Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Of history, roads, mother and coffee

Taking my mum on an outing is not an easy task. She has a dodgy knee, and in the interests of not getting in the way of frolicking youngsters like Amit and me (both over-40, fairly unfit, and not given to frolics), she refuses to join us. The dogged resistance has lead to such resplendent fireworks between us in the past, that of late, when she says ‘No’, I just nod and move along.

This time, I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: a trip into South Bombay on the recently-inaugurated Eastern Freeway, a project that she, as a Civil Engineer with the Govt of Maharashtra, had actually been involved with from 1990 to 92, and at different points in her career intermittently. (For the longest time, the GoM had just two women engineers in its employ, and mum was one of them. She’s all kinds of brave, efficient and awesome – and it’s not her fault that she happened to spawn a lazy daughter!)

Anyway, so mum and I and young N set off to South Bombay via the Freeway. I’ve been on it about seven times so far, and each ride is like a trip on a giant wheel for me. I don’t actually stick my head out of the car window and scream ‘Whheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ as we zip along that smooth, smooth road – but that’s only because I don’t want my driver to realize exactly how much of a loon I am. Inside my head, though? That’s exactly what I’m doing.

But why this uncontrollable urge to scream, you ask? Because a trip from our neck of the woods in Chembur to South Bombay by the other route, via Sion and Dadar, takes 60 minutes on a good day, and 90 on a bad. The route is clogged with traffic and is long. Plus, what with the potholes having annoying bits of tarred road still stuck on them, the going is far from smooth. 

The Eastern Freeway ride, miraculously, brings down our travel time (on good days, and during the off-peak hours) to 25 or 30 minutes. And its not just fast, it’s also a spectacular and scenic tour of a stunning, almost steampunk narrative of Bombays recent history. To me, the route's like a visual fossil of everything that was unique about this city once – its robust manufacturing and industrial past, and its varied mini ecosystems  none of which seem relevant anymore. Inevitably, the stretch will be ‘opened up’ to builders, so that we can have one more ugly, anodyne Hiranandani, BKC or Bhakti Park.

But for now, Im in love. I love the tunnel you zip through to enter the Freeway (‘Like in Temple Run!’ N shouts); and I love the patches of mangroves and salt pans that still survive (once such a common sight). But most of all I love the wet, industrial-looking, moss-covered structures of mysterious use and vintage around Sewri and Cotton Green. The giant Mazgaon Dock – which I’d never seen before – has impossibly tall cranes and through them, I love the glimmers I catch of what I’m assuming is the Arabian Sea. Finally, you’re gently lowered on to P D’Mello Road, where of course, reality, potholes and traffic jams await.

Everyone who has been on the Freeway oohs and aahs. I do too. All seven times that I’ve been on it I’ve gushed, and I will, I promise, gush some more in the future. I refuse to let the novelty wear out. ‘There’s Wadala!’ I shout, ‘Sewri!’, ‘Parel!’, ‘Cotton Green!’, ‘Dockyard!’ – it’s like going to Fort on my favourite Harbour Line train, only more dream-like because you’re actually flying over it all, and none of it smells of fish – or bodily functions.

Anyway, back to the beginning of this trip. Mum was strangely silent as we turned the roundabout at Chembur and rode the ramp to the entrance of the tunnel. You must know that my mum is an extremely positive and cheerful soul normally. She's forever the one making people laugh and has made a religion out of spotting silver linings in passing clouds. Just as we rolled up the ramp, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, ‘Amma? So? What d’you think?’ I was expecting her to smile, and to feel, oh, I don’t know? A measure of excitement, perhaps.

But she was strangely grim. She pointed out to a large residential building. ‘That thing wasn’t supposed to be there because it was on the path of the Freeway. We didn’t allow them to go ahead with it. But later, they bribed someone...’ All her work life, mum had dodged the bribe bullets by the simple expedient of not taking any. It sometimes made things awkward at work, but being a gentle, very pragmatic soul, she managed to opt out without ruffling too many feathers. 

