An Unseen Future

Circa 1947

The year was 1947.  (I’m not sure if it was before or after India gained independence).  There lived a man in Karachi that went by the name of Roopchand.  Roopchand was an administrative clerk in the Indian Railways.  He had a large family that lived on his government salary without much complaint.  Life was quite alright, until the “partition” happened. 

Considering the climate of the time, his employer offered him a choice – Stay in Karachi or migrate to one of its offices in “Hindustan”.  Roopchand jumped at the opportunity!  He’d always harboured a desire to see Bombay, but could not afford the travel… until now. 

It was agreed, then.  The organization would transfer his records, and Roopchand would join the office in Bombay, soon.  But, life had other plans for him.  The day of the departure, one of his sons – Girdhari – fell ill.  It was typhoid.  The journey would have to be postponed.  Soon after, another daughter, and then another, would become affected…  Three months passed, waiting for the family to recover. 

In the meanwhile, communal riots had gripped the city… the entire nation, actually.  It soon became unsafe to live in your own house.  (That is, if you were a Hindu in what was now called “Pakistan”, or a Muslim in what would now be known as “India”).  Roopchand’s resolve to go to Mumbai only became stronger.  It helped that a Muslim was one of his closest friends and neighbour.  That kind gentleman stayed for several months in Roopchand’s house – to answer the door, should any one come around to enquire if it was a “Hindu” house or a “Muslim” one.  Roopchand’s family of five daughters, two sons and a wife owe their life to the good Muslim.

Anyway, the day finally came when it was time to bid goodbye to their neighbours, and to the few remaining family members still left on that side of the border.  The choice of transport was between Steamer and Rail, and the Indian-Railway-employee chose the steamer only to avoid the spate of murders that many rail-passengers had experienced, en route India.  After a long and arduous journey that lasted somewhere between 8 and 10 days, Roopchand’s family disembarked on the shores of Bombay – the City of Dreams.

When he reported to office the next day, he learned that due to the 3-month delay in transfer, the vacancy had already been filled.  They were kind enough to offer him an alternative posting in Ajmer or Kota or some other city in glorious India, but Roopchand would not hear of it.  After all this, he wasn’t about to leave Bombay before he had a chance to call it his home.  “I will live here without pay till you find me an opening”, he told them.  And, so he did.

For the next couple of months, he asked a family member for help – They needed a place to stay.  As it turned out, so did many other relatives, all of whom had fled their ancestral homes in Pakistan in search for a safer place to to live.  A makeshift two-room apartment in the Central Excise officers’ quarters was home to nearly 24 hungry and tired souls for several months… 

Eventually, the persistence paid off.  Roopchand soon filled a vacancy in the Indian Railways… his younger children joined school… his older children were married off in good homes… And finally, Roopchand retired from his service, and settled down in New Delhi – the capital of India.

His full name was Roopchand Merani.  And, he was my maternal grandfather.

Circa 2006

As I write this, I cannot help but wonder what Roopchand would’ve said of Bombay, today.

I am writing this today from home, as I have not been able to get to office for the past few days.  Four consecutive days of rain have lashed the city mercilessly, putting its infrastructure and its spirit to test.  Yes, many brave citizens did try to make it to work, each day, only to return unsuccessfully or find themselves stranded in waist-high water on some neglected arterial road! 

In the meanwhile, the news channels are beaming live pictures all day… of Kalina, Wadala, Dadar TT, Chembur, Andheri… Schools have been ordered shut… Flights stand cancelled, or diverted… The “Shanghai of India” has become the “Venice of the East”, while Bombay’s Municipal Commissioner laments about a 100-year old sewage and drainage system that is allegedly “not cooperating, inspite of his team’s best efforts”!

It seems to me, after 26/7 (last year), the monsoons in Mumbai have lost their magic.  In fact, each year that passes, we only lose more in this “city of dreams”… 

Today, if some unforseen circumstance offers me the chance to transfer out, I may just take up the offer.  Who knows?  Like Roopchand, my future may also lie in a city I have never seen!

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