Saturday, July 4, 2009

Poignant Mumbai

Its 12:30Am in the night and I am on top of the Malabar hills, completely fatigued with a 6x2 geared cycle in my first three-quarter pants. Probably not the Anirbit that most people know of.

All this is thanks to the spirits of Prof.Pranab Sen of the Theoretical Computer Science department of TIFR. My association with Prof.Pranab Sen started when I heard a coffee table discussion of his about Vitalli Sets and Cantor Sets and later a seminar of his about testing polynomial identities. I was pretty impressed by his fine knowledge of measure theory (something that I am currently trying to learn). Later I found out about his deep contributions to the still open-problem called the "Hidden Subgroup Problem". {Wikipedia article about this mention his contributions}. All in all this lanky bespectacled energetic below-30years absolutely precise thinking professor almost instantaneously gained my respect.

Soon I found out that Pranab Sen was a cycling freak and knows as much about cycles as he knows about Quantum Computing. And I joined him on one of his frequent cycling trips. A decision taken almost at the spur of the moment at 11Pm. I haven't cycled for at least 4 years and suddenly at midnight I decided to embark on this cycling adventure to Malabar Hills from TIFR. As I have always said except non-take-home examinations, I am not afraid of anything in life.

Pranab Sen told me with great enthusiasm that it is going to be a "short" trip of "only" 20 kilometers since I am a first-timer! All my previous cycling experiences have never been more than 30 minutes long at a stretch at moderate speeds through the lanes of congested town of Howrah. For a split-second I had this fear emerging in me as to whether I can take this 20km adventure and in a second I squashed it with my tenacity which can be infinity for many purposes. {People who have had regular academic interactions with me will definitely know of this sole ability of mine, to stick to something to achieve it till the end.}

The cycling process was definitely not easy even with the emptiness of the mid-night roads of Mumbai. Apart from the sheer physical stress (which I haven't subjected my body to in recent times except through sleepless nights!) and dehydration it was the problem of speed that made a lot of difference. My top-speed happened to be may be 1/3rd the speed of Prof.Pranab Sen and since I didn't know the roads, it was quite a worry whenever I lost sight of him, which always very soon. But then Prof.Pnab Sen was very nice. He stopped at all the bifurcations to ensure I took the right turn and he also stopped at various points in Mumbai to explain its historical significance if any.

The first exciting cycling stretch was along the Marine Drive when we were cruising on our cycles along the Arabian Sea with the full "golden necklace" of Mumbai visible in front. There Pranab Sen stopped to explain me some errors in my cycling techniques like I should paddle with the ball of my feet and not through the center. Magically enough this change of position instantaneously vanquished all the pain in the feet! And of course along the Marine Drive in the middle of the night, one can conspicuously observe the love-birds coupling along the beach either on the rocks or along the benches. (Who would ant to miss this romantic setting?) Hand-in-hand couples walking down the beach at midnight probably dreaming of a romantic love life in store definitely makes for a nice back-drop. I looked. I sighed. I cruised along.

The second excitement was cycling up the Malabar Hill. Helpfully enough just at the foot of the uphill road I found Pranab Sen waiting for me and he asked me if I have ever used a geared cycle. I said no. And there on the road he gave me a basic lecture on what are gears and what they do and how to use them efficiently. I was surprised that when I was sweating profusely thanks to the trip till then Pranab Sen had the energy to explain me on the road that the gear number is the ratio of the radii of the front crank to the back crank and how lower gear generates larger torque. And after that my first uphill cycling on a geared cycle was pretty exciting. It was a weird feeling of suspended animation since at the lowest gear up the incline my legs were paddling pretty fast but the cycle was moving slowly. The apparent disjoint feeling between the two motions gave a floating sensation. As if I was floating up the hill but still losing energy.

When we reached the top of the Malabar Hill at 12:30Am, we were near the Hanging Garden and could get a bird's eye view of the Mumbai and Arabian Sea beneath us. Pranab Sen explained that this is the highest point in South Mumbai and thats why here is the water-tank which supplies water to the region.

Then the down-hill ride was awesomely exciting!
First one had to take a hair-pin turn at top-speed to get down.
Then the cycle just shot down like a bullet. All I had to do was to keep the cycle steady as it was shooting down. It was a miraculous sight. On my left the Malabar Hills was shifting up and on my right the Arabian Sea was shifting up with the full arc of Mumbai visible from there. The landscape was enigmatic and the lightening speed of the cycle downhill added to the scene. Gravity rewards with high-adrenaline experiences after the killing uphill ride.

