Fatima Nagar@411040

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.  

Our Stream of love.

When you see the origins of a stream you would never think it would result into a stram. The beginning is just small flow of individual lines. At times its still then there’s a sudden gush and then it disappears underground. But you keep following the earth till you see it. You see the stream.

‘Did you lock the car?’

The Satara sun bears down hard as Ashish struggles in his 3-year-old wedding jacket that’s now a size smaller. After a tiring drive lady night, hes been up since 6.00,  packing clothes for the photoshoot,  filling gas, packing lunch, withdrawing cash and reaching the location. Then he parks the car, changes clothes, double checks their stuff and leads they way for Mrunmai through kuccha road into the sugarcane farm. They negotiate the road carefully because of the muck and slippery surface till, somehow, they reach a clearing – the location itself.

Now sweaty, tired and a tad irritated he turns around to consider Mrunmai’s question – did you lock the car? 

He squints as the sun hits his eye but still manages to say – Yes.

They have volunteered as subjects for my friends photo shoot. I am accompanying them there when I see them interact and get to know their story.

We spoke about books & movies. Initially that’s what we connected about, Mrunmai revealed.
Because of my father, i too took up reading as he liked to read a lot, Ashish added.

But the story of this stream began on warm night and an auspicious occasion

It’s 2010. An ecstatic Mrunmai, super happy about connecting online (those were the days!) pings her friends Happy Diwali at 11 in the night. Not many takers for her enthusiasm. That night, Ashish was travelling alone by train from his home-town back to Mumbai. He was bored on a long and cold night when he saw the ‘Happy Diwali’ ping. 

They were ‘FB friends’, more friends of friend types. Perfect strangers, two rivulets running in different directions. But when he wrote ‘Happy Diwali’ back to her, everything changed.  

In the beginning, the stream has no direction. Many a time it takes itself by surprise. Surprised that it can become a stream….


We did not get to set up a home in Pune, Mrunmai reveals


We did try, Ashish replies, a meek protest in his voice.

Four years of knowing each other. She became an engineer & he got a doctor’s degree. They were strangers, then friends friends, close friends.

Till  it grew beyond.

He took the first step  he thought there’s more to it, more to them. That day he broke up with his steady girlfriend, called time on an unsatisfactory relationship. But she couldn’t do that.She felt the same about him, but couldn’t do much. Her engagement was fixed with another man, the match decided by her family. And she didnt want to fight that.

Then the struggle – calls, debates, yearning, emails, cut off, silence. Two days to the wedding. The boulders and stones in the path were many – the rivulets flowed in different paths now, accepting of their fate. 

Till the next turn. 

A day before, the police arrested her fiance who turned out to be a regular fraudster with women. That’s when Mrunmai knew – it was Ashish. Now she couldn’t back away. She called him.    

He said
Thoda OCD, she has, 
We realised it in Shillong. 

Now, it flows like they were together forever. His laid back self to her taking charge, his riding pillion to her spilling milk and his big dreams to her practical side. At times they run solo like small rivulets – like his thoughts where he loses himself – does not invite her, like her poetry that evokes emotions and kindles passion she can’t explain. Together they learn to ride the stones, find their path, tame the curves. Not there yet, but slowly getting there – one day at a time. Which brings us to: 

She said
Did you lock the car? 

His gaze. Smile and then,

He said 
Yes

Casualty

Little girl wheels by pretty
Her eyes shrink, 
Waiting in eternity 
Refuse to see
She is but one more 
Casual….ty

The waiting room of a private hospital – which I still find pricey – held nothing for me. A few oddballs – Mallu couple discussing lunch,  Sindhi housewife dissecting a blood report on mobile, a senior citizen inspecting his bill. Otherwise, the place thrived on vacant stares, blinking eyes and steady lights – regular, drab hospital fare. 

That’s when they glide in.

The mother – knotted hair, laugh lines, black-T mom denims. Accompanying her on a wheelchair was a little girl.  

The mother wheeled the chair next to a row of seats. Something bothered her about the spot, so she kept pushing the chair back and forth. The girl’s reaction to this was priceless – none at all.  The girl didn’t blink, didn’t even ask the mother what’s that about. And yes, she didn’t pull out a cell phone and disappear behind it. Her body lay slumped in the chair, her sleepy arms held to each side, her eyes downcast the whole time. 

Yet, there was something about her . . .

