LIVING THROUGH the RIOTS
years, Bombay told itself it was different from the rest of India. Bombayites
believed that in their city, the rigidities and hatreds of caste and religion
were not supposed to apply. Bombay liked to think of itself as a thoroughly
Until the destruction of a mosque a thousand miles to the north on December 6, 1992 unleashed the demons of hatred, in the Name of God, across much of India.
Bombay assumed it would escape. It was wrong. In January 1993, the city was literally engulfed in flames of hatred. Hundreds died, often burnt alive. And for no rational reason. Julian Crandall Hollick lived through those days. Thanks to a curfew pass issued to him as a journalist, he was able to visit the pavement dwellers in Byculla and witness life during the riots.
On Friday morning January 8, Sagira came to the office in Byculla to cancel a trip she had planned for my daughter to Crawford Market, the huge and colorful vegetable and fruit market in the heart of the city.
"Somebody's been killed in the docks." Sagira was pale and a bit subdued. "It's tense right now. Better you don't come!"
The docks were a couple of miles away. Not that close to Crawford Market. So I was ready to shrug an isolated incident off. There had been lots of rumors the past month, since the Babri Masjid was destroyed in Ayodhya. There had been a few deaths, the unions had shut the city down. But life had gone on pretty much as if nothing happened. Bombay seemed to have taken Ayodhya pretty much in its stride. Basically, I thought Sagira was being unduly alarmist. But I wasn't going to argue with her. This was her city and we had an unwritten rule that I could always ask, and they would say either yes or no. But if they said no, then I shouldn't insist.
Things turned ugly that very same evening, right here on Jhula Maidan. Samina had bought a twenty pound sack of rice on the other side of Maulana Azad road in Number 12 chawl. She wanted to go across the road to fetch it back to her hut.
But some of the boys in the chawl started to get very fresh and threatening with her.
"I'd know them since they were this high. They called me Amma. But now they were just plain rude. They told me not to go across the road. I asked why not? They said because there's a curfew. Rubbish! Why should there be a curfew? I didn't like their tone of voice, and I told them so. But my eldest daughter told me to pipe down. She said these boys were looking for a fight. And later that night it started."
It's pointless to ask who actually started it. It could have been accidental. Or it could have been deliberate. There's evidence both ways. All it needs is one little something to get the rumor mill going. In any event, God had precious little to do with it. What happened in Bombay was mob violence - Bombay style. Letting rip the darker side of the human of psyche.
Friday morning: Hindus, Muslims and Christians in Byculla are neighbors. Saturday morning: they're eyeing each other with suspicion and fear. The boys in Chawl Number 6 used to let Samina, and other pavement dwellers on Jhula Maidan, fresh water from their taps. That stopped overnight. And that's what angers Samina.
She's forced to take shelter in the Mahila Milan compound along with five hundred other men, women and children. The Street kids are in their element. Boys become warriors overnight, defenders of those who cannot defend themselves. All the bottles, cans and odd pieces of metal they collect as scrap for recycling now serve as ammunition. The street kids know all the shortcuts, how to hug the shadows of buildings, how to avoid danger. Now they put their instincts to a new use, foraging out to gather information and vital supplies for the pregnant and the newborn.
Anarkali the tailor, who lives a few huts down from Samina, is shot. But he survives. Another neighbor has his arm hacked off with a sword. One boy, due to be married the following week, sees his baby sister stranded in No Man's Land in the road. He runs out to drag her back and is shot. By whom? Certainly not by other pavement dwellers.
As Samina says: "We don't want to fight with anybody. We can't afford to fight with one another. Muslim, Hindu, Christian - it really isn't the most important thing for any of us. What matters to us is that we're poor and we have to live on the street"
The Mahila Milan compound is living proof: they take in children no matter their God.
So who is doing the shooting? Probably sharpshooters in the apartment buildings. This isn't a sectarian fight. Many of the instigators are thugs - goondas - hired by political parties to stir things up and pit neighbor against neighbor. Only later does it become clear these agents provocateurs have used lust, jealousy, greed, envy to advance their goal of creating a total breakdown of civilised behavior.
Why does one shop, one particular business get looted or burnt to the ground in a particular street, while all the others are left untouched? Why is one man killed and all the other members of his family and his neighbors, who happen to be of the same religion, are left unscathed?
For a week the city burns. The violence invades even my street. A furniture store is gutted by fire. It's owned by a Muslim. But is that the real reason? Or is a rival using the cover of religion to drive him out of business? How many husbands are murdered so a rival can woo the widow?