On another day I cycled with the same group from TIFR till the Taj (the hotel where the 26/11 Mumbai attack happened) and India gate and back via the marine drive. It was my first glimpse of the Taj Hotel. The thing that I noticed is that even if I am walking quite a few meters away from it the air there is full of smell of some of the costliest perfumes. The smell has the typical mild intoxicating tinge that one wouldn't find in most perfumes that people use. It is definitely of some much higher cost. A glance at the people around in the neighborhood would tell that it is the hang out of the absolute upper economic class of Mumbai. A good indicator of the economic class of a person is probably the watch that the person is wearing (mine is the simple lookng TITAN Exacta with replaced black bands and my black hands). I could clearly see people there wearing watches that I had seen in one of the poshest showrooms in Bonn,Germany. The crowd there wasn't the crowd that I interact with on a daily basis and not the crowd I even see regularly.

Infact the cycle rides through innards of Mumbai open up a new face of Mumbai that I don't see during my usual wanderings in the theoretical departments of TIFR and worrying whether a given field is causal or the topological space is compact. I see that post-midnight there are regions in Mumbai which become hangouts for the rich kids of Mumbai smoking away hundreds of rupees on an expensive cigar and very near by a half-clad child might be crying unfed.

It was 1Am and along with Prof.Pranab Sen and the other friend of mine I walk into a posh bar called the "Mocha" and for the first time I saw a "Seesha bar" People tell me it is the only one around here. Apparently all others have been banned by the govt. So this is a glass enclosure in which I saw people in the age-group of 20s and 30s lounging along sofas and smoking from long pipes of Hookahs which were bubbling through jars of coloured water. Apparently the colour signifies the flavour of the Hookah as to whether it is apple flavoured or mint flavoured. There were many types and they cost something like Rs.250 per pipe!

The people included were very apparently representative of the same upper economic class of India which thronged the neighborhood of The Taj. The same accented english and the same artificial talks of vacuous topics about which is a better cosmetic. The same antics of conversation and ways of expression of emotions which seem so unfamiliar to me. I have never talked/email interacted with any girl in my life who would fit the kind I could see in the Seesha Bar. I am sure that all of the five or six girls I know or have ever known in my magnificient history of 22 years of existence would give me a straight and sharp "No!" if I ask any of them to come with me to a bar and that too at 1Am at night! (and also probably ensure that it is the last interaction I had :P) I remember how one of the girls I was crazily in love with at one point of time freaked out when I called her up at her home at 2Am. Interesting how the academic world gets you to meet only extremely conservative typically Indian women who would be mentally made of steel and be extremely intelligent and would shoot-off otherwise. Atleast that has been the case till now.

But interestingly I know quite a few guys who would agree to such a proposal notwithstanding that they might have a heart-attack if they hear such a proposal coming from me in the first place. :P

Interestingly I realize how orthogonal are the worlds that I live in and they live in.

The entire glass room was filled with smoke and people were apparently enjoying the smoke. I could smell nothing since I was outside the glass enclosure.

Prof.Pranab Sen ordered some fine quality of beer and I ordered a tall glass of cranberry and lime juice. The cranberry was't even one-hundredth as sour as the plates of raw cranberry paste that I ate in Germany. Here it was highly diluted. The prof tried to motivate me to have beer and explained me the nuances of beer taste and explained me the orgins of the names and tastes. Mocha had a list of "Today's Special" beer on the menu and each was from a different country.

After the drink I came out of the bar and saw the stark other image of Mumbai in front of it. Rows and rows of half-clad and malnutrition affected people sleeping along the footpath that went along the bar.

All of them were clear images telling a story of life lived at the bottom of the economic and social ladder. A life lived in the lands of nothingness.
Nothing to wear. Nothing to eat. Nowhere to stay.

"Slumdog Millionaire" The story begins.

I saw the same picture of Mumbai when I cycled through the backside of the Mumbai dockyards. Rows and rows of people living a life in the islands of nothingness inside the heart of Indian commerce. On the other side of the dockyards lies the glistering ports which probably unloads the costly wines into the Taj Hotel.

Tomorrow the sun will rise and all these people will rise up again for another day of struggle to find food to live. In turn they will keep the rickshaws running and the drains clean for Mumbai to keep ticking. The hidden force behind the metro whose source of force recedes into hiding at nightfall.

And I return mentally and physically fatigued after the 20km cycling. I return to the safe air-conditioned cocoons of academia as the other half has nothing to return to.

I can't sleep. I have questions to answer. Answer to myself.

Is the gap natural to any developing country?

Who is "developing" when we say India is developing. The guys/girls who are smoking pipes for Rs250 each in the Seesha Bar or the half-clad half-fed children infront of the bar or me who bought a 120GBiPod a few months ago whereas 6 years ago it was a big thing when my mother bought me a Phillips walk-man?

Am I guilty?

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