Manali Desai The One Hour Journey June 25, 2017

He reached the station exactly at 9:28 am, just as he had from the past 7 years. He wondered if his schedule had ever changed since the day he had settled in Mumbai. Come to think of it, he actually didn’t even need an alarm clock anymore for waking up on time (this actually was something to be proud of as his “going to bed” time differed everyday). Though his jobs, job locations, the profiles and even the companies he worked for had changed a couple of times, he could never bring himself to move from the place he had now come to think of as “home” or rather a “home away from home”.

He had first chosen this place to stay in because it was near to his graduation college. At that time, he never knew he’d be coming back to this place (for that matter even the city) after completing his graduation. His goal was clear, graduation from Mumbai and then an MBA from IIM-A. But life became something else for him after moving to Mumbai. The “City of Dreams” made him change his dream.

He was enjoying the new found freedom and friends, some from college and most from his PG. Some of the best days of his life were during graduation, in and outside college, but the most cherished were the times spent with his roommates. Thinking of the pranks they’d pulled off together made him laugh even today. So, when the time came for him to start preparing for CAT, the first thought that came to his mind was, he’d miss this city and this place the most. Though he did give his best in the CAT exam, God had some different destiny woven for him.

He had never thought of anything aside from the IIMs. And that’s when he decided that this was the place for him, from the beginning; this is where he was supposed to be. So he gave the MH-CET, got into a top college, and again chose this place to stay, despite the fact that his MBA College was quite far. Yes, agreed that the daily commuting did tend to tire him more (especially now that he’d work pressures and deadlines and whatnot tensions), but travelling in the infamous local trains of the city was something he had become attached to instantly.

The roommates had changed over the years, he’d come to live with many and varied people now. He could proudly claim that he was the one who had stayed at the PG for the longest duration and that he’d seen all sorts of people and tamashas. Life had taught him a lot and he knew his personality and face showed this. Some even misread this as arrogance on his part. He merely smiled at this now. He’d long since stopped caring about what people said or thought about him. How trivial these matters seemed in comparison to what he went through every day while travelling and working.

The train pulled on to the station as he was mulling over these thoughts in his mind. Just as everyday, the mob went insane (like many people go haywire at the sight of their favorite actors). Everyone wanted to get in first. He had come to learn that through strategic placement of oneself right in the middle of the on-boarding crowd, one’s entry into the train is ensured. The pushing from the ensuing mob is so forceful that even if God were standing there, he’d be pushed into the compartment. There is no way out. As he was pushed in, he quickly grabbed hold of one of the support antlers hanging from the roofs.

The feeling is one that can only be experienced; one cannot describe it in words. It’s a miracle how so many of us survive this daily ordeal. It’s like being sucked into a whirlpool, you’re aware that you’re breathing and no other sensory organs work. The only good thing about it is that you’re sure you won’t fall down because there is no space for even the wind to pass. The train got fairly empty after Dadar (in Mumbai terms that means there was enough space to move your hands and legs about a centimeter or so) and he went to take his regular place, standing at the right hand side of the gate. There was no point resting his bums only for a few minutes when he’d already been standing (or rather getting a massage in the middle of that huge crowd) from the last thirty minutes approximately. Again, at this point, his eyes, out of sheer habit fell on the place opposite him. He knew what or who he was looking for but just as he’d come to expect from the last 6 months, it was a different face. His heart ached thinking of the possibilities and miseries. It even gave him nightmares at times.

The worst was the first day, he just couldn’t accept it. Like today, on a day exactly 6 months ago he’d got onto this train not knowing that it was going to be the luckiest as well as the most altering day of his life.

He’d smiled at the now familiar face of the elderly person in front of him. The smile he got in return warmed his heart as always and gave him a hope that the coming day would turn out okay. In the 5 years that he’d been travelling to Churchgate from Andheri, to commute to his office or rather changing offices, his train had been fixed. The most amazing thing about Mumbai locals is that, you come to be familiar with every face in your compartment (if you use the same train for commuting everyday) and there is a sort of bonding and mute acceptance of each other as companions.

