‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a writer’
1. I’m trying to keep up but A is moving quickly. Already L had been shed from our company, lost somewhere in the bazaar behind us. It’s my turn I guess, but I’m not quite done. I catch up to him, walking briskly beside him while I try to assimilate the sentence that will get me what I want. I want two things, I want my goddamn story and I want my goddamn flip flops.
Which A is wearing. I’m wearing his- a somewhat expensive looking foreign thing all black leather and cushy and a bit too cushy for my feet. I’m not sure A is even aware I’m beside him until he speaks over his shoulder, all matter of fact-like without breaking pace, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’
Glancing at his feet, I weigh my options. It’s unlikely I’ll get both, and I’m not going to try his patience now- he’s on his way to the Holy Family clinic to see his girlfriend, she overdosed a couple of days ago and will probably raise hell if he doesn’t show up now that she’s okay. Damn. ‘Remember, I need to meet your nephew, the street racer? I want to do a story on him’
A is stumbling around the busy intersection, hanging on to the roofs of autorickshaws as he peers inside each looking for one without a passenger. If he gets hit by one, I’ll take what’s mine and he can have what’s his and that shall be the end of that. Fuck the story. But he probably won’t. Too many people know him here. Too many people fear him. The guy has clout- enough that his awkwardly bent frame shuffling furiously through the crowded market street with a head full of opiates demands no consternation, not a second look from anyone. They’ve seen the gold chains, they’ve seen the expensive watch. They know him as ‘seth’ here- boss. No, he’ll be fine. I’ll have to think of something else.
‘Meet with L and give me a call in the evening, you can meet my nephew then.’
I say nothing, and taking one last look at his feet, I turn around and head back. He’ll find an auto eventually and take it to the girlfriend. He kept referring to her as the girlfriend , the female.
When I’ll call him at around 8 that night, he’ll be with her, still obstinate and still high, and his voice still like jagged stone- just like I had left him, and I shall know that nothing that I had felt earlier had been an exaggeration or a play of memory. The fear, the danger had been real. I had spent the morning with the wolf, and I was not yet done. He still had my story. He still had my flip flops.
‘Who the fuck is going to read your magazine?’
2. It was about 10:30 in the morning, L had asked me to come in and meet A, whom he had introduced as a guy that was starting a rehab clinic. I had been interested in the process and had set up a meet with him at L’s place- a rundown hovel of a room in one of the side gullys of the main market without water or electricity and a filthy mattress for a bed surrounded by strange trash that I couldn’t guess the purpose of if I tried. L had showed me the place a few days ago- pointing at the door he’d said that A had donated it a year or so back, and he’d made do with a curtain for the last 22 odd years. L thinks very highly of A, he thinks of him as a brother. But then L thinks very highly of me, and thinks I have been sent by God, because we had ended up talking once in the back lot of a nearby church, a place he hadn’t been for 15 years. He took that as a sign, even though I’d really only asked him if he knew a quiet place we could sit and smoke. I had been interviewing him for a small story-he had seemed to be an interesting character. ‘I really like you,’ he had told me at our first meeting, ‘if you ever need any help… if you ever need someone killed…’ His eyes had trailed off and the quick, excited smile that played on his lips when he would have a generous thought faded, ‘Yeah, I’ve been looking for a job these days,’ he’d said, the creases on his face returning until his face was quite lost in the intersecting folds of skin that seemed to lay the geography of his difficult life. L is 60, looks 30, and is insane; but he’s a nice fellow. But I won’t get into the things he told me about himself, or even the things that I understood because this is not his story. This is mine.
It was bad politics to hang out with L- I’d been told (and he’d told me as much) that he’d been in jail a couple of times, most recently for slashing a man’s stomach with a thermocol cutter. L is kind of an interior designer. The bazaar is a close-knit community where word travels fast. But he’d seemed interesting and I figured it was worth the damage. When he started speaking of A, I thought I’d hit a new break, found a greater perspective to the story. And yeah, I guess I did.