A man in the apartments opposite, driving home from the airport, is stopped, pulled out of his car, beaten senseless, all because his name is Muslim. In our building, all the nameplates are removed so no one will know our religions. But somehow, someone tells the local Hindu gang that there's a Muslim on the fifth floor. He flees to South Bombay rather than wait it out. Who ratted on him? As a neighbor he's crossed us on the stairs thousands of times? Now, some of apartment owners see him through different lenses. To me, this change of attitude is like lifting a stone in the Garden of Eden and discovering all the slime that's been repressed for centuries.
So, you see, it's not just the poor. Oh no! The upper middle class are probably worse. They suddenly start talking: about how Muslims aren't really like the rest of us: they smell, they make a nuisance when they pray on Fridays. Broadcasting the Azzan (Call to Prayer) on loudspeakers should be banned. I point out that their friends are often Muslims: they deny the friendship: "It was just a social thing. We weren't really close". They're modern-day Judas Escariots, ready to deny the Past. For these few days all the social and cultural constraints that make human beings civilised and willing to temper their animal nature are just put into storage.
Of course, there are many who perform heroically to prevent this complete breakdown of civilised behavior. But there are far more who suddenly show the worst side of their nature. It's something I will never forget, that many of us can never really also forgive. You know from now on who your friends really are, how much they'll risk for that friendship. For some, the experience will be disillusioning and shattering.
An entire city basically goes into cardiac arrest. Byculla is placed under total military curfew. Contact is maintained with Byculla via the telephone, which by some miracle has not been cut. The food situation there is critical. Somehow, five hundred people are crammed into a space ninety by ninety feet. But what are they living on?
On the seventh day, the curfew is lifted for a few daylight hours. I hitch a lift with Kalpana, who writes for the Madras-based daily The Hindu. Both of us have curfew passes as journalists. We're mobbed as we enter the gate of the compound.
Most of the women are there. Sona's walked a mile from Fourteenth Gulli in Khamathipura, through the Muslim neighborhood on Maulana Azad Road, a brave thing for a Hindu. Sona insists that on her street religious differences mean bugger all. Facing her hut are the brothels. Behind her is the rear wall of St. Mary's Catholic Church. Sona cracks a joke:
"Our huts are against the church wall. So Mother Mary is on the other side. We told her: look, you may be facing the other way, but we are behind you, on the other side. So you should look after us as well as the Christians. See, we believe in every God!"
Sona says the pavement dwellers on her street need food. For a week nothing's come into the city and supplies have basically run out. But there's been no violence in Khamathipura.
"They've got it a lot worse here in Jhula Maidan. God and Mother Mary have really been looking after us." Sona says with sadness, and then adds one of those little bits of wisdom that remind me why I want to always count these illiterate but vital women amongst my real friends, anywhere in the world: "It's we who are creating the problem. It's not a Hindu God or a Muslim God that's creating it."
Later, I discover how the Muslim families on Sophia Zuber Road have protected Laxmi, who's almost the only Hindu on that street. If any outsider comes looking for a Hindu to kill, the women don't pretend that Laxmi is a Muslim. They warn the thugs off: "Listen. She's one of us. You make a move on her and we'll kill you! Stay away!" And they do.
There's one exception, though I only learn about it later on that day, after we've left.
Rehmat, who lives on Apna Jhopadpatti opposite the Khatau Cotton Mills, wants to firebomb the mill in retaliation for shots that have been fired by Shiv Sena goondas from the apartments overlooking the street. In the compound, I noticed that Rehmat's eyes are unnaturally bright. As if she's on some sort of high. But at that moment, I have no idea that she's planning something. Or its magnitude.
Rehmat blabs to someone who gets word to Jockin. Jockin sends word back immediately warning Rehmat not to do anything so foolish. If she sets the mill on fire the whole of Byculla will quite literally go up in flames. But it will be a giant funeral pyre for everyone. The demons that fear and common sense (in which order?) have kept in check, will be unleashed. Rehmat may also be signing her own death warrant and that of her children and the entire neighborhood.
It's Kamal who pries the information out of Rehmat. And reinforces the warning. A few days later, Kamal and I deliberately walk Rehmat up the street and past the massive mill doors that give on to the street. I mention casually "Thank God no one had the crazy idea to burn down the mill!" Kamal tells me later that when I said those words Rehmat's hand become icy cold. She must have guessed we knew. And that's why she's never caused trouble since.
