Pray, It’s ‘Juliaji’

Rishi Majumder sneaks into the Eat, Pray, Love sets at Hari Mandir Ashram, Pataudi, to find ashramites and a desi cool Julia Roberts living the ‘the world’s a family’ maxim

Swami Dharam Dev and Julia Roberts

Hollywood Superstar Julia Roberts’ helicopter, landing near Hari Mandir Ashram, Pataudi, has kicked off quite the Haryanvi dust storm. She’s playing Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, a bestselling memoir where Gilberts eats in Italy, prays in India and loves in Bali. The controversies are: Does Roberts really have a gun toting battalion guarding her? Why did the ashram shoo away devotees during Navratri? And imperatively: Will this film misrepresent our great nation in any way?

Film crew have been quoted saying “media access is being denied because the film’s scheduled for release in 2011 and it’s too early to let out what’s in it”. Let out what’s in it? They’re filming an autobiographical bestseller for God’s sake (whatever He has to say about this). Not only do millions of readers know what’s in it, those who’ve seen Gilbert’s interviews know what’s after it too.  A more plausible reason is that they’re filming these serene spiritual sequences, and they don’t want journalists turning it into a reality show. “I’m obviously not a journalist (or not obviously a journalist),” is what I tell the three (apparently unarmed) guards at the ashram gate. They don’t look like ex- NSG or SPG forces (as was the scoop). More like ex- akhada pehelwaans (mud-pit wrestlers). Maybe the commandoes are camouflaged. Still, I can’t carry a camera. Shoot!

Swami Dharam Dev, Ashram President, is no stranger to celebrity. He ran for the Lok Sabha in 2004, and continues to mix with politicians and media-men, and now film stars. “We didn’t deny devotees, or the press, entry,” he argues. “We simply said that they should inform us from beforehand, so a tour can be organized systematically. And no cameras allowed. I asked the crew to shoot during Navratri because that’s when ashram students have holidays.” The Swami quotes classic Sanskrit diktat ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ (meaning ‘the world’s a family’) and tells me we should trust Westerners to spread what is Indian. He also cites Max Muller as a glowing example of how responsibly a foreigner can document native culture. His final argument for allowing the film crew in is: “No ‘ashram’ can refuse anyone ‘ashray’, or shelter”. He says many had advised him to ask for more than the Rs 4 lakh donation received, but he didn’t. Mid-conversation, he looks beyond me to murmur, “Juliaji…”

I miss her at first, because she has a slight, if tall, frame (or maybe that’s what days of sanyas does to you). She’s wearing a pale salwaar kameez and is almost merging into people she’s with. Until, a little girl runs up to her, and she grins. More Big Miss Sunshine than Monalisa Smile. You realize in a Pataudi ashram what makes Pretty Woman work worldwide. ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ it is…

“She loves talking to children,” the Swami’s grinning too. “Not grown-ups though.” Sure. I wasn’t going to run up to her. Then the Swami tells me how he gave Robert’s kids their Hindu names. The eldest son was named Ganesh – because that’s who every Hindu prayer begins with, and his twin sister Lakshmi – because Diwali’s coming up. And her youngest son Krishna, because, “like Bal Krishna, he was being naughty and not letting me tie the mauli (sacred thread) on his hand.” Sweet. Maybe if husband Daniel Moder came in and threw a fit, he’d name him Mahadev.

I go off alone around the ashram and film set. It’s impossible to tell them apart. What seems like a part of the ashram’s first floor, for instance, is a set made entirely of plywood – and you won’t know it till you knock on the walls. I bump into the Swami here, and he shows me a room that’s supposed to be Gilbert’s. Peering into this room is positively haunting. There’s a bed, a bed-side table, shelves, clothes strewn around and lots of dusty books. So, I’m in a real ashram, with a real Swami, peeping into the room of a real Gilbert – that’s actually unreal. It confounds the Swami too. He’s refused to act in the film, but keeps catching Swamis dressed like him to ask them if they’re for real or reel.

I walk out, past actor Richard Jenkins (whose character is called Richard too, the only real name Gilbert’s used in the Indian section – the others are pseudonyms) and the room where Roberts (Yes! The real Roberts!) is resting before her shoot, to a magnificent meditation hall that is definitely a set. It’s ornately carved, out of wood. I ask an ashram helper if the floor is a part of the set too. He replies in the affirmative and thumps his feet on ply to prove what he’s saying, adding: “This was actually a parking lot.” To my left is a library with portraits of Hindu Gurus on the walls, with the shelves and books in disarray because it’s been shot in. Ahead is a pleasant little garden – also made for the movie. I walk back, past the ashram office where Roberts has just shot a scene. A crew member is telling director Ryan Murphy about the “real feel” the office gave. So I guess it isn’t a set. I’m very paranoid by now and I go about the ashram tapping on walls and thumping my feet. Yes. Now I know why they wouldn’t let the press in.

I spot the Swami again and follow him to the temple terrace, where they’re shooting. The crew’s put up a temple façade that’s carved just like the meditation hall. The design is typical of South Indian temple architecture, which stands to reason. The founder of Gilbert’s ashram (located in Ganeshpuri, Thane) was from South India. The Swami sees me and leads me to a verandah: “We use this as prayer hall balcony. But I don’t know what they’re doing.” “They” are two American film crew members who’re watching a monitor to figure out scene picture quality. All they can see on their screen is a dark short haired guy, and a bearded Swami. Unreal.

Meanwhile, I hear gasps because Roberts is striding out in this gorgeous cream and green saree. She seems extremely comfortable in it, like Nalli LA just found a brand ambassador. Some locals exclaim at how Indian she’s become. Others comment on how well she’s handling the Haryana heat (…literally speaking). The ‘Indian Julia’ euphoria has erupted world over, including in its fold Nevada based ‘Hindu statesman’ Rajan Zed. They don’t seem to get that Roberts is an actress, who stays with her role while filming it sometimes. That Eat Pray Love won’t make her any more Indian, than Erin Brockovich or Sleeping WithThe Enemy made her an activist or member of a battered wives club.

Trudging towards the temple entrance, I’m shushed by frantic crew because a shot is on. I see on a monitor an intimate conversation scene between Roberts and Jenkins being filmed live. Just like HBO. Only, if I yell, they’ll have to pause.

The temple that Roberts (playing Gilbert) swept the floors of has the “real feel” that differentiates a place of meditation from a parking lot – without having to knock or thump. Beyond it is an elegant tower erected in honour of the ashram’s founder Swami Amar Dev. Gilbert climbs such a tower in one of the book’s most passionate climactic chapters.

Next to the tower is a Peepal tree that Roberts meditated under this morning for a shoot. When someone said this to the Swami, he looked puzzled. Then he said , “Oh! You mean in the naatak (play)…” That’s what he calls the film. He kept telling me the ashram students enjoyed the Ram Leela more.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror( It was also carried in Pune Mirror – front page (, Ahmedabad Mirror (, Bangalore Mirror ( and the Times Of India entertainment section ( online…

His master’s voice

The sonorous voice opening the chart busters with ‘behnon aur bhaiyon’ has inspired generations of RJs and film music buffs

Roshan Abbas (l) and Ameen Sayani


It’s a Sunday morning and driving from Versova to Marine Lines is a breeze. I wish every Mumbai morning could be like this one. But when you have a date with a legend, the universe conspires to make the meeting memorable. A radio jockey is playing retro hits, which seems befitting as I am about to meet Ameen Sayani, the father of Indian broadcasting. Generations have grown up listening to Geetmala with his sonorous voice opening the chart busters with `behnon aur bhaiyon’. As the affable Ameen saab opens his doors for me, it’s time to switch off the world and tune in.

Ameen saab, you’ve had a career in radio, spanning more than half a century…
That’s right; I started commercial broadcasting in ’49. But I’ve been a broadcaster since ’39.
When you were just seven.
(Laughs) When I was just seven.
If you can tell us how you started out…
It all began with the AIR (All India Radio), where I had the opportunity to work with a number of stalwarts in broadcasting. I was an English broadcaster, mainly for children’s pro
grammes. There were people like Sultan Padamsee, also the creator of a theatre group, Adi Marzban, one of the finest radio producers ever; Derek Geoffries who was one of the best radio mixers, excellent with sound effects and mood music; and finally Hameed bhai (Hameed Sayani), an excellent radio drama artist and my own brother.

You’ve seen the best and the worst times of radio. This is the era of television. When do you think the loyalties shifted?
Radio did not suffer because of television. Both have their own distinct slots. You could be going about your routine listening to the radio. I’ve had thousands of students saying, `We could not study unless the radio was playing in the background.’
The popularity of AIR suffered because of wrong policies – the I&B minister’s decision to ban Indian film songs, was one. This also meant less sponsored programmes which hurt radio. These programmes could be produced outside by different people, scriptwriters and programmers, so you didn’t get bored with the same RJs all the time. Also, the crème de la crème of intelligentsia used to work for the AIR, and with Indian film music going, listen
er-ship went, and so did these people. Finally, a kind of pseudo-sobriety was imposed upon the presentation. Broadcasters were not allowed to use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘we’.

And in doing that they were taking away the personality of the presenters.
Absolutely. They were killing radio stars. People were not to smile unnecessarily! You had to be very sober and announce a romantic song in a deep mournful voice, as if to indicate that some great national leader had popped it.

And what about Radio Ceylon?
The popularity of Radio Ceylon, which had sponsored programmes and was the people’s radio, petered out because of a different reason — the neglect of the transmitter by the station at a time when Peking and Moscow were broadcasting in Hindi and English, and had started a transmitter which was at least 10 times more powerful on the same meter band, to knock others out.
This adversely affected Radio Ceylon’s reception.

So how did AIR come back into its saddle?

It brought back film music through Vividh Bharati. But in 1979, (minister) Vasant Sathe selected a few individuals to form a working group to advice AIR and Doordarshan. Subsequently, they raised the AIR sponsorship rates by almost 500 per cent to compete with Doordarshan! TV being a visual medium, it attracted greater sponsorship. In the first few months, business dropped in AIR by 25 per cent. The revenue might have remained the same, but they lost a lot of listeners. Also, people at the helm were good administrators but had no broadcasting background. So radio did not suffer because of television, but because of radio!

FM has given me a dedicated listenership in Mumbai and Delhi, but I cannot replicate the formula nationwide, as you did. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage?
Both. Geet Mala got people glued to the radio, from both Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi speaking belts. With FM, you can create niche listening or you can go into languages. Also, you can take a programme and play it on other stations again, like with the one I had on FM, in Mumbai and Kolkata which was played

in three other stations. Thus, you get diverse inputs with programmes recorded from outside the organisation.

But there’s a huge debate about prerecording as it leaves no scope for interactivity, unlike localising.
Have both. Have local programmes, and slip in one programme a day recorded outside. Life, civilization or radio, has to have continuum. Take what is suitable for today, turn it into a contemporary programme and pitch anywhere. I had pre-recorded programmes in several countries of the world and even today am negotiating with five countries.

Speaking about audiences, I sometimes feel the quick consumption culture does not benefit anyone. Do they get the radio or television they deserve?
The quick consumption culture is all pervasive. People don’t have the time to enjoy the money they earn. Top that with the tremendous pressure of corruption and mis-management in every stage of life. This is the youth’s loss — as they’ve never had time to understand the depth, intensity or passion that drive certain endeavours. Except a passion for sex or to make money.

The tragedy of wealth! (Both laugh) So how do you enjoy your time now, with all the money you’ve made…
I actually haven’t made much money, though I have done a fantastic body of work. I couldn’t put my son through medical school because I could not pay the capitation fee.

But now, at 73, with this wealth of work, how do you spend your time?
I do a lot of spots and jingles abroad. I’m syndicating my programmes; I have two in Dubai and New Zealand and am working on others. I’m trying to get Roshan Abbas, who’s very difficult to get. (Roshan laughs) Otherwise, I’m very fond of crosswords and puzzles.

And how would you solve the puzzle called Mumbai? Are you happy with contemporary Mumbai?
I feel the basis of confusion in Mumbai is unclear communication. Our rules and regulations are so confusing that you never know how to plan things. So you shoot up and fall down like our Sensex. Radio is an important medium for communication, provided it isn’t shackled. FM is like a breath of fresh air.

There are 13 languages in use at the Radio Advertising and Practitioner’s Association (RAPA), which you’re involved with. Do you think language diversity will help FM?
In some big cities, English is understood, or one goes into Hindi or Hinglish. But, in other cities, say in Tamil Nadu or Orissa, you can’t expect to broadcast in Hindi. You have to have the regional language as well as English.

Even in Kolkata, though Hindi is well known, Bengali is preferred.

You’ve developed a good association with film personalities through your interviews. Any enduring memories?
A lot, but I’ll name only one – Kishore Kumar. He was the most unpredictable, crazy, fabulous and multi-talented person, I ever knew. It was very difficult to corner him and I just did two interviews, which were my life’s best. During the first interview he came and said, “You sit in one corner. I’ll do the whole interview.” He did four voices: a judge, an old villain, Kishore as a child and an old man. The second interview was when Dada Burman passed away. I approached him hesitantly for a twominute interview. He asked me to switch the recorder off and spoke for one and a half hours. He promised to return to the studio the next day. He gave me two sessions as he couldn’t finish at one shot. He died way before his time.

Roshan AbbasWhat do you think of a show with the Ameen Sayani and today’s stars?
Ameen SayaniIt would be good. But I treat most of them as my nieces and nephews. Beside, filmstars are very busy and (smiles) I don’t have the time to run after them anymore, and couldn’t possibly ask them to come to my Colaba studio, all the way from the other end of town. Things should change. I’ve had my day. (Smiles) Why shouldn’t Roshan Abbas take over now?