We drove on, and mum continued to look stoic. She pointed out the salt pans to N and commented on the boards put up next to the oil storage tankers to block them out. Finally, in an injured tone, she said, ‘This Freeway took too much time to come up. In a developed country, it wouldn’t have taken so long. It should have been ready by the ’80s or the ’90s’. Ah. Professional angst. 

When my brother and I were growing up, mum often told us about the Freeways and East-West link roads that Wilbur Stevenson Smith, the traffic engineer from Harvard, had planned in the ’60s, keeping in mind how Mumbai would grow and what could be done to decongest it. Of course, like all un-dutiful children, we barely registered anything she said, till, now, here we were, riding on a part of that vision. And sensing her frustration – finally. Smith’s ambitious plans are only just coming together, in disjointed bits and pieces, rather like homework being done by a reluctant and stubborn child. (To know more about how the ‘Eastern Island Freeway’ was part of a set of roads planned in the ’60s, read this Mumbai Mirror article.)

All in all, I was feeling a bit deflated by the time we finally descended onto P D’Mello Road, glad, in some ways, to be back on the familiar potholes of Mumbai. We quickly wrapped up the one errand I had to run (yes, with the Freeway being here, that’s how we roll, yo!). And then, much to N’s excitement, we headed – as promised – to the new Starbucks at Horniman Circle.

I love how the Starbucks there looks. So grown up, unlike, say, a Costa. No peppy reds and forced cheer. All high ceilings, rough floors, mud browns, yummy, faux-outpost-feel. The sort of place where Indiana Jones would go to grab a coffee if he was in the mood for it between crashing a temple or two. That sort of a place  without the bullets, the whips or the Nazis. So we enter, me all set to go weak-in-the-knees once again at the sight of the distressed decor inside the heritage building. I want to point out to the ceiling height and the intricate wooden jaali work on the arches to mum, and I just know she’ll admire them as well...

Or so I imagine. ‘Why is it so... so... old-looking?’ she asks. Suddenly I’m conscious that everything is a slight variation on the same dull shade of brown, that the chairs don’t match, and that the lighting is warm but on the duller side. I pay for the coffees and quiches and am told that I’ll be called soon. In a few minutes, a blood-curdling yell rings out: ‘ANITAAA!’ Startled, I jump out of my seat, and finally, mum cracks a smile; in fact, she laughs out aloud. ‘It’s like how they call out to you when you’re being summoned at the High Court! Hahaha!’

I have the good sense – from previous experience – to hide the bill. And fortunately, our food tastes fresh and good. But a couple of things are still bothering mum. There’s a map of the world in the centre of the room. The map is made of jute and is appliqu├ęd, and is meant to look old and worn. ‘You cant see a thing! Whats the use of it?’ Its just decorative, I suggest. Decorative?’ she asks, utterly gobsmacked that badly-embroidered jute can be a part of someone’s idea of interior decoration. 

Below the pointless map are sacks of coffee. ‘Why are there sacks right in the middle of the room? Is that where they store the coffee?’ No, I think not, I reply. ‘Then why keep them right there in front of everyone?’ I tell her – and cringe as I do so  that it’s part of the look of the place’.

Meanwhile, piqued by all this talk, N gets up and strolls over to the sacks. I watch as she gives them a couple of tentative pokes and then looks puzzled. She ponders over it all for a bit and then runs back to us saying, ‘It isn’t full of coffee! It’s full of pillows!’

Mum turns to stare at me. Pillows?? I start to feel like I’m having a brain freeze, just a little, because I know the world is completely out of whack for this 70-year-old engineer, and how, honestly, do I even begin to not explain but justify the concept of ‘faux’ to her? At that moment, I’m not sure I could explain it to myself. I put out a hand and said, ‘Amma, it’s because they want it to look like they are storing sacks of coffee here, but they don’t want to actually store the coffee in there. Thats why they are stuffed with pillows.’ 

Mum continues to look puzzled. I begin to feel a bit worn around the edges. But miraculously, the interlude seems to have cheered her up enormously. And Im happy to report that we had a smashing, altogether pleasant ride back home.