Right on time, I found my way to L’s door; it was open and the curtain that was usually drawn in the doorframe was pulled backwards and swung over the door to let the breeze in. I found the two of them sitting cross legged on the mattress with L holding up a thin folded sheet of aluminum and running a wax match under a fat drop of brown sugar that A was chasing with a small chillum fashioned out of a playing card. So much for the rehab clinic, I thought as I took a seat beside them.
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a writer’
I lit a cigarette as I watched them continue, absolutely unabated by my presence or that of the chai walla that brought me a cup of tea on L’s insistence, or the few that paused in the door and looked in or the many that did not. A asked if I was a teetotaler when I declined his offer to have L bring some whiskey for me. Before the shock wore off, A explained what a teetotaler was and I mutely agreed. A would demonstrate his literacy and acumen several times in the next three hours. He recommended the novel ‘Valley of Dolls’ and spoke at length of an old de Palma film I had not seen. As he dived into the heroin again, I asked him if he was aware of Killer Joe, attributing it incorrectly to de Palma. He was. Great movie.
He had a thick gold chain around his neck and a couple of bracelets, also gold, also heavy, on his right wrist. He wore a beautiful watch on his other wrist that he told me was worth a small fortune. Its pale metal gleamed dangerously in the hole of a room we were sitting in. I wondered what a man of his stature was doing in a place like that. He began to tell me of a film script he’d been approached to write but refused to because the money wasn’t enough. I said sometimes you’ve got to take what you get. He said he didn’t need it. Said I didn’t know who he was, at which point L introduced him. Yes, I would say he was a big shot gangster. But I would say that he was a big shot gangster. He was in construction now- screaming at people on the phone, promising to hang them from the roof of his office. I made note to myself- Never go to his office. His ringtone was the cry of gulls.
I looked him in the eye, the casual slits he was talking from shining eerily in the light of the single candle L had set up on a plastic bottle for some reason. The glint made him look powerful. I wondered what he could do for me. I asked him if he would write an article on the state of the drug trade, that he had been a part of back in the day, in the city today. He said he wanted to co-author a book with me about the rise of the drug trade in Bombay from the 1950’s until today- naming names, all that. I said that sounded dangerous. He said if I put his name on it, no one would come after me, no one would kill me. I said I wasn’t willing to bet my life on that. And I was too busy with my magazine.
‘How many people do you think would read your magazine?’
Yeah, I know. He said he knew a publisher in Dubai that would buy the manuscript guaranteed for a crore. It was a story that would sell, and I knew it. We’d split the money even. I said I wasn’t ready for such a big commitment, especially on such a dangerous subject.
‘How much are you going to sell your magazine for?’
Nothing. It’ll be free. There’ll be a page at the back with information on how to donate.
‘How much does a printing press cost?’
‘I can put up that money for you’
‘I’ll give… lend… you this book called Acropolis, by Julius Caesar. “You too Brutus!” Kya line hai!’
L pitched in, taking his turn on the foil with the heroin.
‘If-you-stick-by-this-man-he-will-help-you,’ he droned, his voice shaking tersely, strangely elongated from the smoke he was inhaling even as he spoke.
I am Faust, about to make a deal with the devil? No.
‘You’re not an optimist,’ I pointed out, coming back to the magazine.
In his voice like gravel he spoke with an intelligence that frightened, intrigued me, ‘I believe that black is black and white is white’
What I saw was a 50 year old man sitting in baggy boxer shorts and a pink shirt smoking cheap heroin with a junkie in a slummy room surrounded by trash. Yes, I’d be in his 2 million dollar flat (next to his other 2 million dollar flat) in an exclusive part of town the next day, hoping to meet his nephew, the real story, the feature story for my magazine. But he’d be wearing the same clothes. Actually so would I and it was only L who had seemed to have changed his shirt into a white t-shirt with a large black screw printed on it under the word ‘WANNA’ in bold. I’d also get my flip flops back, but just barely.