Editorial co-ordinator Rishi Majumder;
Photographer: Shriya Patil

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


On discovering an unlikely El Dorado in the city’s sprawling shanty town


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Bhola sets gold in a plaster of paris mould

Bengali Kharigar gold plating a silver coin

Tamil Kharigar fixing golden threads together

Eight-year-old Gopal grins, holding a freshly set gold chain up against the light of a welding flame setting another. His eyes gleam from the shimmer of gold reflected in them. Originally from Bengal, he joined Kanai’s gold workshop at Sakinabai Chawl as a handy boy a year ago. The workshop has five people working and living in a five by five foot loft. Under a low wattage bulb these karigars are
melting gold ingots on a primitive coal stove beneath a chimney, pouring the molten gold into plaster of Paris moulds shaped as per jewellery design, and using a machine to pull the gold out into glimmering threads. Kanai, who now has his own workshop, started off as a worker himself 15 years ago. He employs only men known to him or his family from villages around his hometown.
Each of the 500 odd workshops in Sakinabai Chawl, one of Dharavi’s oldest, follow the same rules of trade. All are headed by ex-karigars, who get those known to them to live and work with them. This springs an ethnic mix from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, who can mostly talk only in their mother tongue. Tamil karigars, who’ve been here since 60 years form 80 per cent of the workers. The Bengalis, who came in 15 years ago come second in number. Each karigar excels in traditional jewellery from his region, but has learned to adapt to new trends too. “While newer designs can be executed easily on machines, traditional ones can only be done by hand,” Ram Chandran, a goldsmith from Tamil Nadu, explains.
The fact that almost everyone in the chawl is a goldsmith leads to security, prompting most workshops to leave doors open to let in light (some don’t have doors), with a minimum of Rs 2,00,000 worth of gold inside. A walk down the narrow lanes brings forth a surrealist’s El Dorado. In dingy rooms, men in lungis and vests fold golden threads (as women would a sari) or melt gold on a fireplace or polish a heap of jewellery in a stained plastic basin.
All the jewellery made is as per job work commissioned by the 100 odd jewellery stores lined outside Dharavi Main Road. “Gold is the primary investment of the poor, who don’t know about
mutual funds and cannot afford diamonds or property,” a shopkeeper says. So many of the shops have shifted focus from the heavy expensive South Indian jewellery earlier made to suit the slum’s Tamil population to lighter cheaper North Indian ware — affordable to Dharavi’s poor, or rather its elite.
“I have given two interviews before this,” Bholanath, another Bengali goldsmith, says. And many a media person and writer have exclaimed over Sakinabai Chawl as being exemplary of the Dharavi’s entrepreneurship, the gold in itself a metaphor for prosperity. Others have decried the unsafe and inhuman working conditions, adding child labour for effect. But unsafe working conditions and child labour is a present state
of affairs which cannot be addressed without an eye on the future. It is admirable that the population accumulated here have capitalised on two of the world’s oldest constants of value – gold and property. Yet labour as a resource still has a long way to go; this is, after all, Dharavi. The uneducated artisans of Sakinabai Chawl accept the pittance they receive as payment (around Rs 4,000 profit per workshop per month) for being unable to market their skills anywhere beyond the Dharavi Main Road stores. A training programme incorporating languages and marketing, beyond the simplistic vocational training touted by NGOs might change this. Just as education might grant many a bright child like Gopal, a worker here, a direction to shine in.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Right in the middle of the muck and dross in this suburb, exists the WHO-certified Ideal Trading Company, exporter of sutures


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Abdul Baqua, at his factory

“Around 15,000 people surrounded the Koli basti nearby to burn it. I went with DCP Yadav and climbed atop his jeep. I clasped my hands together and said, ‘Just two things. If you want to burn Dharavi, please burn me as well. I want to die here’.”
Seventy-seven-year-old Abdul Baqua’s voice breaks as he recounts this incident from the ‘92-’93 riots, and a stream of tears course down his face. In a few months time, he’ll shift his factory from Dharavi to Ambarnath, which he’s hoping to build sans financial aid, with the help of a bank loan. The government needs his land for the Dharavi Rehabilitation Programme. Baqua’s Ideal Trading Company, manufactures sutures (used for medical stitches and to attach meat sausages to one another) for export to Japan, Europe and South Africa. His clinically clean factory is certified as per EU and WHO standards, despite being located in the midst of Dharavi’s open gutters and unattended garbage dumps.
Baqua flaunts photographs of a team comprising doctors and officials from the Agriculture And Processed Food Products Export Development Authority inspecting his factory for these certifications in 1997: “They were impressed with the standard of hygiene. We were lucky they only visited Dharavi till where our factory is located. Touring the whole of Dharavi might have forced them to think otherwise.”
Business is down now, because his foreign clients don’t want to place orders till the factory’s location is certain. Still, four workers in a 500 square feet room reeking of phenyl sort the sutures as per diameter, washing off the slime. Large windows are screened to prevent dust or smoke entering the room. Hence the walls, though faded aren’t blackened. The sutures (originally
goat or sheep intestine) are then mixed with salt and stored in plastic barrels in a godown below. This room and the godown is the entire factory.
Baqua came to Dharavi from his village in UP, at age 13 to earn and support his family. He mastered the sutures trade in a friend’s Coimbatore factory, before setting his own in Mumbai. An Italian exporter then took him on as partner to form Ideal Trading Company with a Dharavi factory, but left India soon after, leaving Baqua only with an international address book of suture importers. Inducting his brother, Kalim Shoaib into the business, they approached each contact till a Japanese company asked them for 2,00,000 yards of sutures, as mere sample. “It was a huge risk, but we sent it,” Shoaib remembers, recounting how they then invited delegates to Mumbai, paying for their conveyance and stay in the Taj so they could inspect their factory. A nod from this company was the culmination of Baqua’s long struggle,
with many international orders following.
Moving to Ambernath means added transport cost for their raw material, thus pushing their prices up, and granting an advantage to already competing Chinese suture manufacturers. It also means laying off most of their 30-odd workers (some women) who won’t be able to afford the daily commute. But Baqua speaks on the effect of rehabilitation on Dharavi at large: “Will the disruption of all these lives and livelihoods be compensated adequately?”
Baqua’s unit, like every such in Dharavi resembles Japan’s matchbox factories which utilise each square inch. Even homes are used or let out for work, with one table being enough to start an enterprise. A rough estimate of the productivity of these unrecognised industries was stated at over Rs 5000 crores. Much of this amount is earned from export, bringing foreign exchange into the country. By these criteria, Dharavi attained the status of SEZ — which everyone’s screaming for today — many years ago. A decline in crime rate post the Vardharajan era, has seen the area become only as unsafe as certain pockets of Juhu, or Bandra.
The only thing that prevents Dharavi’s recognition as an industrial estate then, is the dirt. Besides the fact that companies like Baqua’s have constantly overcome this constraint, the larger problem of filth in Dharavi could be solved by reconstruction, with proper drainage and road facility from the BMC. “Japan’s factories are as crowded and congested, but they are located in clean areas,” Baqua points out. He also points out that most banks in Japan claim interest on their loans only after the entrepreneur sets up his unit, unlike Indian banks which, despite being ‘nationalised’, bleed the poor aspiring entrepreneur without giving him a chance. Baqua talks Tokyo, even as the government cites Shanghai. But the former, strangely, seems far closer to Dharavi’s definition.

Baqua's factory entrance

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Dharavi’s small-time manufacturer Mustaqueem, a supplier to Wal Mart, brings hope to the unemployed in the suburb


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Mustaqueem at one of his Dharavi units

At a factory near the T junction on Mahim highway, we watch Mustaqueem carefully sort mint leaves to flavour our liquor teas, made painstakingly to order. “When I came to this city at age 13 to work, I was not paid for the first four months,” he remembers. His work, at a Kamathipura garments factory, consisted of serving tea, besides cleaning the factory, washing the machines and carrying orders to places from 7 am till after midnight. This was when, after the workers left, he would be allowed to learn how to work a machine for half an hour. He slept on the road outside the factory. His meal consisted of roti and salan, from a nearby restaurant or home. After becoming a paid worker, he branched out on his own at age 16 with two sewing machines in a relative’s hutment at Dharavi.
Today, Mustaqueem runs 12 manufacturing units (including sister concerns of the parent company) in Dharavi. Seven of them, owned by him, comprise 3200 square feet of space each. The unit we are on, on rented area, stretches to 8000 square feet. He employs 900 people. All his garments, mostly feminine tops, skirts
and capris, are exported to the US, and sold by names like MKM and Burlington. He earlier supplied goods to K Mart and Wal Mart as well, but discontinued because they were “too inconsistent with their order quotations”.
How did he get here? Mustaqueem’s eyes, study us even as he talks, with piercing intelligence. Having stood first in every class till class VI, his principal and relatives went into mourning when he had to quit studies to earn for family. But once on the job, the same intelligence prompted him to learn his trade quickly. Also radiating from his eyes is quiet confidence. As a worker he elicited many guffaws from his seniors when he proclaimed that he’d have his own factory someday. Their rejoinder was: “We’ll work for you!” Which they did eventually. He wasn’t let down when his friends dissuaded him from deliberating on exports. Yet this confidence is tempered by a strong faith in God. He says, “There are many more talented than me. I’ve succeeded because Allah has honoured me.”
But that is every successful entrepreneur’s story. What distinguishes Mustaqueem is what surrounds him. Workers as well as managers employed in his factories are taken on by Mus
taqueem not on the basis of degrees, but on their ability to read. This approach is reminiscent of another man who rose from the garments trade, Dhirubai Ambani. He had hired a clerk, Indu Sheth, to spearhead his export strategy; a petroleum product salesman, Natwarlal Sanghvi, as his marketing manager; and an auto parts salesman as his knitting manager. These men went on to be counted among India’s best business brains. Also reeking of this approach is the modus operandi of Sam Walton, whose company till recently was Mustaqueem’s customer.
‘Mustaqueeem Seth’ in Dharavi is a respected name. He helps many with problems ranging from those with the municipal corporation to healthcare. He is a man known well by the police, government officials and politicians. But his decision to continue to centre his business here stems from beyond this ring of influence. Through his own past, he understands a talent pool of Indian youth that is unable to obtain MBA, CA or CFA degrees. And that pool, hired as worker and inching towards ‘supervisor’, ‘manager’ and then ‘owner’, understand ‘Mustaqueem Seth’ through their present… and longingly, through their future.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Be dazzled

Zardosi workmen of Indira Qureishi Nagar weave their way into the city’s wardrobes


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Zardosi design

A10-minute walk away from Sion station leads to Indira Qureishi Nagar. A climb up an iron ladder here culminates in a 20 by 10 feet room with faded walls lined intermittently with hooks, each holding a dusty, dull shirt, kurta or trouser. The owners of this line of clothing sit around large frames in fives or sixes, stitching onto a common cloth the curves of a unified design, with gold or silver coloured threads, beads and mirrors. The style is ari zardosi, lighter than actual zardosi, which uses far heavier material. The former sells far more than the latter because it’s more wearable in hot, humid weather and is less expensive. In and around Indira Qureishi Nagar, every second house has its upper floor converted into such a workshop, making it one of Mumbai’s largest centres for ari zardosi work.

The workmen say they procure all the material — beads, threads, mirrors, needles — from the area itself because it’s cheapest here. “Even the cutting chai here costs Rs 2 instead of Rs 2.50,” the chaiwaala complains. “If I raise the price, they’ll stop buying.” And so on for other basic necessities, which makes the average zardosi worker’s income of Rs 5,000 a month (including overtime) barely sufficient to keep body and soul together. Many claim a dhani, or owner of these workshops can earn upto Rs 25,000 monthly going by the business around: “Even the needle makers who make specialised needle for ari zardosi work have a daily turnover of Rs 1,500.” The finished ari zardosi work is supplied to con
sumers cutting across class barrior, from stores in Ghatkopar and exclusive showrooms in town, to designers in Europe and the US. The workers embroider their designs on the material provided, ranging from cotton and silk, to even denim, as per marked outlines, but don’t cut or shape the final product.
Twenty-six-year-old Mudassir has been a worker for seven years. Attracted by the craftsmanship from a young age, he gave up school, after his matriculation exams for this profession,
wanting to earn soon. “I learnt zardosi work here itself, but worked in Madanpura for a while before shifting back three years ago,” he says. Mudassir is very savvy and as adventurous as he is ambitious. He introduces us to Waseem Akhtar, an 18-year-old, who owns and manages one of the area’s oldest workshops. “My father shifted to Kolkata recently, with the family because my grandparents were there, leaving me in charge,” he explains. Waseem is studying for his BSc degree hoping to do a course in fashion designing thereafter, to take his business to greater heights.
This settlement, originated over 30 years ago with people from UP. Few workshops consisted, and still do, of Bengali workmen. But recently there’s been a large influx of workers from Bihar, who today make up nearly half the population. Why did hundreds of workshops spring up here? Some put it down to people belonging to the same profession living and working together, so as to pose a united front against extortion and rioting. Some to the connectivity and cheap availability of raw material in the area. But the truth to the mushrooming of this settlement of diverse migrants stitching similar threads, lies in the story of any family tree, as much as in the story of Mumbai: One unit employed 10 men, most of whom saved and started their own units, and so on. In a time when everyone accuses poor migrants of leeching into productive areas, the productivity of this erstwhile marshland stands apart as having grown from the enterprise of migrants, spurring the government to provide connectivity so that cheap craftsmanship, among other services, could meet the city’s demand. To continue doing so, the migrants, in turn, ensure that the effect of rupee appreciation on exports is less felt by them — by beating down the prices of their raw materials, and their chai.

A Zardosi worker

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder trails Mumbai’s African Community, right upto their retreat into suburbia

Photographer: Sachin Haralkar (For Dongri); Raju Shinde (For Motinagar, Bhayander)

Outside Puku, Dongri

Darren James dresses on Sundays in his Isiagwu (a shirt like top), Agwa (a wrap) and opu ogudu (a cap) — all elements of traditional Igbo (a Nigerian tribe) outfit. He then joins 20 others, dressed like him, who’ve come to his flat to offer Christian prayer, imbued with Nigerian custom. Michael Agu calls a fellow Ethiopian every week with a wish-list of African music CDs containing songs — traditional and contemporary — that he can’t procure on the web. For Danny Waage missing South Africa means missing soccer. He drowns his sorrow in egusi Soup made from pumpkin seeds or pepitas (substitutes for the traditional egusi seed). James, Agu and Waage are among thousands of other Africans settling fast to mark out ‘black buildings’ in outer Mumbai suburbs like Mira Road, Bhayander and Vasai.


Anthropological theorists trace the African-Indian connection racially, to the Indus Valley civilization, and the subsequent Dravidian race. In a more recent context is placed the Sidis – India’s ‘own’ African race, settled here for centuries that result in them speaking local dialects only, with only a spattering of Bantu. Most African nationals who came to the country a decade ago at most and divide their time in months between homeland and Mumbai don’t know these histories. “Nigeria, like India, has so many natural resources — but we don’t utilize them well,” says Chiderra Jel, a garments exporter, switching off from the Sunny Bobo VCD we’re watching at Oomo, one of Dongri’s two African restaurants. “That’s why we come here to manufacture items which meet the demand back home.” Getting products manufactured as per order in Mumbai and sending them to their parent country is a choice of business for most Africans. Jel even gets traditional Igbo outfits, to be exported to Nigeria, stitched in Wada, Thane.
Oomo, a shack with chairs, tables and a TV only, is popular, as is Puku, as a rendezvous spot for Africans working and living around Mohammed Ali Road, enabling them to catch up in between their work, or after it. These restaurants don’t say ‘nonon Africans allowed’, but the lack of publicity about them and wariness about Africans in the area ensures a racial exclusivity to its clientele. “But I’ll be leaving this place too, like many blacks have, and move to Mira Road,” says Jem. “Even if it means a long travel to work.” The main reason cited by many Africans for this shift is discrimination by local residents, often culminating in a violent brawl, where the Africans are outnumbered. Suburbs like Mira Road, with their new buildings and cheaper prices, enables them to rent flats in the same building complex, so they can stick together for protection, and identity.


Motinagar Building

‘God Is My Strength’ is the name devoutly given to a sixth floor living room converted into an African restaurant. Located in a Bhayander building complex called Motinagar which houses Africans only, it draws a mixed crowd of Nigerians, South Africans, Ghanaians and Kenyans from every corner of the area. “Suji, plantain, egusi Soup,” Fafore, who owns and runs the place rattles off the regular fare which means home to many. “But for festivals we have special preparations of Yam and Bitter Leaf.” Fafore further says that for Africans in Mumbai, comprising a diverse diaspora in religion and nationality, “naming a common festival for all blacks is difficult”. The Yam Festival, however, serves as an important connect. For this harvest fest held at the beginning of August, those who don’t fly back home come to roost at one of the four African joints in the city with special preparations of pounded yam, bitter leaf soup and a multitude of fish and goat preparations, or meet at one of the suburban building compounds they live in to celebrate continent-hood. Another draw to these plain but cozy enclaves is the African music videos constantly playing on their TV screens. From traditional Afro beats to African hip-hop, Osayo Morejoseph, Sunny Bobo and 2Face connect to their countrymen, and connect them with one another. “We would have celebrated our festivals in a bigger way,” says Adamu Okuma, a Nigerian who is earning a business degree at Mumbai university and managing his uncle’s export import business simultaneously. “But to be honest, we are a little scared to do so.”

