crime

Reflections: On Character

‘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?’

A lot.

‘I can put up that money for you’

Fuck 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.

Advertisements

Case Study: Shaukat Sheikh, A Disappearance

11

 

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.

 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Reflections: On Fear

‘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.

Sights: Mumbai Local

IMG_0358

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.

739726_10151175963286759_1034470605_o

This post is a part of the #Vote4Children Blog-a-thon on Youth Ki Awaaz. Find out more at: http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/vote4children

Sights: Chembur

IMG_0369c

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?’

‘Yeah’

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.