We knew we were approaching Mumbai. The night was dark, the train stations zipped by at such a speed as the night train clattered through empty platforms that it was hard to read the station names.
But we knew we were coming in.
By the smell.
That peculiar, rancid stench that wreathes the city of dreams.
The putrid pong of sewer. The acrid smell of smoke. The rottenness of it all.
The combined effluents of so many. Human, animal excreta joining the cast off products of our industrial and consumer age. The combined pool of many hands labouring. Many feet tramping. Many products shaped, fashioned and hustled in the bylanes of the great city.
It is something that we want to wish away. Something that we are embarrassed by - and which is increasingly being pushed out of the island city as the myriad small industries seek greener pastures in ever-more far-flung 'suburbs'. Mushrooming mini-cities spreading out along the umbilical chords of our railways.
To many, paradoxically, this is the smell of hope. Many trade the pure air of a native village - for the heavy stench of the city - because there is money to be made, education to be found, opportunities to be had.
The lovely lady who helps us out for 1/2 the day at home has gone back to the village for some days. Her grandmother is ailing and she wants to see her before she dies. Our lady organized another lady to help in her absence. She came yesterday. A big toothy smile lighting up her face.
As she left today I asked her if she could give me a contact number. She gave me a business card. I waited for her to write out her number on this piece of paper. Instead she pointed to the card and said "my number is here."
It was her daughter's card. She is a financial advisor for MetLife. The card has a picture of Snoopy dancing on it. The person who gave it to me is an illiterate woman from Andhra Pradesh. Her daughter is now a financial advisor.
Hardly likely to happen in the village. For a few generations at least.
The city continues to draw people. The stench - with all its admission of our own multiple failures to create a place which is trully habitable - still carries a very sweet note to it to many, many, many from our vast hinter-lands - the Mumbai stench carries in it a waft of the smell of opportunity.