The other day, we made the journey from Opera House to Malad fly-over in an hour. As we mounted the fly-over, a familiar dread sunk in. I woke up, from the open-mouthed exhausted slumber I tend to fall into these days, determined to be cheerful, and keep Vivek from freezing into cold darkness as he moved the car at 1 km. per hour. We took 56 minutes to reach the Times of India signal, barely a kilometer away. From there to home, again less than a kilometer, took 20 more minutes. My foolish attempts at singing off-key, and playing the clown dribbled away against sheer despair.
Shut up in the tin-box of a car, I try to fight claustrophobia by telling Aiman stories of a glorious growing up in Pune, where we cycled everywhere, to school, college, across town to friends’ houses, to the British Council Library, to rendezvous with boyfriends. She cannot even imagine a city like that, because Pune too, is now chock-a-bloc with cars. My father cycled to work until he was 60-odd years, and we made him give it up, not really because he was incapable of cycling any more but because we were embarrassed to have our father on a cycle, when mopeds had become the norm.
Mum said, that even when Dad and she were younger, the women in Pune cycled everywhere, in their ‘kashtha’ saris. Perhaps, that is what gave the ‘Puneri’ girls their air of freedom, the wind against their face, as they picked up their vehicle and just went wherever it was they had to go. I know that when we were in college, the boys who came from other towns, always went bonkers over the girls zipping around everywhere, on their own.
I feel stripped of this freedom by the car, which I’ve learnt to drive, but find impossible to do so, in this knee-paralyzing traffic. I look at the stoic faces of everyone else in their cars, and the even more harrowed faces of those in the public buses beside us. At least, we have our air-conditioners on. I feel guilty because I don’t have to travel everyday, like the people with regular jobs. I know socially conscious people advocate use of public transport, but Mumbai local trains, were something I never got used to.
Vivek and I make a fairly good couple, and are decent parents. We get along well, have good times, share the same values. But cooped up together in the car, we have our worst fights. We look at each other with sullen hatred, wondering why we are together in the first place. Everything, but everything, comes under a shadow of doubt – our career choices, our marriage, the country, the Indian character, life in general. Our existentialist angst is at its highest then, as we sit on the highway, contemplating how many more years of our life we’ve got to spend here, waiting for the roads and fly-overs to be finally in working condition, for the metros to be working, for there to be footpaths, for there to be enough public toilets, for there to be a negotiable city.
Everywhere around us there are shanty towns, nothing like the beautiful spread of Marine Drive or Oval Maidan, which is the face of Bombay. Every time, I go to South Bombay, the sparkling clean roads, the footpaths bereft of hawkers and illegal extensions, the wide roads, makes me envious, grumpy, cheated. I want to scream at someone, hey, I pay taxes too, will you come and look at my part of the city, please?
Here, everywhere around us the roads are dug up. A lone JCB bulldozer works listlessly. A solitary worker is still digging up the road, clocking in his last few minutes at work. The others have already flagged off, changed into their every day clothes, and are sitting around, gossiping. Rage fills inside us, against them, for shirking off work, even for those few minutes, which could have taken us a little closer to the end of this agony. A traffic policeman, bravely doing his best, waving his hands about, as usual, seems to me to be a part of the larger conspiracy of traffic policemen to create traffic jams. I say, for the umpteenth time, to Vivek who grits his teeth, “The jam’s because of this guy. He doesn’t change the signal fast enough.” I know we are both thinking of how we will survive this monsoon.