Red Bus

Normally every big city has a few get away close-by locations to spend a weekend or even for a day picnic. Sometime if a place is very popular, then people who have to travel to that location over and over, need to get creative in order to derive more fun from repeated trips.

For us in Mumbai, the most popular such an escapade is Lonavala. It is rather smallish hill station, but is very popular among people of Mumbai and Pune as well. It is two hour drive from Mumbai and just about an hour from Pune. Mumbai being such a fast paced city, a lot of people drive down to Lonavala to take a breath of much needed fresh air. Although a distance of only 120 km separates Mumbai and Lonavala; Lonavala gets bitterly cold in winters, compared to Mumbai.

From the time we got the first six lane high-speed expressway connecting two cities, people have been zipping across at not less than 100kmph, making the travel time even shorter.

For environment conscious people not owning a car, there are options of numerous buses. Oldest bus service is State Transport Corporation, Maharashtra or ST in short. Its non-A/C simple red color buses weave a very intricate web of convenient routes across Maharashtra’s towns and smallest villages. It is also the cheapest mode of road transport. Thus, it serves the least affluent of the state. At next level come ‘Asiad’ buses; also run by ST, mainly connecting Mumbai with Pune at regular intervals and many more cities. Originally these buses were used during India’s 1982 Asian Games or ‘Asiad’, in New Delhi. These were used to ferry sportspersons and other officials between sporting arenas and hotels. After arriving in Mumbai, name ‘Asiad’ stayed as the name of bus service too. In the beginning they were very popular among regular travelers. They were considered stylish, comfortable and dependable. Although today after so many years obviously they look washed out and shabby compared to new Volvos in-use. They have given excellent service for nearly 30 years. Most of them now are in the process of being replaced with better bodied air-conditioned ones.

Since the completion of expressway in 2002, nobody seems to be using the good old ‘Poona Highway’ or NH-4, as it has been known as, any more. Most of the public and private traffic has diverted itself towards more expensive but faster and smoother express-way, since everyone is always in a hurry to get to their destinations.

One fine day, I was traveling to Pune alone. So, I decided to relive the nostalgia of NH-4. I decided that I would not opt for hurry or luxury. So, instead of a taxi, I took Mumbai’s local BEST bus to Chembur from my locality. Chembur is an important exit point of Mumbai; thus it has a State Transport bus-stand near RK studios. I parked myself at the bus-stop and informed the booking office that I needed one ticket to Pune.

‘Time pass, time pass’, the peanut seller appeared. I bought some. Soon many red Asiads started lining up. Conductor pointed towards a Pune bus and asked me to get in. He said it will reach fast since it is going by the new route. He was surprised when I told him that I want to travel by NH-4, the old route. I did not have to wait much. Soon another red bus arrived. Conductor told me that is your bus. The bus surprisingly had seat numbers and I got a seat as per my ticket. I was traveling in a non-A/C bus after ages. Passengers were so cordial and gentle.

Due to traveling by the new Expressway so many times, I had forgotten the landmarks of the old route. Soon the memories started getting refreshed, as the bus entered a crowded and always unclean, Panvel bus depot. This bus was stopping at every small little village, for the convenience of the poor villager’s destinations. It was entering each bus station for a few minutes and moving out. It was a good opportunity for me to feel all those places all over again, which I used pass during every trip.

Another main nostalgic point was Khopoli. It used to be the most popular break point for passengers. Everyone would halt here for snacks and beverages. From here the hilly region or Ghats starts. So people prefer to cool their cars a bit. Stroking his content stomach, driver announced the departure.

Soon the route became steep and wavy. The hills had started. At one point the road takes two very steep hairpin turns. Then a popular Hanuman ji’s temple passes on right. It is a small temple under a tree. Driver slowed the bus a bit. So everyone can pay their respects by bowing to this popular deity and throw some coins as offering. If you are in a car and slow down, you can get Prasad too.

I realized that the trees were much closer to the bus window. The road was much narrower, but it was in good condition; may be due to reduced traffic. Earlier when this was the only road in use, it was really bad. There used to be very long traffic jams. Sometimes it has taken me 6-8 hrs to reach Pune, in place of usual four.