At Motinagar Building Complex, Bhayander


Okuma’s reason for not celebrating festivals in a “bigger way” is the same as that for Africans moving to far out suburbs to stay in ‘only black’ buildings. “Why do Indians think we are after their women?” at least four African youth asked. Agu displays two stab scars he received from a fight two months ago over the fact that he “just looked at a girl in Dongri”. Waage speaks of a girl who yelled and raised an alarm because a friend was asking for her number at a bus stop. This isn’t unusual. One can imagine an Indian boy being stabbed in ultra-orthodox Dongri for “just looking at a girl”. One can also imagine an ultra-orthodox Indian girl raising an alarm over a stranger at a bus stop, whatever his
nationality, asking for her number. Okuma steps in: “That guy got stoned by the locals over that phone number and had to take stitches.” Okuma proceeded to say that girls and guys alike would have a problem talking to him politely even if he asked someone the
“It’s all in the skin Babba,” Agu says. “You guys were dominated by people because you were dark. And now you’ve found someone who’s darker than you.” The 50 odd dirty looks from onlookers, counted in the time spent travelling with Agu and Waage to Mira Road station, might stand testimony to this. But prejudice isn’t so simple. A distinguishing factor among African youth, that Indians aren’t used to, is their muscular build and vibrant body language. Those not thus intimidated are perplexed at their accent. Waage, for instance, uses “Yep” and “Ahem” in nearly every statement. When he says “park the car” it sounds like “pork the cow”. Add to this the fact that the South African twang was evolved via colonial army men who barked out every statement to make even “I love you” sound like an infantry command, and it’ll be easier to fathom why a man behind the ticket counter started yelling at him when all he inquired about was a train pass price.
Quoted often to legitimize this bias is the large number of Africans (especially Nigerians) proven to be involved in the drug trade, and an ‘advance fee email fraud’ that induces you to send in small sums of money in the hope of winning millions, which is dubbed the ‘Nigerian Scam’ by crime syndicates because of the country it is mostly associated with. “But even if most of the foreigners caught for drug trafficking are Nigerians, most Nigerians are not into drug trafficking,” argues Okuma. “We comprise 60 per cent of the Mumbai’s African population. How can you generalize?”

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


With lakhs collected at Shivaji Park and lakhs more spilling in, Rana Chakraborthy and Rishi Majumder visited the pilgrimage spot at night and captured these images well into the Dalit messiah’s death anniversary

Photographs: Rana Chakraborty

at the fair

Hum Chaar Bhagwaan Ek

HUM CHAAR BHAGWAAN EK: Nanda Ram, 35 has made his first Mumbai trip from MP with wife Saraswati and children, Premnath and Deepak. “Other villagers who’d been here informed us!” he gushes. “We’ve been allotted a special 25 rupee train ticket each!”


FIGHT YOUR KHAIRLANJI: Priyadarshi Karkol (30) (right) has kicked up an engineering job for a cause, a helpline which takes anti-Dalit atrocity to media and the authorities. Across the road in a Barrista, Varun Arora (25), in the shipping line, asks, “Who the hell is Athavale?”


YOU HAVE MY BLESSINGS—NOW PASS IT ON: While the most crowded area around Shivaji Park was Chaityabhoomi, perhaps the relative space around this statue allowed this mother the opportunity to pass on some legacy to her child


AN EQUAL MUSIC: Protest has been a vital part of Dalit literature and music, granting it uniqueness. Past midnight, Dalit singers drum up their cries at recent injustices to a crescendo, folk styles incorporated with contemporary lyrics


“TO A HUNGRY MAN, FOOD IS GOD”: Gandhi’s saying holds true even at his old rival and colleague’s death anniversary, as amongst all the excitement, the maximum clamour is for food being doled out in a gigantic charitable gesture.


A DIFFERENT KIND OF PILGRIMAGE: “I am here to understand Dr Ambedkar better,” says Tibetan monk Karma Lodoa. “There are contradictions in his teachings—like the removal of the rebirth concept, which is essential in Mahayana Budhism.”


HOLY ENTERPRISE: Many Maharashtrians earn their living during this pilgrimage. They sell posters, lockets and music CDs venerating Ambedkar. “My husband and I have sold 100 posters and 500 postcards already,” exclaims Yanubai, this man’s wife.

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder visits Maharashtra Nature Park in the suburb and is amazed at its wide species of flora and fauna

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Maharashtra Nature Park

Mumbai is a city of paradoxes, according to many. That the Maharashtra Nature Park – 37 acres of lush forest – exists on one side of the Mithi river, with the commercial Bandra Kurla Complex forming it’s horizontal backdrop on the other side, is a paradox. That Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, fringes the Bandra Kurla Complex area – the commercial capital’s new commercial center is another paradox. That the crammed and disease-ridden bastis of Dharavi and Sion would flank adjacently the Maharashtra Nature Park – the MMRDA’s showcase of pristine natural beauty – is therefore just another ‘natural’ paradox that is inevitable to any Mumbai town planning scheme.
“We grew this nature park on land that was previously used by the BMC for dumping garbage from the Mithi river by 1982,” boasts Dr Jagdish Punetha, WWF’s state director. WWF acted as the advisor for setting up this project, with MMRDA taking charge of execution. The park plays host to a variety of rare plants, insects, birds, fishes and snakes, which are the subject of many a botanist or zoologist’s studies. “The maximum visitors are therefore school and college students,” explains MMRDA appointee in charge of the park’s maintenance and state forest officer
Avinash Kubal. “And while I have a dedicated 12-member team for maintenance, the maximum contribution towards upkeep comes from professionals and students in this field.” Declared rare species cited to be a part of this enclave are 260 for plants, 84 for birds and 39 for plants. “We wanted to imbibe in the park all the five ‘elements’ of fire (sun), water, air, earth and life,” Punetha explains. So the sun was symbolised by the spherical learning center built in the area’s middle with two narrow wings reaching out like “rays”. Wind was taken care of by a mini windmill. Water is a large but clean pond. “This, fish included, attracts the migratory birds,” Kubal points out. Which brings you to life – aquatic, vegetative, reptilian and mammalian. Taking this religious ‘element’ fixation a step further however, was erecting the Nakshatra Van: “Every star sign, as per Hindu mythology has a specific tree, and I believe that maybe a companionship with that tree would improve your life greatly,” Punetha comments on the setting up of this astrological garden. While he goes on to dismiss superstition and calls this system a mere “great way to conserve at least 21 species”, security-in-charge Lallan Jha claims: “Many people come here as a pilgrimage to this garden – the belief goes that sitting under ‘your tree’ leads to wish fulfilment!”
So while bird watchers prowl in as early as seven to eye an oriole or white wagtail or marsh harrier (migratory winter birds), kingfishers and red wattled Lapwings are more common finds around the lake. Striped Tiger, Had Jod, Bracket Fungus and the Buddha Banboo draw botanists from all over the country. As for snakes, the watchmen claim they’re so harmless that, “One even visits Kubal Saab to wind itself around its hand playfully!”
But now for the slums. They were a problem when the park was being set up, being the prime users of the BMC dumping ground for their toilet, and the watchmen claim they still create many issues. “Only yesterday I caught three men who’d stolen a lot of loot and had come here to distribute it amongst themselves – they were fighting!” Jha exclaims.
Punetha counters: “Unlike the public’s perception of them, slum dwellers are a very civic minded lot. When we were setting up here, they quickly realised what was being done and discontinued using this spot for dumping their rubbish.” “Why will I encroach upon their land,” Mohan, a slum dweller on the park’s periphery questions. “That plot is a good place of greenery for me to take my own children. Otherwise they have only darkness.” He should definitely visit the Nakshatra Van…

grove at the Maharashtra Nature Park

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

‘Afghans need a Gandhi, like India

Salman Shahid—a Pakistani. Hanif Hamgam–an Afghan. Both essay their own nationalities in Kabul Express. Both are politically aware. As reel turns real and vice-versa, Rishi Majumder listens on

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

salman shahidSALMAN SHAHID: You know this is the first time I’ve worked in an Indian film. It’s been a fulfilling experience—right from the places I have visited to the fact that this is a ‘different’ kind of an Indian film. What do you think Hamgam saab?

hanif hamgamHANIF HAMGAM: It’s been a good experience (laughs). Over 50 per cent of the population understand Urdu, so following a Hindi film is not a problem. Everything has been destroyed though, thanks to the 30-year war. We have been plucked out by the roots.

SHAHID: And yet, you have a film like Osama—made by a resident of Kabul.

HAMGAM: …and which has won a Golden Globe as well. But I’m talking generally. I hope India, Pakistan and Afghanistan work together in future. I hope we make a lot of films again and can show them abroad, like Indians do. I hope we can unite, possess a world market… and Inshallah… make excellent cinema!

SHAHID: The Pakistan government is not as supportive of the arts as its Indian counterpart. But to fight is in man’s nature, and so you have filmmakers putting out work like Khamosh Paani—which had Kiron Kher, an Indian actress, in the lead. The rise of pop culture is inevitable–one cannot cry ‘uniformity’, but heritage breathes via state patronage.

HAMGAM: We’ve had war in our country for over 5000 years. We’ve been attacked many times during the British—and they have lost. And so we have never been ‘colonialised’. There was a saying that an Afghan is invincible. But the bombings to end the Taliban regime, has shaken our belief in that. We had a King Amanullah, who in the 1920s launched a reform programme which if implemented, would have made Afghanistan the first country, to give women the right to vote. But the British, sensing his power, sponsored a coup to topple him—they were the Taliban then. Ironically the Taliban regime subjected women of the same country to such oppression. Even during Dawood Khan’s rule – which was heavily communist, there were some excellent reforms instituted. These were disbanded for a long time—but now, post the Taliban regime, we are going back on the track of those reforms.

SHAHID: But do you think the Taliban are from Pakistan? Because that is the impression being given by Kabul Express, and an opinion held by many. The Taliban may have been used by Pakistan and the USA—their strong fervour may have been exploited, but they were and are from Afghanistan itself.

HAMGAM: Yes. For Afghans may fight against one another, but will kill any foreigner who comes to rule them. But the Talibans played a role in a script… written by Pakistan on being pushed to do so by USA.

SHAHID: (laughs)… well, a lot of things which were done on being pushed by USA. Nevertheless, that man named Pervez Musharraf may say a lot of untrue things, but what he’s saying about the Taliban today is true—they are beyond Pakistan and USA’s control. Just like so many problems in India—the North East, for instance—have gone out of control.
I think what the Afghans need the most today is to be united, and not fight amongst one another in their own backyard.

hanif hamgam and salman shahid (talking)

HAMGAM: What the Afghans need is a Gandhi like India had—who did not fight for a position, or a Jinnah like Pakistan had, who was a national figure. The old Badshah has been re-instated but he couldn’t do much even earlier… we notice a lot of problems… problems Pakistan does not have.

SHAHID: Pakistan also has problems, come on!

HAMGAM: Maybe, but not to the extent that we do… but yes we must change this attitude. We keep fighting among each other—only to turn together on a foreigner who tries to intervene. We need a permanent nationalism.

SHAHID: Absolutely! Not an ‘eye for an eye’ tribal system. Leaders should be determined by vision, not guns.

HAMGAM: Arre, people have come to be very disillusioned by all this politics. What about your country, Shahid saab, and the American influence therein?

SHAHID: Well, there was Ayub Khan’s removal… Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s removal. It is amazing how many things we, being mere actors, come to know of. One evening I was sitting with a social worker and the American Consul General and we brought up this issue of American intervention. The Consul General got up to leave in irritation, dismissively saying, “It is not important!” And that’s the crucial problem of the west at large: indifference on the field and ignorance at home.

HAMGAM: In our country the poorest village boy will give you his analysis of what the politics is… he hangs on to every word he receives on the radio to give him an idea.

SHAHID: Because it matters to his life and death, and he doesn’t have other ‘preoccupations’. The Americans have their burgers, coke and computer games. It’s like a rich kid asking his mummy, “Who are these starving people?”

HAMGAM: (laughs) And mummy says, “Grow up… maybe then you’ll know.”

SHAHID: (laughs) And then we have American tourists coming down to Afghanistan and Pakistan, looking genuinely befuddled as to why people are hostile, or want to kill them! They haven’t the faintest clue! Whereas people in Afghanistan or Pakistan or India know lots about the happenings in America.

HAMGAM: But how much do you think Indians know about Pakistan or Afghanistan?

SHAHID: Very little, considering how much we know about India. I think there again it’s because India is the richer country which is always more isolated. I often get asked about how suppressed freedom of speech is, for instance. People should read the Pakistani newspapers to see the amount of open criticism the government receives.

hanif hamgam (talking) and salman shahid

HAMGAM: In Afghanistan too, I do a TV show calledZang E Khatar in which I openly criticize everyone in power and their misdeeds. But nothing matches Michael Moore’s film, where a government has received criticism while in power. Even Osama was made after the fall of the Taliban regime. But our film industry as a whole must be given time to develop.

SHAHID: We have had films like Hawa Ke Naam. Also Kabul Express has a very South Asian viewpoint, which is different from the normal lot of films on the issue, and is quite objective. Yet it isn’t totally objective – the partial truth but not the complete one. It is a film made to succeed at the box office after all, and pop culture has the attitude of reinforcing public opinion instead of changing it. Still, I see it as a huge effort.

HAMGAM: You know, we don’t want an external cultural invasion in Afghanistan. We have a very distinct culture—in our villages and towns. Only the media can, by being responsible, attain this. For instance, we don’t want our languages to be corrupted.

SHAHID: I think along borders—whether with India or Afghanistan—our cultures are very similar on either sides. But still, if borders have been made, people must understand their purpose. Many Belgians speak French, but their borders are still respected. Only if this respect is sustained can one go along building ties.
Masrood Ashini a youngster from International TV of Kabul, with Hanif Hamgam: Having sat through this entire discussion, I want to say something. If a house catches fire, and people either ignore it, or pour in some petrol – either way with the aim of destruction – then the house may be burnt down, but the fire will continue to spread…

HAMGAM: Not so far back, this fire spread all the way to New York.

a still from Kabul Express

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder and Rana Chakraborty chance upon Mehboobi, an unlikely dreg of the city’s flesh trade

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty, but obviously


The woman in the picture, being dragged onto the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus pavement by two female constables, calls herself Mehboobi. She is a 50-year-old sex worker. She was hauled over the divider where she was sitting by four constables – two male and two female, who beat her while dragging her across the road. On seeing the photographer taking out his camera for a photograph, the constables stopped beating her. The two male constables stood aside and let only the female constables drag her. Prerna, an NGO renowned for it’s documentation and active involvement in the sex workers issue puts the number of sex workers in Mumbai at over 5,00,000. Sex workers aged 50 or more are fewer in number but not unheard of. Sex workers facing an altercation with the police are definitely not unheard of. Why then are we doing this story?
Because some scenes, however repetitive, continue to disturb. Because this incident, which occurred a few weeks before International Woman’s Day, revolves around one representing every criteria of the downtrodden: a woman who is poor, old and denied respect. And because, as Mehboobi reveals over a cup of chai at Pila Haus, Kamatipura, the reasons for this photograph go far beyond a quarrel with the police…

My village lies near Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. Once, many generations back, my family was into saree weaving. Then the business died down. I don’t know why. My father and mother were landless labourers, working as farmers on another’s land. I had to help out in the fields too – and I hated it. I would rather do housework. So my father, mother and especially my aunt beat and scolded me when I refused to go or cried. A lady, who had left my village, came in from Bombay. She was very well dressed and rich. She told me, “Why don’t you come to Bombay with me. My daughter works there as a maid. She’s earning Rs 1,000 a month.” She said I would be back in a few months, with money for my parents – and I wouldn’t have to do farm work either. So the night she was to leave, I ran away from home, to meet her at her house.

Kurnool is in Andhra Pradesh’s Telengana region – famous the world over as one of India’s least developed areas. Residents of the region to date complain of the lack of government attention to the region where the education, irrigation, agriculture, industry and employment sectors are concerned. The economic disparity in the
area has led it to become one of the Naxalite hotbeds.

In Bombay I was kept locked in a house with three storeys in the Pila Haus area. It belonged to a madam called Shanta Bai. I was taken out only to be taken to different Madams or brothels, where they mostly said I was too young to be put into the trade. Then when I was 14, Shanta Bai’s brother raped me. After that many customers followed. In a room on the ground floor of the same house, with three or four managers sitting outside for security. For a long time I got no money for this work, only food and a place to stay. After some years I shifted to work with another madam – then another. We shifted either because the place we were in was to be
raided, or because we were sold. I had a daughter when I was 25. Someone informed my Khaala, a relative who stayed at Jogeshwari. She took my daughter away because she didn’t want her to be in my trade, saying: “Tera saaya se usein door rakhna hai.” I haven’t seen my daughter since.

