In Living Memory, Ganpatpatil Nagar, Thoughts from a Nation in Flux, Peril

9 Jan – Ganpatpatil Nagar

A thin fire is the only light in the long alley, otherwise dark except for a narrow sliver of light shining out of the uneven skirting of Sangita’s rough, shapeless door- it cuts a strange beam across the kacchi gully in the light winter mist, resting, diffused, as a narrow strip of colour on the blue tin wall of the shack opposite to her’s. I put my equipment in her house and join the people at the fire. It is Irshad and Sangita and a few other residents from the same gully, number 7- we are in Ganpatpatil Nagar.

My breath fogs in the air; it wasn’t as cold at the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan in Azad Maidan where we’re coming from, some 40 kilometers south though we’re in the same city. The mist surprises me, but shouldn’t- we are, after all from a legal and technical point of view in the wilderness, and this slum that is home to over 20,000 people should not exist, a sentiment that shall, in large part, be brought to realization a few hours from now- courtesy of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the 14 bulldozers and the 2000 cops I hear they are sending. Medha Patkar is working on obtaining a stay order from the BMC, she’s meeting them at 11 AM. The demolition should start at around 9. It’s up to the people to hold them off for those two hours.

Sangita’s shack is large sheets of tin held together by rope and bamboo and it can barely hold the lot of us. It is I and Irshad plus those that already sleep here- Sangita, Seema, Sangita’s infant daughter and Ravi. Seema is to be married and sent off to Pune in a few days, I’d joke about it with her for months. I’m shivering in my leather jacket on a thin chatai next to Irshad, who seems impervious to the cold; when I wake up someone has put another sheet on me. It was Ravi, Sangita’s brother; I’d hear him say as much to someone in a month or so, recounting my ‘humanity’ and ‘sacrifice’ to those present. Never trust people that say good things about you, seldom do they mean well. It’s 6 AM, I assemble my gear and am ready to shoot in 30 seconds. Seema is amused, insists I have tea first; Irshad is out talking to some of the men- instructions. ‘But your homes are about to be destroyed,’ I think, confused. ‘Yeah, yeah, but you can’t get through the day on an empty stomach.’ Probably, I can, but I oblige. Soon Wakil Bhai will take the both of us to his shack, a more defined place that he runs a cement business out of, where he’s had breakfast prepared for us. Samosas.

Mere hours before the bulldozers arrive, I am being led on a tour of blocks and blocks of shacks and shops running across all the gullys (there are 14) that won’t be there come evening time. The official word from the BMC is that the slum has been built on designated mangrove area, protected under law from all encroachment- Ganpatpatil Nagar is something like a 2 kilometer stretch, some 1 kilometer in width, which lies between a major link road and a vanishing sprawl of mangroves where they’ve built a mall and other, municipality sanctioned ‘pakka’ structures that the BMC finds no problems with. The land value of Ganpatpatil Nagar would be in the billions by any estimation. They’ve drawn an imaginary line extending 30 feet inwards from the outer edge running through the whole slum. This will be the demolition zone. Within a month, that line would be extended until the road, and there would be no slum. At least that was the plan.

6 Feb – Ganpatpatil Nagar

Sangita steps through the door, automatically in the space of a few minutes, the attendance of a meeting begins to arrive. Or so I think. As usual, nobody is talking about anything, but I have determined a few things. A new door has been installed, Ravi probably did it, and a sofa moved into Sangita’s house. I fail to see the reason, whatever talk there is centered on the technical assemblage of the door. Later a carpenter will come along and put an estimate on fixing the three-seater at around 10,000 rupees. It’s the foam and the fabric you see, it’ll have to be replaced, and the woodwork attended to also.

The slum is being demolished again, a small portion around a week later. No one seems perturbed, but I am nowhere near the scene of proposed destruction. Sangita alone seems preoccupied, her daughter idling on her lap. Everyone else continues small talk. The girl is also silent, I don’t know her name but I photographed her a little over a week ago standing over the tarped up remains of her family shack in one of the gullys I’m not familiar with. She was smiling when I asked her. All of this is routine. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing unexpected.

A majority of the shacks that were destroyed have already been rebuilt, or are in the process of reconstruction depending on the financial situation of the owner. Yes, they are the owners- it takes 1.5 lakh rupees for the tin, bamboo and rigging on top of the price they’ve paid for the land. Reconstruction has not been possible where the BMC has dug deep trenches, levelling the land is expensive work and would fall on the individuals residing on those patches instead of the community, as it had done at the beginning, when the area had been marshes and the first squatters had moved in, tilling the earth, levelling it to a standard and building their shacks upon it- work that would’ve cost millions to any developer that would undertake it, which is why they didn’t, and their interest only wanders in now when a large part of making the land habitable has already been done.