As the bus neared Lonavala, it reached the top of the hills. It was raining here. I had kept my elbow and face out of the window to feel the rain and cool breeze. Mountains on the other side of the wide and deep valley were dotted with numerous waterfalls. I got deeply engrossed in watching the scenic panorama. I was discovering real beauty in everything that was around. I was able to absorb each view and find playfulness in nature.

There were clouds below my eye level, at the eye level and above too. At a distance, I spotted a small white cloud that had got entangled in bushy branches of a tree. It seemed to be trying to pull itself away but was finding it difficult. Strong breeze was trying to help it; but it wasn’t easy. Due to pull of the breeze in various directions, cloud was changing shapes. Even in total silence, it was a thrilling moment – a highflying cloud held down by a tree and not being allowed to fly away. It seemed like a simple game young kids might be playing in villages. 

The red bus entered first of numerous tunnels. Tunnel was packed with white fog; that felt as if we were passing through a block of white cotton, which easily rushed inside the bus too. Now the clouds were traveling with me, in the bus. Like a dream sequence, everyone looked hazy…

There is no way I could have had so much fun in an expensive claustrophobic A/C bus.

We all have noticed that due to this covid 19 lockdown, earlier normal life has been totally disrupted. As I was editing this I saw the videos of my fast paced life with loud traffic sounds of buses, autos etc. That was normal then. But as I listen to and feel present ambiance, I feel this is so much more peaceful. Of course a balance has to be achieved between peace and progress.

Industrialist Sportsman

On 25 Nov, 2005 at 5am, I left home for Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi racecourse. It was still dark then. I got a bus going to Andheri station easily. With all the inside lights on and my sleepiness yet to wear off, the bus looked so dreamy. From Andheri station I took a slow train to Mahalaxmi. Mumbai has slow and fast trains. Fast ones have limited stops, while slow stop on all stations. There was place to sit; but I decided to stand near the entry to get strong breeze on my face to get rid of drowsiness. After a while I sat down and checked my belongings, mainly my camera, extra film roll etc. I was yet to get my first digital camera then. Mission was to watch a ‘mission near impossible’ by Indian industrialist and sports adventurer, Dr. Vijaypat Singhania (CEO Raymond). He was to fly in a hot air balloon with the intention of creating a new world record. The previous record had been held by the Britain based Swede, Per Lindstrand since June 6, 1988, after touching 64,997 ft in Texas. So Mr. Lindstrand held on to that record for long 17 years! There were not many chances that it would fall easily. Because of this, I knew the importance of this mission; and that is why I did not want to miss the opportunity to watch its starting point. I got off at Mahalaxmi station and came up near the high level road facing the race course. A large area in the middle had been cordoned off. The balloon was being inflated far in the distance. It was so exciting. I took some pictures of completely a new visual of the panorama, a large red and yellow balloon changing shapes in the middle of huge space of race course. Then I took a cab up to the gate and walked in. Race course is for horses to run. They go around it in seconds. But it took me 15 min walk to get close to the balloon. There were placards announcing MI70K (Mission Impossible 70,000) History in the making”. Not too many people were there. Mostly technicians and engineers were working in various areas. Well I could not get much closer; but I took a lot of pictures of the gadgets and the ambiance. To my pleasant surprise the horses came out to practice. Watching them run close by was exhilarating. That meant clicking some more pictures! As the sun came up I got information that take off has been postponed to next day, due to high air turbulence. Well, it seemed that I had reached the racecourse a day too early. I indulged in shooting pictures of those lovely horses doing their practice runs. Later it was great to watch the sunrise from such an open space, and not to forget brisk walking 2 rounds of the course. The walking-track runs inside parallel to the racetrack made for the superior beings. It took me nearly 30 min to do one round. A Walk on the racecourse tack has been in my ‘to-do’ agenda for many years! In fact it was a revelation that one does not have to be a member of the Turf Club to get inside for a morning walk. It is open for all. So I relaxed, enjoyed my walk and then walked out to the bus stop and soon was home for breakfast.