Vijay Raghavan, assistant professor at TISS, who’s heading a Prayas field action project involving sex workers doesn’t want to comment on the proportion of people involved in the flesh trade who belong to other states because political parties might then interpret this as an outsider’s issue. “Whereas 60 per cent of Mumbaikars are migrants in that sense,” he reiterates. “Don’t we matter?” He claims the focus has to lie on prevention: “The police should check such trafficking at the primary bus and railway stations. There should be a separate intelligence unit for human trafficking, like the Anti Narcotics Bureau for drug trafficking.” Preeti Patkar, executive secretary and director of Prerna, points out: “Whereas earlier the areas targeted for
such trafficking were Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Nepal, today West Bengal, Bangladesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are targeted equally.” States like Punjab and Haryana, she claims, are used for trafficking women abroad or to Delhi: “So few Indian states are left untouched.”

Once, a man who said he loved me paid my madam Rs 10,000 to take me with him to his village near Azamgarh in UP. After a year there, the village elders, his wife and his brothers said, “Choose between living here and living with her.” So he gave me my bus fare and told me to go back to Bombay saying, “Aurat log to milegi. Bhai log kahaan milega?” When I was 30, there was a raid at the brothel I was at and we were sent back to our villages. There, as I expected, my family disowned me saying I was “as good as dead for them”. My mama stood at the village outskirts with a sickle saying he would chop my head off if I dared enter. My only family then on was my best friend Ka
mala, from Karnataka, who soon died of AIDS herself. Yet, who’ll give me other work with my background? I asked a magistrate once, “Mujhein izzat nahin dete ho, par koi kaam to do?” His reply was, “Maine tum logon ka theka nahin leke rakha hai.” The rare cases in which I have seen girls get out of this hell is through marriage, where after they keep their pasts a secret.

Countries like Mexico have set up old age homes for aged ex-sex workers. “Having a separate home might lead to greater discrimination. But the acceptance of such victims into normal old age homes is necessary,” stresses Raghavan. “But then we don’t have government sponsored homes as a priority.” Raghavan says the older sex workers either resort to begging or doing menial jobs around the red light areas – which is all they get. “And that is for those who are lucky enough not to die of diseases before that.” Patkar, however, claims, “Rehabilitation is possible, if the society is accepting.” She quotes incidents of corporates (which she doesn’t want to name for obvious reasons) which have rehabilitated such victims “in proper 9 to 5 jobs”. “Yet this support is only a thin sliver of light in a very dark tunnel.”

The police asked me why I was hanging around. I said, “I’m not harming anyone.” They caught me and started dragging me across the road, beating me meanwhile, saying they’ll take me to the thana. I had an operation on my arm recently, so I told them not to hit that. But they kept on raining blows on my arm. I said, “Do you really think I come here at age 50 for my daily pleasure?” But they just kept hitting me, and kept me in the lock up for a day. Next day, I wasn’t even given a chance to speak before the magistrate. A fine of Rs 300 was fixed without me being heard… With 1200 being my average monthly earning, and such fines being slapped every other day, where do I go?

Such fines are slapped under Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act for indecent behaviour in a public place or Section 145 B of the Railway Act for loitering in the premises. “But such fines are self-defeating. They lead to greater borrowing from pimps and moneylenders,” Raghavan points out. The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act on the other hand which targets soliciting, gives the judge discretion to send the sex worker to a rehabilitation home. “But this act isn’t used because it’s found too cumbersome, and the other two acts are open to often being interpreted wrongly,” Raghavan winds up. Patkar however has another take: “Considering the long years I have been here, I have seen the police improve drastically in their treatment of women involved as ‘victims’ rather than ‘accused’, and their willingness to use the ITPA.” Would you agree?


This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Straight off the street

These road-side dwellers who use street theatre to moot their issues have taken method acting to a new level, finds Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Street dwellers perform a skit at Mahim beach

“Tapori log! Shehar ko ganda kar diya!” yells a Hindu pandit, crinkling his nose while hopscotch-ing past a maze of homeless bodies sleeping on the pavement. Then a policeman enters with a bamboo stick, whacking the sleepers at random and hollering, “Pakad ke andar karo. ‘Quota’ poora karna hai.” Next is the driver of a make-believe vehicle running a pavement dweller over. Once at the hospital, the compounder asks the victim scathingly, “Nahaate dhote nahin?”, while the doctor refuses to examine them, choosing to prescribe medicines from afar. Other incidents like a job refusal for want of proper address, non-payment of wages after a hard day’s work, and beatings by goons, policemen and employers follow. All enacted minus costume, on Mahim Beach by a bunch of above-20 street dwellers.
The policeman and compounder, alias Deepak Bahadur Thapa, is a stout Nepali who came to the city 10 years ago and works in the catering business. Mukesh Das, from Tripura, who plays the pandit and the doctor, has after endless catering and clerical call centre jobs, moved up to becoming a helper for the Miss India Competition trials. Ajay from Bihar, who alternates between catering and banner hoisting, plays the quintessential homeless victim—of arrests, beatings and accidents. His prototype homeless helper, who takes him to the hospital or police station, is rendered by Santosh Yadav, from UP, who’s quit washing dishes at a roadside restaurant and is looking for a better option.
“The purpose was to give them a creative vent during spare time, so that they avoid bad habits, get a group identity, build individual confidence and generate awareness of their condition amongst the public,” claims Abhishek Bhardwaj, a fellow of Action Aid, who’s been working with Mumbai’s homeless for four years (he adds in the passing, that 50 per cent of the homeless in the city are from other parts of Maharashtra).
The idea of a street theatre group emerged from the animated way in which the boys told stories; Bhardwaj held summary acting and scriptwriting workshops, enabling them to develop a 10-minute play talking about their travails. This stretched to 20 minutes and a hundred street performances around the city. “So we developed plays on other themes like AIDS as well,” Bhardwaj remembers. “They’ve performed for names like the Rotary Club, Hindalco, TISS — where they won a medal, and even in the Kala Ghoda festival.” Performing only when their seasonal jobs allow time, the group members sometimes earn, besides conveyance and lunch, Rs 100 to 300 per person for a show.

“Madhur Bhandarkar took Traffic Signal’s stories from us! Did you sell it?” Thapa questions Bhardwaj grinning. “Yeah! Now give us our cut!” Das takes on as the others laugh. More than connecting to an audience or their ‘true selves’ – both of which theatre motivates – the roughly hewn skits, caricaturing themselves and their oppressors, act as a medium for these migrants, sans any family, to connect to each other. Post their dai
ly dose of exploitation, they pause mid-rehearsal, while depicting that exploitation, to giggle and share in local slang the experience of a happy movie ending they would never realise, or a crush they will never attain. “I’ve saved up and taken a room recently,” says Das proudly. Yet today, he’s given up a night shift which would contribute to the room’s rent, to saunter into spotlight… generated by a Mahim beach street lamp.

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Houseful at Pila Haus

Rishi Majumder sifts the sands of time to discover this neighbourhood’s once illustrious past

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Gulshan Talkies at Pila Haus

There are two kinds of cab drivers in Mumbai. One reacts with a semi-smirk when a man calls “Pila Haus” as desired destination. The other, more decent kind, nods with a slight but visible stiffening of the neck. The name Pila Haus is a colloquial distortion of ‘play house’ which was what the British dubbed this area bordering Kamathipura because of the various theatres flourishing there. Today swallowed in one of the world’s most famous red light areas, these theatres have either been demolished, or converted into cinema halls. Gulshan Theatre, for instance, was converted and re-baptized from the hugely popular and historic Bombay Theatre in 1972. Here’s its memory lane tour, with our feet firmly in the present.
“Actors, dancers, singers and musicians from abroad, London especially, used to perform in these theatres for Europeans,” theatre director and producer Sam Kerawaala remembers of the theatres in Pila Haus. “It was a posh area then.” One written account talks of a Bombay Theatre being set up in 1750 (one of Mumbai’s first) for British clerks and army officers, with entry restricted to Europeans only.
At Rs 13 and 15 for a ticket, Phool Aur Kaante is playing through four shows at Gulshan Talkies to almost full houses. The morning 10 o’clock slot however, is reserved for a film genre locally referred to as ‘sexy film’, read: B grade semi porn. Ajay Devgan — today’s minimalism maestro —
jumps, hits a wall, rebounds with three flying kicks, and ultimately uses his boot to stall a goon’s knife as it approaches actress Madhu’s throat. An all male crowd dressed in a mix of lungis and faded, torn trousers roars at this 1991 stunts as if it was just invented. Away from its history, Gulshan Talkies is stuck in a time warp of its own.
“I remember watching Parsi Gujarati plays in Bombay Theatre when I was a child,” says 74-year- old Pervez Dara Mehta, an old hand. He recounts that Parsi theatre groups dominated the Bombay theatre scene between the late 18 and early 1900s. “Some plays would begin at 10 pm and go on till two in the morning – with upto six ‘oncores’.” He tells us of a popular
Parsi theatre genre called “seria-comic”, which encapsulated extremes of tragedy (seriousness), comedy and the in-between in a four-hour production.
The collapsible entrance gates to Gulshan theatre are shut during intervals for crowd
control. Sherbet, anda pav and chewda vendors declare their wares through these gates. Sherbet is priced at Rs 2 and a popcorn packet costs Rs 3. Inflation has passed this place by. Like the sex workers, charas vendors and slot machines down the road which supposedly provide the cheapest rates in the city, the cinema halls comply with this once “posh” area’s current brand equity.
“Bombay Theatre was a prized performance space for Tamashas,” says Madhukar Nirale, owner of what was the famed Hanuman Theatre. “Maybe it was because of the quality of the hall – cushioned seating and many fans…” Nirale maintains that the popularity of these performances in the area came about in the 1930s to blossom post-Independence: “It was probably because of the markets in adjoining areas. The working class connected with Tamashas, given their religious themes and local flavour.”
Shouts of protest emerge from the audience’s lips in the 725-seater as the movie cuts a scene abruptly during reel change. The projection comes with white scratch lines running over Ajay Dev
gan and Amrish Puri’s faces during intense scenes. Forty-six-year-old Fahad Mohammed is watching this film for the twentieth time. He loves the fact that it revolves around a father-son relationship. But he isn’t the only one who’s seen the film before. “The fact that I can watch this film on big screen as easily as I could have seen it on TV feels good,” says 23-yearold Khalid. As the audience disperses, the usher swears at a drunk who’s fallen asleep and refuses to budge. He’s then unceremoniously dragged out by hair and limb and thrown on the street. He still refuses to budge.

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Despite the hectic dislocation to Chandivali, slum dwellers at Sanjay Gandhi National Park look forward to chirpier morning in their new concrete homes, says Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

A slumdweller awaits her turn at the NHWC office

Mil Gaya?” Uma Nath, a full time worker for Nivara Hakk Welfare Centre (NHWC), and a slum dweller himself, asks a face in the crowd. Thirty-odd people sitting cramped in the ground floor room of an eight-storey building in Chandivali stare at us with a mix of anticipation and anguish. Over a hundred others wait outside the room in groups. The slum dweller flashes a smile and a paper – certifying him as the rightful owner of a 225 square feet flat. He is one of 4142 people to be rehabilitated in the first phase of what is called Asia’s largest rehabilitation programme. Seven years ago, approximately 11,500 slum dwellers living in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park area paid Rs 7,000 for the promise of a flat. 650 of those hold “pauthis” entitling them to ownership today. Most of these people have kept their employments aside for the last two days to visit the building in the hope of receiving a key. “Today,” says part-time NHWC worker Dinkar Parabh. “Was the day appointed for the distribution of such.”
Parabh, a central government worker at the Film Division, is also a slum dweller receiving a flat in the building. “People are complaining about the wait, just as they are complaining about glass being broken in some flats, and some fittings not being there,” Parabh tells us. “But these things will be sorted out once they move in. The larger picture is that they have got a flat.” Post the High Court order to rehabilitate 33,000 families who pay the Rs 7000 fee, the slum dwellers had refused to shift to a remote location offered in Kalyan. This mammoth project undertaken by Nivara Hakk, the State Government and Sumer Corporation titled, “apna city” in an architect’s map, had stalled mid-way to see part completion now. Ironically, it is slums that line the boundaries of the complex, and Parabh tells us the same slum dwellers are responsible for many of the windows being broken to convenience either theft of door, window and bathroom fittings, or a game of cricket. “Par ye to chota cheez hai – these are excellent buildings,” he says, pointing to the recently
painted apartments reflecting the sun.
“Any idea when the keys will come in,” Babu Kishan Chimole asks us separately. A children’s night clothes tailor, he sells his wares to retailers in Malad (which is where the first phase of the scheme focuses). Forty-year-old Chimole has five children and a wife as dependents. While he likes the look of his second floor house, he smiles ruefully: “To be honest, my earlier home, though in a slum, had more space… which is what I need.”
On seeing Chimole, other slum dwellers with pauthis stroll over to talk to us. Ibrahim Sheikh, a “construction mistri”, says, “That we have a solid house is great. But we need to work to pay its maintenance and electricity bill. The closest bus station is 2 km away. We need a bus station closer to our house. If we travel by auto it’ll cost us Rs 70 a day.”
L B Pandey, an aged and reserved gentleman with a pauthi for a third floor flat, points to the need for a hospital or medical facility close by. Bhagwat Patil, who’s been allotted on the second floor talks about the difficulty of admitting his 14-year-old son Gajaanan to a new school nearby. “Schools have fixed, quotas of new entrants. Unless the bus service is fixed his crucial class X will suffer,” his wife mutters. Ramdas, who’s moving in with two generations worries about the same for his grandchildren. Other requests fervently

made are for a police outpost and a basic rationing office. The original plan for the scheme provided for two hospitals, small clinics and medical centres, two cultural centres, 16 schools (primary, secondary and high schools), one 4-acre maidan, two 1-acre playgrounds, a market, mosque, temple, church, Buddhist temple, gurudwara and 250 industry-promoting units. “Which will probably happen, but when? And how do we adjust till then?” Patil’s wife says again. Settled in Mumbai for over 20 years, most of the crowd originally hail from outside the city. People from rural Maharashtra, Karanataka, Gujarat… who’ve long left the concept of a home back in their villages, get together in worrying about whether these apartments will fit their concept of a house — which was what their slums in Sanjay Gandhi National Park served as.

Crowds outside the NHWC office
The people who were excitedly quiet in the morning grumble amongst themselves, because it’s afternoon and the builder’s man designated to
hand over the keys isn’t there. While the younger folk ask us if we know anything, middle-aged and older men are more complacent: “We have no reason to get tense really, we’ve waited for so long already.” But their insecurity stems from more than a wait in the sun. “The forest department men have started to scare us, saying we have to leave by the tenth of the month,” one man who refuses to give his name tells us. Another anonymous takes this opportunity to question the department’s motives further: “What I don’t understand is why should we be removed, when constructions by Thakur and Lokhandwala builders are on in forest area in Kandivali East, on areas four times the size of this even?” This, in turn, leads to a conversation about Vidya Chauhan, an NCP nagar sevak, assuring slum dwellers who pay upto Rs1800 an ID card that “will mean no one can remove them.” Nath announces sadly in the end: “We won’t be getting the keys today.” But he adds that those who want to save themselves from trouble in the future should avoid coming all the way here to check: “Instead see the notice put up at our office, which will be closer.”
Standing outside the apartment complex in the evening, we meet a slum dweller whose not a part of Phase 1 of the scheme. “Luckily I drive an auto. So I can drive down here every now and then to check.” says M Prasad. “I have an allotment due too but since I stay in Kandivali, I’ll have to wait my turn.” Prasad, from UP, has shifted cities twice to reside in Kolkata before he came to Mumbai. “I’ve told my wife and two daughters to come down here now. I refused to get them here before because of where I was staying,” he laughs, looking at the Hiranandani building profiles twinkling against the horizon. He then tells us it doesn’t make sense for him to keep coming here to enquire about the flats because he’s so far back o n the waiting list: “But I continue doing so because I love looking at the flats… and because by now, the watchman’s almost become a friend!”