He pressed me on the book, said it would be my ticket. He was right, but I wasn’t interested. It was pissing him off that I wouldn’t see reason. I told him he was a businessman, I an artist, we have a fundamental difference in perspective. But then I wondered, why was I there? If I never wanted to meet the likes of him what kept me there on that damp, disgusting mattress? Did I need him? We exist in different worlds- he, of actions and consequences- routine and I, of chaos, medley, a very pleasant and very comfortable and very generous kind of madness, where I do nothing and prosper, where I commit grave action and mistakes to no consequence. I could not say to him, to his face and mine, ‘Who you are looking for to write this book is a man, not a boy.’ Too big too fast- the way things can work sometimes in this city, but I will not yield to just any tide.
He’d been on and off the phone with his girlfriend a few times. ‘Kaun hai abhi tumhare saath?’ He got up suddenly and made to leave, in a rush putting on my flip flops instead of his slippers, and was out before I realized he wasn’t coming back.
L and I raced after him, I needed my appointment and footwear and L, I don’t think L knew what he was doing at this point. As I caught up to A, I realized he looked dofferent. In the market, in the bright light of day, this dominating, serious man had been reduced to a worn out shell struggling through the crowd. In his boxers and pink shirt, he looked pathetic and weak- a hunched, beat figure squinting in the sun. Where was the ‘seth’ now? Where was the snake eyed man that had frightened me?
It wasn’t until I called him later that day, imagining the wistful serenity of his ringtone as the bell rang, and spoke to him that I was reminded of the gravity of my situation. It was real. It returned. Did A carry his strength in his voice?
Suddenly I was very weary, and wanted nothing more to do with L or A or his nephew. I wanted the moment to pass and leave no refrain. Nothing. I had to set the alarm for 8:30 when A had said he’d meet me at L’s, but I didn’t want to associate that hour with him. In the morning I was 4 hours late, but I don’t think he noticed.
And what about my magazine? The one no one will read and I’ll give out for free?
The one with news but not hard news. The one with writing but nothing that would put me in harm’s way.
Won’t I need a graphic designer?
I don’t know. I can hear him taunt me, and he’s right. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
Hatred is an institution. We’re all playing catch up.
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.
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.
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
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.
He stood behind us as N. tried to teach me roulette or whatever it was in the same way that he tried to teach me the bus routes or anything- mumbling endlessly to hear his own voice. I despised him completely, but maybe I didn’t know it then. He watched the screen as N. played, clearly, or not so clearly he was waiting for the low stakes unit to be free so he could use it. N. would walk away at times to see the television thing or something and I would slide in so the seat was saved for us. The man stood there for a very long time, 10 or 15 minutes right behind us without any inclination to communicate. It was interesting. Somehow he got to speaking, I forgot how. I think he made a recommendation to N. and they got to talking from there. He warned me against gambling, said he’d been at it for 12 years, or was it 14, and said it leads nowhere. I asked him why he did it, he said he came when he had nothing to do, and was there most nights. Well dressed Eastern European with a Muslim finish- Albanian, Bosnian, he must be, I thought. There was too much in London for me to wonder what he did, if I did I do not remember. I told him I had no interest in gambling, was only accompanying N. because it was 2, 3 maybe 4 am and what else was I supposed to do.
An oriental girl massaged some guy’s neck on the corner machine for a pound a minute. I was staring at the television where the roulette wheel was streaming live from the floor on the ground level. Or something, I don’t remember what I was watching but I was watching intently. Something hit the back of my head. What the fuck? I look around, there’s a pen on the ground beside me. The Albanian is waving a hand a couple of rows behind me- it was him. He had wanted to break my concentration he thought I was being drawn into the game. Or maybe he just couldn’t see the screen. I moved away.