Next day on Nov 26, I was even more serious to reach Mahalaxmi on time, because I was sure that in all probability this was going to be the ‘historical day’. Near the gallery steps they had placed large screens showing the visuals from a multi-camera setup. It was good to watch close up of the capsule and activities around it. The sound track was filling-in the details of Dr. Singhania’s previous records. One of them was flying in a Microlite aircraft from UK to India in 1988. This is record that he still holds. I was lucky to see this tiny plane from close quarters and also meet Dr. Singhania at Pune airport. He had just finished his great adventure then. I found it really very brave. He showed us the pressure marks on his knees due to constantly being pressed against the dash board of the tiny plane. The second record was winning the world air race in 1994.

Near the launch site the atmosphere was electric. There were a lot of people. Most of them seemed to be from Dr. Singhania’s office. Raymond is huge organization and Dr. Singhania has a lot of friends in every field. There were many celebrities. I got a chance to say hello to Dr. Jagmohan Mundhra and Mr. Vinod Khanna (a famous actor and an MP). Mr. Khanna was accompanied by Mr. A. Parthasarthi (an expert on Vedanta). Just before entering the capsule Dr. Singhania waved to everyone. Crowd responded by waving and clapping for long time. The door shut securely. The capsule seemed pretty small. It may have space for just one person to stand or sit on a chair. If it had to take a man to edge of space, it had to be highly technical. Other than life support and flight control equipment, Capsule had advanced communication system. It also was insulated and pressurized to the perfection. Since at its maximum height the outside temperature might be nearly -100C and atmospheric pressure will be so rare that it could kill you instantly. A huge flame was being fired inside the balloon to make the inner air hot. The balloon was now becoming taller and bigger. At its peak its height was supposed to be equivalent to a 20-story building! The take-off time was close. Finally the wait was over and capsule lifted from the ground in a shaky manner as it was still tied to the ground. It was really a wonderful moment. My heart was beating hard. Everyone was clapping. As balloon’s lifting power built up it was untied and allowed to move on its very fateful journey at 6.39AM. The capsule swayed unsteadily for a few moments. Excited crowd cheered and clapped as capsule gained height. Capsule was now just above us all and moving south slowly. From Mumbai’s point of view, it moved towards Peddar road, soaring over tall buildings. Within 5 minutes of lift off I felt that balloon was losing height. I was worried. I watched other faces to confirm my doubt. Everyone seemed worried. There was a young couple next to me who shared my apprehension with ‘oh my god’. Still above those tall Pedder road buildings, I saw a whole lot of flames being fired into the balloon to counter a possible descent, followed by a lot of smoke escaping from top of the balloon. That smoke got me very worried. Kerosene is used for igniting the fire up to a certain altitude. Soon the smoke vanished and balloon started moving higher. Its path curved towards northwest, above the sea and gained good height. People started moving off. I watched it moving fast above the sea. It was looking very small now. Soon tall buildings of Worli blocked its view and I too turned back slowly and decided to take a walk on Haji Ali-Worli road. After witnessing an important event, I prefer to spend some quiet time with myself. Last time it was when I attended the Zubin Mehta show. It helps me absorb the show into my system. I do not feel like coming out of that mood too quickly. There was a lingering apprehension too; whether the mission will be accomplished? If not then I hope Dr. Singhania lands back safely… I walked towards Worli for about 15 minutes and sat down for a cup of tea.

PS: At 8.55 AM Dr. Vijaypat Singhania broke the previous world record of 64,997 ft. And while flying above Ulhasnagar he created a new hot air balloon record of 69,852 ft. He could not touch 70000ft as planned. He said later ‘it was not worth it to endanger life for the sake of 148ft’. So from the edge of space, he decided that it was good time to return home to family and friends. His balloon landed safely near Nasik at 11.30 AM. The record was monitored by the Aero Club of India. It was later recognized by Federation Aeronautique Internationale as an international record.

Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is being held in Mumbai between 4th–12th February 2017. The fest always attracts talents of many performing arts like dance, music, singing and paintings. Many seasoned and upcoming installation artistes also get chance to show their talent… Rampert Row precinct is closed to traffic during these days, though the small street is studded with most popular landmarks like Lion Gate, Jehangir Art Gallery, West Side, Chetna and Khyber restaurants. It is very close to BSE, Museum, Colaba, Fort and entire central business area of Mumbai.