The new to-be residents check out their home...

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder does some cutting chai at Bharat Coffee House, once a haunt of ace theatrewallahs, now Kamathipura’s one-stop-shop

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

bharat coffee house

Ye zindagi ke mele,
Ye zindagi ke mele,
Duniya mein kam naa honge,
Afsos, hum naa honge…

This is what’s playing in Bharat Coffee House now. Movie: Mela; Music director: Naushad Ali; Singer: Mohammed Rafi; Lyricist: Shakel Badayuni; Year of release: 1948. Which was when Bharat Coffee House set up shop. The semi-circular cafe built on a corner marks the beginning of Pila Haus. Then, a hub for theatre folks, this café would burst intellectual debates and animated chats on the nuances of drama. Today, with Pila Haus a metaphor world over for ‘red light area’, those nuances go unnoticed. Local populi sip their ‘cutting’ casually, as the café’s primary customer base—prostitutes, pimps and johnnies—cut their deals. Sitting at the café’s far end (its choicest seat) one can observe life on three streets which converge to meet the Pila Haus lane. One also observes a red light on the traffic signal at the crossroads, symbolising a ‘no exit’, on the otherwise two-way street for its hapless residents. For women who’re too old to leave the flesh trade, or too young to be allowed to, Bharat Coffee House is their last stop for the day, every day, every year. Oh! One also observes the Pila Haus Police Chowki 100 feet away. No tragedy is replete sans irony.
Pyaar deewaana hota hai, Mastaana hota hai…
starts playing from Kati Patang, released, 1970. The end of the ’70s signed off the absolute conversion of Bharat Coffee House’s clientele. Besides the decrepit walls, the period motif on the building’s exterior and aged wooden tables and benches, the music—refusing to extend beyond the ’70s—remains the only living connection between the past and the present. “Har khushi se, har gham se begaana hota hai…” hums a man, at the next table, smiling at another across him. A conversation ensues over chai-samosa:
Man 1:
You liked? Rs 500.
Man 2:
I have only 200.
Man 1:
You can’t pay for me for Opera House if you want me to take you till Juhu.

Man 2: 300.
Man 1: (Points to our table and then his plate):
You can’t have Mutton Curry for the price of a samosa.
Five slot machines coloured yellow, blue and silver line one wall, with names like Super Bonus, Hast Rekha, City World and 7 Star. A man in a faded crème shirt strides in, confidently drunk, to a painted blue desk dispensing cheap slot tokens for believers in fate. He’s dark, reed thin and balding. His only distinguishing facial feature, is his moustache. Clipped, so there’s a half-inch gap between it and his nose; it stands out like a comical inverse to Hitler’s (and Chaplin’s) toothbrush.
“Kaanton se kheench ke ye aanchal, Tod ke bandhan baandhi paayal.”
1965, Guide. Three youngsters approach a woman sitting at a table, heavily made up. They appear to agree to what she says, but indicate by gesture that all three of them will be involved. She walks away. The man in crème staggers to the slot machines. He inserts a token.
“Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, Aaj phir marne ka iraada hai.”
He waits for the result. After a minute of silence, he goes to the next. Then the next. His speed of slot-machine coin dropping increases with the song’s tempo.
“Kal ke andheron se nikalke, Dekha hai
aankhen malte malte, Phool hi phool—zindagi bahaar hai, Tay kar liya aaj phir…”

Jackpot! ‘Super Bonus’ has dealt him a super bonus! He dances to the song’s refrain.
“I was an excellent dancer and singer,” a drunk and elated Farooq tells us later over coffee. Now he’s a car mechanic, peddling his services on the road. Having lost his wife and children, who’ve left him to go back to their village, he had today lost most of his weekly income—before making it up at the slots. “Par bhagwaan ne diya na?” He insists and launches into a mimic of Mukesh’s voice, drowning the current track. Slurring, he asks us for a singing assignment. Close to us sits a man marketing a woman who can do an Umraao Jaan, “Rekha or Priyanka – you choose.”

farooq, the winner...

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

I saw Farooq around about a year after this article, near Metro Cinema. He was as drunk, and abusing and punching the air. Was late for something, so couldn’t catch up with him…


Acquitted on Wednesday in the 1993 bomb blasts case after 14 painfully long years, Iqbal Sadam tells Rishi Majumder just what it means to finally be free

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Iqbal Sadam, at his home in Navpada, Bandra.

Do you know Dawood or Anees?” M N Singh, Bombay blasts’ investigation chief asked me. When I said no a policeman swung into my ear with a knuckle duster. “How much do you earn?” I said Rs 7000 a month. “Then how come you can afford such nice clothes.” I said if he knew anything about clothes then he’d know that these were just the kind of cheap clothes Rs 7,000 a month would afford someone. Another swing, then another… “Bloody Pakistani.”

“I still have a hearing problem,” finishes Iqbal Sadam. The reason Sadam feels free to say this is because he has today been officially acquitted, along with 23
others, of charges involving the 1993 Bombay Blasts Case. News cameras hounded him as he walked out of the Byculla Court. “What do you feel Iqbal,” said one newsman, facing the camera with his arm around him. “Good,” he answered. The reporter said: “That was Iqbal Sadam, who’s been acquitted today. And he feels good.” “They too have to earn their rozi roti,” says Iqbal sympathetically, as if this is his little charity for our unfortunate lot. “I, in turn have affixed a standard answer as to how I feel today: good.”
Hasan Parve Ki Chawl in Navpada, Bandra, a dilapidated structure with open gutters, houses eight other bomb blasts accused. Sadam is the only one to have been acquitted. “My 17th Roza in 1993 was when they came here to take me away,” says the Std IV pass, able to remember dates only by an association to his religious fast. His fourth Roza in 2006 was when the promise of acquittal was delivered in the TADA court judgment. That having been made official on Wednesday, his name is cleared of all charges nearly 14 years later,
which is the suggested period for life imprisonment.
Arrested for allegedly travelling to Dubai and attending a meeting as part of the blasts conspiracy hatched by Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, Sadam says, “I went there for the first time, to buy clothes, because I have a clothes business. But what I don’t understand is how I was kept in custody for nearly two months without being presented before a magistrate.” This, he claims, was in the Mahim police station, before he was handed over to the crime branch. “Here I saw with my own eyes, a brother being asked to strip before his sister, third degree on ice slabs, men’s moustaches being plucked out, and a man’s feet being split across with his genitals being

stomped on…” Sadam begins to list. A document sent by blasts suspects to the UN called Voices: From The Draconian Dungeons and 47 (unsuccessful) petitions against the investigating team alleged far worse. “Which is my problem with Black Friday. The film didn’t show one instance of what the police actually did!”
Sadam’s mother, 70 years old, lies almost motionless in their 10 by 12 feet room. The room encompasses within the same area, a tiny bathing space and platform for a stove. Shooing a rat away from one corner, he said: “She can’t talk much because she had a heart attack four days ago.” He adds a presumable fact: that her health started declining with his arrest.
His younger brother, Javed Shaikh, emerges from the bath to speak: “Since our father’s death in 1982, he had become our father. So you can imagine what our family went through with his arrest.” Along with his clothes-stall business and his family’s reputation suffering, another obvious toll was on Sadam’s health: “I weighed 102 kilos when they took me in – all muscle. Now
I’m 67 kilos… with this.”
He shows us a medical certificate indicating severe diabetes. Still, Sadam is proud of having gotten his three sisters married. His brothers are waiting for him to tie the knot first. “I was about to have a love marriage,” he shrugs.
“But after my arrest — her father told her he would consume poison if she didn’t break off the engagement.” This was when he was 26. Now, at 40, he may start looking for a bride again: “You see, I couldn’t dream of getting married before this case was decided.” No one, he laughs, wants a bail certificate as dower.
The only decorations in the room are a line from the Kalma and photographs of the Kaaba and a dargah. “I don’t blame God for anything,” Sadam clarifies. “If something is in your naseeb, it will happen.” And Dawood Ibrahim, the mastermind who still goes free?
“Dawood bhai is not a god but a human being – he can get caught easily.” Sadam then propounds on the reason Dawood isn’t being caught: “It’s because he holds the secrets of many state and business heads.” Much like Harshad Mehta wasn’t heckled, he continues, because his downfall

would bring to their knees many a government. Sadam smiles here. Despite all he has been through, he displays glimpses of pride on the fact that he’s a survivor. Like when he talks about the way he organised and presented his evidence: “The CBI was trying to tell the court that they’d arrested me in Delhi.” Sadam had been picked up – and released — before his brush with TADA for “extorting chanda for Ganpati”. “While it was outrageous considering I’m a Muslim, the records of that arrest proved my presence in the city,” he boasts. The CBI told him, supposedly, that this was the first time someone had proved them false in this case.
His mother wakes up in the middle of this to mutter out of context: “ Jo sachcha hai, uska hamesha jeet hoga” on her son being discharged of guilt well over a decade since his accusation.
A basic Latin maxim Homo praesumitur bonus donec probetur malus is better known as “One is innocent until proven guilty”. One wonders if it will make sense to her. Perhaps not, but today, post her son’s official exoneration, she too feels “good”.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder unveils Kala Killa a.k.a Rehwa Fort, a site whose heritage is protected by an unlikely sentinel

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Despite recent victories by heritage conservationists (toilet demolitions, heritage structure restorations, a UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award Of Distinction) their principal problem, the ‘encroacher’ on and around heritage structures, remains and increases in number. The ‘encroacher’ belongs to a section categorised as ‘urban poor’. One often wonders what the city’s heritage means to such who, being less educated than most, might not draw a connection between their lives and subjects such as Gothic Architecture or British History.

Rehwa Fort

Prabhakar Zanke

Prabhakar Zanke was born in 1950, to a family which worked and lived in a coal company on the banks of a creek, in what would today fall under Sion. “This was a marshland,” he remembers. “The coal was dried on the creek shore. On the opposite side was the Dharavi Koliwada.” Next to the coal company was a small, old fort. Zanke’s earliest childhood memories are of playing hide and seek in and around the fort, climbing its walls after he learnt how to walk, and diving into the creek from it after he learnt how to swim: “We would stand on top, with the water waves hitting its base, and threaten to jump into the river if scolded for failing an exam.” Each monsoon left the fort’s black stone walls blacker, covering it with dark moss.
Travellers lost in the marsh would recount, “We saw a Kala Killa.” And thus it was dubbed. “One day my school took us to Prince Of Wales Museum,” Zanke continues. “I saw a picture there and told the teacher proudly: Look! There’s Kala Killa! My family Killa! The teacher replied: No. That’s Rehwa Fort.”
The Rehwa Fort this monsoon is overgrown with weeds from the last few months and trees from the last
many years. Below a stone plaque that reads “Built By Order of the Honorable Horn Esq. President and Governor of Bombay in 1737” (and which is signed “Engineer”) hangs a clothesline with a lungi, a pair of shorts and a gamcha. On its rampart stands a flag bearing the emblem of the Bahujan Samaj Party (a victor in the last elections). Children still climb it to play hide and seek. But the creek they could have dived into has been filled and converted into the Kala Killa Bus Depot. The area, including a main road with the city’s finest leather shops is called Kala Killa too, but the Killa baptising these lies deep within a slum. The colony surrounding the fort was built in the early 1970s, when Zanke (then a worker in the same coal company) and his fellow residents resisted displacement: “Our grandfathers settled here. This was where our livelihood was.” The government relented, and the colony then built was named Rehwa Fort Colony.
Zanke makes light of his back problem, clambering up the rampart, to impart a guided tour inside. Researchers, journalists and authors, from as far as Europe and Australia, have benefited from such tours, free of cost. “This is where the King sat,” he
points to a giant stone seat, now growing grass. “And these smaller seats, for ministers. And those, bench like, for soldiers.” He then urges us to jump with him into a dark chamber in the fort’s midst. ” Thoda daring karo,” he pleads unwilling to let us go without a complete look-around. Rumours abound of a tunnel from this chamber, connecting to the Sion Fort, but Zanke hasn’t fond any such tunnel, despite endless searches.
We then walk around the circumference, tinier than even a single column apartment block. Shops — launderers and grocers — line a portion of this, with racks and closets put up against ancient stone. Next to the furniture Zanke indicates windows, opening into the chamber he wanted us to jump into. But these intrusions aside, Zanke and other colony members have steadfastly protected the fort from encroachment, to the extent of suggesting other land to migrants, so they don’t use the fort’s premises.
He last played guide to officials from the Archaeological Department. Kulkarni, a senior official impressed with Zanke’s zeal, informed him of restoration plans: “The fort walls will be reinforced, the weeds cleared and the road leading to it widened. A 30-feet radius around the fort will be cleared to make room for a pathway around it.” The colony residents will be rehabilitated in the Ashtavinayak Ratnadeep Dattaguru apartments to be built close by for 209 tenants. Zanke, now an advisor to the rehabilitation committee and appointed by the officials an “interim caretaker” of the Killa, has more to be happy for: “My children, one in class 12 and the other in 3 rd year B Com, might get jobs looking after Rehwa Fort! Like my grandfather, father and me, they won’t have to leave!”

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder obsessively tracks down Mumbai’s two-century old “milestones”, a journey that has left him with some more wanderlust

Photographer: Sebastian D’Souza

Many years ago, I had a discussion with a director of the Prince of Wales Museum on whether the milestones should be removed… and put into the grounds of the museum. His contention was that, by this, we could ensure their preservation. I endorsed his sentiment but felt that a milestone, which had little aesthetic value, only had real value as a historic marker on a road that had come up over an old route. As events have turned out I wish I had accepted his advice. Sadly, I succeeded in convincing him and so he did not press his idea for relocating them with the authorities.
— Saleem A. Ahmadullah, unanimously applauded by conservationists for locating, researching, documenting and spreading awareness on Mumbai’s old milestones.

St. Thomas's Cathedral/Church

These basalt stones, originally three or four feet tall, mark miles from St Thomas’s Church (today St Thomas’s Cathedral) which, in the eighteenth century, comprised the city-centre. Most congested city streets, where these stones lie today, were then country paths connecting Bombay to settlements it later incorporated. Their last record, available at the Mumbai Heritage and Conservation Committee office, was apparently completed around 10 years ago (the names of certain landmarks quoted ceased to exist then). It cites inscription, location, landmark, date and remarks on the condition of each stone. We traced these locations. Only six of 13 stones mentioned, all Grade 1 heritage structures, remain. Some have allegedly been removed, submerged or demolished by none other than road labourers hired by the BMC itself.


INSCRIPTION: “1 Mile From St Thomas’s Church” LOCATION: Kalbadevi Road, in front of Navlakhi Date: 1816-37
We asked 50 people in Kalbadevi about Navlakhi. One of them guided us to a publisher who informed us that Navlakhi, a once renowned publishing set-up, had shut down 15 years ago. But he directed us to its current location. In its place stands ‘Double Dot, The Share Café’, a stockbroker service, which has ‘Navlakhi & Co” inscribed minimally in the corner of its signboard because the BMC licence it uses is still registered under that name. Once painted the same blue as Navlakhi was, the stone is today grey, and has sunk into the pavement. So much so, that only “1” and half of the “Mile” of it’s inscription is visible. “I have seen this stone go half into the ground,” says Kishan, a paan seller here next to the stone for over 25 years. Shops and buildings on this footpath have gone in as well. In fact the steps once leading to them have gone way under and you now have to step into the old stores, rather than up to them. Kishan knows of the stone’s history from what he could piece together of professors lecturing student groups during field trips, particularly from St Xavier’s nearby: “I can’t understand English but after hearing the lecture over a hundred times it made sense.”


