© Divya Adusumilli 2013
What’s Mumbai like, his old friends asked him when he first moved here, a year ago. It’s crazy, he said. It’s wonderful. No one sleeps. We party all night. It’s sensational.
No one in the city dreamt in their beds any more. Instead, they climbed into the shuttles that sped through the rain, and found a seat near the window. The windows of the shuttles went all the way from seat to ceiling. A fine beehive pattern lay across the glass, so that when you looked out, the city looked pointillist. But mostly, you saw no city. You saw a sheet of liquid rippling past your ears, above your forehead, along your elbow. You nestled closer to the glass protecting you from the water, and you slept.
Swapna had started taking the shuttles instead of the trains. She didn’t need to go into town every day, she could fix the time of her meetings according to her convenience, mostly at coffee shops, and the shuttles left every twenty minutes from a stop ten minutes away from her house, no need for her to race to the station and brave the muck and so many umbrellas dripping down her neck. The conductors who started recognizing her urged her to buy a monthly pass, save herself money, but she mumbled about not having to go every day, this on the third consecutive day of taking the same shuttle. They probably thought she was an eccentric with her long flowery umbrella, her knee-length shorts and her black ankle boots that she took out every monsoon. She wasn’t young any more and she had gone soft in the belly and thighs, but none of that stopped her from wearing clothes that were practical. She wore a chunky stone at her throat and strawberry balm on her lips. Her arms she mostly left bare. She hadn’t accounted for how cold the air-conditioned shuttle would be. The first time she rode it, she froze so badly, it took a whole afternoon of cafe lattes to thaw her out.
But now she was a veteran. In her capacious tote bag—sunshine yellow, turquoise blue, burnt sienna or classic black—she packed a shawl to match her shorts, her bag or her neck-piece, and the minute she was done paying, she wrapped herself in it like a bug in a rug, and slept.
From time to time, she registered through her sleep where she was. Godrej Soaps, Chheda Nagar, Sion Hospital. Then there would be a long blank and she would wake just in time to see Gloria Church looming out of the greyness and slipping away as the bus curved past its spire. When the dome of the mosque below J.J. Flyover slid by in a green haze, she knew it was time to start unwrapping herself. Unwrap, fold, pack, comb, yawn, stretch, stand up, leave.
It was on the first Saturday that she understood what was special about the shuttles. There were only four people at the stop—a tall young man in a black suit and tie, a blowsy old lady in a yellow chiffon and a big red bindi that was curling at the edges due to the damp or the wrinkles on her forehead, a very stylish young woman with spiky gelled hair, and her. The rain came down as they waited, the drops blowing sideways. They didn’t have to bear more than two minutes of this before the great purple shuttle materialized out of the rain like a benevolent whale.
Swapna’s favourite spot was where the seats faced each other and were higher than the rest because they came over the wheels. She hated travelling facing the wrong direction, but that only happened when she was late and all the other seats were taken. She claimed her place with her tote bag, tucked her umbrella into the space behind the driver’s seat, and when she returned, the tall young man in the black suit and tie was sitting next to her bag which happened to be sunshine yellow that day, and would have matched the blowsy lady’s chiffon very well. The young man courteously held his knees sideways for her to get in and then stretched out again, placing his polished black shoes on the step where the facing passenger would have placed his or her feet if he or she had been there. Swapna wrapped herself up, put her tote bag on the empty seat opposite her, no one was going to steal her money, her mobile or her book of poems by Agha Shahid Ali, folded her legs so her boots rested neatly on the step, and fell into a doze. The AC blast had dried her wet calves and arms in seconds, and she felt warm and drowsy under her shawl, as if she had drunk a brandy. Knees covered, ears covered, hands tucked between legs, a cocoon.
The rain streamed past the windows, the wheels ploughed through the water, making arcs of spray so high they came up to her face. It was like being on an ocean liner, Swapna thought sleepily, a luxurious ocean liner. She was on board a liner, there was dancing in the ballroom, and soon they would go out on to the wind-lashed deck to see the penguins. There was a girl there with a mop of tight black curls dancing with a woman with straight yellow hair, and everyone was clapping. The penguins made a pattern of black dots on the white ice floe.