A couple of women walk in, Sangita greets them and begins to talks shop. They seem to be volunteers of some kind from their community whatever that may be, but they don’t look it. No one looks anything. Seeing has nothing to do with believing. These women may or may not actually be talking to Sangita about a cooking job. I don’t know what anyone is really here for. The meeting, while thoroughly expected, has yet to materialize.

A baby sleeps on a chatai on the floor. Sangita’s 3 year old plays in front of a framed portrait of BR Ambedkar, the larger of two framed in the shack.

The girl’s name is Namrita. She’s calling numbers to attend the meeting, dialling from a list on a record book. Beside me, they talk about me. It’s good things so I don’t pay attention, all I’ve been doing for them so far is turning up, and they think me worthy for it. In a year, all that my work on them will produce is a handful of likes on Facebook.

The disgusting man is sitting next to me on the sofa. 10 days ago on Republic Day, when the police had sent spies that used their mobile phones to record the public talks the people here were having with Medha Patkar, one had been, for lack of a better word, captured, and held in Sangita’s shack while they figured out who he was- along with all my stuff and all my stuff on them in my dirty messenger bag under the television. The ‘disgusting man’ had been the only one to make the connection and had excused himself from the most crucial event in the history of the slum (when Medha Patkar shows up at your slum during a period of sustained demolitions, your slum is not going to be demolished anymore) and joined the lonely captive just to keep an eye on my equipment.

That day Patkar had called out to me, ‘Hey, Lucknowi! Take care of all that footage you’ve been shooting. It’s proof.’

‘Okay,’ but I didn’t believe it. Proof of what? I didn’t even understand half the things that I was recording. The who, that seemed to change every time I asked. The why, that would slip under my feet like treacherous ice when I’d try to put a finger on it. Every time I’d inch towards an understanding, the entire context would change. Like it had with Sital Mhatre.

Mhatre, a Congress corporator who had once risen to power having won the Ganpatpatil Nagar voting block, had shown up at Gully Number 1 on the day of the first demolition, spoken, and left before the bulldozers arrived. I had been inside, filming the organization of resistance (the same that would break in about 2 seconds once the laathi charge began), so I had not seen or heard her. I asked around, what had she said? There were two answers- she had protested the demolition of the slum, or, she had spoken to the police official in charge after a personal assessment of the situation and had given the go-ahead for the same.

A few days after that she went on hunger strike at the nearby police station. Many were angry that I had not gone there to document it (I couldn’t go because the same cops that had arrested me for shooting without a press pass were probably on the lookout for me for making asses of them by the way of dealing out just enough misinformation that each officer thought I had explicit permission from the other). I got a phone call, the voice on the other end was seething, ‘Don’t you know Sital Mhatre is starving for us, don’t you care? All you want to see is the demolition, nothing else interests you people.’ I told him to go fuck himself and hung up, but for all the confusion it caused not having attended the fast, I almost wish I had gone, whatever trouble may have awaited me. Ravi would say that yes, Mhatre did go on hunger strike, but she did it for the BMC to continue with the demolition, as pausing midway to confront a contest of legality would probably evolve into talks and compromise, and people like Mhatre, who stand to gain a lot from making arrangements for allotting the slum land for redevelopment would not be able to keep their secret promises to builders.

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By 8 PM, the meeting has largely collected- just under 40 people crammed into the little shack, with many watching from the door. Sangita, head of the anti-demolition resistance, and chief communicator with Patkar’s camp, lists her good action, which would otherwise not be known. An attendance call of those present begins, nearly everybody is present. Someone raises the point of transparency in the usage of their contributions. She explains how it works and calls for donations. Wakil Bhai is the first to lay down something like a thousand rupees. Our eyes meet as hers travel across the room, she instantly looks away, my money is no good here.

8 Feb – Ganpatpatil Nagar

Another demolition, this time targeting the ‘pakki’ shops lining the Link road, the only concrete structures in the slum, keeping ‘cover’, according to a few locals, for the rest of the ‘kacchi’ structures- all 4000 of them. Several of the shops remain, benefiting from the temporary effects of a stay order acquisitioned individually by each shop owner for periods extending from 6 months to 10 years.

