Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
Let’s take a break from serious column writing this week. Here’s a short story I wrote a long time ago that has just been published by Rupa as part of a collection of Indian short stories, Why We Don’t Talk. It’s called ‘Urban Planning’, and features, in a side role, Abir Ganguly, the narrator of my novel My Friend Sancho.
‘The commissioner will see you now,’ said Gaitonde, the secretary of the municipal commissioner of Mumbai, to Abir Ganguly, the journalist from The Afternoon Mail.
Ganguly walked into BR Sharma’s office. He walked up to his desk and offered him his hand. BR Sharma pretended to look at his mobile phone. ‘Sit down, Ganguly,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Sir, I need to ask you a question about the recent move of the Mumbai Stock Exchange from Worli to Vashi. I need to know if your office authorised it.’
‘Well, yes, we were told the stock exchange is moving, and we do not have a problem with that. We were told it will relieve pressure off the city center towards New Mumbai. That is a good thing.’
‘Well, sir, I am just coming from Vashi. From the stock exchange building.’
‘It’s ready already? The new building? How is it?’
‘The new building is the old building, sir.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The new building is the old building. The stock exchange has shifted, but not from one building to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange building itself has shifted to Vashi. From Worli.’
‘The building itself? How is that possible?’
‘That’s what I’m here to ask you sir.’
‘So what is in Worli? Where, um, the building used to be?’
‘Sir, there is a Sulabh Shauchalaya there, and half of a public park. They used to be in Vashi.’
‘How can this be?’
‘That is what I am asking, sir?’
‘I will see for myself.’
* * * *
BR Sharma got into his Ambassador with the deputy commissioner for urban planning, S Lokapally. ‘Bahubali,’ said BR Sharma, ‘Do you have any idea what is going on here?’
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Yes, sir. Lokapally.’
‘Ok. Lokapally, do you have any idea of what is going on here?’
* * * *
The ambassador stopped at where the gate of the Mumbai Stock Exchange used to be. There was a crowd of curious people being shepharded away by police. BR Sharma’s driver got out of the car, sprinted round to BR Sharma’s door, and held it open. BR Sharma got off, grabbed the belt of his trousers and, in an authoritative way that made it clear who the boss was, hauled it up by an inch. He really did need to go to the gym.
Oh, and the building wasn’t there.
As Ganguly had said, there was a Sulabh Shauchalaya and half a public park, with half a bench at one corner of it.
‘I have never seen anything like it before,’ said BR Sharma.
‘Neither have I, sir,’ said Lokapally.
‘Veeravalli,’ said BR Sharma.
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Lokapally,’ said BR Sharma, ‘I want to get to the bottom of this. Institute an enquiry. Set up a committee. I want to know how that building got from here to there without our permission.’
* * * *
Later that evening, the municipal commissioner, the police commissioner and the home secretary were ushered into the chief minister’s office.
‘I want to know, how this can happen?’ asked Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, the chief minister.
‘It is most worrying, sir,’ said BR Sharma. ‘I think this is a law and order issue. Our police is supposed to guard our property. How come none of the policemen saw this happen?’
JP Fernandes, the police commissioner, bristled at this. ‘Urban planning is the direct responsibility of the municipality,’ he said. ‘If a building moves from Point A to Point B, the municipality is responsible. Had I been asked to provide forces to defend any of the buildings in the city, I would have done so. Mumbai’s law and order is the best in the country.’
‘The best in the country, my foot,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Now a building has gone, tomorrow the whole of South Mumbai will move to New Mumbai, and your policemen will be sitting on the kattas putting oil on their paunches.’
‘Now now, Sharmaji,’ said JP Fernandes, ‘this is most unwarranted. Why don’t you first keep your buildings in their place?’
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil stepped in. ‘Calm down, men. This is not the time to fight.’ He turned to Pravin Deshmukh, the home secretary. ‘Pravin, the inquiry committee will take some time to give their report. But the press is hounding us for answers now. What are we to tell them?’
‘I have an idea, sir,’ said Deshmukh. ‘Let’s tell them that we ourselves shifted the building from Worli to Vashi. We will say that it was a planned move by us, which saves on construction costs. We will be enigmatic about how we shifted the building, and will say that we cannot reveal our methods, it is a state secret. And we should guard the new location of the building, to make sure that nothing happens to that.’
‘Good idea,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. He turned to BR Sharma. ‘I would like you to speak for us at the press conference. And Fernandes, I want your forces guarding the Mumbai Stock Exchange round the clock. Okay.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the two men said together.
* * * *
BR Sharma waited until the flashbulbs stopped going off. Then he read out the statement prepared for him by Deshmukh’s secretary, Vincent Lobo. Then he asked for questions.
Ganguly, who’d had his ear to his mobile phone until a minute ago, popped his hand up.