Imperial Cinema, Mumbai

In Mumbai many old single-screen cinema halls have been shutting down regularly due to economic reasons. Historically the most important of these was Majestic cinema in Girgaon. This is ‘the’ most important theater in India, because country’s very first feature film, Raja Harishchandra made by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released in Majestic Cinema on May 3, 1913!

Not being able to patronize Majestic even once is my biggest loss. I feel bad today about being in the Majestic neighborhood for five years and not being able to visit it. It is like missing out on a most important chunk of cinematic history. In fact I have not had opportunities to visit so many other cinemas too in Mumbai. Now I do not want to miss a chance of seeing a movie in the surviving old theatres. More over renovation and multiplexisation of iconic Metro cinema has put me on alert.

In this mission titled ‘visit old theatres’ the list is very long. I decided to start with Imperial, an old beauty situated on Lamington Road near Grant Road station, Mumbai. Naaz and Swastik cinemas are its immediate neighbors. Naaz is very old too, but I have seen many films here. I could not make it to Swastik in time, though. Well, let us talk about what is in our hands, rather than fretting for what we have lost and will never get it back.

On Aug 22, 2006, I reached Imperial cinema around 3.00pm. Like Metro I did not come here to see a movie; but to see the theatre. The show timings here still have the same old schedule of 12.30pm, 3.30pm, 6.30m and 9.30pm. At the booking window my eyes widened with surprise at the price of the tickets. They were Rs. 20 for balcony and Rs. 15 for stalls. I felt as if ‘forward to the past’ has occurred to me. I was transported to an era of 70s. I got myself a balcony ticket for the film titled, ‘Murder Ka Nasha’, which when loosely translated into English would be ‘intoxication of murdering’. Well a close look at the poster of the film revealed that I was going to watch Basic Instinct-2, dubbed in Hindi.

There was enough time for me snoop around various corners and crevices of the old structure. The white marble steps leading to the balcony had become so smooth with over use that they felt like silk carpet under my shoes. There were so many parts in the architecture that were purely for beauty and had no practical use. But then a cinema hall has to be pleasing to the eyes and that’s what it was. This theatre is also called as ‘Haathiwala’ theatre, because in its compound there is a pair of life size concrete elephants overlooking a lane. The elephants are still in perfect shape, though a lot of structural area is damaged. The grass and moss is growing in the cracks, giving it an eerie look of a palace whose owner has no will or resources to maintain it. Although it is still a cinema hall in 2006, the settings are of a period film.

I entered the balcony. It looked very friendly and spacious. The seats were not modern; but comfortable. There were fans humming from the ceiling. In stalls too there were ceiling fans, as well fans on the walls. Observing every bit of detail, I took a seat under a fan. There were no seat numbers. The walls had pleasing molding designs. They had survived the time. The ceiling looked fine. The space itself neither was not too large to overwhelm you nor too cramped to make you feel claustrophobic. It was just right. Then my eyes fell at the back of the seat in front. Horrors! There was this very Indian ubiquitous patch of red splash. My knees nearly touched it! Without thinking I got up to find another seat. But I could not. All the seats had that symmetrical spit trade mark. Suddenly I started feeling all this amusing in place of irritating. I went back to the first seat. Slowly the seats started to fill up. I observed that finally about 100 people were in the balcony. Everyone sat separately. Everyone was male.

Lamington road is a business area dealing mainly in electronics and pirated music. Other most popular business here is prostitution. Yes I had noticed two dressed up elderly business women in the compound. After the movie started one of them walked in and went straight to a man sitting in an extreme corner. She spoke for a few moments and then walked away. It seemed to me that sitting in the corner may be a hint which this guy was not aware of. Basic Instinct is a very red light area film. But there were no whistles, no cat calls. Everyone was resting, making use of spare time or perhaps taking a nap. After all in today’s time if 20 bucks can get you 3 hours in a quiet place to relax, it is worth it. I also felt as if I was in a spiritual place where everyone had gathered to let go of their worries.

