White Lines, Grey Lines. Case Study: Irshad Ali and Shafi Law


The fact that I’m using Microsoft Word should apprise you of the gravity of the matter I’m writing to you about. I was in a hurry when I received your email yesterday morning, and I apologize that I couldn’t respond to you sooner. I was amazed though, you had finally written an honest letter.

I had never considered your feelings regarding your advice to me when my own to you you say you’ve often followed. If you knew a bit more about who I am, you would understand my reluctance. I’m not free. The monkeys that have been screaming on my back for years are just quieter now, and no matter what you think is best for me, I’m far too accustomed to their company to seriously consider life without them. I think that is the way it must be for the most of us. The reasons slip, the actions remain. It goes on.

There’s more that’s happened than I remember, and somewhere along the way, I found you can just wait for people fuck off and die and it generally works. Children encrusted in age-old dirt that’ll never wash off their elbows and knees, their shins and forearms, Hunter Thompson would call them ‘the doomed,’ for whom it’s already begun, awful and encapsulating- the end. I refused to help them when I could, at times I’d pay them to leave me, on my way to my daily meals and my daily bed. Yeah, I fear God but welcome to the new hubris- a world of chaos, medley and a very pleasant and very comfortable and very generous kind of madness where we do nothing and prosper, while others are inexplicably stuck in a cycle of actions and consequences spanning generations, tyrannised by unruly gods upon the unhappy quagmire of city streets and the aspirations they were built on. It’s easier not to think about it.

Still, an anxiety lingers. Do you remember what it was like, in the black darkness of the womb, before you knew what you would be born into? The fear?

Isn’t that what you’re asking of me? To step into the unknown, into the infinite depths of the chasm of other people’s lives, in the hope that it would change me?

Well, I did, and I’d like to tell you about something, about someone I met- Irshad Ali and Shafi Law.

Irshad is my age, perhaps a little shorter than I, with a full beard and lean and handsome with a dark complexion.  He wears a Muslim head cap. He is the most dedicated, hardworking person I have ever been around. And he does it all for reasons I cannot comprehend.

I first met him in Azad Maidan, during the Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao Andolan early last year, on my third day there. Comfortable in flux, I was wandering the grounds sometime after midnight, chatting to and taking pictures of the people that were still awake. The day had been a bit rough, and now that it was mostly over, I was trying to work off the fever rush and find my place among the many hundreds that had bedded in the park around me, on thin sheets of tarp to protect them from the winter damp.

I walked towards the stage area to stash my equipment, where it would be safe for the night. Medha Patkar was sitting pretty much the way she had been for hours, finishing off the day’s final meetings with a stream of eager slum activists and coordinators before settling in for some five hours of sleep before repeating the same procedure tomorrow. On the way back, I realized that this guy, Irshad, whom I had seen around until then but never really paid any attention to was talking about me with one of Patkar’s assistants, a very beautiful girl called Kanika. I was something of a mystery for everyone there, I’d just showed up one day with professional camera gear and never left. Rumours of my affiliations would float and spar for many months- it became something I took some pleasure in observing, and generally did my part to mislead in. I think it was going something like, ‘Who is this guy, speaking in English to you, he’s been here for a while.’ Kanika cut through it in all of two seconds and simply introduced us. Irshad warmed when he realized I actually did speak the languages that he did and the reason I was there was as entirely unknown to me as it was to anyone else. We got to talking; he told me of the work he did for the people. Here was this guy, underprivileged as any of those occupying the park, but somewhat educated, and smart enough to want to do things, and courageous and wilful enough to actually do them. We talked for a long time about civil rights, freedom, duty and finally at some late hour we went off to find our own corners of the park to sleep in.

A few days after, the Ganpatpatil Nagar demolitions came around, and I jumped right in. I took that midnight train with the GP people to document the destruction of their homes and was the only sympathetic media presence in a slum of some 15,000 or 20,000 people situated some four kilometres from the Dahisar station, unfortunately, on several acres of prime land along a major link road. Irshad was sent on behalf of the Andolan to coordinate the people of GP to protest the demolition and organize peaceful resistance.

It felt like a war march, walking from CST to Churchgate Station in the middle of the night, I with my equipment, Irshad and the dozen or so Ganpatpatil Nagar residents who had come to Azad Maidan to apprise Medha tai of the situation and seek her help. I don’t remember having ever walked anywhere with the sense of purpose that I did that night. We managed to catch the last train taking us to Dahisar. On the train, the GP people began talking and joking and being regular like the mood had changed, or at least evolved in the whimsical, adaptive way that I was soon to learn is the essence of human nature under the strain of survival. Everyone was nodding off; it was maybe 2AM by the time we got there. Maybe I did too, it was becoming surreal, and I looked at Irshad and said, in English, ‘I feel far from the revolution’, he smiled and nodded, ‘Yes’.

I saw a lot of him in the next few months- the GP drama went on for maybe 2 or 3 weeks and we each had our parts to play, if mine oblique.  After that however, he invited me over to Antop Hill where he is based, and where he works with Shafi Law. Shafi Bhai is about 35, married with a small child, and was disappointed when I couldn’t remember him by face- we must have met in Azad Maidan. He’s a lawyer that operates out a small room in a slum, and his clients generally can’t afford to pay him for what he does. Last time I met him he was very embarrassed about his 10,000 rupees Nokia and felt the need to explain that it had been a gift from one of his slightly wealthier clients. He’s associated with Medha Tai’s organization Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao and his work consists of obtaining Ration Cards (I saw bundles of them arrive), settling police brutality complaints, land grabs and a million other things I’m too ignorant to understand. Irshad is his right hand guy. Irshad is the guy who delivers notices, paperwork and ferries information and communiqués between the courts, police, Shafi and Ghar Bachao.

This is Mumbai we’re talking about, where making one trip on the railways or buses with some 7 million others drains me, and Irshad does it all day long, every day. I remember returning to their little office after one such trip and Irshad collapsing in his plastic chair and declaring that they really needed to get a bike or some other method of transport.

They don’t really get paid for what they do. I don’t think they even get the appreciation they deserve from the people they help- it’s a very strange thing that I’ve found that if you help someone in need, well, it turns out that you were actually supposed to and that’s about that. But that’s not how they think. Once Irshad told me that because he’s managed to get the education he has, he has a responsibility to give back. It’s funny to hear him say something like that when I can’t get my heart past the debt society seems to owe me. In fact it is the logic that drives, my fundamental understanding of my function in this world- to take what is mine, rather than give of what has been given to me, which is foreign to me and so strange that I mention it here at the risk of sounding ridiculous.

Sometimes, when I was traveling with Irshad, when I was really exhausted or worn out, I would defer all sociality and speak to him in English, which he grasped more than enough of to know exactly what I was saying. He was really tickled when he asked me why I had it in for the government, and I said, I lived out of the country my whole life- a second rate life with no place of my own and withstood all that, but ‘this is my fucking country’. He said I had put it well and laughed.

Irshad, second from front left
Irshad, second from front left

It wouldn’t quite do to say that I must have disappointed them. I left a year ago, almost to the day; I was going home after a very long time. There, I found my own occupations, and while not a day passed when my thoughts did not fly to the people I had met, I did nothing about it, not even the things that I’d promised. I never told their story, or the things that I had witnessed- selflessness in the face of uncertainty, in today’s world, that shook the core of me. But far from their daily grind, our realities diverged, and I rediscovered older, more personal things to dissolve my time in, with results that were of consequence to me and that made sense to me and I could understand.

I am hesitant to contact them again, almost afraid that they’re still doing what they were when I left them, it is far too much to expect of anyone mortal and plain. But I have no doubt either, and it disturbs me. It is only minutes until I have to entertain my next engagement, and soon I will be lost in other thoughts, easier ones that also pay well and shrunk would be the observation that, once, in my own understanding, I had rushed to their defense. That was the idea, but they rushed first to mine, it was a favor I did not repay.

No one ever quite calls me like he used to, Irshad, in his low, spaced voice talking from the foot of the earth like his words had wings, ‘Reza come by the office today, there’s something we want you to see’


2 thoughts on “White Lines, Grey Lines. Case Study: Irshad Ali and Shafi Law

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