Few dozen strangers, they meet in public. Suddenly, they fling themselves together. So close that one dude's oily hair insinuates itself into the next's nose. Stay like that for the next hour. In silence. Do it twice a day, day after day, month after month, for years.
A tribal ritual? Nope, just rush hour on Bombay's suburban trains. Choose the first-class compartment for the silence. See the men in ties and starched shirts. See them jammed together tighter than sardines. See their Cross pens, their fisted rolled-up Newsweeks. See them stare first-classily in any direction that avoids eye contact.
When I do this crazy conga, I find myself seriously contemplating the virtues of riding on top. But I also find myself returning, in my thoughts, to Sewri.
Sewri: the name itself will wrinkle some first-class Bombay noses. But one Saturday afternoon, we went there to see flamingos. Yes.
Earlier searches for those elegant birds had taken me as far afield as Calimere in Tamil Nadu and Walvis Bay on Africa's southwestern coast. Who would have thought, Sewri? That nose-wrinkling dock area of my own city? Yet out in the gentle bay there, a large flock of them settles down to spend months with us each year. Always worth a visit.
The Sewri shore on a weekend is pleasant in a flyblown, dreamy way. Long roads stretch emptily. Hulks of machinery lie about, disuse falling off bit by rusting bit. Boys play cricket, but even they seem half-paced. An occasional curlew stalks delicacies in the mud. On the crumbling piers, lonely herons keep watch, hunched and still. Look out over the sun-kissed mud flats and you might see a cloud of stints, wheeling about just above the ground, the same sun glinting off their tiny wings. Walk through the mangroves and watch little sea-creatures wriggling between the rocks like a karateka's fluid knuckles.
And rising above it all, almost palpable, almost alive, is a oddly pervasive quiet, somehow achieved even without utter silence. You do hear sounds: the boys shout for a wicket here, a lone truck rumbles past there. But you hear them only to understand how quiet it really is.
Drowsy dreamy Sewri Saturday flamingo afternoon.
Quiet like that is nearly vanished from our lives, and no, starchy first-class silence doesn't cut it. Really, life is such a rush. Rush to catch the 9:21. Rush to make that appointment. Rush for that last seat in the next share-a-taxi. Rush home. The day is gone and I can't say where, what I did, who I saw, why I rush like this. Must be the story of much of Bombay.
Rush, but somehow there's less time every day. For years, I wanted to stop and browse pavement bookstores. Always in too much of a hurry, I'd think, next time. But next time never came, and now a peculiar government has pushed those bookstores into oblivion.
Listen, too, to the sounds of our hurry: car horns, screeching brakes, rattling trains. Watch the push and shove, the risks we take for a window seat, even just to get on the train. Struggling to cope, I tire easily, am irritated easily. Is there one Bombay commuter who has not quarreled over who pushed whom, even though we all push all the time? Is there a driver who has not felt that rush of righteous anger as someone cuts in front?
This is a crowded, noisy and often violent city. But there are still places where the crowds and noise are only memories. Where it's hard to remember anger. Where you can peer at odd beasts with long necks, heads upside-down to trap little edibles in the shallow water, one leg sometimes folded up under pink rumps.
Not the man whose hair aroma you grew intimate with in the train today.
So walk east from Sewri station. Find your own drowsy, dreamy flamingo afternoon. Leave the starched shirt at home.