INSCRIPTION: “3 Miles From St Thomas’s Cathedral” LOCATION: August Kranti Marg, in front of Central Bank, Gowalia Tank Branch DATE: After 1837
It is obvious that this milestone is in better shape
than others in South Mumbai. The number of miles not being in Roman numerals, a distinct design and St Thomas’ being called ‘cathedral’ instead of ‘church’ propound its comparative newness. Located almost at the foot of the Central Bank ATM, the guard stationed here directs us to a vegetable vending lady on the same footpath. “This stone, like the others, will go with the footpath and road rising,” she forecasts shrugging. She, like Kishan, is categorized as a juna aadmi (a person living there for long) of the area. Every ‘stone search’ has revealed such juna aadmis, some illiterate, who impart a ready account of the area’s heritage, and what it has withstood.


INSCRIPTION: “III Miles From St Thomas’s Church” LOCATION: Javji Dadaji Marg, opposite BHATIA HOSPITAL DATE: 1816-37
This milestone is caught at history’s final crossroad. With only the “III” of its inscription showing, it should attain extinction if unheeded for a few more years. Embedded next to one of the older Kaamat restaurants, the manager of the same comments: “Maine socha, ‘kuch to hai’, par itna puraana hoga, ye nahin socha.” We stand around with him, peering inquisitively at the remnant. A thin crowd from a Ganpati procession stands around, peering inquisitively at us.


INSCRIPTION: “IV Miles From St Thomas’s Church” LOCATION: At the junction of N M Joshi Marg (Deslile Road), Sane Guruji Marg (Arthur Road) and the Chinchpokli Bridge DATE: 1816-37
Another juna aadmi leads us to the milestone proudly. Rooted today near Blue Bird Bakery, it has managed to stay above ground right till the “St Thomas’s” but lies hidden from pavement walkers by a concrete bench. The season’s festive spirit celebrates it unintentionally, framing it in a gateway of advertisement hoarding. Above it hangs a photograph of an aamdar (possibly the same one who erected the bench) proclaiming his “Hardik Swagat” to Ganesh bhakts. The hoarding advertisement reads, “Jet Vitrified Tile. Feel the difference.”

INSCRIPTION: “VI Miles From St Thomas’s Church” LOCATION: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg, opposite Chitra Cinema. DATE: 1816-37
Slanting at a 15 degree angle, this could well be redubbed the leaning tower of our heritage, except that our indifference might soon leave it with nothing to lean on. This is sad since it shows the whole of its inscription, which is more likely to be toppled, than sunk. In its backdrop is an Air Tel showroom, whose occupants are as unaware of its existence as thousands of daily passers by, some using the stone as support for a brisk shoe lace tie up.

INSCRIPTION: “VIII Miles From St Thomas’s Church”
LOCATION: Scheme No. 6 Road No. 30, infront of Karnataka Bank, Sion (E) Branch
DATE: 1816-37
The farthest extent of the old city milestones. The Karnataka Bank branch has shifted location now so one has to walk 50 metres ahead to where the old branch was at Brij Bhushan Building. The least affected of all because it is in a quiet lane. We were unable to locate 7 of the 13 milestones listed. The milestone showing two miles at Ibrahim Rahimtullah road “fell in with rubble” during road re-construction by the BMC, as alleged by Abdul Shaikh, an old shopkeeper and eyewitness to the event. B R Bendkhale, who introduces himself as a “senior Shiv Sainik” claims the milestone showing four miles, in front of Voltas House at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg, was actually uprooted by BMC workers years ago because “it caused inconvenience to their work”. He also emphasises that not Voltas (which was sent a legal notice by the Heritage Committee for the act) but the BMC is to blame for its removal. The milestone showing six miles at S K Bole Road sank into the ground with the road level being raised (again by the BMC), according to Ram Pandit, a flower seller nearby. If this is true, then disintegrating pieces might still be found underground. One milestone, showing three miles at Mascarenhas Road opposite Union Bank, was supposedly uprooted by a businessman (who has now shifted), because it spoilt the look of his shop. This leaves three milestones (four miles at N M Joshi Marg, opposite ESIS Bhavan, five miles at S S Rao Marg and eight miles near Lady Jamshetji Road’s Junction with Kataria Marg at Mahim). Despite hours of searching and asking juna aadmis, these couldn’t be found. The locals claim there is no way they would have survived. But if you do find them, you know who to call.
(With additional inputs by Santosh Mishra)


Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2007 10:20 AM

Dear Sir,

Re. Mumbai’s Milestones.

I saw your article in today’s Mumbai Mirror regarding Mumbai’s Milestones. I am sure there will be several responses that you will receive from numerous readers no doubt.

I have been seeing one such Milestone since 1985 when I used to drive from Ghatkopar to Nariman Point daily.  Some times, while returning from Mumbai, I used to cross over at Dadar on the Tilak Bridge and go towards Dadar-TT Circle for my onward journey towards Ghatkopar.

After reaching Portuguese Church. I would take the right lane (Portuguese Church Road) going towards Kabutarkhana in Dadar (West).  After passing by the (South) Gate of Dr. Antonio DaSilva High School on my left side, just a few metres further in front of the small shops & a few metres before reaching the Hanuman-Dattatreya temple in the centre of Saraswatibai Joshi Marg, I used to see one MILESTONE jutting out of the left-side footpath on which the following words were inscripted:


I do not have a digital camera nor a camera-cell phone otherwise I would have sent you a photograph of this Milestone.  I had last seen it in March 2007, when it was half immersed into the raised footpath.

I am not very sure if the Mile Stone still exists today.  I stay in Vashi now and do not travel through Dadar area that frequently.

When I saw your article, I looked out for this Milestone among the ones described in your article – it was not there.  It is strange that something so prominently visible has been ignored by the concerned authorities for so long.  I knew that this Milestone was from the British Era and that it held significant archaeological importance and that it should be classified as a “Heritage land mark point”, but was not aware whom I should have contacted.

Hence I felt, I should bring this to your notice.  May be, you can send your reporter with a camera and see if this Milestone still exists today.

I would like to thank you for publishing your article describing the various Milestones.  In fact, there must be many such old structures of historical / archaeological importance that deserve due respect, and we as Mumbaikars should be proud to have such old heritage structures existing in our neighbourhood.

Thank you once again.

Yours faithfully,
Mahendra M. Sharma.
Tel: 2766 6430
Cell: 986 717 5887.

  • From:


Subject: Mumbai’s Milestones

Date: Wed, 14 May 2008 13:23:53 +0530

Dear Sir

I am a TY BMM student of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and this letter is with reference to the article ‘MUMBAI’S MILESTONES’ by Rishi Majumder that appeared in the Mumbai Mirror dated Sunday, September 30, 2007.Inspired by the story of Mumbai’s two-century old milestones and their sad plight, this vacation I set out, armed with your article and a road map of Mumbai. To my amazement I was able to locate 8 milestones out of the original 13, two more than what Mumbai Mirror was able to trace. The entire process took about three days on Mumbai’s busy and jam packed streets, but the end result was worth the effort. Of the two more milestones located by me, the first one is on Vincent road, outside Antonio D’Silva High School, Dadar. The inscription here originally read VII miles from St. Thomas’s Church, but very little is visible now and the recent work on the footpath has reduced the milestone to a mere 1 feet. The next one is on Dr. S.S. Rao road, Parel, near Sai Traders. This milestone is in good shape, but construction around it makes it very difficult to spot, that must be the reason why, Mirror was unable to locate it. The original inscription here read, V miles from St. Thomas’s Church and much of it has been preserved. Even my stone search has revealed the Junna aadmis in all the 8 locations, many of them illiterate, who impart a ready account of their areas heritage and what it has withstood.The article in Mumbai Mirror ended with the line ‘But if you do find them, you know who to call’, so I have written to you. I have attached two photographs of each of the two milestones, hoping that they will be of use to you.I also take this occasion to congratulate Rishi Majumder for taking efforts to come out with such a good story and I hope Mirror will continue to come up with such genuine Mumbai centric stories proving time and again that it is the Mirror of the city, reflecting what Mumbai is really about.

Warm regards,

Chaitanya Marpakwar





This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Standard X and a Socialite Evening

At the Harmony Silver Awards, Rishi Majumder found himself besotted by Ayesha Chelekkodan, a woman who passed Kerela’s version of the SSC examination at a mind-boggling 84 years of age

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

ayesha chelekkodan
Ek Din Mit Jayega Maati Ke Mol, Jag Mein Reh Jayenge Pyaare Tere Bol. Dooje Ke Honthon Ko Dekar Apne Geet, Ek Nishaani Chor Phir Duniya Se Dol.

84 year old Ayesha Chelekkodan leans forward to catch Nitin Mukesh’s live performance of this ’70s classic originally rendered by his father. Pulling back the head scarf her over-attentiveness had caused to slide, she squints observing her fellow audience. With activist, alternating socialite, alternating politician, alternating industrialist, the guest seating at the Harmony Silver Awards undulates as would the result of a Google Earth scan for India’s socially relevant. Unlike other awardees present for their contributions to mankind, Chelekkodan, an impoverished village woman with six great grand children, has been zoomed in on and broadcast for a purely personal pursuit. Having enrolled in the Kerala Government’s literacy drive when she was 66, Chelekkodan has this year passed her Class X school-leaving examinations, garnishing this qualification with a computers diploma as well.
Before the awards, Chelekkodan performed herself, before an endless
throng of TV and print journalists, punctuating Malayali comebacks with shrill peals of laughter. “She knows Hindi and English, but not enough to speak fluently,” explained her grandson and translator on this trip, Abdu Rahiman. Chelekkodan is no stranger to the media circus. Picked up as poster girl for state literacy by the Kerala Government soon after her enrolment, she was chosen in the 990 to announce to the world Kerala’s 100% literacy status in Mananchira Maidan, Kozhikode. An impressed Kerala Chief Minister, E K Nayanar, had befriended Chelekkodan during this campaign and continued to write to her till his death in 2004. Having been featured by every major Indian media group since, she continues to regard cameras amusedly, her charm spilling out in between a grin and a giggle. Questions followed here, on the significance of a recent Gandhi Jayanti. After quoting inspiring instances from the Mahatma’s life, expounding on the Calicut Salt Satyagraha and discussing the pros and cons of the misunderstood Khilafat movement, Chelekkodan ascribed her own achievement with religious modesty: “Allah brought me to this level.” This takes us back to her days of early learning, when on being asked to say a few words during an important function, she merrily summoned up two: “Allah Hoo.”
“During the British regime, we Malabaris didn’t have many schooling facilities,” Chelekkodan remembers, continuing her conversation with us during the show. “So the only language I learned to read and write was Arabic at a Madrassa.” Independence didn’t alter this situation much either. With most of her family and friends being illiterate as well, and money for a tutor being a joke, Chelekkodan’s dream of one day being able to read bus sign boards, newspaper headlines and doctor’s prescriptions remained, for long, just that. “I felt such nervousness while finally writing my KG level exams,” she smiles. “It meant so much to me.”
What does passing her Class X at this age mean to her then? “I feel
nothing is impossible,” she points out. “Aside from what it taught me, it has opened other windows of learning.” Chelekkodan’s example along with the government’s truly affirmative action has also rubbed off on her family: “My generation and my children’s were not qualified, but my grand children are, and my great grand children will be.” A key criticism leveled against the Kerala government once was that it was thrusting down its citizen’s throats degrees which didn’t translate into jobs, or worldly success. Chelekkodan’s grandson Rahiman, who is a medical representative, agrees to this once being the case, but insists things are better today: “The importance of communicative skills and confidence over abstract knowledge is being stressed upon.” Chelekkodan supplicates this, by saying that while Urdu and mathematics were her easiest subjects, and Hindi and science her toughest, her fascination always lay with English: “This is the language for future opportunity and progress; there is no denying that.”
The awards over now, Chelekkodan trudges to the dinner room, her arthritis, asthma and cataract jointly combining to slacken her pace. The same diseases cast shadow on her aspirations for further formal education. Rahiman assists her with one hand, holding her award with the other, as they stride, a little in their own world, next to Parmeshwar Godrej and Anil Ambani. “She says she would have been a teacher if she had been educated sooner,” Rehman translates in reply to our final question. “She says she would have taught people not just from books, but also from life, to build their character.” Chelekkodan grins, giggles, and trudges on to enjoy the rest of her socialite evening.

Chelekkodan, awarded by Asha Bhosale (L) and Tina Ambani (R)

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder meets senior citizens who got a brand new career post-retirement, thanks to a unique senior citizen initiative that values their talent

Photographer: Sachin Haralkar


Soli Bamji, now 88, has a portfolio spanning a lot: working in a Tata textile dyeing and printing department in Bombay, selling textiles, Xerox machines, industrial chemicals and even artificial flowers in Canada before winning a researcher scientist’s position for a paper manufacturer, trouble shooting for the Birla paper mills in Bihar and South India, trading Indian garments in France, advising French industrialists on exchanging technology with Asia, and finally working for a company manufacturing metal sprayers in Sydney. 67-year-old Madhav Namjoshi, on the contrary, stuck with one institution all his life —the Central Bank of India. Here however he switched roles as Branch Manager, Vigilance Officer, Enquiry Officer and even Faculty at the bank’s staff training centre. Sabar Jilla, also 67, started off as a clerk with ACC, to rise to senior officer. She later joined a consultancy service as personal secretary to its head. Atul Marwa has a less civilian past — rising to Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army, he was in its logistics arm as an ammunitions expert.
The senior citizens mentioned above are about to discuss the relevance of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Company and Dignity Foundation’s planned website on second careers (as part of their joint initiative ActivAge) which will encourage interested Senior Citizens to post resumes online, so interested companies might recruit them. ICICI Prudential will supposedly take a special interest in these resumes, recruiting as soon as it finds adequate vacancies. Dignity is an organisation long synonymous with senior citizen welfare. ICICI Prudential Executive Director Bhargav Dasgupta claims the company was egged on to the idea by “a consumer research survey on what retired citizens want to do.”
“I have nothing against senior citizens passing time by playing carom or cards at a designated club,” explains Bamji. “But unless you do something which utilizes your faculties sufficiently, you don’t really feel alive.” He then distinguishes between those who are “forced to
work” and those who “like to work” and claims that for the latter ‘retirement’ would render life meaningless even at 90. Bamji is interested in work which involves teaching and public speaking. He recounts his jobs as researcher in Canada and India, when he successfully trouble shot a variety of industrial problems, actually using his lack of former knowledge to his end: “It gave me a holistic approach and a new perspective. I asked seemingly obvious questions, to get unobvious answers.”
‘Giving back to society’ is another
reason these senior citizens state unanimously for going back to work. Namjoshi goes as far as to say, “I want to work, for corporate and public institutions alike. But for free.” His favourite angle to his bank job being dealing with an array of clients, “interacting with the public” is what he wants to continue doing. Like Jilla, he works with Dignity Foundation, and in turn with a host of public authorities from among the police and BMC. Jilla too, insists on this period being a sort of Saatvik phase in which she would work to serve others rather than herself.
“When I joined the army, the idea of a corporate job was looked down upon because of the state-controlled and monopolized business environment,” recounts Marwa. Today Marwa works for ICICI Prudential, using his logistical insight to aid the company in opening over 2000 rural locations. Many careers — like filmmaking, advertising, choreography — which would have captured a youngster’s imagination 20 years ago, but were unfeasible, are open today. Author Catherine Bird in her
bestseller Second Careers: New Ways To Work After 50 lists case studies of those above 55 as extreme as a lawyer who became a salmon fisher, a navy officer who became a Methodist minister and an executive who became a travel escort. Our land of the caste system once demanded that sons follow the footsteps of their father’s ‘calling’ ten generations down the line. But the world’s newfound flatness is today prodding even senior citizens to try to live a dream dreamt long ago. The final and seemingly most obvious reason for embarking on a second career is money. Funnily, this is a factor every senior citizen interviewed claimed to care least about, if at all. But while most senior citizens may be prompted to such altruism by having saved enough, they cannot deny the role remuneration plays in gauging a human being’s worth in today’s ever increasingly material world. Few, for instance, would imagine JRD Tata agonizing over his self worth at 88. Befittingly, many senior citizens ended their debate on second careers with dissent. “I love work. But I don’t like the idea of being bound to an organisation,” argues Namjoshi. “That’s why I don’t want to take any remuneration for the work I do. Remuneration equals obligation.” Jilla furthers Namoshi’s perspective, emphasizing she doesn’t want her “commitment to work to be an enforced commitment”. Point taken, and ball thrust back in our court. Every scheme, including that of ‘active ageing’ likens the cause of senior citizens to a larger human rights propaganda, treating them as people to take care of, rather than a valuable national resource. Yet in the eyes of every silver-haired denizen talking animatedly about their past work experience lies, more than grudges towards the present, ideas for the future. To translate these effectively necessitates more than a website. It necessitates a change in attitude and an adjustment in organizational framework. “Find me someone to help me with my computer,” Bamji mentions in an aside after the debate. “I have so many projects planned on it. I just need someone to give me a few hours to sort out some doubts.”

