Mumbainaama – Telephoto Mode

1987. Bombay. Monsoon.
Drenched, three-fourth of me dangling out of a packed local train, I was in ‘telephoto’ mode. That is, consciously being unaware of fellow ‘danglers ‘sticking to me, guard dropped against potential pickpockets and ‘gropers’, the world zipping by outside in ‘out focus’, something like that!

I was quiet enjoying fat raindrops lashing against my grinning face. I was twenty minutes, and three stations away from my first ‘lip to lip’ kiss. After my countless ‘iloveu’s’, she had chosen today to seal our two-month young courtship.

Just as I was negotiating a quick jump from the slowing train, I felt this hand clutch my waist. A wrinkled hand. I turned. A wrinkled face. But his eyes… he had no eyes! Just deathly dark sockets. He spoke first. Distinct North Indian, rustic accent.

Son, is this Vile Parle?
Yes it is grandpa.
Can you help me get down?
Sure I can grandpa.

Sticky wet platform.
I was about to make a dash for the bridge. Then to a waiting bus that would take me to my ‘lip to lip’. But ‘grandpa’ held on, tenaciously.

The bridge.
We crossed one step at a time. A completely alien pace for me. I could see my bus leave the station. Now, I’d need to take an auto rickshaw. That would mean no money for cigarettes. But she hated me smoking anyway…

Outside the station.
The street, a sea of umbrellas. The pregnant sky, breaking water.
I looked at him. An erect skeleton draped in dignified tatters. No walking stick. No baggage. No umbrella.

Where to Grandpa?
Put me on a bus to Amitabh Bachchan’s house.
What? Filmstar Amitabh Bachchan?

He let go of my hand.

He belongs to my city. Allahabad. He contested elections from there. I voted for him you know.
They won’t let you meet him.
I voted from him.
Why do you want to meet him?
My son deserted me in the ‘Kumbh mela’ and ran away. Coward! I will tell Mr. Bachchan everything. I want justice.

The water level on the street was rising. Auto drivers were refusing passengers. My ‘lip to lip’ might have already reached college…

Grandpa, care for tea and a smoke?
No tea. A smoke is fine.

My puffs were frantic. His, super slow.
Do you know anybody else in Bombay?
Stubbing my cigarette, I looked around.
Two policemen. Sipping tea, munching oily wada paus..

Grandpa, Stay right here.

Talking to cops, like talking to my dad, always made me stammer.

Sir…that old man there…
Yeah. What about him?

I told them about him. They laughed. And laughed.
I wish I could do that to my father too (One of them giggled)

Sir…. Is there any organization? Some kind of home maybe?
Sure. Take him to yours! Feed him. Clean his shit.
Sir…I meant…
Look dick-head, beat it.

They were not laughing anymore.
The next bus to college was approaching. My last chance. My first kiss.
As I walked back to him, ‘grandpa’ was still smoking.
Except my bus fare, I emptied my wallet.
His loose shirt pocket sank a bit with the coins.

No no no… Just put me on a bus to Amita…

I ran to the crowd wrestling with the bus. I wrestled too. I got a window seat, and I could see him standing tall. I think he could see me too, crystal clear.
I gave up my seat to a fisher-woman.
The bus, packed like a tin of sardines, sailed on, wheels submerged underwater.
Standing, cheek to cheek with fellow sardines, I tried my best. But I just couldn’t get into ‘telephoto’ mode.
Just couldn’t.

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