Hours later, I am bored and I’ve just had a cigarette on the little balcony overlooking a minute portion of the bustling night. I’m looking to write, I think it’s a good time to. I find a sofa with a guy sleeping in one corner, I take the other side and settle down with my book and find my pen. The Albanian guy is coming up the stairs, he spots me and says hello. I’m ready for some conversation and I depend on people to sense that and I guess he does; he looks exhausted- an hour or so later he’ll ask me how old I think he is I am 3 years off but that’s his weariness I was accounting for. We talk, I don’t remember what, what I do comes up. I tell him I’m a photojournalist, I’ve been telling everyone that. He doesn’t discount it. He makes me an offer. He has a story he says, and he’ll tell it to me in full, God knows we have time, if I can tell where he’s from. Bosnia, I’m wrong. I know he’s not Albanian. He gives me 3 chances. Says he knows instantly where I’m from, I feel fucked and know if I don’t get it right I’m not getting what I guess I was brought here for. Serbia. It’s the same thing you know, he says, Bosnia, Serbia. Why, how do I think he’s from Bosnia? Semiotext(e)? Why? I just do, I’m usually never wrong, and never with South East Asians. I tell him I’m from the wrong part of the world to be able to tell him where he’s from. I wonder, today, months later, if he was going to tell me the story he told me had I not made it out. He gave me a clue, he was Muslim- Algeria, I said, he said yes, I said no and he showed me id. It said Algeria. I couldn’t believe it and couldn’t have guessed it. I was eager to hear the story- this is what he told me.
When he was 18 he faked some papers and joined the Algerian police against his father’s wishes, I think he said it paid well. This was the late 80’s. The Islamic party had been elected unexpectedly. The country was still reeling from the French, who had fucked them and slaughtered them and the people wanted to get as far away as possible now. A civil war kicked off and people were killing people again. His unit would dress up as Mujahideen and slaughter villagers and outskirts people to inspire hatred towards the Islamic party, it must have worked. He said it got real bad. ‘Brother killing brother’, made real how he said it. A country fighting to become what it wanted to.They found out and started killing police. All government workers- teachers, politicians, whatever. They started killing off his unit. Three attempts on his life, they tried to kill him but couldn’t somehow and he left. I don’t remember the details, did someone try once to slit his throat. I think someone shot that man. I don’t remember. I think it was a boy. Another attempt had two cars full of armed men raining bullets on his car.
I think he left his family behind. He never admitted to killing anyone himself, or being involved in the dressed up in disguise killings he was telling me about. He moved to London without a thing and he’s an accountant or something now. Won 60 grand at the casino once. Or was it 30? He said they start watching you if you go over 40, and then they want you to leave and they’ll kill you on your way home if you don’t. It’s a mafia business, he said. He told me his name. I’ve forgotten that too. I only met him once, and all the things he told me are lost to the world now, through me. But all that remains is sacred, because it happened. He said his friends who were there were having a meal and some French guy, 20, came in and everyone was wild and the French guy kept saying ‘but I had nothing to do with it’.
But that’s not the point. I faltered, and no irreparable harm was done, and no amount of Baba O’Riley can bring back the moment lost into nothingness, my careful signing hand, too busy to choose- I refused it then and it left. ‘No take it with you’. Last cigarette to remember it by, but it’s borrowed; the 24 hour pharmacy does not sell them downstairs, but they sell chocolate. All wrapped up like a shiny pretty thing, all dolls. But not that thing I like. And the fear I felt in the afternoon when I was thinking, that’s also gone, gone too and I’m safe here, for now because no one’s been asking me to leave. When I do leave I’ll have to leave without it, his story, so many stories because I’ve lost them- I was a witness and I’ve moved on. Now one lone mosquito stirs the air in this room and is my only concern. I don’t remember what happened in Algeria or how it affected me. I don’t remember the names of the people or the political parties and hardly recall anyone’s motivations and who got killed and who nearly got killed or how- though someone told me, I’ve forgotten. I keep these things as I keep air. I keep many things as I keep air, not the least of all many other people. What was his name? Come on Baba O’Riley, tell me his name too. I just don’t remember.
I saw his son before I ever met him, Shaukat Sheikh, Irshad was making some phone calls in and NGO office and I saw the MISSING poster on the desk, held it out against him and took some photos. We were at Ambojwadi, embroiled in Ganpatpatil Nagar, far, far, far from other concerns.
The second time I ran into Shaukat, I was smoking a cigarette outside Irshad and Shafi Law’s office in Antop Hill, I don’t recall why I was there- it was becoming a bit tiresome when they’d call me all the way out for 5 minutes of information and I’d end up staying the entire day.
