My recent visit to India was interesting to say the least and revealed numerous glaring changes. Always a country of extreme contrasts, this time revealed a tip of the scale in many areas.My arrival at the newly renovated, Sahar International Airport, sent a thrill through me. In recent years there has been such enormous change and it was heartening to see how it had risen from the chaotic, corrupt and inefficient to rank higher among international airports. Perhaps India was at last taking a leading role in the world as some economists had ventured to predict. My illusion for this beloved city & country waned slightly as I stepped out onto the pavement and chaos. I didn’t have my India cell and the nearest pay-phone was way down across a street with no ramp for my luggage cart. One eye on my car and the other on the phone at the STD booth a nice young man in a similar predicament offered to watch my bags. Immediately I was greeted with the contrast so typical of this city. Here I was, wondering how to leave my luggage unattended and suddenly a fellow passenger appears to watch it.
I finally connected with the driver who came to fetch me, standing at a far corner with the name-board upside down and illegible. We made our way out of the endless construction of what I learned was to be a new airport to cater to the growing traffic, this one having been completed only last year! A new one already?
As we sped along, I was shaken out of my reverie by what appeared to me a total disregard for traffic signals as cars, including mine flew past intersections. I could not believe what I was seeing. Bombay had always stood out as the most orderly, disciplined city in the country. Was I dreaming? True, it was almost mid-night, but mid-night in Bombay is like mid-night in Manhattan – the city never sleeps. We sped along into downtown Bombay in record time. Interestingly, this was a common phenomena, come 10pm and drivers just let their hair down; on a few occasions even in broad daylight and in peak traffic hours. It was a free for all–something Bombay had never seen.
But it was not just the traffic signals that seemed to be an issue. All over, where previously there had been a semblance of order now there was chaos & collapse. On the several occasions that I rode the commuter trains from Churchgate to Bandra, the nearest suburb, I found it impossible to get out of the station, leave alone the train! There were rikshas (3-wheeler scooter taxis) plenty, all lined up in their stand, meters at half mast, the rest mode, while swarms of passengers elbowed and scrambled for the few that plied. It was certainly a riksha raj (rule) now. Not willing to enter into a competition or tussle, I continued walking nearly a mile down the road till I found a willing one.
Bandra, once the most beautiful and sought after suburb, is a sea of people and rikshas. Cars are virtually useless there as what used to be a 10 minute drive to the station is now at least a half hour battle in traffic. I could scarcely recall the quiet, charming Hill Road that I first knew. The decades of ‘development’ and shops had eroded completely any semblance of beauty, serenity and order, over the last 15 years.
It was almost more pleasurable to have stayed on the train I thought. But even the now new, broader trains seemed insufficient for the busy rush hour. On more than one occasion I was hoisted up by default, not being able to fend back the crowd. But all train travelers are bonded together and they will do anything to keep one from falling off, so this tiny lady caught hold of my arm and, not realizing I spoke Hindi, urged me in English to hold on tight. Even here there is system to the madness and you have to know which side the train will stop and prepare beforehand so as not to be caught in the flux on the wrong side. The ladies especially can get ferocious!
At off-peak hours however, the trains still remain by far the swiftest and most comfortable of all the transport. The tri-lingual announcements in Marathi, Hindi and English are a far cry from the days when we did guess work. It was heartening to see not only all the new trains but more tracks being built. One wonders where they will put them with slums and buildings hugging the existing ones. Amidst all this crowd and chaos are the little vegetable patches growing in-between housing colonies and the tracks, a reminder of how industrious this city is. No matter what, there is industry to be found. No wonder hordes throng here from ill-equipped rural areas having inadequate utilities or jobs.
A trip to HSBC to close my account was interesting to say the least. I remembered a day possibly 20 years ago, when, totally frustrated with the inefficiency at our old nationalized bank, I had closed my family’s accounts and taking them to the brand new HSBC in Bandra. (Half of Bandra did so too if I remember right.) It was time now to revert it seems. The multi-national novelty seems to have worn out with the rapid hikes in numerous and spurious fees, in spite of total in-efficiency. It took me 3 trips and 3 weeks to close this account; nobody could tell me why. Most amazingly in this past year they have introduced a new ‘Ladies’ queue. I don’t remember when the ‘Ladies’ culture came into being but it was an effort to enable shy, orthodox women to travel and get work done without jostling among the men. But it is highly outdated. Can we possibly move forward in equality and still demand a ‘Ladies’ queue? That too, at a multi-national bank!
The single most prominent indicator of change was for me the constant noise. My friends say it’s because I’ve been away so long? To some extent perhaps although I return every year, but coming to the west one is struck by the silence. However, I remember a Bombay where the noisy areas were restricted to the hustle and bustle of daytime Bhindi Bazaar, Lohar Chawl and Nag Pada, the central trading areas. Now it is difficult to find an area of peace and tranquility amidst the blaring horns anywhere in the city.
In the last few years it seems to have taken on a crescendo rapidly leading up to an unsustainable pitch. Almost wherever one went, it was jarring. I remember telling my parents after I moved to Bandra, that I, who could sleep like the dead, found the silence deafening! So silent was it, all we heard were the gentle waves of the Arabian Sea, the birds and the occasional passing vendor calling out.
Toward the end of my stay we had a Bharat Bund (All India Strike). No wonder the riksha raj was at its height! The strike was against the fall of the rupee, now Rs.58 to the dollar. Finally people seem concerned at the lack of action taken by the Government to get a grip on things. Petrol had gone up to the equivalent of $8 per American gallon! I had just left the U.S. where we were bemoaning the gas hike to $4 per gallon. Ordinary vegetables were now so steep and I wondered how the poor can eat, with so many earning in a day what a kilo of vegetable or dal (lentil) cost.
A pleasant experience was during my trip down to Ratnagiri, along the western coast north of Goa. I had driven through years ago. Although the town is still like any other with ugly modern construction, the surrounding areas were green and lush, the hills thickly forested with quaint old villages tucked in here and there. One could see signs of people returning to their ancestral homes amid the sheer beauty of the cliffs and waterways. Possibly some of them are new settlers escaping the crowded cities too. I begin to have hope that they will bring meaningful change to these once ignored small towns. We need good infrastructure there if people are to prosper.
Change is certainly happening and people are waking up and if not by choice, by circumstance.