But the real pleasure is in having it at a Muslim’s house during Ramzan. Mutton biryani and paaya.”
He’s driving towards the sealine, I notice, instead of towards the Eastern Express highway.
“Have you ever seen this place, during Ramzan?”
I pretend that I’m dozing off. But he won’t be shaken, when he’s in this mood.
“I know, I know what you think. But really, it’s a terribly racist attitude. Muslims have as much right to this country as we do. They are not all terrorists and criminals.”
The green flags flap in the breeze. Across the water, Haji Ali dargah floats peacefully in the moonlight. I close my eyes, even though Karthik can’t see them, when I have my face turned away. My husband of three years believes that I am staunchly anti-Muslim. I’ve done well.
Rashid would have been proud of me. Rashid’s sharp, twinkling eyes belying the laughter that he didn’t let reach his lips. Those lips, oh those lips! Fifteen years later, I have still not forgotten those lips. Nobody forgets their first kiss. Especially not if Rashid was the one kissing them.
We turn off at Bandra and I’m forced to open my eyes. The smell at Mahim Causeway would wake anyone up. Karthik seems to detect my open eyes and immediately starts talking again.
“You can always tell when you’ve passed the old city and have come into the new parts. Even newcomers. South Bombay has such wonderful classic architecture.”
“It’s all dying embers. SoBo is dead. All the action is moving to the suburbs now.”
Karthik laughs, derisively. He can never understand. But how would he? He’s been in Mumbai for all for four years. He’s still enamored by the hype generated by the money-fueled talkers of this city.
“Don’t you have any romance in your soul? All these buildings in the suburbs look like monsters. Concrete Godzillas.”
“I suppose Antila is a work of art.”
“You know I don’t mean that. Antila is like the Eiffel tower to Mumbaikers, I think. The locals hate it.”
“You don’t? And, you’ve been in Mumbai for four years now.”
“Yeah. But I haven’t gotten jaded about it, the way you have. I suppose living here all your life does that to you.”
“Jaded, why? Just because I’m not waxing eloquent over crumbling buildings populated by equally decrepit old men who’ve never been beyond Worli?”
“Not all the buildings are like that. Look at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It’s a world heritage site. Aren’t you at least a little proud of it? Or the Gateway of India?”
I purse my lips. Karthik is persistent. It must be the shawarma. Meat must create testosterone surges.
“It looked beautiful tonight. I can’t think how anybody can fail to be moved by the sight. But Mumbai people, you just move past it like it’s any old building. You didn’t even bother looking at it.”
Suddenly his tone is accusing and the hair on my arm prickles.
“Well, forgive me for not going into raptures over a building that’s basically a public transport facility. VT is just a station.”
“VT. That’s another thing I can’t understand. It’s been called C.S.T. for what…20 years now? Even the signboards and indicators say C.S.T. But you insist on calling it VT still.”
Actually, they say ST, not CST. But Karthik wouldn’t know; he’s never taken a train. And I’m not about to enlighten him.
“What I can’t get is how you switch so smoothly to Mumbai. Isn’t that like a pride thing with you homegrown people from this city? It’s Bombay, not Mumbai?”
“Only SoBo people with nothing better to do with their time, say that.”
I say and lean back, shutting my eyes. We’ll be home soon but not soon enough. This conversation is getting to be too much already. But closed eyelids don’t stop memories from flashing. I give in and let myself drift. Rashid will not be silenced, in my head, anymore than he would be, in person.
“You need to exercise some restraint, Sanjana. They are your family, after all. Give them some leeway.”
“Rashid, they’re bloody casteist, racist…Well, I won’t say what they are.”
“Sanju, stop it. They’ve lived their whole, entire lives believing these truths.”
“Truths? What truths? That non-Brahmins are filth? That Muslims are evil? You really expect me to sit quiet with all that?”
“No, I expect you to be wiser. Exercise restraint. There’s nothing to be gained by going all guns blazing.”
“You’ll never survive them if you take the moderate path. As it is, they’ll expect you to have terrorist connections.”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I’m one of the educated, professional Muslims who’s plotting to do you in. Maybe I’m conspiring to take over the ruling Hindu classes and marry their beautiful daughters.”
“Daughter. Who needs a harem, when a man has firebrand, best friend and lover all rolled into one in you?”
“You’re a sneaky one. Charming your way out of that one.”
“I love you.”
My eyes fly open at this moment. That’s the last thing I heard. That’s the last thing I saw. Gunfire. Screams. Bright lights. I had been standing at the door of the train compartment, Rashid on the platform, with one foot on the door of the train, ready to get in when it started. When the firing began, he turned and pushed me in at the same time. I staggered back and it took me a few seconds to steady myself since the train had started rolling very quickly, all of a sudden. Rashid! I screamed and rushed to the door.
The last thing I saw was his crumpled body lying on the platform. Further down, under the clock, a man in a black teeshirt and camouflage pants brandished a gun. I’ll never forget him. Even if every newspaper in the country had not splashed his likeness across their front pages for the next week.
One week later, candlelight vigils took to the streets. I didn’t participate in any of them. A restaurant in Colaba Causeway proudly displayed its bullet holes lodged in the wall and this tourist attraction has only increased business every year. The Taj Mahal hotel was rebuilt and its security amped up. The Oberoi Trident survived too. The names of the ATS officers who fell became common knowledge in every Mumbai household. But only I remembered Rashid. The station was open for business as usual the next day. The country raved about the Mumbai spirit. And I got up and went to work. But V.T.Station has stayed just V.T.Station.
When I open my eyes, Karthik is driving into the colony gates. The watchman opens the gates and I smile thank you to him. Altaf chacha smiles back at me.
*Image (without text) via Wikipedia