‘Sir, can you tell us if the municipality plans to shift any more buildings in this manner?’
‘No. I mean yes. I mean yes, I can tell you that no, we will not shift any more buildings for now. One is enough.’
‘Well, sir, I have just got news on my cellphone that the Air India building has shifted to Mahim.’
‘Yes, sir. The Air India building has shifted from Nariman Point to Mahim. It is now in the middle of the road at the start of the Mahim-Bandra causeway. In its place in Nariman Point, according to what my colleague just told me on the phone, is a traffic signal with a bird on it.’
‘Yes, sir. A bird.’
* * * *
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil was pacing up and down when BR Sharma entered his cabin.
‘Varma,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Here you are.’
‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’
‘Ok, Sharma. Look, these bloody journalists are hounding me, and my press officer will get an ulcer like this. And the PM has been calling, and I don’t know what to tell him. I need an explanation. I need this matter sorted out. Should we conduct a puja?’
‘Sir, I’ve already set up one enquiry commission. I’ll set up another one.’ This was unprecedented in terms of efficiency. Two enquiry commissions looking into the same thing? Amazing.
‘And what will your enquiry commissions do, ask the buildings why they moved?’
‘I know all about your bloody enquiry commissions. I want answers. I want to know how a building can move from here to there. And did nobody see it? Mumbai never sleeps, Mumbai never sleeps, we are told. Well, somebody must have seen the building shifting. Find him!’
* * * *
Three hours later, BR Sharma and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil met again, this time in the police commissioner’s office. ‘We have a witness,’ said JP Fernandes. ‘He is waiting in the next room. He says he was staring at the Air India building when it moved.’
‘Why was he staring at it?’ asked BR Sharma.
‘What else could he stare at? Have you seen the other buildings there?’
The three men walked into the next room, where an old man in a dirty white kurta-pajama sat on a chair. His hair was ruffled. He clearly hadn’t bathed in many days, and the police inspector with him, Inspector Waghmare, held a handkerchief to his nose. (His own nose.)
‘So tell us the details now,’ barked Fernandes. ‘What did you see?’
‘Sir, I was sitting at the paanwalla opposite the Air India building, just about to put a paan into my mouth, when I heard a loud thud. I looked at the building. It was shaking.’
‘Yes, sir. And then a lighting bolt appeared and hit my paan.’
‘A lightning bolt? Your paan?’
‘Yes, sir. And then Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, appeared before me in a silk Banarasi saree with lots of gold jewellery. She wore a red bindi on her forehead. She had a Rolex watch on her wrist. She had a twinkle in her eye.’
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil looked at BR Sharma. BR Sharma looked at Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘She told me,’ the witness continued, ‘that all my good deeds had finally borne fruit, and she was going to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. She was going to give me a prime parcel of land in South Mumbai. The plot that was behind her at that moment, in fact.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I said, but Deviji, there’s a building there.’
* * * *
BR Sharma’s phone rang. It was his secretary. ‘Sir, Mr Lokapally says that the enquiry commission is gathered in the conference room. They are waiting for you.’
‘Let them wait,’ thundered BR Sharma. ‘I am the municipal commissioner of Mumbai. Let them wait. And, er, have you organised samosas?’
‘Yes, sir. The samosas are on their way to the conference room.’
‘I’ll be there in a minute.’ BR Sharma hitched up his belt, smoothened his shirt, patted his paunch consolingly, and headed towards the conference room. The samosas were already there, and many of them were being eaten.
‘You are here!’ said BR Sharma.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Lokapally. ‘We were waiting for you.’
BR Sharma grabbed a samosa and looked around the table. He was bad at names, but he knew what they all did. There was an architect, a civil engineer, an urban planner and the head of the Mumbai Stock Exchange at the table.
‘Tell me, gentlemen, what do you make of what has just happened?’
‘Sir, it is not possible,’ said the civil engineer.
‘What is not possible?’
‘Sir, the building shifting like that. It is is not possible. You see, buildings have deep foundations, and they cannot just…’
‘But it has shifted,’ BR Sharma exclaimed. ‘What do you mean it is not possible? It has happened.’
‘We should deny it, sir. We should deny it repeatedly, and after a while, people will forget about it.’
BR Sharma stared at him. Yes, that was the standard practice in public life. But not for something like this, surely. He turned to the architect.
‘Architect,’ he barked, ‘tell me, what do you think?’
‘Sir, it is too early to say. I agree with my esteemed colleague here that it is not possible…’ – he clearly hated his esteemed colleague – ‘but the building has shifted, and the matter must be examined. And we shall examine it. We are the committee. In fact, I suggest we constitute a fact-finding mission to Japan. I volunteer to head it.’
‘Why, have any buildings shifted there?’
‘No, sir, not like this. But their architecture is advanced. Their buildings are made to be earthquake-proof. Maybe if the stock exchange was made with that technology, it would not have moved.’
