December 6, 2005

how do you hug the streets that take you home?

twice a week on the london underground, i make my way to university through the stations in mumbai.

seated by the window, i see the wheeler bookstalls, the samosa vendor running to collect change before the train leaves. i hear the boy selling fanta and coke, interrupting his cries with the dderrrring-dderrrrring of his bottle-opener striking the cola bottles. not a scratch on any of them. like me, a little girl is mesmerised by the sound, and she wants to have a go at doing it herself. the father rushes to the window, hands out a note through the bars and gets a bottle from him to pacify her. i strain to catch a glimpse, of another girl trying to catch up with the train; in her hand are strings of lemons and chillies, tied together with a piece of coal. “buy it, buy it,” she shouts over the rising noise of the engine, “it will keep evil away.” i think of all the things you can buy in mumbai.

just then a group of english school kids rush in even while the doors close. their uniforms neatly pressed, black stockings for their legs. i’m looking for mud stains, or ink leaking from fountain-pens loose in their pockets. one of them pops a pink chewing gum. some of the commuters look up at them, expressionless. i am sure their hearts have leapt to their mouths. at baker street station, behind the plain glass windows of the tube, we move again.

a lady sits close to me, smelling of fish fries. she is restless with her hands. after a while she takes the yellow box from her bag, peeks at the contents inside, and gives in to temptation. the trapped air begins to reek of vinegar and stale oil.

another lady pushes in on my left. when i look at her she smiles broadly. “please adjust, i have been standing for long.” i immediately oblige. her friend pushes a bag overhead, and leans next to her talking about her husband’s raise. the woman who has been knitting, seated opposite, pushes the glasses on her nose with the back of her hand. a sign that she is taking an interest in the conversation. it turns out her brother works in the same department. she puts the needles aside and gets a stainless steel container from her bag, to celebrate the new association. “i made them myself, steamed rice cakes with chutney, try them, come on.” the women are thrilled. “not until you have this first,” they challenge, and get their own lunchboxes out. in the crowded train compartment that has turned into a canteen in an instant, afternoon lunches are shared in the mornings.

a chill fills the air as the doors open again, the gossip, the women, their recipes, disappear. except for the train driverΒ’s announcements, there is silence all around. i look up and even the swinging handles are gone. then of course i remember, trains in mumbai donΒ’t use doors. the tube in london can do without the overhead support. in front of me, i marvel at the multi-coloured faces buried in novels or the free metro newspaper; we might have well been in an advertisement for benetton. in a corner near the emergency exit, i spy on someone gulping down a banana behind yesterday’s evening standard. the journey continues.

i get off the piccadilly line and take the lift to the street near university. hawkers have lined the roads today. fruit-vendors, newspaper boys, a man sells fresh mogras for girls and housewives, another irons clothes piled up on his cart. two stalls later a boy pours steaming hot tea from one steel glass to another. if he misses he will get burnt. but the liquid seems like flexi-rubber, expanding and contracting into the shiny glasses in his expert hands. a radio plays popular bollywood numbers for public entertainment. the voice fades out as i move away from one stall, and re-emerges as i approach another. by the time i get to my class, i will get to hear the complete song along with some of the commentary.

thatΒ’s when the lights turn green, and i see that i am not alone. a student-army marches across to the other side of the road, then splits into groups of twos’ and fours that walk into the library, the rest heading for classes in the other direction. just after i’ve swiped my card to enter the gates, i stop to look behind me. the hawkers look up from their carts and wink. i can make them disappear if i want to, or i can let them stay.

it all depends upon where i want to be.


you know you have a serious blogger’s block when you’ve forgotten how to update your entries.

i have been reading, writing, revising and re-writing a lot since my course began 10 weeks ago. somewhere along the way i stopped writing for myself. this is just an attempt to get me started again (i also decided to do away with the links for this post)…

thank you anne, for setting this as a class assignment for me. and thanks to the others who asked why i had disappeared. hopefully, this time i’m back for good πŸ™‚


  • Hi said:

    Hi Rads,

    Wish you a happy new year in advance!