A Maharashtrian nurse/assistant came offered to enquire/chat with them. Mother and nurse got chatting, leaving the girl to stare ahead into the half-ajar door of a doctor’s room. Some telepathic strings played, forcing the Doctor to look out towards her. She was joined by her mother and nurse, who too looked at the doctor. They were all looking at each other and I was looking at them. Interesting.  

Then it unravelled. The girl’s eyes held steady though the doctor was back with the patient in his room. The nurse’s enquiries had progressed. Are all tests done? What’s your full name?  (Secret question – what caste)? Like the answers to the two were related. My eyes wandered back to the little girl.

Her blinking eyes, restless ankle, her COVID mask with animated creatures running amok and finally there it was. Painted on the side of the wheelchair – the word CASUALTY. I googled the definition. It stated – a person/thing badly affected by a situation/event. Also  – Dept. of a hospital providing immediate treatment for emergency cases. That’s surreal – all of it made sense, somehow, someway – this place, the people, the little girl. And we watching them. Amen. 

Traffic jams n teddy bears on Highway.

Big teddy bears on highway
In the midst of traffic may-day 
Honk, scream beat up your rage
Or 
Shut up cuddle, be a sage
So yeah buy, 
Don’t ask why
Big teddy bears on highway.

Post the lockdown, we decided to experiment a little. We agreed to catch up at 3-ish at IC Colony, Borivali and then return to Bandra by 7-ish – about 50 kms on my Splendor. Doable – yeah, definitely. 

Think again. 

At Borivali flyover, my Splendor slowed down and wobbled behind the traffic. A sign – the voice within whispered. But you are raw,  adrenaline and false youth coarse through you, the warrior takes over, you vroom the accelerator – “Charge!”

Bad idea.

It took 25 minutes to cross 24 meters. 25 minutes of ‘break-clutch, gear-much’, repeat-such, only to realise this bone-numbing traffic was caused by a Honda Brio giving up the ghost on the flyover. That’s all it had taken.

The traffic kept heating up. The giants lead – BEST buses, BMC dumpers, Volvos – jamming you in on either side. Then you have apna public transport – kali-peelis – taxis and rickshaws, Ola-Uber, Sunday tourists, take your pick. Then the private ones, the Gujjus in MUV’s, Punju’s in SUV’s and SKODA yuppies overtaking Zen uncles. Finally, the testosterone-laden bikers zipping past – master artists or pure madmen, as per your allegiance. 

Now you want to turn back – its too late. 

Borivali Flyover, Thakur Complex, National Park, Oberoi– you keep ticking off landmarks. The vehicles and views keep at you, relentless. Your spine sighs, hands hurt, toes curl, eyes eye as you weave-dodge-speed-slowdown all at the same time in an endless loop. Adding to the surreal are the signages screaming – Sale! Save! Streaming now …..

Then we see a mirage. Just after the Goregaon flyover is a road-side vendor selling – believe it or not – soft toys. I blinked twice-thrice, even shouted out, “SOFT TOYS!” to my pillion rider just to be sure. They were 5-foot tall Kung-Fu Pandas, Kwola’s, smaller Orangatuns, chimps and what not all lined up, tied up – a giant open shop against the hillock for all to see and buy. This, in a place where vehicles were going bumper to bumper. Yet, the seller was there and people were buying – incredible! 

Once we crossed Andheri it got better. The roads, even the vehicles, began to behave. Like some unsaid rule, they all kept moving ahead in a steady stream giving way to sister vehicles, “It’s okay – we all are in it together”.

Eyes burning, body aching, we reached bandstand and took a moment. As we spoke of the ride, we remembered the north-south rule –  mornings, don’t go north to south and evenings, no south to north. Now, post half-finished metros, post Aarey being a forest again and post pandemic paranoia, one thing is dead sure – buy yourself that frigging koala bear or that giant panda because the North-South rule is dead. The traffic wars are forever. Amen. 

Indulgence – what not to do on trip to awesome cheese cake shop.

Rule 1 – Don’t eye a cake and leave it hanging.

It stood out glazed , gooey brown behind the well lit glass counter. A name board ran across its length –

Salted Caramel cheesecake.

H eyed the cake like King Solomon when he discovered the gold mines.
Still he collected itself waited without provocation and said with the utmost conviction.
If it’s mine, I shall get it.


And then H hopped about hoping
no one else buys it before we reach to the front of the que.

Rule no 2: If on surprise food trip wear trackpants n bulgy sweater not get tricked into wearing Shahrukh Khan jacket n jeans.

We are leaving in an hour. Get ready fast

Where to?  I looked at H

Food – pastry – Koregaon park, these words got highlighted from H’s sentence. Koregaon park, funky town, funky crowd – wear jeans and trendy T.

