Book 5 Ch.5: Journey to the Heart of the City
“So we’re almost here. Where to now?”
Less than two hours earlier, the shopping district would have been bustling with younger people haggling over the price of ear rings and hair clips. But now the shops lining the streets had been covered in left-over plastic sheets and a markedly eerie silence.
“Just go down to the end of this road and turn left.”
“Dude! That’s Mount Road!”
“Oh, I didn’t know you knew Mount Road.”
Alright, before I go in any deeper into this specific story, I think it’s absolutely critical that I walk you through the geography of our city back in the day. To be fair, it’s going to be a slightly elaborate, not very significant walk through, so buckle up…
Our city is roughly built along three arterial roads. The coolest and least significant of those basically got onto the list purely because it cradles the beach.
The second one runs the entire width of the city, starting from a Once-Was hamlet that the Dutch or Brits or French or whoever decided to first stop by the city for a chilli bajji* docked their boats at a couple of centuries ago. Over time, the hamlet evolved into “that place” where you could get international goods like Adhi-das shoes and Raye Bann sunglasses for cheap. At the time of this story though most people had apparently purchased slightly better sensibilities, so all that was left were a bunch of shops selling pirated DVDs of debatably horrible movies.
On the other end of this road is a village that doesn’t really matter. All along the course of this road are neighborhoods in the city whose only mark of importance is the fact that they lie close to neighborhoods which are close to neighborhoods that are slightly more important.
Mount Road, though, is the most significant of the three. It starts far far away in the netherlands, where trains full of hungry travellers get their first waft of burnt oil and stale human effluents as a welcome to our great city**. And it stretches all the way down to a never ending other end of the bustling metropolis I call home. Nobody has a definite answer to where Mount Road really ends — some say it curves ahead at a hillock and turns back into the city it grew and raised in a humbler disguise. Some say it goes further, on and on, through the city, and then the next and then the next, taking on a different alias to suit the local taste… Some say it stretches all the way across the Indian Ocean, cutting through Australia and one very annoyed kangaroo.
What’s important is that it basically cuts the city in two — the aristocratic east and the sub-urban west — making it a common point of reference for every single person in the city, right from the hungry traveller to the human effluent.
Which made Vimal’s assumption that I didn’t know this defining feature of our city’s landscape rather insulting.
Sure, I wasn’t a great traveller. I hadn’t ventured much into the scary northern corners of the city. My internal compass always pointed towards the beach. And I was (still am) kind of paranoid about any piece of metal at least the size of my apartment hurtling at me with questionable brakes. But of course I knew Mount Road!
Like any group of humans bundled together in close proximity for over 8 hours a day, my college had cliques. And within each clique, there were sub-cliques. And sub-cliques within those sub-cliques. There were couples and singles. There were athletes and dancers. There were the Heroes of the Local Language, and the Lords of International Dialects. But the most obvious group were the City Dwellers — day scholars who came from the city every day. Everyone else fell into the second bucket of Villagers, even if they were born in London, raised in New York and made one incredibly impulsive decision to stay in the hostels and study at our college.
Since our only point of commonality as City Dwellers was the city we dwelt in, conversations in our clique mostly centered around the “great and happening” snippets of our parts of the city.
Vimal, though, kept his air of anonymity. He only referred to his neighborhood as the “Heart of the City”, leaving the terraced lawns, magical chocolate fountains and gorgeous women to our imagination. From the clues we did manage to piece together, this mythical “Heart of the City” was close to every single neighborhood, and beat every one of them in every possible parameter by a fair margin.
None of us could fathom where this Heart might possibly be. And so we continued living in the shame that at the end of college hours that day, we’d not be going back to a home in the heart of our majestic city.
We’d missed the scheduled busses that evening. Due to our own follies, sure, but we still had to find a way back home. The college promised us a couple of busses on a few limited routes — one of which happened to take me home.
They didn’t have one plying through Vimal’s exact route though. In hindsight, I must have wondered why they would have a limited bus to my neighborhood in Bumfuk-Nowhere, but not one to the Heart of the City. But the excitement of finally getting a chance to go the Heart overwhelmed me.
The Heart of the City, by Vimal’s admission, was “just five kilometers” from where I lived — not too far. So I promised to drop him home on my motorcycle. Of course, according to him it was “just five kilometers” from any other point in the known universe as well — but I didn’t know that then.
“So where in Mount Road?”, I asked, continuing the small talk. We were now about eight kilometers down, and there were no signs of any Heart yet. My lack of forethought in clearing out my bladder when I had the chance at home was slowly turning into annoyance. All that pressure had to vent out somewhere…
“Just down the road.”
Down the road? DOWN THE ROAD? Genghis Khan went down the road and he landed somewhere in Russia!