BR Sharma knew this was ridiculous. Junkets were good, junkets were healthy, but not at a time like this. He turned to the urban planner and asked him his opinion.
‘Sir, the shift is poorly planned,’ he said. ‘If I was carrying out such a shift, I would not have left half a bench in Vashi and brought the other half to Worli. We must find out who is responsible.’
BR Sharma sighed. He looked at the head of the stock exchange, whose name was SK Gindotra, he now remembered. Gindotra had been a classmate of his in school. He used to play badminton.
‘Gindotra, what about you? What hypothesis do you have?’
‘These samosas are damn good, Sharma,’ said Gindotra. ‘As for what hypothesis do I have, I have none. I don’t know how the damn building shifted. There are limits to my knowledge, and I accept that with great humility. But I do know this: you government people don’t have the slightest clue about what is happening. You are running around like headless chickens, and I am enjoying the sight. I just wish my bloody commute was suddenly not so long.’
BR Sharma looked at Gindotra, and a wave of affection rushed through him. Yes, the samosas were good.
* * * *
Outside, the media wallahs gathered.
‘This is Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar from New Bharat TV,’ barked one young man into a TV camera. ‘We are gathered outside the municipal commissioner’s office in Mumbai – but who knows, we may suddenly find that the office has disappeared and is in Delhi now. No, dear viewers, I am not joking. All over Mumbai, buildings are going from one location to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange has shifted from Worli to Vashi. The Air India Building is now in Mahim. No one knows how this has happened. No one saw this happen.’
Now he began to wail.
‘Is this the coming of kalyug? Is this a plot by Pakistan? Is this a plot by the CIA? The government owes us an answer, and we at New Bharat TV will get you an answer. We will wait here until BR Sharma comes out, and we will ask him some hard questions. For you! We will do it for you! For the nation! Our great India! We want answers! Aaaaanswers!’
At this point, Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar had an epileptic fit and passed out.
‘Sir,’ said Lokapally inside the building. ‘A reporter seems to have fainted outside.’
‘Go out and make sure he is taken to the newest hospital,’ said BR Sharma, ‘wherever it is.’
* * * *
That evening, BR Sharma sat in the loo. If the chair in his office was his seat of power, the commode in his loo at home was the seat of peace and calm. No one could disturb him here.
But he wasn’t at peace now. Why were these buildings moving around like this?
The art of government, he had learnt early in his career, is the art of confidence. A government servant may not be in charge of a certain situation – but he must pretend to be. The public looks to the government to control the economy, to maintain law and order, to make sure everything in its cities and towns works. Often, governments may have no control over these things – and little understanding of them. Still, people have blind faith in governments, and if that faith is broken, all is anarchy.
So when a crisis comes, you need to signal to the common folk that you are in command, and are taking action. Make statements in the press; institute a committee; issue a show-cause notice to someone; or, if nothing else works, distract the media by raiding a dance bar. Do something.
BR Sharma had once been part of a committee that was investigating rising prices in Maharashtra. Among the nine members of that committee, eight had different theories about why prices were rising and how they could be countered. BR Sharma did not have an opinion on this matter. There were too many factors involved in such phenomena, and as long as Mrs Sharma did not complain to him about why onions were 25 rupees a kilo, he really didn’t care.
That committee didn’t actually end up doing anything. But the government said a committee was at work, thus showing that they were fixing the problem – and the next year, monsoons were good, and prices came down. The committee patted itself on the back, and went for lunch to the Taj, where BR Sharma had seven golden-fried prawns followed by half a sushi platter. He had a stomach upset the next day and did not go to work, because of which Mumbai stopped running, suddenly confused about what to do.
Now, again, there was a big problem and the people of his city had turned to its municipal commissioner. And BR Sharma didn’t have a damn clue about what to do. If this matter wasn’t sorted out quickly, people’s trust in government would disappear. Like a child who learns that there is no Santa Claus, the people of Mumbai would lose the faith – and they would never regain it.
BR Sharma made a face. His nutritionist had been right, he really did need to have more fibre in his diet.
* * * *
The next morning, traffic was slower than usual. The road down Mahim Causeway that led to town was blocked because of the Air India building, and the load on alternative routes was immense. BR Sharma had foreseen this, and had reached office at seven-thirty, before the rush hour traffic became really bad. He had tossed and turned all night, and his eyes were red.
At 9.30, his mobile phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. It was Abir Ganguly, that damn reporter.
‘Hello, Mr Sharma. This is Abir Ganguly. You won’t believe this, but I am at Madh Island.’
‘Ganguly, you are calling me to tell me you are in Madh Island? What am I supposed to with that information? Why is it important to me? I am fed up of you!’