She stirred. The space that had originally been there between the tall young man’s black-suited arm and hers had vanished. Through her shawl she could feel, instead of a whistling fingerbreadth of cold air, the warmth of his arm.
However deeply she slept she always made it a point to hold herself away from whoever sat next to her, especially if it was a man. She hated it when a fat man sat next to her, his thighs and arms bulging over into her seat, no mal-intention there, merely an excess of flesh, and no place for her to shift and create that sliver of all-important space. If it was a woman, it wasn’t so bad, but she had trained herself to attract the right person, lifting her bag in time to catch the slim ones.
This man was slim, and he had chosen this seat when there were forty-three other seats to choose from.
Swapna did not feel the slightest tremor of alarm.
If she unwrapped herself even a little bit, the cold would enter. The rain was falling ceaselessly, and bursts of light, fuzzy at the edges, floated past, as if the entire city were under water. The thought of her safety, her immunity to the wetness of the rain and the coldness of the air conditioning made her snuggle closer to herself. It didn’t matter that the boy’s arm, for he was more boy than man, lay against hers. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He was clean-shaven, his hair was neatly cut, he didn’t have much character yet, but that would come with time. His eyes were shut.
She did not draw herself away. The shuttle swerved. He did not take advantage of the swerve to press against her. That is how she knew he was innocent.
She was in a schoolroom, packed with fifteen-year-olds. She was talking to them about mathematics, about alpha sine minus one. Zito the Magician turned a rat into a rabbit and held out his hat. Archimedes was in his bath. Next he was on the sand, drawing circles, and a corporal chopped off his head. The school children were marching, one-two, one-two. You are as far as memory, she said, and I am as far as invention. The rabbit fell down the hole. The fifteen-year-olds giggled.
Through her dream, she felt the arm of the young man beside her. The idea that his whole body lay beyond that arm was one that did not have any reality. She noticed that her hip was close to his hip. Her arm touched the length of his arm. It was Venice, and the gondola was easing through the water. A child in a red raincoat with a hood waved at them, and then let the hood fall back to reveal the very old face of a dwarf. She was frightened. The warmth of his arm and his hip made her less frightened. She allowed her right arm to relax. Normally the idea of a strange man’s hip against hers would have disgusted her. This man did not feel strange. She allowed her upper body to relax. They drew their sleeping breaths together, and the rhythm of calm, soft, shared breathing soothed her. There was no one in the gondola but them.
Swapna was aware that the young man was aware of her comfort. Once, long ago, on a mountain road, with a mist outside as thick as the rain, she had sat like this with a friend, immeasurably sad at the thought that they could be nothing more. His arm had touched hers in just this way, and she had prayed, don’t let him draw away, god please don’t let him draw away, and he hadn’t. They had stayed silently pressed together along the length of their arms, and when the ride ended they had known what could never be said.
But should they? Was this nestling right? As if to send the young man a signal that she was no frustrated middle-aged pervert, Swapna sat up straight, angled her legs towards the window, and drew, for the first time, her upper body a few centimetres away. After so many minutes of shared warmth, the gap between them felt arctic. She rested her head against the cold pane of glass. The windows were fogged up, the water splashed and streamed. She was in a mechanical car wash in a rich suburb north of New York. She sat with a married friend, whose wife and son were away in India. He was her merry host, he lent her his wife’s fancy chappals for that evening’s dinner at an expensive Thai restaurant, she was so tired of wearing sneakers and socks. Afterwards he drove her around, pointing out the large houses, telling her their ridiculously high prices, pointing out his son’s school, where he played the sax, the dead mall where they had bought iceberg lettuce and milk that afternoon. And then he said, I need to get the car washed, and she found herself sitting inside it, the windows white with foam, the jet of water thudding against her burning ears, two inches away from a suddenly silent man, talking to make the silence go away, talking to banish her memories of steamy car wash scenes in movies, wondering how anyone could do anything with those giant fronds of mop lashing outside like octopuses.