I recognized him immediately, even in the dark gulley. His tall, emaciated frame and that hawkish face; those alert, shining eyes. I’d photographed him at his home a few weeks ago in Golibar, Santacruz to cover the disappearance of his son in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) fraud.
Shaukat was passed over for relocation when his area was allocated for redevelopment by a building agency, Shivalik Ventures, on the basis of an SRA criteria that allows free housing to slum-dwellers that have resided in their respective area since 1995. However, several others that did not meet the criteria were allocated housing, a fact Shaukat attributes to forgery and corruption, instigated not by the residents, but the promoters of Shivalik’s agenda in the slum.
Amid threats to life and family, he launched a series of RTIs (Right to Information query) into the builder’s practice, and it was revealed that the promoters had added fictitious names to the list of beneficiaries which forced a re-evaluation of the list by the Vigilance Committee of the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority.
On August 1, 2012, Mohammad Sajid, Shaukat Sheikh ’s oldest son disappeared on the way back from coaching classes. It was his fifteenth birthday.
It took 2 months for the police to recognize the case as a kidnapping, though fouler play is suspected still. I remember asking Shaukat if he thought the investigations of the police, the formation of a special investigation team on the order of the High Court, could possibly result in the return of his son. He told me at this point he’d rather just know what had happened to him.
A mysterious phone number showed up in three of Sajid’s school books. Sajid didn’t have a mobile phone. None of his friends had mobile numbers. Was this a relevant fact? The police refused to investigate the number, highly unusual given the context. Shaukat’s own digging revealed little.
There, in Antop Hill, he was visiting Shafi and Irshad to tell them of his court hearing the next day, where he expected the judge to put a deadline to the stagnant police investigation. He asked me if I could make it to the High Court the next day, I promised I would.
Shaukat is a simple person, who smiles kindly at jest. His lawyer, Wesley, a pro bono Human Rights guy, is joking with him, trying to work off his nerves before they enter the courtroom. He tells us all to turn our phones off; he asks me to button my collar, as it would be more formal. I oblige. He tells them not to speak, and let him handle it with the judge. I strike a conversation with his assistant, a dreamy eyed law school undergraduate. We’ll talk about noodle wrapped chicken at Mohammad Ali road. We enter.
This is a maritime courtroom, I just climbed onto a deck. Other than the light streaming in from the high windows on the upper level, the large room is lit simply by overhead lamps hanging from the clean, painted aluminum ceiling. Some cops stand around, they all wear shoes of the same ugly tan orange leather. There is the spirit of assembly, we’re all waiting for the judge to arrive; Shaukat is sitting a few spaces to my left on one of three benches on the dock, his wife to my side and Wesley, the lawyer, hovers behind him reviewing his notes.
The stacks of paper the court clerks handle on the long desk are voluminous. It appears to be pretend order, many steps to a dance of no tune. I’ve seen it in other government offices- stacks of damp, age old documents decaying in towers- they look like they haven’t been touched since being put there, and it’s difficult to imagine they would serve any purpose in the condition that they are. Metric tonnes of never digitized records that no one can handle now without tearing from cover to cover at the slightest touch. It’s all information they never knew how to process anyway- funny how they always want more.
The judge enters, preceded by a couple of bailiffs in cute red turbans, and court begins.
About half an hour into it, Shaukat turns to me and signals ‘2’. His case number is 8, there appear to be 2 left. Before I know it, it’s time.
I thought he’d lost his nerve in front of the judge, a sharp faced, fair skinned man with perfect English and an authoritative voice, but really he seems to be working himself into a respectful, subdued insistence that works really well on the judge. The main conflict here with the defendant is the reluctance to acknowledge the case as a kidnapping. The judge gives the police a week to conclude their investigation and orders immediate police protection for Shaukat and his remaining family- a 24 hour 2 man detail. Shaukat’s wife’s phone goes off. It’s a half minute of terrifying nonchalance until she realizes it’s her’s and rushes out of the room, ushered by annoyed but sympathetic court clerks and cops.
The judge is inquiring the cause of the delay in the results of the investigation, the state appointed defendant isn’t being convincing.
Does Shaukat understand what’s going on? Wesley is beaming.