The intermission slide splashed on the screen. Suddenly I remembered that film ‘Taxi Driver’ made by Navketan, was premiered in this theatre… As my eyes panned away from screen, the walls and the moldings morphed into the period nearly 50 years back. Everything turned new. All the polish on the wood turned fresh. There were streamers hanging from the fans in place of cob-webs. The chairs were smooth and glossy. The crowd in the balcony had Dev Anand, director Chetan Anand, Kalpana Kartik, S D Burman, Talat Mehmood, Lata Mangeshkar, Johnny Walker and many more. They were all shaking hands excitedly and mingling with each other. Some held Coca Cola bottles, while others were being offered cups of tea and snacks. Some eager faces were peeping in from the door to get a glimpse of the super star Dev Anand. The interior of the Imperial cinema looked like a dressed up bride. Softly a band played ‘Jayen to Jayen Kahan’… With the notes of western music and Sharon Stone’s voice, the ambience slowly morphed back into the present. Intermission was over. As I had already seen the original version of this film, I decided to leave this Imperial theatre after touching the trunks of the elephants.

Baiscope, a basic machine that has still photographs in a roll and some synchronised music to it. The man rotates and handle to move the pictures. He sings or narrates the story along with the movement. In rural India this was joyous viewing for village kids. After nearly a century now it has been added as an exhibit in few places. This is in New Delhi’s ‘Dilli Haat’

Tigers, poachers and cheats of Sariska

One day while speaking to my father on phone, I realized that his voice had become weaker. When a person’s voice loses strength, means that the person himself is losing strength and mainly his will. I was reminded of my experience with Raj Kapoor (actor, producer, director), during a documentary that I worked on. Mr. Raj Kapoor’s voice went feeble during production of just one year. In a few years he succumbed to ill health.

So thanks to doing ‘sound recording’ for the documentary on Raj Kapoor, I decided to make a trip to Jaipur to see my father in Oct 2004.

I decided to make it a double purpose trip. Main purpose obviously was to see my father and my brother’s family, spending good time with them all. Second one was a bonus, as I made up my mind to visit both the well-known Indian wild life sanctuaries, ‘Sariska’ and ‘Ranthambhore’. After two days stay at home in Jaipur, I told my father that I would like to visit some other places close by. He agreed and I decided to start my trips from next day. It also would have been difficult for me to sit at home all day, for the next seven days. I took traveling tips from my brother Tarun, to start with Sariska National Park.

Next day in the darkness of morning I stepped out, without wasting time on formality of breakfast. I thought it would be much better to grab local dishes in a roadside dhaba. I reached the bus stop and got my ticket for Sariska. The buses going to Alwar pass from Sariska. Sariska is a very small – almost unnoticeable village bus-stop. After a fairly static long journey, my destination came. I got off with my back-pack. First important thing for me to do was to do some stretches on the quiet highway. After a few ‘touching the toes’ and ‘side stretches’, few locals pointed me to the sanctuary office. It was a much-needed short walk after sitting 4-5 hrs in an ordinary Rajasthan roadways bus (I had decided to take an economy tour). I was alone, adventurous and open to opportunities or mishaps of any kind, equally. I needed to queue up for a seat in any vehicle going inside the sanctuary.

I thought it is okay, if I have to wait for some (long) time for getting my chance. Worse still, even if I don’t get a chance to go in at all – was also going to be fine with me. I was that relaxed.

I walked up to the very basic looking booking window. I realized people inside the office were quite helpful. The booking clerk told me that visitors need to share a Maruti Gypsy jeep, which seats 3-4 tourists and one seat costs 500/-. But he also said that seats in all the Gypsys had already been booked. Thus I will have to take a Gypsy all by myself. And that was going to be very expensive for me. There it goes, I thought. I asked him, ‘in that case should I go back to Jaipur now?’ He was not ready for this bold direct inquiry. After a little hesitation, he said there is a couple, and they are only two in that car. You could look for them and ask them if they don’t mind you joining them. You could share the cost with them. ‘Fair enough’, I thought. After getting description of their looks, I started looking for them. I spotted them in a distance. But enroute there were a whole lot of monkeys running around. Of all animals monkeys have an upper hand on me. I am really frightened of them. They are so swift, strong, unpredictable and unruly. But here I had to be courageous. I relaxed my body language and went through the army of monkeys with our God Hanumanji’s prayer in my heart.