She slept. When she woke, he was right beside her, arm against arm, hip discreetly against hip. She felt a slow-spreading smile light up inside her. He was fast asleep, and he wasn’t the kind she saw so often, the kind who slept with their mouths open, letting out little puffy snores. He had repaired the rift that she had so carefully introduced into their relationship. He was telling her he had understood her message, and here was his in return—isn’t it nicer this way?
He was right, it was. Knowing he would not mind, or consider it unseemly, Swapna let herself go soft against his arm, noticing as she did so that he stayed absolutely still.
No one got enough sleep in this bloody city, Indra thought, as he stretched his legs out. A city of sleep-deprived souls. Akhil wanted to make a zombie-movie. Set it in this city, man, Indra had told him, look around you, you’ll never find more zombies per square inch in any other place. Chasing success, the standard Mumbai myth! What a con. Chasing sleep more like it, snatching whatever fragments came your way, greedy, desperate, desperately tired. You slept standing in trains, you slept sitting in buses, you slept luxuriously like pashas sprawled on velvet couches in cabs, whenever you took them. Hell, sometimes you slept at the wheel of your very own cars and crashed into the longest sweetest sleep of all. On weekends, you slept till lunch if you were lucky, if your wife or mother or landlady didn’t want you to go shopping, run errands or do some other lunatic thing. It created a craving so deep that on Sunday nights you couldn’t sleep just thinking how much you longed to. And then the merciless week began. All week you slept in bits and pieces, catching four or five hours at a stretch if you were lucky every night, and then off again every morning, running, with breakfast in your gullet and sleep in your eyes.
It sucked. Which is why Indra had decided not to buy a car, not to take the train, not to waste money on cabs, but simply take the shuttles that had sprung up miraculously all over town, connecting the dots that made the city a giant beehive.
What’s Mumbai like, his old friends asked him when he first moved here, a year ago. It’s crazy, he said. It’s wonderful. No one sleeps. We party all night. It’s sensational. All true. And all driving him slowly insane. If it weren’t for the shuttles, which left every twenty minutes from a spot just five minutes away from his flat, thereby allowing him fifteen minutes of extra sleep every morning, he would have lost it by now. Cracked under the strain. Like that man he saw two days ago, near Regal Bakery at Byculla, standing in the middle of the road in the pouring rain, his mouth moving soundlessly, gesturing wildly then stopping to make a frame with his fingers as if he were setting up a shot. His whole body felt splintered when he saw that man. It was the same shifting breaking sensation he felt on his sleepless, longing-to-sleep nights. It spooked him, and he turned away, glad of the shuttle’s speed.
Lately, the only place Indra could sleep soundly was in the shuttle. One and a half hours that refreshed him in a way not even five hours did. It was the pollution-free air, the cool, he didn’t have an AC in his room, it was the knowledge that from terminus to terminus, he owed nothing to nobody. And on Saturdays, it was the best.
It was on a Saturday that he realized—until he started taking the shuttle he hadn’t had a single dream after moving to Mumbai. Was it the rain? No, inside the shuttle, you never heard it the way you did when you were at home on a Sunday morning, covers pulled over your head, your entire body soaking in the pleasure of sleeping late, lulled and soothed by the music of the rain. Inside the shuttle, you were lulled and soothed by the movement, soundless and surging, through curtains of water, powerful and intact.
He dreamt he was on a water lily, a white lily, floating upstream. He dreamt there was a black horse galloping alongside. He dreamt that three moss-green elfin ladies in raincoats were swimming with him. He dreamt he was mute, and talking with his hands to a girl in a red and yellow salwar-suit, who listened to him with the sweetest look of comprehension on her face.
When it was time to get off at Cuffe Parade, Indra felt peaceful, restored. He knew then that he would have to do this again and again.
He started noticing things. The nature of your dreams depended on who you sat next to. Certain people made better dream companions than others. There were regulars. Following an unspoken code, they chose each other. The small man with the bulbous glasses sat next to the woman with the mole on her cheek. The young man with shoulder-length greying hair sat next to the girl in the windcheater which she never took off. The Parsi lady sat next to the Tamilian with vibhuti on his forehead. Indra still hadn’t found his regular. On weekdays he went with the flow, taking whichever seat was free. On Saturdays, he chose one, then another, relishing the fact that on Saturdays there were people you never saw the whole week—the irregulars, going to town because they wished to, not because they had to. On that Saturday, he chose the woman with the eccentric ankle boots.
