Recently, I had the opportunity to travel by the local trains in Mumbai, after quite a while. A sense of nostalgia set in, given that once upon a time, this was a daily feature: the day started and ended with the local train. Now, the trains are new, the interiors have a new design. I suspect, they have been created with an intent for better ventilation. Which is ironical. You’ll know what I mean, if you have ever travelled in a local train in Mumbai during peak hours. I missed the old coaches. They were well designed for hanging at the door of the coach. The grips were perfect.
Many modes of transport are being phased away; modern, comfortable, and efficient systems are replacing the objects of our memories. Which is a good thing, if you lean towards convenience. If you lean towards an interesting experience, not so much.
Years ago, when we used to visit our grandparents in the summer vacation, we’d insist that we take the Tanga (Technically, an ekka, given that’s a single-horse carriage) from the railway station to home. Our parents, wielding us, and the luggage, preferred the auto-rickshaw. In spite of the difficulty, and perhaps to avoid tantrums and grumpy moods, they relented. Soon, the Tangas were phased out and auto-rickshaws were the only mode of intra-city transport. We reluctantly accepted the fact.
Last week of the last year, was spent in Bijapur. We had a full itinerary worked out in terms of the places we would see and the order that would see it in. The most impressive places were slated for the morning and the evening to ensure we had the best use of the sunlight. We had a lot of city to cover. From an efficiency perspective and the ability to quickly get to one place from another, an auto-rickshaw would have made perfect sense.
We chose a Tanga. Of the many Tanga’s that were soliciting our business, we chose Murtuza Hussain.
There was excitement and some reliving a bygone era. Excitement filled the wintry morning, and the day started early.
Chacha (Uncle) became our guide and his Tanga became our ride. When an archeologist, an art & aesthetics instructor, and an amateur historian go on a heritage tour, you don’t need a guide, as such. But Chacha kept talking to us, anyway. And we learn much more about the city than we could have, through Wikipedia. Local knowledge has a texture that no pedia can offer. It becomes a personal history. Emotions and opinions are intricately weaved within the facts and these become the best stories. He knew exactly when to speak and when not to. He was always there, but never obtrusive.
Every time we stop for tea, we invite him. He is a bit shy, but after some coaxing, joins us. He always has a smile after the tea. Well, he always has a smile on him. When we are navigaing the chaotic traffic of Bijapur, however, he assumes a completely different personality. He is the king of the road and is extremely upset and irritated with the presence of other vehicles and commuters.
Chacha doesn’t understand us at times. He knows all the popular tourist destinations and is taking us there. When we bring out a book and ask him to take us to some insignificant monuments, he is surprised. We show him the map, he is lost. Muscle memory and intuition have provided him much better directions in life, than this scale drawing in the book. We give him the names of the places, those he recognises. There’s nothing there, he says, slightly frustrated. Why would these city-folks want to visit places that no one ever goes to and have been in a state of utter disrepair for ages? I get the feeling we have just lost some respect. He does take us there, but still doesn’t understand why we are there.
Chacha has been manning the Tanga for forty years. He started in Mumbai, when horse-carraiges plied in Mumbai. He already knows we are from Mumbai. Where in Mumbai, I ask him. Instead of mentioning a place, he mentions a name: Haji Mastan. I nod. Some names refer to places. Some places refer to names. He is not sure I have understood; then adds, Nagpada and the Dockyard area, just in case I had not made the connection. I smile; I understand. He adds, with excitement — we had a huge stable there; just behind the Nagpada police station; and I used to work in that area, till they phased out the Tangas. I cannot but help notice a twinkle in his eye, when he mentions Mumbai. Having Mumbai passengers has sparked some memories. After having disagreed on a few things, it looks like we are in the same place.
It seems, he is nostalgic too.