His bonding with this gentleman referred to here was quite accidental, literally. It had been his first day of work (after enjoying a long vacation on completing post-graduation and months of job hunting), obviously it was tough to wake up so early after such a long rest period, that too at one’s home. As expected, he was running late so he got ready in a rush and ran all the way to the station, pushed his way through the crowd and got onto the platform just as the train started to move away, feeling both panicky and heroic, (even in today’s generation nobody wants to be late on their first day of work) not knowing what came onto his mind, he jumped into the moving train and immediately lost his footing.

Strong though gentle hands grabbed him by the shoulders from behind and pulled him into the safety of the compartment, and turning around he saw the face that was to become almost a father figure to him in the coming years. Before he could utter his thanks he was pushed further into the compartment and found himself in the middle of a huge crowd rooting him to the spot and making him unable to move even an inch. He looked here and there in search of that face, but it was lost.

When the train emptied a little at the next station, and he moved towards the side, he found himself being eyed with great interest by his savior, who was standing on the opposite side. Before he could say anything, explain or thank him, the man just gave a nod indicating he understood and that there was no need for any explanations or gratitude. In that one nod, there was also a welcoming acceptance. And that been the beginning of a relationship where no words were exchanged, only companionship during this daily commuting was the foothold.

This person had shown him quite a few things on their daily travels, the first being the photo of his wife, which he carried in his wallet. The man was once carrying a box on the return journey, and when asked via enquiring looks from him, he’d opened the box to reveal a chocolate cake and had then indicated a small heighted person which he understood to mean that it was his grandson’s birthday. He smiled and showed thumbs up. On the day that we’re discussing, after the train got empty, the elderly man had removed a small box from his pocket and showed a ring contained in it. He then showed him the ring he was wearing on his own finger. He took that to mean it was his anniversary and he was planning on giving his wife this ring as an anniversary present, and on his fingers counted 25 to show they were celebrating their 25th anniversary. That’d made him smile broadly and as was the established standard between them by then, he showed thumbs up. At that moment he’d come to realize how much he’d got used to having this man around as a companion during this daily journey. Though, they‘d hardly exchanged a word, or for that matter even knew each other’s name, there was a strong bonding between them and he’d come to look forward to seeing him everyday and the commuting itself would have been quite tiring and dull without him. So he just caught his eye again and smiled affectionately. Immediately he responded with an even broader smile than usual. He seemed to be in his own element today, beside himself with joy and excitement.

The man got down two stations before him i.e. at Grant Road and waved his hand in farewell. Not knowing that this would probably be the last time they’d be seeing each other, he too waved his hand. Like any other day, he’d reached office and gone on to do his work until it was time to leave. Looking at the watch he realized that he’d already missed his usual train by about 20 minutes. Just as he was getting up, the department head had announced that everyone was to assemble in the conference room in 5 minutes for an urgent meeting. Groaning and complaining he joined everyone in making his way to the conference room.

As they entered, he realized theirs was not the only department present there. Something major was happening that much he could make out. Someone had already turned on the big LCD TV, and as almost everyone had gathered and silence was replaced by the buzz of the people, he could make out what the news people were saying on TV. He was shocked and rooted to the spot by the footage being shown on the screen. Upturned and messed up compartments of our endeared locals. Unable to react for 2 minutes, the only thing making sense amongst all the bloodshed, tears and chaos was that he’d just missed his own death by a few minutes. “Serial blasts in the Mumbai locals” proclaimed the headlines on the news channel.

As everyone realized what had just happened, there was a rush to call all the close ones to ensure that they were okay. Many were already crying out in anguish and shedding tears. Even his throat choked up and tears filled up his eyes as he thought of the thousands of innocent lives lost. And then unbidden, the image of the elderly man showing him the ring this morning swam in front of his eyes and he began crying in earnest. The injustice of it all just made him angry; incapable of doing anything else he left the seminar room and went to his desk, picked up his bag and left the office without talking or making eye contact with anyone.