The woman was a foreigner and the guy was Indian, both were elderly, like me. They promptly agreed to my request (joining them) cum offer (share the cost). The guy sat with me at the back and the woman was in front, next to the driver. I got myself some bottled water at the gate and our open- top Gypsy entered the Sariska gate. Our smiling driver was also a guide for the tourists. I had my old faithful Contaflex 35mm film camera in ready my hand. I got alert to shoot any tiny movement that could be a tiger or even tiger’s quivering tail in the bush.

With majestic tigers in my mind, first thing our driver showed us was a small falcon, perched on a tree. It flew off well before I could ask it to pose for me. We took a detour and were told there were crocodiles in some puddle of water, but crocs weren’t available. We came back to main route and saw a few wild boars and many antelopes on both sides of the road. I had started shooting pictures of every animal, because I wasn’t very hopeful of ‘sighting’ a tiger. Without further delay I asked the driver about our chances of spotting a tiger. He told us that tigers have not been seen for many weeks now. But it is not uncommon, he said. But yes, evening trip has better chances to see them. He said something about evenings being tiger’s hunting time. My heart sank as we had entered the forest in first half of the day. We saw more of antelopes, deer and more wild boars. We saw many peacocks, but without their majestic tails. Driver said the feathers fall off in rains and it takes a few months for them to grow back. I had never heard such an atrocious statement before. After about hour and a half, the lady with us got restless and suddenly asked the driver to begin return journey. I wanted to use the full time but also did not mind returning. It was going to take about 45 min to reach back. So it was fine. I came back with some more similar pictures and of course NO tiger or even its tail…

The return journey to Jaipur became a bit adventurous, as frequency of the buses had dropped badly. I managed to get one seat in the last bus. By that time after it had become pretty dark and wild animals had started howling. I realized this was turning into an adventure now. I reached home quite little late at night.

I rested for a day, spending time with my father and with my bother’s family. And took off for another well know wild life sanctuary at Ranthambhore. Here I countered some corrupt officials involved in allotting seats to tourists. But soon I was on my way. There was no ‘sighting’, as they call it for almost entire trip. And somehow a saving grace dropped by; and the driver announced there was a tiger around the bend. We turned right and there it was! He was relaxing on the other side of a water body. It was not really close. Everyone watched the calm animal quietly and clicked profusely. Since my ancient camera has no zoom lens, I was just happy watching the grand soul in the wild. The Jaipur trip got over and I came back home to Mumbai and forgot all about the single tiger between two huge wild life sanctuaries…

About 3 months later a result of Indian ‘tiger census’ was published in all the newspapers. It seems government had been trying to get data on tiger population for quite some time. Sometime around in 2007-08, I read a news-item that for the past six months Sariska sanctuary has had no tigers at all! Statistically there were supposed to be 18 tigers; but all are missing. And that meant that they have been done away with by the poachers? Ranthambhore too has lost half of its nearly 40 tigers. There was massive national furor due to this news item. There was a shakeup in top forest jobs. Many heads rolled. But not surprisingly, nothing was achieved, as usual. Does anyone think that getting new tigers into Sariska and start their breeding is going to be an easy task? Sariska has been put 15-20 years behind for our wild life mainly for the tiger! Our government has been spending millions for years, on tiger conservation, but due to poachers in collaboration with sanctuary staff, gain has been dismal.

Suddenly the activities of Sariska’s helpful the staff of played back. They had smiled a lot at me and everyone else. I realized all that ‘smiling’ was an eye wash! They all knew that there was no tiger inside. They put up an act in unison and fooled everyone. The Sariska staff cheated tourists of their money, effort and time. I felt totally let down. Initially I had thought that it was bad luck for me that I did not get to see a tiger. But it has been worse luck for the tigers themselves! I was furious. My mind became so violent from inside that I wanted to feed entire staff of wild life sanctuaries to the tigers, if I could, ever!

During that period, newspapers printed all the blames and counter blames of tiger census, I read the following in a spiritual column of a newspaper-

‘How did the deer get such high alertness? How did it get such a beautiful way of hopping and an effortless way of running at a dazzling speed? It is due to the Tiger!’ Alas, are the deer too going to lose their pretty hop and dazzling speed?

