Appa used to always say, “Motherland isn’t the place where you are born, but the place where you feel free to be yourself”. These words are what struck me after forty years. Seeing the bustling crowd and the passion in people’s eyes assured me that I was in Mumbai. A lot has changed since I left this place. The airport is definitely not the same as I left it for the US. The airport is really up to the Changi and JFK standards. I still remember how excited I was to be one of the first to experience the new International Terminal of the Mumbai airport in 1980. The stalls outside the airport now serve burgers and pastries, when back in the day it used to be vada pav and samosas!
Getting a ‘kaali peeli’ taxi is much harder than getting an Uber now in India is what I found out and I’m really happy that it’s much affordable than what it is in the States. While staring aimlessly through my window I have noticed that a lot has changed in the city of dreams. Never thought I would see sliding windows so high anywhere in India. But at the same time, I see a lot of people living off on the streets. Parts of the town are so much more connected now that there is a metro, better municipal buses. At the same time, the old modes of transport like monorail and local trains are still functioning efficiently and are a pragmatic way to commute around. The road travel wasn’t the smoothest I have been on. I asked the chauffeur to take the Worli sea link road to the railway station as I had some time to spare and was curious to see that architectural wonder. And much to my delight, he agreed easily. I must accept that it is a magnificent construction. As I was having small talk with my driver he told me that living in Mumbai is really expensive and the middle class is barely able to manage. It was something similar to what my Chacha had also told me, when I used to come to visit him in Mumbai during the 70s. I guess that is something that has never changed.
As I was reaching the railway station I noticed that the Mumbai Central Railway station still looks the same since I last saw it. Still pretty crowded but this time just a different generation. From the outside, the station hasn’t undergone much change. It looks like this building has clearly stood the test of time. I pay my Uber and go on to platform number 6 to board my train to Vijayawada. I wait at the platform with doubt and fear as I see a lot of people staring at my baggage and items but it might just be that I am self-conscious. The platforms might have new speakers but the style of the announcement on those systems has still not changed, I think it’s more of a tradition now. I booked the Vishakapatnam Express to Vijayawada as the Government website showed that it was the fastest way and I could easily book its ticket from the States without any hassle.
Walking around Victoria Terminal, now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, was a different experience. I immediately recognized the scent of tea and had to stop to get a sip. The vendor had apparently switched to using kullads, in an effort to reduce plastic waste. However, the crowd was almost unnatural; I couldn’t believe how the bogeys could even hold these many people inside. While walking towards my platform, I was searching for some salted peanuts for the journey. And I found them. Along with chips, Ice creams, Pav Bhaji, even a Thali; you name it, and you’ll find it. These can sometimes be a blessing in disguise for travellers who are ill-equipped for their journey.
Soon, I saw the train. This felt really good. I missed the railways a lot. Back in the US, most of the trains were luxurious, although expensive, and train rides were meant for us to enjoy the train. There’s a different kind of atmosphere in Indian trains, bustling, filled with the working class, off to their various destinations, a small world in itself. I found my seat, put my suitcase on the shelf above, and shoved another bag under the seat.
In a few minutes, I saw a kid coming through the vestibule. You could tell he was a student; two big jam-packed duffle bags, and another small side bag. It must have a mobile, as I could see the thin wire of earphones sneaking out of the corner of the zip. Busy in his own world, he was walking to his seat, stumbling along the way because of the huge bags, pushing others in the passage. I couldn’t help but smirk, for he reminded me of myself back in my college days. I remember packing my bag hastily with all my clothes, and a Sony TPS-L2 – 1979 in my pocket. The Walkman was a menace back then, chunky and heavy, and used to contain only a fraction of the songs today’s mobiles can handle. He came over, kept his luggage, and we smiled awkwardly at each other; the kind when you don’t know the person well, but he’s 2 feet away from you, and is going to be there for the next few hours. His name was Naveen. I saw the kid had a laptop so figured I’d ask him if he had a power bank. He smiled and said, “Why should I carry a power bank when there is a power outlet here?” I felt a little wood headed at that point. This sparked a conversation between us.
Naveen asks me, “Did you get that bump on your head on the way to CST?” I replied, “I had stumbled a few days ago in the US.” With a hint of concern on his face, he said,” Hope you had insurance! Heard it gets really expensive otherwise.” I noticed a subtle change in tone and accent in the kid’s voice. I told him he was correct, and since I had left my job before that, it did cost me a little. Naveen told me how affordable it is to get medical treatment here. He also mentioned how the ministry of AYUSH has done some commendable work in this field. “Maybe if I were to stumble in Mumbai, I could have travelled in business class”. I asked him where he studies. ”Oh, VJTI!” he replied, with a sense of pride. I knew that college well, as it has been there since the Victorian era. The young fella says a lot has changed over the years at his college. They have changed the name of the institute to Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute from Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute as a homage to honour Rajmata Jijabai, mother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. With zest and enthusiasm, he also tries to educate me on how the universities and colleges in India and how they are up to speed with Foreign education institutes. I was really impressed. “At times, I feel really happy to not be studying in foreign countries. Pity those students who work two part-time jobs, have to take a loan, and then somehow manage their fees. Due to low fees and concessions for the needy, I don’t need to live two lives. I actually rather end up saving some money for frequent trips to Lonavala!”. We both laughed.
Progress doesn’t come without hiccups. I feel sanitization is still a major issue even today. Even though the railway tracks are much better now and the toilets cleaner, there’s still a lot left to be done. I’m reminded of the task it has at hand as I look out of the window and watch polluted rivers flow, but still, I see change. Projects like the Swachh Bharat mission and river reformation drives mark the inception towards a much cleaner and prosperous future.
The train came to a halt. I started to crane my neck to read the station name on the platform. Naveen chimed in, “There’s no need to do that! We’re at Sawalgi, near Gulbarga. The Indian railway has perfectly synced its train journeys with maps and several apps. In fact, here comes my pizza!” A pizza delivery guy came over to our seats and delivered a fresh, hot pizza. I was awestruck. Seeing my expression, Naveen said “I had ordered this a while ago. We can place our order beforehand, and the restaurant will estimate the timing and deliver it accordingly.” He offered me a slice, and although it wasn’t as good as the New York-style thin crust, it definitely was tasty. However, I couldn’t identify Gulbarga anymore. I couldn’t see the lush green farms of Toor but instead saw tightly packed apartments. Trees were replaced with giant flex and posters.
The early morning scent of bubbly sambar and brewing of coffee gave me a humble rise to the morning. The railway app showed that I was one hour from my destination. Things have changed for India and for Indians, here and abroad. Even our communities have strengthened and become more recognized globally over the years. India has prospered and has become better than I had last seen it.
As I saw the river Krishna, I understood I’m pretty close to Vijayawada. Looks like my journey has come to an end but India will never stop surprising me.