‘No, sir, this is important. It’s like this, five minutes ago, I was on my way to Worli. Now I am in Madh Island. That is because the Bandra-Worli Sea Link has now become the Versova-Madh Island Sea Link.’
BR Sharma gulped. Had he heard correctly? Was he dreaming?
‘Yes, sir, I kid you not, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link now connects Versova and Madh Island. And I really would like your quote on this matter, sir? Has this also been planned by the government? Why weren’t commuters warned about it earlier?’
‘The monsoons,’ said BR Sharma. ‘It must be the monsoons.’
‘Nothing,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Look, I can’t comment on this till I set up an enquiry and we get more information on this. But I can tell you one thing off the record?’
‘The next time a building moves, please do not call me. Assume that I already know. I am the municipal commissioner of this city. I know everything.’
* * * *
At noon, BR Sharma was in Worli, at the exact spot where the Sea Link used to begin. (Or end, depending on whether you lived in South Mumbai or North Mumbai.) With him were Lokapally, JP Fernandes and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘I think we are ready,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, looking up at the nearest street light. ‘Varma, switch it on.’
‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’
‘Sharma, switch it on.’
‘Mahakali, switch it on.’
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Lokapally, switch it on.’
Lokapally spoke into his phone, and the street light came on. The four men stared into the sea – as did their 40 or so minions there, who would not have dared to look elsewhere while their bosses were looking in that direction.
‘Nothing happened,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘Yes, sir,’ said BR Sharma.
‘This is the beauty of science,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Now we know what does not work.’
He turned around and walked away. He had been told that just before the Sea Link disappeared, one of the streetlights there, which had been on a few hours longer than it should have been, had been switched off. Light off – Sea Link gone. Correlation – causation. So Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil wanted to see if turning the light back on would bring the Sea Link back. No such luck.
‘If a hen had laid an egg here just before the Sea Link vanished,’ said JP Fernandes to BR Sharma, ‘I wonder if our honorable chief minister would have tried to push the egg into the hen’s arse. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. But I do know this: If there was a hen here this morning, it’s no longer here. It’s disappeared.’
* * * *
From there, BR Sharma went home for lunch. There was nothing to be done. He had set up another committee that morning, but he was confident nothing would come of it. He had read all the newspaper reports on this subject, but none of them had the slightest clue of what could have caused this.
Some commentators were putting forth theories that pushed forward whatever agenda they believed in. Swami Ramdas said that God was punishing Mumbai for its immoral ways, and for its tolerance of homosexuals. TV Iyengar said that while the specifics needed to be examined, this was surely the fault of unbridled capitalism. MS Azmi blamed global warming. Ravikiran Sabnis said that this proved that government had failed, and that markets would fix this. And Govind Joshi said that this was all the fault of allowing migrant labour into Mumbai.
They were all mad. BR Sharma wanted to line them up in front of a wall somewhere and shoot them with a water pistol. Just like that.
‘I heard about the Sea Link on the news,’ Mrs Sharma said. ‘This is so strange. Are you all right?’
‘This is like you running off with the driver,’ said BR Sharma.
‘With Prem Singh? Why would I run off with Prem Singh?’
‘No, not you literally, and not Prem Singh literally. I mean, a guy thinks his life is just fine, then one day his wife runs off with his driver. All his certainties are shattered. He loses faith. This is like that.’
‘But have you seen Prem Singh’s face? He must be earning so little. Why would I run off with him?’
‘It’s an analogy,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Don’t take it literally.’
‘You are very disturbed. Why don’t you stay at home today and not go back to work? You need to rest.’
‘I think I’ll do just that,’ said BR Sharma. He had already put his phone on silent. He glanced at it: 279 missed calls.
Mrs Sharma set the lunch out on the table. Baingan ka bharta. Dal. Some chicken curry from last night. Chapatis. Rice. BR Sharma looked at the food and thought, how lucky I am. This was a good meal. He had a good life.
But he didn’t have an appetite, and after one-and-a-half chapatis, went to the bedroom to nap.
* * * *
In his dream, he woke up to the sound of waves. He went to the window, and found that his house was in the middle of the sea. He ran around the house, to all the windows: they were surrounded by water. Mrs Sharma sat in the living room, knitting.
‘You know, I’m missing my kitty party because of this,’ she said. ‘My mother was right: I should not have married you. You are good for nothing.’
‘Your mother said that?’
‘Maybe not. But she should have. Now see where you’ve gotten us. Do you even know where we are?’
BR Sharma looked out of the window. No, he did not know where they were. But he could see the sun setting in the distance. He looked at his phone. No signal. They were stuck.
And in Mumbai, he knew, where his house had been, there was now a pool of salt water. He could imagine Lokapally standing outside it, dialling his number furiously. Oh, how he wished the phone would ring now, so he could pick it up and say, ‘Lokapally, Lokapally, I remember your name!’
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