Senior citizens at the Dignity Foundation office

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder gets a crash course in two professions that are being gender-bendered, namely taxi-driving and body-guarding

Photographer (for Priyadarshini Taxi Service): Rana Chakraborty

Priyadarshini Taxi Service

Somewhere in the middle of the last century, woman participation in labour force (Indian and world) began extending from menial and manual labour (which women from the poorer class resorted to for survival) to office jobs (for those in the middle and eventually upper classes). Some jobs, however, fell in between these two categories. They necessitated a minimum skill set and lifestyle which only men were thought capable of. We bring you today, taxi driving and body-guarding — two such ‘male’ yet modern professions that the fairer sex has begun to permeate. The primary reason for this change is rather feminist come to think of it: female customers who feel more comfortable with a woman driving their taxi or guarding their body, than they would with a man. A sizeable portion of these customers are working women – from clerks to executives. Funny, how one thing leads to another…

“He didn’t even give me time to learn the clutch-and-break balance on the hill (a driving school teaching manoeuvre) yaar!” says one woman to another. “How’s your son feeling now?” is yet another question murmured in typical female bonding. A room at the Stree Shakti Kendra at August Kranti Maidan teems with the energy of 25 odd women wearing black trousers, pink kurtas, and striped purple scarves. They exchange notes — both professional and private — while waiting for Susiie Shah, aka Susiie Behn to lis ten to their individual problems. Ten taxis driven by these ladies will go on the road this Monday, with ten more in eight days, and another ten by December end. The Priyadarshini Taxi Service is the first Indian initiative to launch women into the taxi driving profession, ideated by Renuka Choudhry, and executed by Susiie Behn, an advocate-cum-politician. The inauguration of the initiative had the 30 taxis to be driven laid out, with each new taxi owner’s name painted on her taxi. Their relatives, friends and neighbours came in droves for the event, with their children
showing off their mother’s names on the taxis to onlookers who exclaimed at the fact that this plan was finally afoot. “Your USP has to be skilful driving,” shouts Susiie Behn, ending the chatter. “Remember practice makes a man perfect!” This isn’t ironical. ‘Man’ in Old English was gender neutral, with ‘Wer’ and ‘Wyf’ denoting the two sexes instead.
“30 women from about 200 applications received,” Susiie Behn quotes. The women were chosen on the basis of being from house
holds with an income of not more than Rs 12000 and being the “kind who would continue in this profession and not leave it mid-way.” “I had to meet their families personally,” Susiie Behn emphasizes, “to ensure they’d support them enough to stick it out.” The three-month training module included, besides driving, “yoga, Art Of Living, information on the tourism industry, communication skills and nutritional intake – because some of the girls were anaemic, and you need energy for this job.” The women’s security concerns have been handled by a self-defence module and a wireless in each car for emergency contact. The down payment for each taxi is courtesy corporate sponsorship, with the sponsor’s name emblazoned
alongside the taxi owner’s. “Any empowerment begins with economic empowerment,” explains Susiie Behn matter-of-factly. “Getting the girls to take the taxis on loan would have been too risky. One EMI default would crash a future.” But as we proceed to in
terview the new cabbies, we discover how economic empowerment is effective because of psychological and emotional backing.
“My mother, brothers and daughter encouraged me fully,” says 45-year-old Maryam Satar. “I have longed to drive since childhood – finally I hold the steering wheel!” Despite Maryam being a widow from what is termed ‘a conservative Muslim family’, a busload of neighbours and relatives came in to cheer her on inauguration day. Sugandha Raut, 36, interrupts her to quicken the interview so they can proceed to one of their last driving lessons. She has previously been a telephone and computer operator and showroom assistant, and recently set up her own juice stall at a park: “My husband has supported me throughout. Now people come to my juice stall and shake hands saying, ‘We saw you on TV. Congrats!'” Madhavi Loke, 34, too embarked on this with her husband’s encouragement: “He said you should take this as a challenge. Men have to be involved in women’s empowerment for it to work!” Surekha Satpal, 31, has a different story though. “I’m divorced,” she replies point blank
when asked about family. When another woman with the same history hesitates, she reproaches: “Saaf saaf bol na — divorced. Ismein kuch sharam nahin hai.” Surekha’s father was a taxi driver too. “He cried on the inauguration day, and said, ‘Beta ka sapna beti ne poora kiya’,” she recounts, and adds: “Make sure you write my son Akshay’s name! He’ll be so happy. He grabbed the keys to the car even before I could, to run and show his friends.” Then there’s Vidya Pawar, 30, who credits her success to her mother-in-law and childhood friends, who “took care of my household during my driving lessons so I could do this.”
Then there’s 25 others, who rush out with Maryam, Sugandha, Madhavi, Surekha and Vidya to their taxis and trainer, drawing from yet another pool of support – each other. Their last great joint outing, they declare excitedly, was a showing of Chak De!

Woman, at arms

Gitanjali Pawar was an active sports person and a karate black belt. “But after a while I wanted to channelize my abilities into earning,” she remembers. “And I wasn’t able to earn from athletics or karate, considering the poor support sports are given in our country, to say nothing about the amount of competition.” Her application to the police force was accepted, only to deem that she join the force in another town: “I couldn’t do that because I had my child to bring up, and my husband, in Mumbai. Yet being just a security guard didn’t seem ‘challenging’ enough.” It was amidst such daily dilemma, three years ago, that she and her husband heard of a call for women to be trained as specialised bodyguards by Tops Security.
The number of women in body-guarding began to see
an increase around five years ago, when opportunities made the security industry spread its wings in a far more specialised manner, to realise that women were just better suited to certain protection roles. The boom continues. “The primary takers for women bodyguards are women,” states Kunwar Vikram Singh, Chairman of Central Association of Private Security Industry (CAPSI). These include multinational company CEOs, high ranking lawyers and solicitors, and film stars. They especially include foreigners who don’t want to end up with an unpleasant aftertaste while sampling the country’s exotic flavour. And finally, there are wives of CEOs, lawyers and film stars, under threat from those targeting their spouse. “Close security concerns necessitate client comfort,” says Singh. He then explains how for a male body guard, many areas in the client’s personal space – such as a common toilet or private bedroom – would be relatively less accessible, than it would for a female: “Add to that the comfort factor, an essential ingredient in any client relationship.”
But comfort isn’t the only reason. Certain security operations needed to be conduct
ed clandestinely. In such instances, the male bodyguards, with their bulging muscles and military demeanour, can often be identified by assailants from a distance, alerting the enemy to the game plan. “Our body guards pose as ayahs to children or secretaries,” explained Deepak Monga of Tops Security. “Which is why we cannot have images of them out in the media.” Most bodyguard agencies, because of similar security concerns, commented only on condition that their names be withheld. “A lot of people don’t even know we provide women bodyguards,” said the head of one agency. “The only reason I’m talking to you is because of the great job these girls are doing. They’re our best bets for ‘covert security’.”
Gitanjali has now been a bodyguard for three and a half years. Her training took off from her martial arts
experience to incorporate an assortment of jargoned subject names like defensive driving, environment gauging, evacuation planning, risk analysis etc, which probably make actual sense to one who’s gone through the drill. “We’re taught through a series of practical tests to react to every sudden situation, yet secretly so,” she explains. “Our role is often confused with that of bouncer or security guard, which is inane.” Finally, she reacts to the fact that men are held to be biologically stronger. “This is not the WWF. If you actually gauge the amount of risk situations a client can be in, you’ll find that the ability to lift weights has very little to do with this game,” says Gitanjali in a rather shrill voice.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Pandit Birju Maharaj is intent on taking Kathak to a new level, even if it means casting dancers as bureaucrats in quirky, contemporary plays, says Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Birju Maharaj

Birju Maharaj's workshop
Pandit Ishwari Prasad is the earliest known Kathak Guru. Legend goes that the Misra Brahmin from the Handia tehsil of Allahabad dreamt of Lord Krishna, asking him to re-establish Kathak Nritya, prompting him to teach the same till he was 100. His descendants, known later as the Maharaj family of dancers, formed the backbone of the Lucknow gharana of Kathak, held by some to be Kathak’s oldest gharana. During this period, Kathak dancers comprised of only men, with women from even the dancer’s families being forbidden from dancing. On February 4, 1938, a boy named Dukh Haran was born into the Maharaj family.
Because he was the only male born that night in the hospital, and every other baby delivered was female, his uncle suggested jokingly to his father that he be re-named Brij Mohan (a synonym for Krishna, the only male among the Gopis), which was later fondly shortened to Birju.
Pandit Birju Maharaj, sets his hands, fingers and face to changing mudra (symbol) and abhinay (expression), matching each note of the thumri being played at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) Kathak Workshop this week. 100-odd women follow suit. It is ironic that the reason for Maharaj’s christening has transformed into a metaphor for the gender break-up of the Kathak practitioner’s present. Of the 200 students at Kalashram, his Kathak academy, only 12 are male. It is also ironic that despite Kathak being an indigenous Indian art, most refer to Maharaj as its “last grandmaster”. But such ironies, by frequent occurrence, permeate into
the realm of the obvious.
“You have to wait for the sun to set, if you want the moon to shine,” Maharaj refutes. He’s referring to the
generation next of notable Kathak dancers, which includes his son Deepak Maharaj. “It’s only when I and the other gurus go, that these practitioners will have the confidence to come into their own.” Maharaj, through his brainchild Kalashram, attempts to preserve the guru-shishya tradition and instil rigorous training which while focusing on Kathak, also encompasses other arts like literature, painting, and even sculpting. This is in keeping with his own interaction with the arts — he is a dancer, singer, composer, percussionist, painter and poet. He has also picked up every string instrument, without formal training. “When I have to depict a situation on stage, it comes to me via percussion,” he explains. “Then I see it as a painting and translate that visual into dance. This in turn gives me an idea for a later composition or a poem.” Yet despite such conceptually sound training, he admits that the devotion of yore, which produced grandmasters such as himself has waned: “A teacher would once ask an aspiring student how many years he wanted to train for. On him answering the question, he would refuse to teach him, instead telling him, ‘Come back when you want to train under me for life'”. Today, he complains, disciples clock their riyaz sessions by the hour.
The change in attitudes towards Kathak can be traced back to the British anti-nautch movement in the mid-1800s, where devadasis practicing Bharatnatyam in the South and mujrawaalis practicing Kathak in the North of the subcontinent were used as instances to label both dance forms as immoral, and ban them. Maharaj emphasises this historic decline by referring to the change this movement brought in language. “Words like ‘kotha’ and ‘mujra’,” he says, “were used in a dignified tone before they became ‘badnaam’.” A
kotha meant a place for gathering and performance and Maharaj’s father himself often said he was going to perform a mujra. The word ‘badnaam’ itself, he continues, meant not being ‘defamed’ but being ‘discussed’. Similarly, stellar Kathak performers, were called ‘taifas’, a word merged during the movement with ‘tawaif’ to accord it the same meaning. Indian Independence saw an attempt at reviving these dance forms, but the blow they were dealt with during colonial rule left them too crippled to contend with Western (especially American) counterparts flooding a new democracy, something the traditional dances of European countries had less of a problem doing.
Maharaj flits between a vast vocabulary of facial expression, while narrating anecdotes to exemplify of each point. Both expression and anecdote form the essence of the Kalka-Bindadin style (named after two of his ancestors) of the Lucknow gharana that he hails from. His most awaited performance is the interpretation of a thumri’s bhav (feel) with facial abhinay and hand movement, while being seated — something he can do, with new interpretations each time, for hours. This focus on the interpretation of bhav with facial expression has allowed his gharana to popularise Kathak amongst lay viewers, who would otherwise be unable to interpret the mudras the other gharanas are more fixed on.
Maharaj has painted this characteristic on a wider ambit with two breakthroughs. One is his dance dramas. Spread between titles as diverse as Govardhan Leela and Romeo and Juliet, they use traditional Kathak to tell stories closest to an audience of today: “For example, the ‘File Katha’.” The ‘File Katha’ is a Kathak performance set in a government office. One dancer plays the officer, another the petitioner, another the peon and so on. Then, some dancers play the files: “Each file is allocated a different colour,” Maharaj elaborates. “And a dancer wearing the same colour enacts what the file has to ‘say’.” The other breakthrough is choreographing for film. Beginning with Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Maharaj has gone on to choreograph Kathak for Dil To Pagal Hai, Gadar and most famously Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. “More than the government, it is Bollywood which has the capacity to keep this dance form alive,” he argues. He cites examples of what movies like Mughal-e-Azam, actresses like Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Hema Malini and music directors like Naushad have done for Kathak’s popularisation. Yet, why must a dance form be kept alive for a public who have little inclination to view it? “Because a story can best be told in the language it has originated in,” Maharaj answers simply. And every Indian story, even that of a government officer, peon or petitioner, roots itself in history planted over a thousand years ago. How can we understand its bhav if we discard history itself?

Guiding hands...

Birju Maharaj...