H came out in Kurta – trousers looking swell, took one look at me amd smiled. He looked  cheerful- man having one of his foodie moments I thought.

Wait , saying that he went into his room only to return with a red jacket.

For you – wear it , it will be cold.

I checked the jacket , red, with black arms , a bit too collegy, bit too …

Won’t this be too Sharukh Khan ? I quizzed.

Arrey no yaar – don’t worry. Besides it will be cold . You need something. I wore it.

Outside he stopped a rickshaw. The guy looked me over, couple of  passerbys in cars looked , then I caught my reflection in the mirror.

H you bastard !. I laughed

You are welcome Shahrukh ! H laughed right back.

Decent weather, general Diwali cheer and H buzzing. I sensed a good trip. And the auto took off to Koregaon Park.

Rule 3: in one rickshaw do not think only yiu or your friend are the dude.

You know the way, I asked the auto guy practising my Marathi. 

Yes sir,, he replied in crisp English.

We got talking – Pune traffic, bylanes , real estate, the auto guy’s side buisness as an insurance agent. Quite impressed by his survival skills I eyed the swanky apartments realising we were already at Koregaon park. I turned to ask H who was busy on the phone. I gestured

Where to

Tell him cafe indulgence, Homi replied aloud.

I whispered he wouldn’t ….

U know the cafe sir, the auto guy now fast turning dude told us. H continued his phone call, I continued to look at my toes.

We are here

How much ? I asked fully expecting to get fleeced by my previous experience.

Auto guy looked at me – pay meter rate sir.

He was a dude.

I paid the fare and we got out to face Cafe Indulgence.

Rule 4: don’t presume all white guys are ripping off brownies !

Homi’s smile grew wider as he shared info – run by an Austrian couple, handmade cakes, pastries, limited menu and Special Wednesday treats – like he wanted me to write about it.

(We had just about decided to write a blog together. Neither had an idea this would be the first article ).

In my head, I go white couple selling , pastries in shop to brown people – pleazzz whats new about that?

Till I read the small poster right outside the shop.

‘Only one customer served at a time’

Aha.

Rule 5: when it’s the last pastry don’t be too hopeful you would get it.

There wasn’t a mad rush or anything there.  Why did they put up the sign? Just one customer before us, we entered in pretty fast. Hmmn.  

Our turn, Nobert, the owner who also worked the counter attends to us. Dressed In a simple T-shirt-jeans and with his smiling eyes behind the dreaded COVID mask, he asked what we wanted. Homi turns into a kid in candyland.  

One Salted caramel cheesecake
One Blueberry cheesecake
One Weekend special banoffee pie 

‘I will serve you outside.’ Nobert told us once he understood we are not doing take-aways, but having the stuff there. Clearly he heard the joy in Homi’s voice.  

There’s just one table outside. One. Placed under a simple canopy was a simple round table, two chairs, a small diya in between. Me likes. Nobert served us – we got down to serious business. 

The cheesecakes were really good – especially the weekend special – each ingredient be it the banana, chocolate, cream could be tasted separate and yet they were part of the whole. Made us want coffee. I ordered a Cappuccino, Homi an Espresso. He went back in. I sat there watching him. 

It was interesting sitting outside and observing the ones who barged in unawares or ignoring the poster of only one customer being served at one time in the shop. Once Nobert politely asks them to wait out, they rush out embarrassed. This time they do read the poster with looks of puzzlement and hurt evident in their stares. But all of them waited their turn. Then Nobert turns on his charm. 

In between talking, smiling and laughing a lot, Nobert ticks all the right boxes. LIke crushing coffee beans, heating cakes just right and paying attention to the display. He keeps things simple – no fake motifs and unwanted figurines on the coffee, no outlandish cutlery or clutter. The externals didn’t matter, cakes and coffees do.

8.30 – Nobert put off the lights. Sweet. Just then a lady in burqa and a companion waltz in. He doesn’t want to, but still turns the lights back on – serves them patiently. We enter back to pay up. He tells Homi – “Nice to see you after so long”. Homi is beaming. 

We set out, walked around. Time to head back. I thought of Indulgence. In a time of all night baristas and 24 hour coffee shops, they were shutting shop by 9pm. Homi tells me they have been always doing that since reopening during the pandemic. Respect. We stopped a rickshaw. 

Fatima Nagar? 

“30 rupees extra lagega.”

Not today, boss, We walk off in a huff.  

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