Friday, December 23, 2005

farewell to mundra

for MG

My first impression of Mundra was that of dust. Dust, brown in the village, and black inside the port. Whatever the colour, it was everywhere. The distinctive smell of dust, and the bland taste it leaves on your palate, combine to give you the impression of a very thick layer of dust in your mouth. Like having bitten into a whole sugarless besan laddoo.

Once a non-existent village whose greatest historical claim to fame is that a villager was Vasco da Gama’s associate, Mundra is today still a nonexistent village, only this time it’s in the midst of its transformation into an industrial hub. The kind of place where the villagers get salty water once every few days, while you get 24 hour, crystal clear water. I am sure a few hundred villages in and around the area suffer acute drought because of the industrial water monopoly.

(Here's a related story on Coca Cola in Plachimada, Kerala -
No Water? Drink Coke)

As soon as I enetered the Port, my freshly shaven chin started burning. I was alarmed when I realized the burning sensation was getting steadily getting intensified. Just as the irritation reached maddening proportions, a coal storage field came into view. Huge ugly mounds of fine, powdery, dusty coal. And a huge chute that was dumping more on the field. The coal in the field was already smouldering, even burning in some places.

When our car drew up to the administrative building, where I was headed, I asked the fireman stationed nearby how things were. He shrugged as though to say this was business as usual. I suspected he was a little offended that I should’ve considered the situation serious enough to even worry if things were ok. He looked very bored with the whole operation.

The smouldering coal was raising a lot of dust, and the chute, spraying coal from 30 feet, certainly didn’t help the labourers who were loading trucks. There were menacing looking bulldozers with 5-pronged claws, which, my guide informed me proudly, could pick up 50 tonnes of coal. There was one man in the coalfield who caught my eye. A tall thin slouching man with a black face, and matching black hands. He walked with the abandon one sees only in children and those who grew up in the streets. An acceptance of their bodies, a complete lack of self-consciousness that actors secretly aspire to. In an actor, it might’ve resembled something close to arrogance.

The man was dressed in clothes that were once either white or cream. Or perhaps light blue. A light shade, at any rate. He seemed to fighting the huge monsters clawing away dangerously close to him, unmindful of the great chute trying to bury him under some 20 feet high heap of coal. I was reminded of the many legendary stories of a lone man fighting fire-spewing dragons and clawing vultures. The man however, was, like the fireman, entirely focused on his routine, and would’ve scorned any romantic allusion.

At lunch, I saw him walk into the only decent restaurant inside the port.

He paid at the counter before ordering; fully aware the manager would’ve otherwise asked to see the money first. He took a seat and begged for his food. The waiters didn’t bother to conceal their disgust. He spoke to the waiters in an over-smiling ingratiating manner. (I would be reminded of him when my guide spoke to his boss later.) It was as if they were in tacit agreement that he wasn’t worthy of any attention.

Shocked at the backwardness of Mundra, my definition of ‘village’ was fast changing. As a kid in Cochin, my idea of a village was Palakkad, a metropolis by Mundra’s standards. My parents shifted to Ahmedabad when I was still in college, and my first reaction when I joined them was ‘oh this place is sooooo small-townish’. My chief objection to Ahmedabad was the dust, and the poor public transport. It didn’t help that I was in Mumbai before shifting to Ahmedabad. Things were rapidly put in perspective once I came to Mundra. The only ‘public transport’ was this loud colourful smoky monster that looked like a cross between a Bullet and a bullock cart. It always made me think of it as some kind of centaur. More prosaically, it seemed like a cart drawn by a particularly temperamental mechanical horse.

My job was in the industry that has been the greatest benefactor of media explosion, the dalals of the media – public relations. Only this time it went under the considerably slicker name of Corporate Communication.

As part of my trade I had a rather Chomskian existence, manufacturing consent within the local media by the obvious gifts, and creating a ‘friendly and reliable information conduit’ as I once called it in a presentation. My employers were one step ahead of us in that. They had created economic dependence by taking up tenancy in houses owned by journalists. The mediapersons themselves didn’t seem to mind too much. On one occasion, I had a journalist call me up begging for a gift. And no we weren’t giving away Skodas, or even Swifts. We were giving away the typical gifts targeted at families – mixers, juicers and the like. On another occasion, a journo called up requesting an ad in his paper. When we told him we didn’t want to give him one, he threatened us with ‘lots of masala’. I doubt if he would’ve gone ahead with his threat, but he got his ad anyway.

I stayed there for more than 2 months. I suppose I met my share of interesting people.

There was one guy who had this air of tragedy. Loneliness hung about him, and he retreated from all company. (Come to think of it, so did I.) I greeted him once or twice and he hung around. Waiting. Waiting for conversation. In the beginning I was disturbed by seeing loneliness in another person. Once after we had exchanged pleasantries in the corridor outside my room, I asked him to come inside. He refused saying his boots were smelly (he had a point). On another occasion, he noticed a few books strewn around my room, and brought me a few periodicals to read. I was extremely touched by the gesture, until I saw that they were biblical perspectives on contemporary developments. (It even has an online edition - World News & Prophecy!). He was the protector of a few stray dogs, which hung around outside his room, hoping for some food. Once when we shook hands, I could feel the grime in his palms as we shook hands, and I hated my own squeamishness.

One evening, I walked into this restaurant, which was run by a Punjabi family. There was this 4-year-old watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on Cartoon Network. I was quite struck by it, glorying as I was under the impression that this was my personal heart of darkness. I asked him what he was watching, and he answered ‘Harry Potter’ in a tone, which was both irritated at my intrusion and amazed at my stupidity.

Globalization sure was catching on. Even in Mundra.

* * *

Today is my last day in Mundra.

It is strange how I seem to miss even the unpleasant times of my life.

As I sit in the bus, looking out of the bus as I always do, I see the usual sights – the characterless grey wall mounted with rusted forks still waiting for their barbed wire, concrete stumps once intended to be pillars of a bridge, tufts of black grass looking very much a part of the murky swamplands.

Today they all seem incomplete. An unscaled wall, a lost bridge, a forgotten garden.



Kaushik said...

really nice post. but i can get a feel for how depressing it might have been

Dit said...

Hey viv,the place sounds more depressing than I imagined.

roswitha said...

Farewell to Grapetown. Let's hope the worst is over, wot?

(I owe you a mail and a call, I know. I want to. I'm just caught up in a few minor shocks, although nothing unpleasant.)

Will you have Internet access regular-like?

V. said...

as kaushu and i decided, the best way to deal with mundra would've been to treat it like a long train journey - read, sleep and avoid picking up fights with fellow passengers.

Roswitha: :D