She wasn’t exactly young or pretty or trim. But then neither was she old or misshapen or ugly. He chose her over the two other women. The older matronly one with too much rouge on her already red face who worked in the LIC building on PM Road, she was a regular, with many voluble bus-friends—today’s trip into town was clearly not for work. The younger one was a newcomer whose gelled hair and pierced nose attracted him, and yet, he chose the ankle boots. He knew it might look odd, his sitting there with so many seats free, but he was willing to risk it. She didn’t even bother looking at him as he held his legs sideways for her to get in after she’d stashed her long umbrella behind the driver. For a second, Indra was tempted to shift allegiances, choose Ms Spiky. He stayed where he was. She unzipped her tote bag, took out a shawl and proceeded to shroud herself in it. It was a large shawl, almost like a blanket, and she wound it around her knees, her neck, her head, and gave a little sigh before falling fast asleep.
A great calm stole over Indra. He closed his eyes. She was dreaming of penguins. He could see them, little scattered dots. He wanted to see them more clearly. She had a pair of binoculars in her hand. He came closer to take them from her. When he looked through them he saw, instead of the penguins, a towering flank of ice, coming towards them.
The liner veered to avoid it. Indra held himself steady against the rail, and felt fiercely happy. Her body was soft and warm against his. She was reading Alice in Wonderland. The Pool of Tears was rising, and she was swimming, trying to keep her head above the water. Two people were sitting very close together in a room, her and him, and yet there were a million light years between them. Someone had killed someone, only it didn’t matter much because it happened long ago. She was singing. He couldn’t make out the words of the song. At first it sounded like Spanish, and then it was Italian. She was frightened, there was a creaking wooden board giving way under her feet, and in the dark water below, an ancient sea monster bared its rotting teeth. He put his arm around her. She stopped trembling. She was soft and warm and breathing deeply close to him. He was dreaming of a giant squid, squirting purple ink in a vast translucent tank. He was dreaming of Claire Dane’s face seen through an aquarium of darting rainbow-hued fish. He was dreaming of Octopus Paul, picking the right team. He was dreaming of sitting in a car, with the rain pounding outside, lip-locked with a woman whose name he didn’t know. He was out in the rain, shivering, drenched.
Indra stirred. She had drawn herself away and stuck herself against the window. Was she angry? He sneaked a peek at her. She wasn’t angry, just worried where this might be going. Relax, he wanted to tell her, isn’t it nicer this way? I like the feel of you next to me, and I know you do too. Besides, we dream well together, you and I. Gently, he turned his body so his arm lay next to hers again. He could feel it under the shawl, her bare right arm locked between her legs, holding herself in place, making of herself a compact unit that would not jostle against him when the shuttle swerved or braked. She was dreaming again. He closed his eyes. He could feel her hip against him. All of her warmth and softness was accessible to him through these two parts, her arm and her hip. He slept . . .
She was asking him to remove the barrier of his long legs. She was getting off at Regal Cinema. She didn’t look at him. She had tidied her shawl away, combed her hair, put something fresh on her lips, which Indra suddenly noticed, with something close to regret, were very lovely. He stood up to let her go.
Would they acknowledge each other? If she wouldn’t, neither would he. What did the others do? The mechanical door of the shuttle opened with a gusty sigh, and she got off at the signal as if in a hurry to leave. As Indra watched her splash through the water flowing around the traffic island, he could tell she was weak at the knees too, and wet from more than the rain. She had forgotten to open her umbrella.
From Dirty Love (Penguin Books, March 2013), reprinted with permission of the author.
SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, novelist and translator with ten books to her credit, and three forthcoming. Born in Ethiopia in November 1970, Sampurna grew up in Darjeeling, graduated from New Delhi, and is now based in Mumbai/Thane. Her latest book, Dirty Love (Penguin, March 2013), is a collection of short stories about Mumbai. Sampurna was the 2012 Charles Wallace writer-in-residence at the University of Kent, Canterbury.