And then in walks Sagira, who first brought the bad tidings a week ago. The problem on Dimdimkar Road, where Sagira lives, is food. Yesterday, Shekhar came by in a loaned pickup and dropped off hundred Pound sacks of rice. But a local hoodlum called Mushtaq has stolen three of them. You see, religion really does have little to do with any of this, because Sagira and most of the pavement dwellers on her road are also Muslims from Bihar.
Sagira's come to report Mushtaq's theft. Right on cue, Shekhar appears out of thin air. He says he'll go and talk with Mushtaq. Shekhar's twenty years old, five feet nothing, and weighs less than a hundred pounds. I fear what the burly Mushtaq will do to him.
Shekha has a black beard, more hair than flesh on his face. He can pass for both Hindu and Muslim if need be. For the past two days, he's slipped 'round the city, ferrying emergency food aid and cash to local Mahila Milan leaders. He's had some narrow escapes: earlier today, some Muslim boys tried to stop him. They wanted to see if he was circumcised or not. That really scared the daylights out of him. How much longer can he live on his nerves and luck?
There's no public transport. No taxis. Kalpana drives Shekar and I down to SPARC's tiny office near Flora Fountain. Sheela, Celine and Jockin have somehow made it here. They're sitting round the table, a sheet of paper and pocket calculator in hand, trying to figure out what's happening where, who needs food, how much, how soon? The needs are urgent and very real - rice, dal, flour. They total everything up. Sheela says she can deliver it. They have the Tempo truck that Shekhar's been using. The women of Mahila Milan and the street kids can distribute it on the street.
Bombayites with a heart and a conscience want to give money, clothes and blankets. Sheela's on the phone with the Tax Collector for the city. She works out a deal to set up an emergency account at tax offices round the city. If individuals phone from now on, they can be told where to go, how their donation will get used. Shekhar will connect the money and clothing and take it to an old mill warehouse in Dharavi, where it can be sorted and then sent on to the areas that need it most.
Liberal activists want to form a human chain on Saturday that will stretch the entire length of Bombay Island - twenty miles in all. But that won't feed or clothe those who've lost everything. Sheela and Jockin have little time for such niceties. They're all practicalities: how to get all the leaders together, to take stock and coordinate action. How much blood has been spilled within the membership? How can they use the complete breakdown of life to strengthen the organisation? How to get people back on their feet? And avoid dependence on private or public charity once the actual violence has subsided?
The meeting of
all the leaders takes place that Sunday, in a college lecture theater in the
south of the city. Thirty or more men and women make it from all over the
city. All seated round a huge conference table. It's quite funny to see pavement
and slum dwellers sitting as naturally as if to the manner born round the
huge table. But by now I'm used to anything. To Laxmi, who is barely able
to write or read, flicking on a laptop to check an e-mail from overseas!
Sheela invites each one to tell what happened in their street or neighborhood. The Mahila Milan woman go first and are concise and to the point. They list damage, number of jobs disrupted, livelihoods lost, food and other emergency requirements. And then it's the turn of the men, from areas further out, areas where most of the violence and loss of life has taken place.
The tone of the meeting changes. Some of the men are Hindus, many are Muslims. For whatever reasons, the men seem to be less dispassionate, more exercised by the demons of hatred and difference. Voices are raised, tempers come to the boil. But Jockin reads the riot act swiftly and in such a tone that no one will dare to try and drag ethnic or religious anger into this room on this afternoon..
And then Mohammad Ali Jang Bahadur gets up to speak. A big man. Boss of a thriving recycling works in Dharavi. A Muslim from the north, illiterate and still painfully self-conscious of it. Dharavi - Asia's largest slum, with more than half a million inhabitants - has been the scene of some of the worst bloodshed. Whole lanes have been burnt to the ground. Heads have been chopped off in the narrow lanes between the houses.
Dharavi, for ten days, has been the tinder box that exploded. No more waiting. A lot of hatred has spewed forth. Faces and friendships have contorted in ugliness and hatred. As the fires start to die down, how can people who have hated each other for two hundred hours without pause, step back and at least greet each other in the street, let alone the same room without suddenly lunging for each other's throats?
Nobody really knows what Mohammad Ali is going to say.
"For a long time I've had the dream that we are all citizens of Hindustan first, Hindus, Muslims, Christians second. That dream has been shattered. I feel betrayed by all the politicians and the religious leaders.
