Monday, February 15, 2010
A Call to the Edge
“I think this is a conspiracy at work,” whispered the man in the seat next to me on the bus.
Startled I turned to understand what he was saying.
He repeated, “It is a conspiracy!”
“What conspiracy? I am not sure I understand what you are saying,” I said looking at him.
“These floods. The sea has entered the city somehow!” he said.
“It is these heavy rains,” I said wondering if he had had too much to drink.
“No it is not just that” he continued. “How long have you been in Mumbai? It always rains heavily on and off. But have you seen anything like this?” he asked.
“Yes, you are right – as a matter of fact I have not seen anything like this. But I understand it has been one of the heaviest rains ever” I said.
“Pah!” he continued. “Look at the water below – it is flowing like a river in spate on the main roads, highways, everywhere! I can understand vertical accumulation of water but see what is happening. I am telling you it is the sea!”
At this point I had to admit that I was challenged. This man was right – I had never seen rivers of water gushing around the city even in the heaviest of rains. In fact, I had never seen anything even remotely like this. And yet, the conspiracy theory was ridiculous. I was thinking of a logical response, when there was a sudden scream.
Everyone turned in the direction of the scream. A lady pointed to the water and asked, “Is that someone in the water?” Most people turned pale, staring at the water and unsure on what to do. The crowd inched forward hesitantly. There was a burst of lightning and as the light fell on the water, it was clear it was a bag floating in the water. There was a sigh of relief and a nervous laugh, all around.
At this time, evidently irritated by my lack of support for his conspiracy theory, the man seated next to me, rose from his seat and sat down in the seat in front of me. He sat next to another gentleman engaging him in conversation immediately about his conspiracy theory. The other man listened to him intently and then retorted assertively “You are wrong! We are being punished! In fact a local astrologer has forecast this – do you know that”? They continued to argue their respective positions for some time –
“An entire city would not be punished for the deeds of a few!”
“We have ignored the laws of nature for too long and this was bound to happen!”
“I have heard from a few good sources – this is indeed a conspiracy. We have to find out how the sea was let into the city and push it back if we can!”
“The astrologer who has forecast this says it is a warning to mend our ways. He has mentioned 26/07 explicitly!”
Finally after some more argument, a stalemate ensued – both sticking to their positions, and having little more to say.
After a while, a group of fireman entered the bus. The leader of the group made an announcement “As you can see, the rains are continuing. We are monitoring the water level around this area and as of now there is no cause for concern on this bus. It is safest for you people to stay on the bus rather than moving around. We will be around this area and you have nothing to fear. We have also tried to make some arrangements with local residents who have been most eager to help. At the moment we can accommodate around 15 people in the building adjacent, till tomorrow morning. First preference would be given to women and children. Those who wish to avail this can follow us”. Around 5 people stood up ready to follow the firemen out of the bus.
“No reason to panic” the fireman continued. “Sing some songs, maybe”!
Everyone laughed nervously. The firemen then left with the group of women and children who had chosen to stay at the adjacent building.
The rain was showing no sign of abating and the water was now lapping the footboard of the bus. Though advised to the contrary, it was clearly preying on everybody’s mind on what would happen if it continued raining. There were already rumors of several people dying in the floods in the city. However, the professional approach of the firemen had no doubt soothed many nerves, and the tense atmosphere, which had prevailed till then, did lighten.
An old man entered the bus. He was wet and shivering. He stood next to my seat and asked, “Is it Ok if I sit down next to you?”
“Sure, please do” I said wondering why he should ask. It was probably because he was drenched.
He sat down, clearly nervous. He continued to fidget, at times rubbing his eyes, and at other times looking around quickly. I had worries of my own, my phone being non-operational and unable to contact family. I prayed that no one else in my family had left home on this day. However, seeing his continued unease, I asked him what his problem was.
“My granddaughter is out at school. I was going to fetch her. But I cannot make it past this point. She must be so worried” he said.
“I am sure she is fine” I said to reassure him “Under the circumstances it is best she stays at the school. I am sure the school authorities will not let the students out anywhere in this rain”
“Yes, I guess so” he sighed “How about you? Have you called home?”
“Well, I haven’t been able to call home. Phone not working” I said
“Here, take mine and call,” he offered kindly. “Mine is one of the few in the city which works I understand!”
“Thanks a lot!” I said and called home with his phone. My father was out in the rains. All others including mother, wife and kid were at home. I thanked him once again when I was done.
He gazed out after a while and his eyes opened wide with concern. I followed his line of sight. Perched on top of a ledge precariously around 25 feet away was a dog. Clearly frightened, it was yelping in fright knowing it was very close to being dragged into the water.
“We must do something”, the old man exclaimed loudly. A few more heads turned towards him.
“Are you mad?” one man asked. “The dog is far away. We have had human beings dying and here you are wanting us to risk our lives for saving a dog”
“No, no, no, no, no!” the old man replied. Suddenly he said with tears in his eyes “Oh God! You don’t understand! It is a test!”
He suddenly leapt from his seat and ran out of the bus, wading through water, which was now waist high. Alarmed, me and 3 other people followed him quickly. It was dark and walking along water rushing downstream was a frightening prospect. We reached the dog in a few minutes. One man lifted the dog and we asked the watchman of a building close by if we could leave the dog inside the building and he agreed. We walked alongside the old man slowly. No one spoke till we returned to the bus.
The old man spoke up, his eyes moist “I am sorry. I never meant to inconvenience all of you.”
“No” we replied together “You were right to do what you did”.
As I sat down on the seat again, I reflected that the old man was right – it was a test, and if wasn’t for him so many people including me would have failed. I wondered how many times a day we are tested?
I turned to the old man and said smiling “You must message me once you meet your granddaughter tomorrow”.
“And you when you meet your father” he said promptly.
The next morning I received a message and sent one back.