Most families discuss politics at dinner. Some well read ones bandy about famous words, and talk of Rushdie and Khalil Gibran. Still others watch soaps and grin at the vamp’s evil machinations. In my family, we talk. But none of that normal stuff for us. Being the dysfunctional unit that we are we talk geography. If this conjures up visions of people talking of Darfur and Patagonia, again dispel those. Let me elaborate.
Appa or Amma will start with where they went that day. The travelling spouse’s modes of transport would be acutely examined and then a long and protracted discussion would occur. Major roads would be discussed, the number of signals computed. The number of panwallahs, gutters to be navigated and the closest relatives abode from the point of destination would all be taken into consideration. Then the weather comes in. Mumbai being what it is, and more importantly where it is, you wouldn’t want to be flushed away in the rains. Hence all previous parameters would be voided in the face of the south western winds and newer, drier routes plotted.
Hinduism neatly divides the year into two halves, one replete with festivals, the other conspicuous by their absence. Travelling secular Mumbai in dakhshinayan compounds life. Amidst all the mandaps, mandals, makeshift temples and human detritus thronging them appointments must be made, offices reached on time and examinations be vomited upon. This is where we really excel. Sample this actual quote by my father to a bewildered rikshawallah: “Don’t take the left at the Church like you normally do, instead take a U-turn, immediately get into the housing society, pass through it and leave form the other gate. Never mind their watchman ill take care of him (!). Then get into the bus depot, circle the lake, go the opposite direction through that one-way and you will see a small gap between two trees, go through that, and you will be the first to reach the station today. Don’t thank God, thank me, and you will live to see another traffic jam”. Needless to say rickshaws avoid us like the plague.
Bandhs and political stirs leave all people scared and wary. My parents call too, but with detailed instructions on reaching back avoiding all the ‘political hotspots’ of the city (usually involving walking alongside stinky gutters, trespassing through several plots of private property and in one case, going through a tabela. No the cows weren’t pleased either).
Records, inevitably are set. “My husband can reach the mall under heavy traffic in a matter of seconds” Amma will proudly boast. In a benevolent mood she might even confide “We take a right turn at the vegetable market. Cuts 13.7 minutes, but watch out for cabbage peels.” These candid confessions sometimes lead to us bumping our rival families on one of ‘our’ secret routes leading my parents to froth at the mouth and devise newer, faster (and decidedly shadier) routes. We could give Google Earth a run for their money any day!
Talents rarely stay hidden and we are the local neighborhoods preferred database. Recently my father went a step further and lectured a cousin on how to find her way. Nothing wrong in it except that she was in Chennai and he in Mumbai. “Don’t listen to that autofellow, no train comes at that level crossing, just go across and you’ll reach home in time for dinner”. I was stumped. Amma, unfazed added for good measure that if my cousin took a particular lest turn she could pass by a temple too (and thank God for geographic mastermind relatives?).
All this knowledge isn’t gainsay. We have an original Rand Mc Nally atlas 1985 edition. It is a work of art no less. Mapping the entire globe form Cambodia to the Caucasus, Buenos Aires to Bangkok (with helpful footnotes on how to get to Juneau from Jakarta). The bloody thing must weigh a ton if anything at all. Then there are countless Indian atlases, from various publications. Also every time we take a vacation, as souvenirs we collect maps. So we have maps of almost all major Indian cities, two towns and some vague scribbles detailing a hidden Shiva temple a few kilometers off the railway tracks at Arakkonam. And then Appa bring maps from his sojourns abroad. So I know the way to wadi Haifa from Sharjah, and that the river through Gloffhausenbach has no bridges on it (leading me to pontificate if all Germans prefer wading to walking, but there is a time and place for every discussion). The digital age taught us to operate Google maps and latest versions of Google Earth are downloaded as soon as they are available.
A few weeks ago, I saw Amma reading a book on the Solar system (National Geographic special edition, weighs another ton and is a beautifully informative book). Houston, be scared. We are almost up there. “Beam me up Amma”