Listen! The answer isn't demonstrations and slogans. That may be satisfying. But it won't solve a bloody thing! Brothers and sisters. We must do this on our own and fight for what we know is right against whomever - whether it's crooked police, or crooked politicians or crooked priests. Jai Hind! Jai Mataji!"
And he sits down not quite sure whether he's really said what he thinks he's said. But the decisive words have been spoken. The entire meeting is now back on course.
Two days later, I travel up to Dharavi with Sheela. Most of Byculla seems to have traveled up there too. Everyone is there - street kids, Mahila Milan, National Slum Dwellers Federation, Railway Slum Dwellers - all sorting piles of clothes donated by the rich or the liberals in downtown. In another part of the disused tannery, made available for the purpose by Kavita's father who used to operate his business out of here, teams are working out schedules for delivery of essential foodstuffs to the worst-hit areas.
Sheela takes me on a quick tour of some of the lanes and alleys. I begin to understand how and where people have been killed, if not always the why. There are so many nooks and crannies and passageways it's not hard to understand how a man could lie in wait and guillotine off a passing head. In one lane, a whole row of brick houses are now empty, blackened shells, charred rafters open to the sky. Twenty men and women and children have died here. No one knows who did it or why. No one will ever ask or raise the subject. How else can wounds heal?
A week passes. Emergency relief continues. Huge amounts of clothing, food and cash are now coming in. There is still no civil administration in the city. The army is the only formal power holding the city together in a fragile embrace. Individual Bombayites talk with me and slowly open up. They are now willing to admit that nothing can ever be the same again. Their dream of what the city was, how it was different from the rest of India, how Bombay was First World, the rest of India Third World is now one more feeble and shattered illusion. How can they pick up the pieces when everyone, including themselves, have failed the city?
Three days later I return to the Mahila Milan compound in Byculla. Two beat-up handcarts are being trundled into the compound. One of them has a very bent axle. It can't possibly support a hundred and fifty kilos of rice and dal. But that's precisely what it's going to be asked to do!
One of the street kids bangs at the hub halfheartedly with a piece of metal. But that won't straighten the axle. The kid removes two of the sacks. The handcart breathes a sigh of relief and straightens itself up. The boys trundle it up to the garage doorway.
Inside, Bali and Selwan Raju, normally two of the less responsible Sadak Chaaps, are scooping rice and dal from huge 300 LB jute sacks into smaller sacks that the handcarts can actually bear. Neither of them has any concept of basic math. Bali scoops with a piece of plastic bottle and counts out loud at the same time, maybe in an effort to impress me.
"One, two, three, six, seven" He sees my skeptical face. Something, after all, has just gotten missed out. And what happens after seven? Or is this where Bali's knowledge of consecutive numbers comes to a dead end?
"Seven and a half!" Bali shouts in triumph. And repeats it as he pours the next scoop from the bigger to the smaller sack, in case I missed the point the first time. And then back to one.
The smaller sacks are loaded onto the cart. Raju and Bali push them out of the compound and into the street. They stop outside Samina's hut. Twenty or thirty men, women and children surround Bali and Raju. Some of them have tin bowls. Others just a plastic cup. Many of the women use their saris to welcome the rice and dal. Samina is quite obviously having a hard time keeping the crowds in order and at bay.
Her tone and volume rise to a crescendo: "Two scoops Chawal. One scoop dal. Not a scoop more. Everyone will get their fair share. Two kg of rice, one kg of dal. Look, stop crowding round! Stand back. Give us some room to breathe! Everyone's going to get some!"
One small woman pushes aggressively between and under the elbows of two somewhat large ladies. But Samina spots her. "Get back, you! Or I'll bonk you one!"
Samina is a big and fierce woman when angry. The little woman slides back.
"Kasim bhai!" Samina spots a mother who lost her husband in an accident in the docks two months ago. Beckons her to come forward. Shoves another woman rudely away.
"You don't come from Jhula Maidan! You have to be a member of Mahila Milan from Jhula Maidan for this food. Go back to your street. And if you're one of ours the person in charge will be giving out food for you there. OK?"
Another woman says she joined yesterday. So she's qualified. Right? Samina is increasingly feeling hemmed under, under extreme pressure. She backs against her hut, so that no one can sneak in behind and take a few grains. She sees cheats and thieves everywhere. "How many are you claiming? Twelve?!!! There' only eight in your hut! Here, give her for eight only!" The woman says her brother has come from one of the worst-hit areas in the city. Brought his wife and two small babies'.
