A Sandhurst Road Story

Sandhurst Road station is one of the many nondescript stations that dot the central and the harbour railway lines of Bombay. You pass it everyday but you never bother to alight. It is a remarkable engineering marvel. Located on a hill, the harbor line is elevated onto the upper level while the central line runs humbly at the foothills. The only exit is at the peak. Named after Lord Sandhurst, an erstwhile English Governor of Bombay, the fabricated material that holds it together has been imported from the UK way back in the 20th Century. And the metal pillars still stand strong. However, the history of the station is not important.

We need to walk down the peak, onto the slope and through Nowrosjee Hill Road number 5, past St Joseph's Church and cross Jail Road to enter Umarkhadi, Dongri. One glimpse at this region and the contrasts are glaring. The newly re-developed buildings versus the old school crumbling ones. Co-operative housing societies with passages that double up as balconies vs. Stacks of matchboxes swaying gently in the evening breeze. At a distance, the rising towers of South Bombay bask in the glory of the setting sun, calmly overlooking this small piece of land still stuck in time.

An all purpose shop(Lakshmi General and Provision Stores) that sells groceries, rubber bands, rubber balls and now also Lays and mobile refills, a barber shop, a small cigarette stall and next to it the chaiwallah, an electronics repair shop and the most defining element of such areas - The Country Liquor Bar that opens at 0630 AM only to shut at 0200 AM. Ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you Surve Country Liquor Bar (License no: 344/g/18) It doesn't smell good to ordinary folks. But to it's patrons, the smell is intoxicating, the smell spells comfort, euphoria, escape from the mundane and also pain.

Hanuman had grown up in Dongri. Very close to Radhabai Chawl. He was a wiry teenager, a school drop out. He would loiter outside St. Joseph's Church and tease young catholic girls who would come there to pray, looking pretty in their Sunday mass dresses. It was all harmless fun until they demolished the mosque. He didn't know where Ayodhya was, not did he care. It didn't matter to him, even if his name was Hanuman. He was happy flirting with Rosie and her friend Julie. But that day changed everything. That day when they burned that man. And it was Saffron versus Green. Two colours of the tricolour pitted against each other. The white stained in blood, the Ashoka Chakra ceased to rotate.

Time came to a stand still. Smoke rose over the small hill of Dongri and a black shadow eclipsed the city. The air smelled of hate and of burning flesh. The silence only broken by the shrieks of the wailing widows, cries of the newly orphaned children and by the police siren resounding through the curfew imposed streets. Hanuman had lost consciousness, he had become numb. Someone whisked him away to a Hindu household where his relatives were hiding. Someone told him, his father was stabbed to death and body mutilated. The remains were cremated. Hanuman shaved his head. But he did not cry.

Dongri and its people limped back to life. Hanuman simply found his way to Surve Bar. He soon became a permanent fixture. He started smelling like the bar. The clear liquid, brewed in a remote corner of Bombay became his elixir of life. He took up mundane jobs but couldn't stick to any. His mother soon died. And he was on his own. Until he found Rani on the road. Abandoned, homeless and cold. He took her home, gave her a bath and fed her some stale bread. Her eyes were filled with gratitude and she wagged her tail. Her white coat was to shine in the sun, it was destined to; Hanuman would wash her with Surf Excel.

Soon, his life acquired a new meaning and he had a companion. Though his trips to Surve bar continued unabated, he started working at the local construction site. He would lift bricks and gravel. Sweat in the sun and toil until sunset. Rani would sit nearby. Patiently. As soon as he received his daily wages, they would walk through the busy market, dodging motorbikes and other drunkards making their way to Surve Bar. Hanuman would drink a quarter in one go. Bottoms up. Right outside the bar. And they would walk, a man and a dog. Tipsy gait and wagging tail. Later they would stop by at the Anda-Bhurjee stall for their supper. And then Hanuman would sing to Rani and put her off to sleep. Sometimes they stayed up, conversing with each other or just stared at the polluted night sky. A man and a dog.

Days passed until, Chiknya, the cabbie drove into the chawl that night. He was hauled up by a cop earlier in the day. His license was confiscated and he was frustrated with himself. He couldn't satisfy his wife at night. She always complained, Randi Saali - the nasty whore he called her. He downed himself a quarter too many and lost control when he entered the lane of the chawl. Rani lay outside waiting for her master who was cleaning up inside. Chiknya revved up his engine and dashed through the narrow lane. Rani was caught off guard and the last thing she saw were the blinding headlights of the black and yellow Padmini.

That night the sky was clear. There was no moon so the stars twinkled lightly. Hanuman heard a light thud and a yelp. A familiar sound. He rushed out of the hut and lost his mind in the pool of canine blood. He ran inside to fetch his kitchen knife and then followed the slowing taxi. He yanked Chiknya out of his seat and without uttering a word, in one swift-fluid motion, slit his throat. Women shrieked and children cried. But he didn't hear a sound. He walked back to his hut. Picked up Rani in his hands and walked to the crematorium. He patted her head and closed her eyes. He lit the pyre and watched his beloved burn. He waited to collect her ashes and then shaved his head. He then walked home, closed the door and wept.

His cries reverberated across the chawl. Chiknya was right about his wife. She didn't cry. She eloped with her young lover the next day. The cops came and took Hanuman. He knew the route they would take. He knew the route his life would take. He knew that he would be at the gallows sooner or later. And he knew his last wish. A quarter from the iconic Surve Country Liquor Bar (License no: 344/g/18).

Note: I recently visited someone at Sandhurst Road. My meeting was in the building that houses Surve Bar. While waiting outside the gate, I bumped into our Hanuman, I didn't ask him his name but he was accompanied by a dog whom he called Rani. The story is a complete work of fiction, whereas certain parts of the plot are drawn from the riots of 1992-93 that erupted after the demolition of Babri Masjid. 

Comments

Rohit Nayak said…
An awesome piece of fiction!

Stop studying and get into script writing! U will make a good writer.
Rushikesh said…
Haha not a bad idea man! I will continue to write for sure. And thanks. Your comment means a lot, especially after reading your vivid travel tales. :)
Athira said…
That was a touching short story. A keen sense of observation with a well woven set of words to describe them. Read beautifully well and written like a person who perceives the world around him wholly, with all his senses. Please, do write more !
Thanks for dropping by Athira! And thank you for all those kind words. I will definitely write some more. The horrors of a riot, and the trauma that it inflicts can take a long time to heal. But as it is with life, unconditional love often helps a lot. Animals, as you are aware offer only that kind of love.

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