It’s done, we exit the courtroom. In the busy hall, we clutch a corner against a bannister, one of the many that seem to be holding the place up and huddle around Wesley as he explains the verdict, telling Shaukat about the protection detail and the deadline. Shaukat asks if they’ve recognized the case as a kidnapping. They haven’t. Wesley explains that the court will await the police report. Shaukat, no one present, has any faith in the police.
What’s that look on Shaukat’s face? A crumbling look. Placcant. Complicated. I’ve seen it before, at school when a child would be told what they could not do, without hope or the possibility of reasoning or dialogue. A worthless affront by a system that doesn’t care; it surprises and frightens me to see that as it was for us as children, it will be for us as men, led unquestioningly by a useless cavalcade of better dressed, better educated fools.
Shaukat stood up against oppression and they took his son away. He turned to the system for help, the system that had betrayed him in the first place and it did nothing. Now, years later, it appears that the court will grant Shaukat recognition for his persistence. Acknowledgment of his loss? No, not yet. And no justice either, perhaps never that.
I’m freezing on the ferry, all wrapped up like an eskimo; I won’t go inside. Ireland is coming, I’m dreaming.
I thought I’d make a short film in Belfast- about a group of middle-class Catholic boys that go on a bicycle trip and get lost in a Protestant neighbourhood on the eve of a riot. So I go to Belfast, the fare is cheap and the passage beautiful.
John walks me through the most fortified neighbourhood in the city, Short Strand- place looks like something from The Walking Dead- huge walls, barricades, CCTV- or, uhh, Finchley. I ask him why IRA dissidents (when the IRA got the boot in 1997 after the cease fire, it became the ‘Real IRA’ and the government became the new ‘IRA’ that now hunt the ‘dissidents’ from the ‘Real’ one) are tolerated in areas like this and he said because they have guns, and when things get bad, they bring them out and they’re needed.
I go to Belfast, it’s amazing. John keeps the photocopy of my ‘denial of entry’ as a souvenir. He takes me to a bar. A guy is getting drunk with his friends. Then we are friends, his name is Stephen. Mo chara! They have this funny thing in informal social settings in Belfast, they only ask your first name, I suppose it keeps things simple. I’m talking to Stephen about the ‘Troubles’, he tells me his mother used to work at the Europa Hotel, it got blown up when she was in it, a British soldier was helping her out, he, Catholic, rushed, or his brother did, and took his mother from the soldier because he didn’t want anyone to see her being helped by a Brit. He’s drunk and asks the bouncer to tell me stories about the IRA, the bouncer looks like he would know, and politely avoids the subject. The night is good and the place is too, but this could have gone badly. I make a note- be careful who those you talk to talk to.
At the bar they say, you don’t know what it’s like, you walk to the bus stop and get on the first bus. We’re worried about you, this is a terrible place to be curious. Someone offers me a job, I decline. Fool!
I get on the bus, I feel sick. Too many flags, too many names, abbreviations. This is 2012.
I’m learning how to look. It’s incredible, difficult. John says read the last paragraph.
‘They hold it in,’ she says gravely, matter of fact-like, looking me in the eye past my camera as the other two nod. ‘They prefer it to the shit they have to take from the bastards on the way to the (community) bathrooms. They’re too afraid and they don’t go,’ she says, talking about the girls in her slum. She’s in her 60’s, having moved to the city from god knows where with her family, she’s a resident of Ambojwadi, a vast slum frozen in various stages of development in North Mumbai.
I’d be there a few days later and take the 15 minute walk from the residential gulleys to the designated toilet area myself- it’s a large field with some scattered shrubs in the way of privacy and little else. Don’t forget your lota. I stood there after a night of bad Chinese, having slept on the floor of a small NGO office, and looked out in the haze, west towards the sea, fancying the facilities 2 miles yonder, off Madh Island on the exclusive Aksa beach.
The ladies notice the tear, the only betrayal of emotion, and I’m coughing too much to be recording anyway. It’s cold in the open here in Azad Maidan, my third night at Medha Patkar’s Andolan. I put my gear down and make to leave to find my place for the night. They ask me to visit them in the slum sometimes, I tell them I’ve been getting a lot of invitations but they say no, don’t go with the people you’ve been talking to we’ve seen you talking with, they’re thugs. They sense it’s been a rough day for me and invite me for a coffee to cheer me up.
