We were finally reaching Fatima nagar . H’s home in Pune. My first impressions-
Side la hua —
The old man requested us.
That’s when we realised,
We were standing right on the street.
We stepped back onto the footpath
Turned to thank him
He had moved on,
We were strangers to him after all.
We were at a major junction when we encountered this old man in the traffic-guard uniform. I was indulging in one of the now not-so-new-age disgusting habits of mobile surfing while standing by the curb of a busy road. Or that’s what I thought, till the old man pointed out where I was standing. I was no longer on the curb, but had taken a few steps onto the busy street without even realising it. The things the new idiot box makes us do!
As we walked away, I glanced towards the old man. He was a man from these parts. Someone who knew Fatima Nagar before it was named thus.
About that time his Fatima Nagar was a place beyond Pune city limits — a kind of no man’s land till the church called Our Lady of Fatima came up and the township got built around it. As a young man, he saw the disappearance of the gypsies and old settlers — perhaps he is one of them. In their place came the low/middle-income house-seekers, the retirees and settlers who helped set up the townships.He worked at sorts of jobs — loader at the cement godowns, and a helper at hardware and tiles stores. When they moved to the outer township limits, he got work as a guard at the new co-operative bank in the new market square. He stood outside and watched as the salaried class withdrew their money to splurge at the textile shops during Diwali or buy gold on Dhanteras at the Marwari jewellers. When he walked back to his chawl that had relocated further away to new outer limits — he was surprised at the number of societies that had sprung up. And also the number of barber shops and beauty parlours along the paths — everyone wanting to become someone else.
10 years later, the bank shut down. The township changed again. He saw that shops ran in a line hunched together around bigger shopping malls. The streets got new names he didn’t recognise and glass facade restaurants opened up where he saw young couples sit close, next to each other. All the societies had really tall gates not allowing a peak within, all buildings were tall now or getting there. His chawl had vanished overnight. Someone had taken pity on him and got him a job. Now he was a volunteer traffic guard with an ill-fitting uniform — the job making sure that he got two meals and cups of chai from the street vendors around, and a semblance of a roof over his grey-haired head.
There was one thing that he knew that hadn’t change. The sewer.
Beyond the new streets and fancy apartments, right next to the new chawls was the sewer line. It was a mass of sludge and waste in constant motion. It existed long before the township came about and he knew that it would be there long after he was gone. A constant reminder of the transient nature of new townships. The new Fatima Nagar he may not understand but the sewer he always knew.