Such Big Dreams
This time, the flames are everywhere—licking the walls, sweeping across the tin roof of my one-room hut.
I bolt upright in the dark, a full-body scream ready to erupt from somewhere deep inside my lungs. My hands reach for my throat as I gasp for air. Panic courses through my body while I try to recall Dr. Pereira’s bad-dream exercise, the one she told me to do each time this happens.
“When you wake up,” she said, “sit on the edge of your bed and put your feet on the floor.” I had to tell her I don’t have a bed, just a thin mat. “So sit at the edge of your mat cross-legged,” she replied, patiently. “Then, name out loud the objects in the room.”
Trembling, I fold one leg under the other and try to focus on the dim outlines of my belongings scattered around me.
In the corner of the room, my heavy, steel cabinet. “Almirah.”
Beside it, the cooking vessel I never use. “Pot.”
Drenched, sweaty clothes plastered to my back. “Kurta,” I mutter.
Then I notice the damp, heavy weight tickling my neck. “Hair.”
I slide a cautious hand toward the little blue Nokia that Gauri Ma’am gave me when I started working for her. “Phone.” I clutch it tight. The small screen oozes a dull green glow, which I hold up in front of me to illuminate the room.
Shining the light on my cassette player, I press the eject button with a trembling finger and retrieve the tiny crystal elephant from its hiding spot. “Elephant.” As I say the word and cradle the figurine in my palm, I can sense the flames of my nightmare start to recede.
And now for the last, most stupidest part of Dr. Pereira’s night terror exercise: “I am awake,” I whisper into the shadows. “I am safe.”
My shoulders tense as I wait for flames to climb back up the walls, sparks to burrow into my clothes. None of that happens, though. I let out a deep breath and flop back onto my mat, dank and musty from my sweat and the humid monsoon air.
The nightmares started eleven years ago, after the paanwala incident. Just after I lost Babloo. They used to come almost every night. They’ve since tapered off to a few times a week, but they’re just as vivid as ever. Most nights I try to stay awake for as long as I can, fighting the lull of the dead air and emptiness of my one-room hut, before drifting into broken sleep by two or three in the morning.
Behrampada slum sprawls out over seven acres in the middle of Bombay—or Mumbai, if that’s what you want to call it—an island city flooded with too many people with too-big dreams. By the time I come home in the evenings, the slum roars with noise: The hiss and flare of gas cooking cylinders being lit; tawas and kadais clanging on stovetops. Women shouting at their husbands, who in turn shout back. Someone’s shrieking child is always chasing someone else’s bleating goat. And when India wins a cricket match, firecrackers burst in the lanes like fistfuls of corn popping. By midnight, though, people retreat inside and switch off their television sets, and the pressures that build up in Behrampada’s crowded huts and narrow lanes fizzle out until dawn. Except for the squeals of horny rats and the occasional bottle smashing, all goes quiet—and that’s when the night terrors come for me.
Letting out one of those big yawns that almost unhinges my jaw, I roll onto my side. Last night, flash rains banged down on my leaky tin roof like a herd of sharp-clawed cats. The steady sound of water dripping into a plastic bucket would drive anyone else to tears, but I was grateful to be kept awake for a little while longer. As the storm died down, though, so did the noise, and I eventually fell asleep. If I had the secret weapons that important people do, like loud English or proper Hindi, I’d command the nearby Garib Nawaz Masjid to keep the call to prayer going all night, crying out “Allahu akbar” and “la ilaha illa-Allah” on loop from their tinny loudspeakers. “We have to help Rakhi keep the night terrors away,” the muezzin would reply flatly, if anyone complained about his six-hour azaan.
Already, I hear the clamor of the people of Behrampada as they start to stir, which means it’s just past five. By six, the sun has risen, and by seven, I’ve used the stinking public toilet and bathed. By eight, I’ve drunk a cup of tea and gotten dressed, and am ready to leave for work.
On this muggy July morning, the main road from Behrampada to Bandra Station glistens with a slick layer of oil, water, and dirt. I take careful strides over the puddle-filled potholes dotting the street, but the cotton ankles of my clean salwar end up speckled with mud anyway. “Dressing smart tells the world you think our work is valuable,” Gauri Ma’am told me during my first week at the office, after I wore the same salwar kameez for three days straight. She handed me a stack of her daughter’s old clothes the next day.
It’s only as I pause on the station bridge to inspect the mud splatters on the backs of my pant legs that I spot my train pulling into the station. The people who have been waiting on the platform are already getting inside, which means I have less than fifteen seconds before it departs. By the time I fly down the stairs to the platform, the train has started to move again. The slanted green-and-yellow stripes of the ladies’ general compartment are exactly two cars away.
I haven’t chased after a moving train in a long time. During our years living on the street, Babloo and I were always running. Running away, that is—from policewalas, shopkeepers, and passengers who’d had enough of us. While other children had their hair oiled and combed, rode in autorickshaws to school, and ate proper lunches and dinners, we were leaping onto moving trains, traveling ticketless up and down the railway lines, looking for something to put into our growling bellies.
The train picks up speed, so I do, too. There’s only one way on now, and it’s to jump in the open door closest to me—the first-class ladies’ compartment. I don’t have a first-class pass, but that’s never stopped me before. I reach out for the pole in the doorway, the tip of my middle finger grazing the cool metal, but it’s inching away from me. I’m going to have to leap for it. Bracing myself, I lurch forward, stretching for the pole with my left hand, this time gripping it firmly. Quickly, I suck in my breath and vault over the gap as the train gains momentum, and my outer hip takes a sharp blow from the pole while my feet slam down onto the metal floor. Out the open door, the city rushes past me. I am inside. Panting like a dog on a summer day, but inside.
The train roars down the Harbour Line toward the next stop, Mahim Station. I’ll hop out there and switch into the ladies’ general compartment. The total fine for ticketless travel would come to three hundred rupees if they caught me right now. I only have seventy rupees in my purse, and the Railway Police holding cells swell with ankle-deep sludge during monsoon season.
The wind from outside undoes most of the curls from my ponytail, which blow about in a thousand directions. I must look like some deranged woman, the kind whose uncle or husband drags her to a temple so a priest can beat the evil spirits out of her. As I twist fistfuls of hair into a massive bun at the back of my neck, strong gusts continue to hit my face, and the curls around my forehead whip at my temples.
When I finally turn away from the door and toward the inside of the car, I am struck by the emptiness, the quiet of first class. Nobody is inching in front of me, threatening to steal my breeze. On the bench facing me are a tall college girl in a pink T-shirt and a squat lady in a faded yellow salwar kameez with white embroidery. Between them are two whole inches of empty space. In the general compartment, four or five women will squash onto one bench together. The last one to jostle in will tell the others to “shift, please,” until at least a third of her behind is on the seat. And she’ll hang off the edge like that, straining her hips and thighs, because if she doesn’t sit there, someone else will.
Seats by the window with maximum airflow are in high demand, like gold at Diwali, or a fair price for onions. At this time of day, the ladies’ general compartment is so packed that nobody who boards at Bandra gets breeze. Only a few months ago, in the pre-monsoon heat that drives the entire city into random fits of rage, some fat, middle-aged woman with green glass bangles thought she could elbow me out of a seat I was about to squeeze into. She didn’t know who she was dealing with. Somewhere in the scuffle, her glass bangles snapped, scraping into my wrist, cutting deep enough to leave a mark. I got the seat in the end.