PS: As mentioned at the start I visited my father in Oct 2004, because I was alarmed by weakness in his voice. Well, just 4 months later in Feb 2005, he expired.


A Mosaic of Gloom

1972, that’s when I adopted this city of Bombay, as my own. Actually I had to, due to my profession, but yet I was so lucky that I had to. I fell in love with it instantly. I enjoyed its rhythm, efficient local trains, buses, discipline, civic sense and work culture. Due to these qualities, I loved bragging, “Bombay doesn’t seem to be a part of India.” Secondly I also fell in love with the most awe inspiring and beautiful hotel, Taj. Visiting Hotel Taj gave me a sense of having arrived. There could be perhaps no higher step to climb. It was the ultimate in luxury, beauty and importance. Though not very often; but I could afford to use the Taj barber shop once in a few months, order a carefully chosen (cheapest) snack at Sea Lounge, Shamiana’s VFM burger and milk shake both costing Rs 25 each and a glass of draft beer Rs 15. I also spent a lot of time in its book shop, Nalanda. Taj gave me a sense of well being, rich feel and immense pride due to its luxurious and strong gothic structure. It also had a very comforting ambiance, ‘cool’ in today’s terms. My father had visited me in 1977. So I took him to Sea Lounge for a cup of tea and a taste of Taj. Sitting by the window opening towards sea, I ordered tea and some snacks that cost me around Rs 25 or so. My father’s face, I remember; became rigid after noticing the ‘fat’ bill…

Well, time has to move on, so after many long years that also included a new millennium; the calendar registered the date of 26 Nov 2008. I was home when I heard the news of a vague shoot-out somewhere. It is fairly common in this rich and industrial city. A gang war is not uncommon. Any ways I switched on the TV. I was sure that it must be a usual case of underworld rivalry. But soon I realized that was not the case. It turned out that some Pakistani terrorists had entered India’s maximum city! They had split themselves in 3-4 groups and had been killing uninterrupted at various locations, like CST railway station, Cama Hospital and Leopold Café at Colaba. Soon it was announced that, Chabad House (a Jewish center at Colaba), Oberoi hotel at Nariman Point and last but not the least, Hotel Taj had been ‘taken over’ by a small groups of heavily armed men. It was beyond anyone’s comprehension. I got glued to the TV. Soon news channels had setup their cameras in all three locations… and soon sounds of bullets, bursting grenades, raging fires and shattering glass panes, all became ‘live’. And it was happening, right in the heart of my city!

There was no chance of me ‘not watching’ it. I did not want to leave Taj when it was being mauled by those three Pakis who were killing guests and staff and setting everything on fire!

State and central government had no immediate answer to this crisis. It took them a lot of fumbling hours to take any focused approach. Finally politicians at ‘New Delhi’ took a lot of risk themselves and spared us a team of NSG commandoes.

Violence in the form of sounds of blasts, flames and smoke from inside Taj were going on unabated. I thought that some part of the hotel might cave in. It was very frightening. As news switched between Taj, Oberoi and the Chabad House, I felt I was in a theatre of war, right in the middle of my city. I lost track of time; eating at odd hours and sleeping very little. I would get back to TV first thing in the morning.

Gradually there was clarity – there were 10 terrorists in all. But these are not like those cowards who would cowardly plant the bombs in trains, in markets or in theaters. Experiences of bomb blasts seemed nothing compared to this. How well prepared and motivated these 10 Pakis must have been to battle India right here! And it wasn’t over yet! They had come with full knowledge that they will not be going back from here. Only ‘they’ can have that kind of motivation.

In the meanwhile commandos were dropped on the roof of the Jewish Center from a helicopter! Utterly unimaginable! A chopper dropping commandos in the most congested part of Mumbai and that was ‘not for a film shooting’. Both terrorists there were killed by our forces; but not before they had killed everyone inside there. There was a heart-warming story of a little boy being saved by his nanny.

Oberoi was next to get sanitized. All the terrorists were killed by NSG not before many guests and staff had lost their lives. To face bullets inside the most familiar and secure place must have been utterly unbelievable experience for everyone. Dozens of grenades were hurled inside the plush suites of the old wing of Taj in an effort to destroy them somehow. Most rooms were on fire on top two floors. Smoke was bellowing from large windows under those prominent Taj domes.