"That means there are twelve now staying in my place! "
"Tough. Be thankful for what you get!"
And thus it goes for another thirty minutes. Until the sacks are emptied, both on the cart and inside the office.
A week later, the riots are over for good. The city's still tense. Byculla's now under curfew only at night. But people are beginning tentatively to feel that it may be over, that they can finally get back to thinking about normal things, like working, doing the market, talking to their neighbors, walking down the street without having to worry if someone will suddenly dart up behind them and stick a knife in their back.
Inside the Mahila Milan compound, Irfan the carpenter is making a bookcase out of old bits of wood. Yanking out old nails, planing down the rough surface, cutting and assembling. Inside the office, about twenty women and children out of the original five hundred who sought shelter here at the worst of the riots, are watching a movie on Rehmat's TV, loaned for the occasion. At the back of the office, behind the TV, Raju and Vijay Kumar, two of the street kids, are shoveling out rice to the Mahila Milan members who live on Dimdimkar Road, a good half a mile away. That's how improved things are.
Dimdimlar Road is also where Mushtaq sole three sacks of rice two weeks ago. So now, each family has been given coloured coupons that they bring here to exchange for their basic rations. Some of the families have sent their children, really tiny children, no more than ten or eleven years old, to collect the rice and dal for them. Raju mutters under his breath: "Grownups shouldn't let their kids roam anyoldwhere! They should be more responsible!" No further comment coming from a street kid.
But emergency food aid is already being wound down. Jockin and Celine hate food aid. At best, Jockin thinks it should be a one-shot deal. Celine says it breeds dependency and apathy. It saps individual responsibility. So Jockin, Celine and Sheela Patel have figured out a way to turn relief into something lasting and positive, something they hope will permanently alter the lives of poor people in the city. There are masses of phone calls and rushed conversations. I'm invited to listen in. But I really can't grasp the forest. I only see the trees.
A few days later, when I return to Byculla and the office, I understand what they're up to.
Shekhar is sitting cross-legged behind an Indian desk (which is about eighteen inches off the ground, designed for someone to use who's also sitting on the ground). To one side of the desk is Rehmat, in her element. Opposite Shekhar, Zebunissa, a Mahila Milan member from Aona Jhopadpatti, Rehmat's street. She gives her hut number, full name, number of dependents and then what business she did and how much she's lost, in earnings and in assets destroyed. In Zebunissa's case it was a handcart and a day's supplies. Not catastrophic. But still a livelihood lost.
She requests a loan of five hundred Rupees. Not to buy another handcart. No, she wants to start a new, probably more profitable line of business, preparing fast food for the workers inside Khatau Mills. Shekhar asks Zebunissa if she can repay every week? Zebunissa says she can pay ten Rupees for now. "And if things go well, I'll raise that to twenty five a week!"
Zebunissa is illiterate so she places her thumb in the ink-pad and signs at the bottom of the form. Shekhar wants her mother to come and countersign. Grandmother isn't here. She can't come until lunchtime. "Tell her to come then, when she's ready." Shekhar says. He opens the desk-lid, pulls out a bunch of crisp new one hundred Rupee notes. Counts them out. Hands them to Rehmat who double-checks.
And so it goes all week. Men and women who've lost all their stock. Some are pa'an sellers. The valuable thing in their case are the ornate brass trays they spread all their pots and jars onto. Those are made in the north and can cost a thousand Rupees or more. They're those brass trays you find in elegant Western drawing rooms. Here, they serve a strictly business function.
Others have lost stocks of cheap suitcases, of umbrellas. They always ask for twice as much as Shekhar is prepared to give. They'll have to repay the principal at two percent interest, within six months. The countersigner is responsible if they fall behind or fail to make their payments. Most get a thousand, some two. It depends on the viability of their plan. Are they hard workers? Are they committed to getting back on their feet? Or is this just an other scheme to get a few more weeks of the sweet life before reality comes calling?
That's why Rehmat is here. She knows her people. Their strengths, and their weaknesses. Sheela, Jockin and Celine said to themselves that the most important thing these people had lost was their livelihood. So instead of giving them compensation, Mahila Milan has decided to give them business loans at nominal interest to start afresh, to move them out of dependency, to start pushing money and purchasing power back into the street economy. A Marshall Plan for pavement dwellers. Turning a disaster into an opportunity. Classic Keynesian theory. And as the evidence showed six months later, when all the loans came due, it worked!