He took out his cell phone and saw many missed calls and texts. First, he called up his dad; a hysterical mom on the other side began shouting in anger. It took him about 5 minutes to calm her down and make her believe that he was fine. On talking to his dad, he came to know that the blast had taken place in the very same train that he took everyday, and that they’d already imagined the worst when he wasn’t picking up the phone and that they were just thankful to God that he was okay. He then told him not to travel by train, to take a cab to home directly, which in any case was what he had in mind. He hung up the phone saying that he’d call them again once he reached home safely. After replying to the many texts of his friends and relatives, and letting them know he was okay, and also asking through messages all his roommates whether they were fine (calls were impossible to get through that day, the networks were jammed badly), he rushed out of the office building and the scene that met him outside was something he’d never forget.

There was chaos everywhere, people moving in two directions, one rushing towards the station, to check and help, which also included many media people with their crew, camera and vans, ambulances making their way through the crowd with their sirens blaring in all directions, people being carried in arms or stretchers towards the already stationed ambulances; and the other rushing away from the chaos towards the safety of their homes. But anywhere he saw, there was blood on almost every face. Some were badly injured too. As he moved further, looking for a cab and trying to find a way out of the crowd, his eyes fell upon mutilated bodies, moans of pain escaping every person’s lips; some with broken hands and legs, some with entirely cut off body parts, some dying and some already dead. It was gruesome. The sight made him sick and he threw up on the pavement.

Hardly aware of where he was going, he walked and stood a little ahead from there, using the sidewall of the footpath as a support. When sense came back, he went to help the others carry the injured towards the ambulances and out of more harm’s way. Even today, he wondered from where he got the willpower to face so much blood. The tears were constantly running down his cheeks but he still went on helping. Others around wore similar expressions of grief and disbelief, but also a grim determination to help as much as possible. After about half an hour, being quite sure that they’d cleared out all the bodies from that particular area, he decided to move on.

He saw a line of cabs at the end of the lane. He walked on towards them and quickly, got into one and told him the address of his Andheri PG. The journey back home that day, was a terrifying experience of his life. His eyes caught glimpses of people crying, moaning in pain, injured bodies on the road all the way back. These images give him nightmares and sleepless nights even today.

But it wasn’t this that bothered him. It was the fact that since that day the one hour journey became an ordeal he didn’t look forward to.

The hour actually became an hour when previously it felt like minutes. Sure, he had made new train friends (something only Mumbaikars can relate to) but the memories of that face still brought on tears and anger. Something in him changed the way he looked and felt about the city and its people too.

His blood boiled thinking about the loss of innocent lives and the permanent dark mark the event had left on the City of Dreams which had made so many of his dreams come true. He felt more affinity towards its people as well. The selfless way in which all the Mumbaikars stood up to help each other without knowing who they were helping and without caring about their own selves, was something that amazed not only him but even people world over. The city and its people were on their feet again in no time but people like him will never forget the incident of that he was sure.

This is when his mind shaped the idea of “Bay Bomb”. He initially started it as a group where people could come and share their experiences of what they had been through. He thought it would help people like him get over the nightmarish experience that they had all been through. Today, it was a burgeoning community of over 500 people who not only shared their experiences but even helped each other with anything and everything. Be it financial help or medical aid, the community was always there to back each other up and they welcomed new members with open arms.

It was this idea of his that got him in touch with the elderly gentleman’s family too. His wife had narrated her experience in one of the meetings and he knew right away that she was his wife. After her narration, she and he both broke down and he ran to hug her. He told her his side of the story and she went on to tell him how fondly Mukesh (the elderly gentleman) spoke about him after reaching home every day. That day he realized his purpose of starting the group and swore to himself that he would become the second son to this lady. To this day, he takes care of her and helps her in every possible. She too dotes over him endlessly! A few years on ‘Bay Bomb’ became not only the talk of the town but talk of the nation!

Today, he was reminded of all this because he was taking ‘The One Hour Journey’ to appear for an interview. No, not a job interview; it was an interview for a leading tabloid and news channel wanted him to feature in. He got down to his destination as the journey ended. As he got down, he turned one last time to look at that spot which had brought on the following events and knew that from somewhere above he was being smiled upon and blessed too.

A preserver of my thoughts and a nurturer of self-happiness, I am Manali, a believer in all's well that ends well. I cherish the act of writing and the process of thinking. Loner to some and warm to others, I swing between moods based on my hunger pangs. Traveler, reader,music lover and foodie are some adjectives which can be used to describe me.

Crafted with brevity
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