Finally 9 terrorists were killed. I saw one of them falling out of a ground floor window in Taj in the hail of Indian bullets, ‘live’. That was satisfying; but other than this, I had seen so much of real blood on the floor of CST, innocent poor passengers lying around. Print and TV started showing images where they could not reach during the carnage, all this was adding to collection of images on my mind…

This piece is being written in an effort to get back to writing. I take my motivation to write from incidences that unfold and affect me. But after those 60 hours long war, nothing else felt important enough to affect me. Everything seemed too small or insignificant to care about. I suffered a 3-year long ‘writer’s block’ borne out of ammidyphobia… I had a fright that Taj would collapse right in front of my eyes or it will never look the same again.

This year will be the 3rd anniversary of 26/11 and I wish to turn the leaf over and get back to my earlier sensitive self, by becoming ‘writer of small things’ once again. (29 October, 2011)

The terror carnage was played inside this railway station. Ajmal Kasab was the main terrorist here.

Feel Good Factor

These assorted snippets are from 2012.

In Mumbai there are so many roads, squares (Chowks) and gardens, that are named after film personalities. It has been on my mind for a long time to do a series of pictures on these plaques as my homage to these stalwarts or stars. Recently one fine day I was to go to down town for some work and took my camera along. I started shooting pictures with Mukesh Chowk, named after singer Mukesh at Nepean sea road.

Since 10 Jan, I am attending Swami Parthasarathi’s discourses on 13th chapter of Bhagwad Geeta. Its good fun. I am enjoying it thoroughly. Let me tell you something that Swami Parthasarathi enlightened us all, with. The first Shlok of chapter 13 is not included in many editions of Geeta. Geeta has 700 Shlokas in all, but if this Shlok is included, then the number goes to 701. He also told that chapter 13 and 15 are the most philosophical of all. They give you real insight about life, what to look for and what are the ways we should to go through it – to put it simply.

Of late I have been doing some reading in my spare time. You know, life is not a straight line. Reading is possible when there is a lull in the business. It is very difficult to work on what you like to do I mean your hobbies; when you get busy doing what you need to do; ‘work’. I read recently, ‘Sophie’s World’ by Jostein Gaarder. This book has been put together with a fresh approach. It works very effectively like a textbook of philosophy. It’s about philosophy and philosophers of the past 3000 years! Beginning of the book has a quote by Goethe, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth”. Second book was ‘One Night @ The Call Center’ by Chetan Bhagat. He has a ‘fresh, matter of fact, ordinary spoken language’ approach to writing and expression. I see myself writing like that. In fact while reading ‘One Night @ The Call Center’ I felt as if my ghost is in the words. Mr. Bhagat is very innovative and adventurous in his narrative. His first book was ‘5 Point Something’, about his life in IIT Kanpur, which also made enjoyable reading. I have just started reading, ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. This name feels as if they are 3 people, but ‘no’. This book has been recommended to me by many. Since Shantaram is a big (thick I mean) book, I decided to parallel read ‘Gödel Escher Bach-an Eternal Golden Braid’ by Douglas R. Hofstadter. Now this is a difficult (actually impossible) task I have taken up. It is like saying, I want to climb Mount Everest without any training, without Oxygen, in my shorts and T-shirt. So I know the result but basically I want to graduate in the impossible. So I got so busy reading those two (books) that I did not meet people for very long. So to reaction of friends, “long time no see”; my mad answer would be, “I wasn’t feeling like it”.

Not that lots has happened; but yes, some things did happen as they always do. It has never happened that nothing has happened. Nothing never happens.

Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is being held in Mumbai between 4th–12th February 2017. The fest always attracts talents of many performing arts like dance, music, singing and paintings. Many seasoned and upcoming installation artistes also get chance to show their talent… Rampert Row precinct is closed to traffic during these days, though the small street is studded with most popular landmarks like Lion Gate, Jehangir Art Gallery, West Side, Chetna and Khyber restaurants. It is very close to BSE, Museum, Colaba, Fort and entire central business area of Mumbai.