Most of Mumbai grinds to a halt when the local trains stop at 1 AM, it’s now nearly 2. Outside the park, solely in the company of a van full of sleeping cops, I wait with them in the eerily quiet, empty city for a bicyclewalla to roll by, chiming his little horn.
The women are excited and it’s thrilling- they talk about everything and I feel like family. When the coffee guy does show up, he’s a little surprised when they women insist on paying for it but pours out the sugary drink in little white plastic cups from the steel box on the back of his bicycle with aplomb when they explain its their treat. He says something, something rich and large, but superficial and makes no sense. Maybe he was just lonely. We go back inside.
A guy in a cap, someone I’d spoken to earlier invites me to a person-wide space on the tarp he seems to have saved for me, it’s the only space left that I can see- there’s a lot of people sleeping in the park tonight. This guy is in a small group, some three men in their mid-thirties, awful and dirty but who isn’t? We make small talk, they inquire about my work, my gear, about the price of it- I quote them a third of what I’d paid, but here in the dark it still makes their eyes widen.
A guy, Javed whom I’d also interviewed, bedded a row down from me, catches my attention with a wave and comes near, ‘You want a coffee?’
Javed is one of the guys the women called a thug. He’s small but firm, and I had a very unpleasant experience with him a few hours ago when he took my East German Braun lighter and asked what I’d do if he didn’t return it to me.
‘Now? I’ve just had coffee’
‘Come on, it’s good coffee. It’ll keep you warm.’
I used to have this thing, something I’d say to myself every now and again like a fucking mantra- never say no. So I take my gear and join him.
We talk about weed. He tells me of the crazy shit they have in his area and invites me to visit to have my mind blown. We’re crossing the street towards the station, no cyclewallas now but Javed is confident we’ll find one on his return journey on the other side. In the 2 AM desolation, the city is vast and the broad lanes that were incredible with traffic just a few hours ago are deserted and wide in the pungent glow of the orange streetlights.
Javed crosses nimbly, jumping over the side railing on the street, where we wait behind some dividers which is normally a taxi stand. A couple of drunks join us, materializing out of nowhere. We all wait for the coffee guy.
Javed turns to me.
‘Those guys are gonna rob you tonight. That’s why I brought you here for a coffee, to warn you. Why do you think they offered you that space? What are you crazy, trusting just anyone?’
I knew he was right, I’d seen as much when they’d targeted a poor drunk sod in front of me, attempted to relieve him of a canvas bag he’d been carrying. I hadn’t thought anything of it then, which is insane in retrospect, but that’s how it was.
The cycle rolls by, we have more shitty coffee. We go back.
I return to my space, there’s no other. They welcome me back and adjust so I can be as comfortable as the situation allows. I settle down.
I turn to Javed in the distance in the dark; he nods, I nod back. I’ve caught it- the fear, the paranoia. Welcome to the jungle; trust no one and never sleep. I’m sitting next to the guy with the cap. He recommends I lie down, I don’t. I turn to Javed again, in the other row, I can’t tell him from the other bodies until he laughs, sniggers, smirks. It is acknowledged. I want to sleep. I need to. I want to sleep.
The fact that I’m on Microsoft Word here should apprise you of the gravity of the matter I’m writing to you about. I was in a hurry when I received your letter yesterday morning, and I apologize for the childish replies I did send you; 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 a free person, I haven’t been for years. The monkeys that were screaming on my back then are now just there and I’m too accustomed to their company to imagine 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.
I’ve become cynical? When I went home from Mumbai last year, I would hear the kids there talk about how they wanted to help people and their plans to- granted this, granted that. But I wondered, why would they want to?
There’s more that’s happened than I remember, and somewhere along the way, I found you can just wait for people to die and fuck off and it generally works. Children encrusted in ages old dirt that’ll never wash off their elbows and knees, their shins and forearms, their parents, 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. Still, a fear 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?