  • neha said:

    Radhika – Look what you did to me da! My mind is all fuzzed up now – Contradictory images of London and Mumbai are crowding my mind.. Hhmm..

  • premalatha said:

    Welcome back Radhika. πŸ™‚

  • premalatha said:

    Poor Neha. I can see what you have done to her, radhika.:)

  • Just Mohit said:

    You brought back all the mumbai memories for me. Missing home really badly now! Thanks for the wonderful piece.

  • premalatha said:

    Welcome back indeed. you are back in every sense. πŸ™‚ very nice post. breathtaking way of writing it. felt like watching a well directed movie. πŸ™‚

  • radhika said:

    venky, hi!! nice to see you here πŸ™‚

    neha: i couldn’t help it! hope your journeys are even more interesting now! (btw, have you read suketu mehta’s ‘maximum city – bombay’? try reading that when you’re on the tube and you’ll know exactly how i feel πŸ˜‰

    prema: what else can i say! thanks so much, i am touched!

    mohit: thanks for dropping by. come back anytime you are missing home πŸ™‚

  • premalatha said:

    I have updated my blog. Read it when you have time. πŸ™‚

  • Michelle said:


    Prema was right. You write wonderfully. πŸ™‚ This made me see two worlds I have never seen – subways in London and trains in Mumbai. But you still managed to bring back memories for me. I was back passing through Botswana on a train as a child. Watching the beggars with their hands out running along beside the train and the vendors selling “mealies” (corn on the cob), sweets and oranges.

    Now I feel homesick. πŸ™

    Keep writing. You create magic. πŸ™‚

  • reshma said:

    I know! I know! I know!
    love the way you wrote this:)

  • Camie said:

    I am speechless! Radhika at its very best… I am the most passionate person about India (but never been there – sitll!) and I could smell the vinegar and hear the noise of the needles of that old lady.. amazing!
    I hope to see more and more of this. Congratulations!!

  • Shruthi said:

    Very well written. I agree totally with Premalatha… it was just like watching a good movie πŸ™‚

  • Shivam Vij said:

    Now that’s a really god blog, and a very good post. Came hre vi Desipundit – bless them!

  • mandar said:

    Lovely writing.
    It evoked a number of images and memories of my daily commute on mumbai’s trains.

  • radhika said:

    thanks michelle! i’ve seen your posts too. both you and prema write very well yourselves πŸ™‚

    Reshma! Great to hear from you again πŸ™‚

    Camie, if you do plan to visit india sometime, make it a long trip, and don’t forget to visit the villages πŸ™‚ travel a lot, enjoy !

    Shruthi, thanks πŸ™‚ i love movies, maybe that’s why…

    Thanks Shivam, I didn’t even know I was on DesiPundit!

    Mandar, thanks πŸ™‚ someday, i’ll be travelling in mumbai again hopefully πŸ™‚

  • Chakra said:

    hey hey… welcome back!

  • the One said:

    A wonderful study in contrasts. You have expressed thoughts of great profundity in remarkably simple words. The fact that one is familiar with the two cities in question only serves to increase one’s appreciation.

    Nice blog-title you have too.

  • radhika said:

    thanks chakra πŸ™‚ it is good to be back!

    dear ‘the one’,
    thanks for dropping by. your writing too is really, one in a billion!

  • Reshma said:

    just curious …why do you begin a sentance with the small letter? and why is your I always ‘i’ ? πŸ™‚

  • radhika said:

    hi reshma,

    i like lower case, that’s all πŸ™‚ somehow it’s so much ‘softer’ than using capitals…

  • anumita said:

    And what a way to come back! Excellent post!!

  • Anand said:

    You seem to be a keen observer. the recollection of details strung together by the connections you give these makes for a gripping piece.although the london tube and the bombay fat pipe are miles apart in tidiness and their passenger load the precision of their schedules makes one want to compare situations.

    we know where the similarities end though

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