Sangita is in attendance of a Mahila Committee meeting in not so nearby Chembur, I’m at her house with Ravi, Naseem, Seema, my crazy informant that calls me late at night with usually irrelevant information, and a strange woman, in front of whom I don’t know if I, privy to certain things that Sangita would rather keep secret for now, can openly ask questions around. I’ve never seen her before. Ravi is fixing Sangita’s kid’s bike. I have to ask these questions. 2 bulldozers flanked by a substantial police force worked 4 hours from 10 in the morning to clear 100 structures. It seems to be bureaucracy, rule frenzy, since the negotiations for ratification of the slum under the Nagar Palika rules have already begun. Once Ganpatpatil Nagar is officially declared a slum, its residents will be applicable for various schemes for protection and relocation by the government.  Naseem says Sital Mhatre sat on her ‘anshan’ to get rid of undocumented structures- I’m too tired to care. As I wait for Sangita, I’m filled in. Acting on information from ‘dalals’ (agents), bent cops collect up to 3000 rupees for every structure under reconstruction. Today, far from the bulldozers, some cops on foot personally destroyed a shack being rebuilt by owners who hadn’t paid them. I suppose they did it with their laathis.

Medha Patkar attends a public forum in Ganpatpatil Nagar

Medha Patkar attends a public forum in Ganpatpatil Nagar

The stay order obtained by Sangita, valid for the whole slum (excluding 30 feet from the road) for 6 months, which is the duration of all intended activism for GP, has not yet come into application. In fact I was not aware of its existence until just now- things move fast here, and for all the things people tell you, they tend to forget about the much larger ones. The order was brought in through Medha Patkar earlier this week. Today’s demolition seems to be a desire by the BMC to project a sense of officiality, jurisdiction and continuity with the ongoing demolition drive. It’s only political, but these people live here.

The lady in the corner turns out to be a woman here to get a divorce. This, her second husband, a drunk with a predilection towards pulling disappearance acts, beats her. Her first husband is dead. She is carrying a bag around with her clothes in it. Is she staying here, at Sangita’s? I’ll know if I see her again.

They wait till everyone has left, then shut the door, assigning someone at the door. Inner circle stuff, too many ‘dalals’ to sabotage information into misinformation before it can be used- Sangita produces a map printed on a large sheet like it’s the new testament- it’s an old map of the slum, clearly marking the ‘khadi’ (or slum) area at a sufficient distance from the designated mangroves to satisfy the Nagar Palika- the slum does not encroach upon the protected marshes- there is no legal justification for its demolition.

Late Feb – Ambeywadi

I’m walking with Irshad in Ambeywadi, Antop Hill, the slum he works out of. Where Ganpatpatil Nagar is dusty earthen gullys and tin shacks, Ambeywadi is concrete rooms and badly made, but ‘pakki’ roads. Some structures here are two, three floors high. They have electric poles wiring extending to every house and shop. Irshad tell me that one side of this street we’re walking on even has plumbing. Very suddenly it strikes me that this is what Ganpatpatil Nagar will look like in 5 years. And in 10 or 15, it probably won’t be much unlike Chembur where I live- quiet, open residential streets intertwined with crowded, narrow commercial gullys, dotted frequently with high rises and public spaces- parks, pools and little squares.

This is what I couldn’t grasp in Azad Maidan, three months ago. I could hear them complain about their problems, but I didn’t know what they were; I could hear them talk about the future, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be. This. At Azad Maidan, thronged by thousands eager for their place in the city, making awkward small talk with Anand Patwardhan was the only time I thought I was spending right, but hope is infectious, and if I have not caught theirs at least I know what it looks like.

March 2013 – Andheri, Ganpatpatil Nagar

Irshad is going to ask me, what changed your opinion of Sangita? I’ll tell him like that was where I drew the line, ‘I think she has ambitions in politics.’ When I had listened to her, it was a dark, pitch black cold night when we huddled around the fire the night before the Republic day flag hoist, when Medha Patkar would visit the slum for the first time. She spoke of the struggles her people had faced getting to this moment. I knew them, I had seen them, I knew what she was saying was right. When Patkar would come, everything would work out, it was the beginning of the end of a very long journey. ‘I’m not going to change,’ she said, referring to what she was wearing, something plain, worn- characteristic of her. The dancing light of the fire played shadows across her face, and I thought for a minute as she sat in silence that I could see the unyielding greatness that must have carried in her blood from ages past, when we fought and died for freedom and dignity, concepts we care little for having once achieved them. In the morning the door to her shack was shut. I wondered what was going on- she emerged later, wearing a beautiful white sari. ‘Something very small,’ a friend would remark when I related the incident bitterly, smoking imported tobacco in a cushy 7 Bungalow flat some days later, languishing after a stroll on nearby Versova beach. But I’d been betrayed.