“There’s this mall there, you know?”, he added. He might have just been trying to be helpful at that point, but it didn’t really matter.
Back then, our city boasted of ONE mall bang in the city center. And that definitely wasn’t within the five kilometer radius from where we were already, let alone from my house.
Eventually we crossed the mall. We were hovering close to the outer boundaries of the civilized part of the city — regions that even cartographers avoided, instead just earmarking the area as the “crappy north”.
“Just a little beyond. There’s this Victorian era building with a big clock on it”, he said. That’s the main railway station in the city. I’d been there twice to drop some visiting family, and the sheer mass of humans thronging the area had forced me into six months of rehab. Also we were already roughly 20 kilometers from where I lived and 200 lightyears outside my comfort zone.
“Yes, now just take that little alley there”
The clothes were different. The language they spoke was different. Camels replaced cows. Automobiles were non-existent, replaced by manual rickshaws and handcars. The streets, slightly wider than an average goat, had their sides lined with hawkers selling colorful paraphernalia. The locals stopped by each store to pick these things up, draping some of them on their bodies and popping some others in their mouths. Clearly, at some point, we’d managed to cross the space-time continuum and land at some place 4000 kms and 40,000 years from where we should be.
Far far away, in the north-western boundaries of India lies a great desert, stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction. Great conquerers in ancient times have walked up to the sandy outer reaches, said screw it, and turned back. I’d only read about the region and its inhabitants in middle school geography.
Apparently what they didn’t cover in that lesson was that a sizable chunk of those inhabitants had given the finger to the desert and moved south through thousands of kilometers of temperate lands, flowing rivers and cool mountains to settle in the sweltering heat of our city***.
“Just a little bit further”. I slowed down, ready to halt and let Vimal get down. “Turn right onto that road”.
Personally I think naming a place “New Something” shows a remarkable lack of creativity. If I were starting from the fictitious town of Dork, and settled down in a beautiful new place that I could just name anything, I sure as hell wouldn’t name it “New Dork”.
But that’s nothing compared to my fear of places named “Old Something”. If you had a place that’s so terrible that a newbie neighborhood stole it’s name, and made it reinvent itself as the old guy, that’s saying something.
And then, there are places named after professions. Like Barber’s Lane, or Blacksmith’s Village. Those things always make me cautious. If you had an entire village full of just blacksmiths, you should ask yourself what they really are smithing, and who they’re smithing it for…
And here I was in part of town named after clothes washers. And not just regular washers — this is the Old Washers town. Because the new Washers beat them out of their clients AND their names.
Vimal probably sensed my tension levels, because he tried calming me down. By telling me that a bunch of people hacked someone with machetes right under the bridge we were crossing just a couple of days earlier. Very soothing.
“Where’s the Ice House, sir?”, I asked.
Vimal had given me directions to find my way back to civilisation when he got down. “Just follow this road and you should eventually reach the Ice House****”.
“An igloo, you mean?”, I thought. That was the only ice house I’d heard of so far. But I didn’t want to show my obvious geographic ignorance much longer, so I nodded my head like I understood what he said and started my return trek home.
After years of travelling through old, dingy, dark, and entirely unfamiliar surfaces, I saw the first human who didn’t look like an angry serial killer.
“This is it”, he said, pointing at a traffic light in the middle of the road before vanishing into the darkness. A light. Masquerading as a house. Made of ice. My mind was imploding with the amount of new information from the past couple of hours that it was trying to process.
And beneath that light I noticed a sign board sent from the heavens. “Mount Road, straight ahead”, it said. I survived.
Months of anticipation. Months of dreams about the magical Heart of the City. By the time I got to college the next morning I was just waiting to pounce on Vimal the moment he uttered the words “Heart”, “City” or “Of”, and shame him for the abomination he called his neighborhood.
“You should check out my area during the day, dude. That’s when it gets Happening”.
* Chilli Bajji is a local delicacy involving spicy peppers deep fried in industrial waste oil and fortified with 17 essential water-borne pathogens
** I know Mount Road doesn’t technically start at the railway station. I really have no idea where it starts, but the concept of a road that has neither a beginning nor an end really hurts my head.
*** This community had migrated to our city roughly 300 years before my family did — logically it’d make more sense to call them the originals and us the migrants. But hey, I’m writing the story — so if you ever need to buy jewellery of any kind, or pawn the ones you already have this is the neighborhood you should visit.
**** Apparently some English bloke in the 1800’s thought it’d be a profitable venture to ship ice cubes so his countrymen could get their whisky on the rocks. Unfortunately by the time he figured out the logistics, his prospects had already purchased refrigerators from Vivek & Co. But the place he decided to house the ice cubes stayed, as did its name.
If you liked this story let me know by hearting this post… You might also like this other tale from my Four-year Transforms series: