The plane landed thirty minutes late, which meant, according to Mumbai’s normal schedule, the flight was on time. The aero-bridge failed to function as required. He sat there thinking, ‘Ugh! My first flight in three years and I chose Mumbai!’
The on-flight service of the Emirates Airbus was unnervingly polite. ‘They are so fake…’ he thought. On entering the airport premises, he was surprised at the lack of crowd. ‘Maybe my flight was the only one landing at this time.’ He was unaware of the fact that the city had a flight landing every three minutes. On reaching the immigration desk, he received a sheepish smile from the officer at the desk. The staff at the airport, like the people all over the city, was still asleep at half past five in the morning. The officer checked his passport and was awakened immediately.
‘Shahid Ijaz. A Pakistani with a UAE residency, a valid Canadian visa!' He checked his list, 'So he is the one with the special clearance request! How do people like him have contacts that high up?’ And as he reluctantly lifted his stamp to mark the empty square in the boy’s passport, he yelled in his mind, ‘Terrorist!’
Shahid picked up his baggage from the conveyor belt. 'This city is so god-damned slow!' She had told him, “Directly head for the Green Channel.” The lady inspector asked him regular questions like
“Any electronics or any goods above 10,000 you would need to acclaim for?”
Obediently he answered “No Madam.”
At 6:15am as he walked out the airport he had a sad thought, ‘She isn’t going to be out there waiting for me! Its too early in the morning for sleepy-head to be awake.’
But he would be seeing her three hours later at the hotel. Rahul had told him that he would be picking him up from the airport. At the exit of the airport, there were so many people waiting with sign boards that had names on them. Shahid was familiar with this as he had seen this outside the Dubai airport. They are chauffeuring those people to their hotels. Someone sprung up behind him and he was startled. It was her. Anastasia! ‘Oh my god! She is just so gorgeous’, he thought to himself as she hugged and kissed him.
Shahid held on a little longer and asked her, “Baby, you woke up this early just for me?”
She just smiled and said, “The city wakes at this time everyday. I need to catch up sooner or later you know.”
‘She hasn’t changed one bit in these two months. Still too proud to admit how much she loves me,’ he silently thought.
They sat in her car and started talking, catching up on everything. On the road to a place called Juhu, he noticed how the city was really awake. There were people on bicycles and bikes, in cars and buses, all going to work, he guessed. He looked at the conditions of the roads. There were pot holes, narrow lanes, winding roads. He noticed how the cars were barely a few inches away from each other, the signals didn’t really work and even if a few of them did, no one really paid attention to them. ‘How does this city function?’ He looked at her; she was so calm while she drove down these crazy roads. He remembered the time in Dubai, when he complained about the driving and how tedious it was to keep shifting from brake to pedal, while all she did was smile at him. And here she was, driving a manual vehicle in so much traffic with such little effort!
He was truly amazed at this one signal, cars just zoomed, so confident that the other side would wait till they had passed. There was a little child selling fresh red roses.
Shahid looked at her and said, “She must barely be seven years old, how can her parents make her work like that?”
She replied, “That child might not even have parents,” as she opened the window and bought flowers from the child, “and this may be the only way she will get food to eat. And even if she has parents, they are going to flog her if she comes back home empty handed.”
They reached the hotel at 7:00am, checked in and a while later she took him to Juhu beach. It was 8:00am and there were people jogging on the beach. Shahid noticed how there were so many chaat stalls. He didn’t want to try it. This was one of the things he had on the “not-to-do-list” that he had made on the flight to Mumbai. But as stubborn as she was, she dragged him to one of the better stalls and had made him eat this spicy paanipuri that made his eyes tear up. But he admitted to her later that he liked it a lot and would eat more of it if it could somehow it could be a little less spicy.
Later that day they visited the Prithvi Theatre and watched a play called “Black Monday” which was about these tenants in a society who belonged to different castes. It was a great example of the cultural and religious backgrounds and the differences that arise among people due to the diversity, she told him. She explained how all around the city, the diversity was just an amazing experience, how everyone celebrated every festival collectively.
After the play he asked Anastasia, “Does the religious difference create so much of a conflict?”
"You will be surprised but this actually depends on the area and the political influence that rules it.”
And she explained to him about the Shiv Sena and how they influence people, the turmoil they cause only to degrade other religions. She also told him about places like Bandra, Vakola used to have majority of Catholics earlier and how it changed. People of so many different castes lived there now. And the more she told him, the less prejudiced he became.
Shahid Ijaz had never lived in his home country, which wasn’t too different from India. When he decided he was going to fly down to Mumbai, the city of a million dreams, he got so many mixed opinions from people. Some of them really sounded as a good-enough reason for him to not visit the place. But he knew that he had to go there because he hadn’t seen Anastasia for so long. People told him things like,
“…the poverty is so saddening...the country isn’t advanced enough…”
“…the pollution will definitely get to you. Sometimes you can hardly breathe!”
“Most of the people are so lazy and the rest are mostly illiterate. People over there don’t even know how to speak clear English!”
“…don’t eat the road-side food at all. And chaat is something you must simply not try.”
“…don’t get me started on the English accent!”
But Shahid noticed that so many people speak the English language well enough for him to understand. He was actually sad that he never tried learning Hindi although it was supposed to be his first language. The city was so technologically advanced that even the paan-waala had a sophisticated mobile device. The chaat he had eaten with Anastasia was something he had never tasted before! These Mumbaikars, as they called themselves, wake at 6:00 am, get to work, school and wherever they have to be. Hence, in his books, they were the least lazy people. Yes, the poverty made him sad and the pollution made him choke. But the way he had seen the city function that Tuesday, made him realize that the one-week that he was going to spend in the city was going to be too less to discover more of the wonderful things this city had to offer. And it wasn’t only the major landmarks, which Anastasia promised to show him the next day that he was excited about.
‘Next time I come to Mumbai, I’m staying for month at least.’