10 Jan – Ganpatpatil Nagar

K,

You had asked me to detail a profound experience I’d had on my travels- I was unwilling to say it then, afraid that meaning would be lost in the semblance of words, and I’d deliver it wrong, or you’d take something from it that I didn’t receive, something that wasn’t mine to give. Or I would remember it wrong, and putting it down in words, the actual moment would be lost to me forever. I’ll tell you now though, I think I can.

Towards the evening, the police had largely left, as had the bulldozers that had razed about a fifth of Ganpatpatil Nagar, a slum near Dahisar and Borivali, home to some 20,000 people. I was moving freely now, unconstricted with having to remain out of sight from the cops who had arrested me earlier the same day only to see me return under false pretexts. That was their fault as the true pretext of my attendance they found did not work for them- I was, after all, pretending to be a purveyor of truth. Did just turning up make me one? Does writing about it all this time later, when it is difficult for me to imagine it being any help to anyone that could have required it then make me one now?

My face was dry, it seems; I had been running around from early morning, recording incoherent pleas of protest, outrage and indignation. People were dragging me around to show me how they were living. They knew they had it wrong. This was a revelation to me. They’ve come from somewhere places of their own and have their own dreams, their own perceptions of themselves, their function; lives they want. They showed me their people, their temples of worship. They were in jeopardy. The bulldozers were coming. This was a final recording, after it the subjects would cease to exist and the people would move, but no one knew where.

It is hard to feel kindly toward the better off of them, as you would envy the rich their comfort, the same existed of the security some of them had, and I could feel a twinge of it, when I’d come across someone who was under the shadow of no uncertainty whatsoever. As for the others, well as I walked amid the rubble of the remains of some 1400 shacks, I came across a boy in a school uniform and bag with a strange smile on his face- he was wandering on a small hill of tin sheets and broken, dangerous wood where his shack had been. Someone pointed at him and said, ‘Look at him, he got back from school hours ago, he doesn’t know where to put his bag.’

In gully no. 6, trying to get to no. 7 where my base was, where my leather jacket was (from the cold night before), I looked for a passage into the adjoining gully. A man stopped me, and asked he something, he must have asked me the news. I must have told him, I don’t remember, and I don’t remember why he stopped me. He was a magnificent fellow, ugly as a tree in a dirty loongi and an awful, torn vest. He was big and round, dark as ebony and had two copper plated teeth. His voice was like the voice of God.

He said I’d been working very hard. I must’ve been at it for 11 hours, so I took a moment to listen. He asked me to sit down and yelled at a child to bring out a chair for me from one of the shacks. A few other people just stood around, at a comfortable distance, perfectly still. The man repeated, aaj bahut mehnat ki hai. He had been watching me on my feet since morning, and he told me. Did he say, ‘Esne bahut kiya hai hamare liye’, or did someone else say that. I’ve heard it said a lot of me now, but it isn’t true, but I never correct it. I have done nothing, been around a lot, but achieved nothing. Nothing I saw was written, no picture I took was sent out anywhere, no video was uploaded online. I did nothing. I have done nothing now still. I might. I don’t know what to do. I waited for the milk, he gave me water first since I had asked for water when he offered me milk, thinking him a poor man to have him part with milk. I drank- I wasn’t tired, but I was dry. I must’ve been, I don’t remember. The man ran a dairy farm one gulley down, he told me. The people around us watched, said nothing. They were audience.

To continue the conversation, out of habit, I gestured east and responded to the acclamation of my efforts, ‘but what good did it do?’, and I let it be as though the words could make it that it could have, that I could have. My voice was breaking suddenly. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ He told the others gathered behind him that I had been at my work all day, and no one had offered me water to drink, or a meal. It wasn’t true, he didn’t know it (we had actually broken for a surreal mid-day meal during the demolition), but I said nothing. I was too hard at work holding back my emotions. It may be ridiculous but it’s true.

The boy (was it a boy?) brought out the milk in a steel glass. I nodded politely at the man, the heavy, ridiculous looking man- I thought I’d never see him again but I did. I was heavy from the painful, troubling day that was just beginning to end for me, the least of all my worries. The milk was warm. It was mild and rich and full, with living cream floating in thick strands through the length of the glass. It was the best milk I can remember having ever had.

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