A mermaid in a man-made ocean
Between every physical space and person in Mumbai are air currents, sometimes in rushing rivulets, sometimes in thick dribbles down drains. These currents divide into a thousand different directions, filtered on their way by people with a thousand different goals.
In the train stations, the wide river is split into so many streams of people, like fish. Each individual fish is laden with his or her family background, burdened with his or her faith, set free through his or her hopes, made light by the love they he or she knows. The water currents are defined by the fish, and vice versa.
At every station is an inflow, an outflow and overflow of currents; a sloshing of the water, the fish, the people inside each compartment. At each stop, there’s a slow-motion splash as the river hurls against one side of the train car, then less strongly at the other, gradually levelling over time. All of the fish shuffle to one side, and then the other, and then settle like sediment in the middle.
In the crowded compartment where I stood, everyone carried something at hip level: briefcases, handbags, umbrellas. Each extraneous hip-level item created a new layer, like algae floating on an invisible sea. Dupatta ends floated on top of the algae like seafoam.
Below this algae-clogged sea level in the train compartment were chappals, painted toenails, churidars, salwars, men’s trousers and carryables too heavy to be carried, like baskets of fish, cheap earrings, hair clips or namkeen. Above the algae were dimpled elbows, shirt tails and mangalsutras. Beauty spots and moles, ears, eyes, souls.
Swimming beneath the algae layer was a little girl; a minnow; a mermaid, holding her mother’s hand. The undercurrent is calmer: the only obstacles are feet and legs. This mermaid was wearing a school uniform and square backpack. The enormous waterbottle on a lanyard around her neck overwhelmed her little frame while she swam.
The mermaid parted the purses next to me with small hands. She poked her head above the water level, looking straight upwards, and took a deep breath.