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.
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’
January, I’m leaving Azad Maidan and crossing the busy intersection that separates it from the CST terminal, making it halfway before a two-way wall of traffic forces me to take shelter on the divider. I guess I could have taken the underground walkway- being early in the year and still cool, I wouldn’t even have had to wade through the thick murky heat of the pressurised subway for the 2 minute walk to the station, but having spent most of last week working and sleeping among 10,000 odd people at a Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao relay fast, I’m not exactly adamant at the prospect of spending any more time than I have to in human company. Funny thing then that I’m about to board a local.
I get onto the cargo and goods compartment of a train heading to Kurla. I don’t see him get on, but this beautiful kid swings past me as the train pulls off and attaches himself to the handlebars at the door- he’s wearing a large, torn red jacket vivid in the bright yellow light of the winter sun. The morning is soothing, and the boy sailing at the door and his jacket billowing behind him make an image that can take me anywhere.
The men start bothering the kid, I think for a moment one must be his father but realize that he’s not. There’s suddenly a hint of concern, the same that accompanies a street animal in peril and little more. The sudden lapse of apathy is stifling, almost unnatural in this city- the kid feels it and leaves at Dadar, disappearing into the peak rush, forever lost from the hearts and minds of all present in that compartment. A dark old man tells me he was on something, I’d have thought glue but he said it was something they snorted. They, running around getting high and wandering the trains all day long. I thought he was someone’s son, and he had dust on his face and dirt clinging to his bare feet and legs like it wouldn’t ever come off. He was at ease though, on the open ledge, flying as the train did, and I really could see him go.
This post is a part of the #Vote4Children Blog-a-thon on Youth Ki Awaaz. Find out more at: http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/vote4children
Peering at the LCD, he congratulates me on the picture as he puts his shirt back on. I feel the familiar wave rise- oh, all y’all are too easily impressed. As he adjusts his collar, I catch sight of some discoloration on his neck, and suddenly it’s far too late to unsee the two slits that run across his throat. He smiles, a wide, satisfied smile with a twinge of something I can’t quite place, and says something to the guard standing behind him- we’re at a side entrance of the Bombay Presidency Golf Club. My eyes drop to the preview panel on my camera, I can’t believe I missed that. His body is a map of scars running like snakes in patterns too organized to have been a product of chance or accident. I look up, what the fuck is he still smiling about? He tells me his name. Rajesh. Ramesh. Raju. Come five minutes and I won’t remember. I take the guard aside, my mind flying to thoughts of maniacal gangland torture, some kind of incremental punitive measures ripped off all screwed and twisted from second-hand rumours of the East; there are, after all, a few hundred odd meters of roadside shacks lining the perimeter of the golf course and this is Mumbai. I ask the guard.
‘What did he say,’ he asks back, I don’t realize it’s a trap.
‘Too much alcohol,’ I reply.
‘Then that’s all you need to know’
A few weeks later, it’s around 2 AM and I’m returning from a December 6th B.R. Ambedkar service with a few gangster types (Jai Bhim!); one of them is trying to convince me that doing it with a homosexual doesn’t make you one too, since it’s ‘normal’ for the other guy. Not entirely sure how to counter the argument, I try to enjoy the chill night air and relax. The road is unlit and deserted; unrecognizable at this time, but my present company lays all fears to rest- I’ll be perfectly fine for the next half hour.
There’s a glow in the distance, at a bend. ‘They’re burning a body there,’ one of my companions points out. I realize I’m on the same road as before as we pass the entrance of the golf course. Not sure how to bring it up to the fellows, whom I suspect would probably know something about the guy I had photographed, I tell them about the last time I’d been on this road and I’d seen this guy with these scars…
‘Yeah, he does that to himself’
‘He does that to himself?’
I don’t even recognize him in this picture. Some gone boy… where did he find that face? I’ve adjusted the picture, made him gleam like a car. But that’s not the man I met that day, who’d taken off his shirt for a photograph that I didn’t know I was about to take. I don’t even remember his name.
I lost you son. I wonder where you are now if you’re even alive. But I guess in this city you can say that for a lot of people.