“We must be the change we want to see in the world,” Gandhi’s quote greets me, as I stand in line for a second class return ticket to Churchgate. Obama and McCain both embraced change, using its promise to stake moral high ground. I wonder how the city of my youth will have morphed. The busy market outside the train station gives me hope.
As I step onto the platform, I am quickly reoriented, and am soon sharing the open doorway of a southbound slow train, leaning out into the wind, anticipating each station as the names come back to me. The youth looking forward to a day in the city, thirty five years ago, has given way to the balding seeker, eyes closed, luxuriating in the familiar clatter of the wheels. Comforted by the familiar rocking as we enter Dadar station, I step inside and find a seat.
Though they have changed from Bombayites to Mumbaikars, I recognize every occupant sharing the bench with me. A pastel shirt, handkerchief tucked under the collar, a pair of black shoes shined by the boy at the station, the man selling chikki, four young men listening to film music on a transistor radio. There are no cell phones in use, perhaps because it is early on a Sunday morning – but there are no MP3 players in evidence, either; I suspect modern day electronics has not invaded Bombay as it has done in other cities.
A weighing machine with dancing colored lights draws me in with a wink at Churchgate station, challenging me, as an old acquaintance will, to recall his name. We chat about the years gone by. The conversation is cheerful – not for us the traditional lament about the good old days. No. This fine day is just as good for us old timers as the last time we talked, in 1978. I congratulate my friend on his looks. His light bulbs have not faded with time, and he stands erect, ready to weigh his next customer. He lies gallantly, ignoring the absent hair and the lined face, wishing me well as I set off on the run.
There are more cricket games in the Oval Maidan than I would have thought possible, giving it a buzz of entropic energy that befuddles me. Unable to separate the games, I run on, marveling at the focus each player must have to field the ball. The grand melee includes a football game, some joggers, and a couple walking their dog.
I arrive at the Gateway of India as an Elephanta cruise pulls in. One difference I do see is that the hippies of yesteryear have given way to trim haircuts and khakis favored by today’s software engineer. There are security forces in the area, and some parts are cordoned off, but the air is casual and easy going. A sign offers free books on Islamic culture, rejecting terrorism – Muslim graveyards in this city refused to bury the attackers, and I am glad to see Muslim shop owners and tourists unafraid, at ease. Bombay has had more than its fair share of fanaticism in the past, but rather than bringing fresh incidents, the recent carnage has bonded the city; Bal Thackeray and his ilk have been silent.
A chain link fence surrounds the old Taj building - a uniformed doorman pleasantly asks me to return in a few weeks. I gaze at the blackened roof top, and realize it is nothing – a mere pimple. Burnt at the corners by an unattended oven, the black forest is still delicious, the singed portions are being skillfully done over, and the cake will grace the table again, served as always with exquisite grace.
I am hungry as I near 4th Pasta Lane, and decide I will eat breakfast, rather than a snack bar. The bearded old man behind the counter with a shaven upper lip sends a bespectacled waiter ambling to my table. I use soft, fresh bread to remove green chillies from the omelet, and sip hot, sweet tea with my left hand, as always.
I remember the iron pillars protecting the alley leading from 4th Pasta Lane to Wodehouse Road, and stop to recall my youth in the fourth floor flat at Badhwar Park. The fishing village is busy as I step off the road onto the beach, and watch as men use rafts made of broken styrofoam held together by old fishing nets to paddle to the boats. The terrorists came ashore on this beach. The few steps from the road into the village has altered the frame significantly – I leave quickly, feeling the disquieting gaze of enquiring eyes.
Nariman point is much closer than I imagined, and I am soon running past the National Centre for the Performing Arts, and then the Oberoi. I see the hotel is fully functional, and does not carry any marks of the attack, except, of course, for the layers of protection around it.
Marine Drive stretches before me, curving to the left, and I run past the old hotels and apartment buildings I would so love to inhabit some day. There is peace to be found here.
Hoardings announce a Marathon on January 18. I suspect all of Bombay will run that race. This city will triumph over every difficulty; it is the hit man who will regret his deeds, his rejected remains a mark of shame on the hatred that created him. Wasted lives give pause to all who care, but the city of my youth transcends sorrow. In its stoic, unchanged middle class lies its strength, its wisdom, and its future.