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder and Santosh Mishra visit Mumbai’s kothas and lament the loss of one of India’s finest dance forms – the mujra

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Bachchu Ki Wadi is one of the neighbourhoods where a form of mujra still flourishes - the Madhuri Dixit image is a newspaper copy superimposition

Bachchu Ki Wadi is one of the neighbourhoods where a form of mujra still flourishes - the Madhuri Dixit image is a newspaper copy superimposition

In a city where most self proclaimed mujrawaalis don’t know the difference between kathak’s tatkar and chakkar, Noor Jehan, in her 40s, is one of the remnant ‘Mehnati Mujrawaalis’. This means she has been trained in classical song and dance and the Tehzeeb (etiquette) and Adaa (charm) essential to this art since childhood. “My mother was a Tawaif, but my father a strict Sayyad (one of Islam’s most respected titles),” she declares proudly. “Choosing my mother’s profession was my own choice.” Noor Jehan converses in chaste Urdu and abuses in Bambaiya, and she holds forth on the intricacies of both kathak and law (she’s learned the latter from a relative who’s a lawyer). On the wall behind her hangs a framed license reading, “Rangbhoomi Prayog, Parinireekshan Mandlaache.” Since the prohibition of Mujra on May 3, 2007, it is these licences which allow it to be performed till 12:30 am. Noor Jehan’s kotha is located at Benares Ki Chawl, Faras Road. This, the adjoining Bachchu Ki Wadi, and nearby Congress House area, are the only places in Mumbai where Mujra, in a form resembling the original, persists. The number of practitioners has decreased, from around 1500 twenty years ago to a maximum of 200 today.
Mujra, evolved from classical kathak when the Mughals ruled India, is characterised by fast spinning, swift movement, hand gestures of Persian influence, and suggestive connotation. It planted itself in Mumbai’s hub of local entertainment (close to Pila Haus) over 150 years ago. The areas the mujrawaalis currently perform at were formally bequeathed to the Tawaif Sabha much later, in the presence of none other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, at August Kranti Maidan. These areas are renowned for spawning many a great Hindi film actress and classical singer of yore. But the lack of space (a perennial Mumbai malaise) led to the first change in the dance’s presen
tation. The traditional Pishwaach, eight metres in length, designed to whirl to the mujra dancer’s steps for effect, gave way to the sari, enabling them to perform in tiny hutments and rooms. “Then everything changed with the coming of the dance bars,” says Shabbo, a mujra dancer at Bachchu Ki Wadi. These bars, providing the liquor licence the kothas lacked, stole many a customer, much to the spite of the mujra community. Gradually however, the mujrawaalis themselves started performing at the bars, earning much more from their commercial setting. “But our elders– the community panchayat– would insist that each girl who goes into the bar line give at least one day in a week to the performance of pure mujra to
keep the art alive,” Shabbo insists. Yet the dance bar line represented more than a change in entertainment space. It mirrored a Bollywood opening to Western influence in music and dance. “The farmaishes (requests) of the kotha customers turned towards these new chalu gaane (current songs),” Ustad Abbas Khan, a 73-year-old tabla player at Benares Ki Chawl tells us, which neither the traditional ustaads (classical musicians) nor the kathak
trained danseuses could comply with.
Most of the elders who formed the panchayat of this community have either passed away or shifted and the current body remains in name only. This leaves a few older and informed women like Noor Jehan to voice the community’s concerns. “We have to pay musicians who come in from as far as Mira Road, maintain an air conditioner for guests, and then settle rent,” Shabbo lists. “Also, we can’t demand money for our performance but have to make do with the ‘baksheesh’ given to us.” The 12:30 am time limit on performances has made these expenses unviable. Adding to this list is pressure from builders eyeing the real estate the mujrawaalis occupy, and residents from nearby high rises, who see the kothas as a bad influence on the neighbourhood.
“The solution to this is to build theatres, where mujra may be performed and portrayed as the art it is,” says Varsha Kale, president of the Bar Girls’ Association, who has been documenting the Indian mujra for over a year now. She then talks about how the Bihar Government is planning initiatives along the same line. “Also similar initiatives have been undertaken by the Maharashtra Government for the preservation of the Maharashtrian folk dance form lavani,” she continues “which is no less ‘suggestive’ than mujra.” And far greater initiatives have been undertaken by governments in countries like Turkey for belly dancing, which is far more suggestive than either. Such initiatives would provide employment and dignity to true exponents of the art, as well as save it from further bastardisation.
But hindering any such initiative is prejudice. “Yesterday, two policemen came barging into my room at one thirty at night,” Noor Jehan recounts. “They said they just wanted to ‘look around’ without even a search warrant!” Other mujrawaalis list many more such instances, saying: “At one time noblemen would
send their children to a tawaif to learn tehzeeb. We have through the ages donated lakhs to the government for relief programmes like the Chief Minister’s fund for the Latur earthquake. Why are we still treated with such disrespect?”
A part of this prejudice arises from the fact that these areas, like Napier Road in Karachi and Hira Mandi in Lahore, merge with the red light district (like Kamathipura). So pimps and prostitutes spill over into the lanes, with the ramshackle doctor’s clinic, kebab joints and old Hindi songs playing from a paan stall forming a common ambience. The police are accused of slapping provisions of the Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act and Bombay Police Act, meant for preventing prostitution, on the mujrawaalis as well. Some old mujra exponents also blame the Shettys who owned most of the dance bars for this prejudice, claiming they “purposefully ruined the mujrawaali’s name to better their own business”.
But the downfall of this ancient art form goes back to the colonial era. The Anti Nautch Movement, launched by British officials and Indian social reformers in 1882, labelled every tawaif and even every kathak dancer a “whore”, later prompting even the Indian National Congress–inspite of vast donations from tawaifs — to dissociate with such to save image. The British had a political motive here: many kothas had served as focal centres for discussion and strategising leading to the revolt of 1857. The tawaifs, then ranking among Indian society’s most aware women, being active participants in this rebellion. The ‘reformers’ in their zest for constructing a new moral fabric, didn’t realise how many dancers they were actually converting into ‘whores’, the stigma imprinted on them leaving them no other livelihood option but to resort to the cliché itself. Kathak, preserved primarily by courtesans during this period was revived once sense prevailed, but the mujra was left to rot. What a pity.

madhuri dixit

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder scrapes the sheen off the proposed ‘privatisation’ of our railway shoeshine industry, a world that has been zealously protected by our boot polishwallahs

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

cream - 5, 'saada' - 4

How you’ve grown over 20 years,” says an old gentleman, to Ram Kishan Mehra, before going his way. He has seen Mehra, now 35, since he left his studies in Class IV to shine shoes because his elder brother died accidentally on the rail tracks.
Today, Mehra is secretary of The Bombay Harijan Cooperative Society, in charge of shoe shiners in a zone which extends from Khar Road to Goregaon station on the Western Line. Mumbai’s shoeshine industry is run by 10 such societies. A month ago, the members of these societies united to stage a protest against a government tender inviting bids from other parties for shoe-shining contracts on six zones along the Central and Harbour Lines. National policy protects societies older than ten years from this bidding. But national policy is dictated by precedent. As put by Devichand Bamaniya, Chairman of the Maharashtra Boot Polish Cooperative Society: “What is used to oust the new will later oust the old. And vice versa.”

“The first cooperative society to be registered was ours, in 1959,” says Basant Ram, secretary of the Ravi Das Cooperative Society. “The idea was propounded and supported by railway minister Babu Jagjivan Ram.” Two other societies — Dhanak Industrial and Bombay Boot Polish — were set up subsequently. These pioneers owe their origin to educated well-wishers like Jagjivan Ram, who organized an illiterate migrant workforce, in a profession figuratively and literally looked down upon, into associations electing their own leaders. From 1965, with increased awareness, more societies were formed by shoe-shiners themselves.
“A shoeshine man earns between Rs 75 to 150 per day,” informs Jai Bhagwan, Secretary of the Dhanak Industrial Cooperative Society (Mumbai’s biggest shoeshine society). “Of this approximately Rs 30 per day goes towards buying work material, and Rs 10 to 12 per day is paid to the society.” The society, in turn, pays a stipulated maximum of Rs 5 per day to the railways, while using the remainder for its expenses,
fixing the yearly amount paid to the railways at Rs 1800. The new bids for yearly contracts, from parties proposing to register themselves as cooperative societies, are outlandishly high. The highest, by a Mr R B Singh, for a zone comprising stations from Thane to Kalyan on the central line, is Rs 4,17,600. Even if these ‘societies’ increase the per day charge to each shoeshine man by five fold, they will not be able to recover the amount bid. Why then are these amounts being bid?
Each person quoted thus far has answered this question iden
tically: “The bidder, on getting the contract, will ask each shoeshine man in his zone to pay ‘on the side’ an amount ranging from Rs 10,000 to 20,000 to continue. If they refuse, their licenses will be handed over to new entrants, for the same ‘price’.” This will recover cost and profit, while on paper he continues to show a loss. With open bidding setting in, however, there will be a new bidder next year who will make similar ‘on the side’ demands, retrenching some more shoe shine men, and so on.
The various secretaries and
chairmen gave us these bytes between scrubbing a boot, or clacking their brushes on foot-stands to beckon a customer. “But the new bidders don’t shine shoes themselves,” Ram Prasad, a boot polisher at Dadar who swears by his cooperative tells us. “They are servicemen or business people looking for a quick buck.” They will not, like these societies, fight for a room for boot polishers to store ware, free train passes or medical insurance (as the porters have). “They will treat us,” emphasizes Ram Prasad, “with the same contempt that has prevented others from giving us these facilities.”
“This is not privatisation!” protests Shriniwas Mudgerikar, Chief PRO, Central Railways, on being questioned. “Privatisation is when the government divests its stake to a private party.” The press rejoinder the railways has issued clarifies the same. Which is correct. Assigning a ‘zone’ to the ‘highest bidder’ harks back instead to the pre-privatisation era of the license raj, where government policy often served as shield for monopolistic carpet bagging.
The losers now, as then, will be those steadily saving enough to ensure their children don’t follow in their shoes. “One of us got out of this line to become a banker,” the shoeshine men had mentioned excitedly. Their excitement compounded when we told them two South American presidents, Malcolm X, world renowned musicians James Brown and Jose Asuncion Flores, professional golfer Lee Trevino and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux were boot polishers too. There will also be other losers if this bidding raises prices and depletes the number of shoe shiners as expected. The middle class office-goer hoping, with five rupees, to rescue his image from the trampling it has received in an overcrowded train compartment. And his boss, waiting to tell a man by his shoes.

the head of one shoeshine cooperative

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Girish Jadav displays his expansive collection of ancient weaponry from the Maratha period to Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Faheem Mulla

girish jadhav
“As a child, what struck me most about Shivaji Maharaj’s picture was the punch dagger in his waist band. I felt the Chattrapati really liked that dagger he was always clutching. And what he liked I must like too.”
Girish Jadhav, a 58-yearold senior manager with a multinational company, strikes a pose from the Hanmanti school of sword fighting (an ancient school followed by the Maratha army), holding an 11th century punch dagger. He jumps and twirls, forming a perfect semi-arc to demonstrate an ideal thrust, which the weapon was designed for. He does this deftly, in little space, because the small room he lives in at Pune is crowded with three beds besides his own, occupied by three other lodgers he shares it with. He keeps a bundle of
weapons here
in the corner of a
shared cupboard. His one room-kitchen residence in Kurla, Mumbai, where his wife and children stay, contains 700-odd antique weapons, from the 11th century onwards, belonging to the period in between the rise and the fall of the Maratha empire.
The collection comprises different kinds of punch daggers, swords, sword handles, shields, spears, war axes, arrows, tiger claws, head gear, battle armour, kukris and some pistols. His weapons collection has seen 180 exhibitions throughout the country and won him many awards
and medals from historians and government bodies. On
his desk in Pune lie some sample weapons he has shortlisted to be sent to London, for a possible exhibition. Next to these lie notes for a book he’s working on, to be titled A History Of Arms. And next to those lie information to be sent to Nitin Desai (the man behind
many a Bollywood historical) for a serial he’s producing on Shivaji, along with Jadav’s many weapons, which will serve as models for duplicate weapons to be made for the serial.
Jadhav’s first antique weapon, “obviously the Maratha punch dagger”, was bought at age 30 in Pune’s Old Bazaar. “I knew exactly where to find it, because I had scoured the market for it, for many years,” he remembers. “I had dreamt of buying it since childhood, but had to wait till I had earned enough money.” Eventually 40 weapons followed. “Then friends and colleagues started talking about what I had, at business meetings even,” he says. “And I became a ‘collector’.” A friend got some school children to see his collec
tion. “One of them told his history teacher, who asked me for an exhibition in his school,” he relates. “And the idea of holding exhibitions for the public hit me.”
His marketing job enabled him to travel to towns which were valuable sources for weapons from the Maratha period. “I was particularly interested in places where wars were fought during this period,” he says. While it took him many excursions to a Surat warehouse to procure a Pre-British muzzle loading gun-powder pistol, a 400-year-old Turkish Yataghan sword whose jade hilt was embedded with diamonds, rubies and gold (worth many lakhs of rupees) was gifted to him
by Madhukar More. A constant aide was famed Maratha historian Babasaheb Purandhare, who contributed with his own knowledge on the era. “Discussions with him opened a new world to me,” Jadhav recounts. “I saw the link between weapons, history, places and the character of people and politics in today’s India.” His final step in this direction was learning to swordfight as the Marathas did then. “I went to Kolhapur to ask people, ‘Who knows Hanmanti?'” he says. “When some youngsters who knew the art started demonstrating, I filmed it to learn the moves.” Endless attempts in this direction led to finding Katkade Guruji, who taught him the art properly.
Jadhav was not privileged enough to pursue the low-paying career of a professional historian. Yet his historical and cultural roots clutched at him too much to let him remain a 9 to 5 executive. “I didn’t buy a colour TV, long after everyone else in my salary bracket had, because I needed to purchase tiger claws,” he says as he begins to tear up. “I saw my children having to sneak into other’s living room windows to catch their favourite serial. Yet they never once asked me to forsake my passion.” Ironically the same roots that prompt such passion, prompted a mob in Mazagaon to
scream “Jaanta Raja” while burning a hut housing Muslim women and children. “No person who loves a subject can misuse it,” comments Jadhav uncompromisingly. “An understanding of history will show you how to connect people, not how to divide them by caste, class, religion… or even region.”

a part of the girish jadhav collection

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


More than 2,000 unclaimed bodies have had the diginity of final rites at Kishore Chandra Bhatt’s hands, says Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Sachin Haralkar

Kishore Chandra Shankar Bhatt at his Arthur Road shop

Kishore Chandra Shankar Bhatt at his Arthur Road shop

Wait a minute. Let me salute you properly,” said a police officer to Kishore Chandra Shankar Bhatt. A nun had just been run over by a truck. Bhatt was assisting the police and medical team in carrying her corpse to an ambulance. But that was not the reason for the salute.
The nun belonged to a church that would claim her body, and bury it. Since the last 40 years, Bhatt has given an appropriate funeral to over 2,000 bodies belonging to people of varying faith, and even animals. These bodies were either unclaimed, or claimed by people who did not have money for the funeral. His work has been recognized by police stations and hospitals who call him when they have an unclaimed body, or give a person who can’t afford funeral expenses his phone number. It has been recognized by a Muslim religious society which has awarded him a medal for his work in the field. It has been recognized in other parts of the country as well, by government authorities who call him to help out with such unfortunate corpses during calamities, as he did in Mumbai during the riots of ’92-’93 and the bomb blasts following them. The salute was a culmination of this recognition.
Bhatt first encountered death when he was 17. “I had gone to Surat to help out with flood relief. I saw human corpses lying around with those of animals – mangled together as one,” he remembers. “On telling my father this, he said: To wrap a corpse in its shroud, to lend your shoulder to carrying it, to perform its last rites – is the greatest good you can do.” So he started visiting hospitals and police stations, asking them to contact him whenever a body would be unclaimed, and asking acquaintances to inform him whenever they saw a corpse lying on the road. “The police were suspicious in the beginning,” he recounts. “They would
check to see if I had stolen anything from a body I picked up from the street.”
Eventually, as suspicions subdued, he won well wishers: “An NGO helped me create a trust for my work; a chartered accountant did our accounts; a medicine store owner who gave me supplies; and a friend who donated two Suzuki vans for conveyance, one of which has been transformed into an hearse-like vehicle for carrying bodies.” Also contributing to his cause are umpteen youth residing near his Arthur Road interior decoration shop, on call to help him with the corpses. Each of them has to learn, as Bhatt did, the funeral rituals for each religion.
Bhatt’s son died at the young age of 17. When asked about what makes him persevere in his philanthropy sans cynicism, he presents a plethora of fantastic tales. There is a woman who told him after he
cremated her daughter, that her faith in God was reinstated. There is a man whose son had gone into coma and was discharged from a public hospital because doctors said he would die in a few hours anyway. “He wanted to take him back to his village to die in his hometown, but his village was far off,” Bhatt recounts. “So I arranged for some men with supplies to travel with him, to cremate him if he died on the way.” Bhatt, being a Brahmin, sprinkled some gangajal on the boy’s lips to fulfill the priest’s side of the Hindu rites, in case they couldn’t find a priest when he passed away, “and the boy sprang out of coma!”
Then there is a wealthy Mr Memon who decreed before dying that his last rites be conducted not by a Muslim, but by Bhatt. Also, there is a tuberculosis patient, who Bhatt had admitted to the hospital, who returned to his shop in a tearing hurry. “Pay the taxi fare fast, I have no money and no time, he said,” Bhatt narrates. Bhatt paid the fare and asked him if he’d like some tea. He said: “No. No time, I just wanted to say thanks, and bye.” And passed away.
Bhatt has resorted to lies and coercion to get his work done: “I have called a hospital and pretended to be a politician to get a baby girl admitted. I have told a taxi driver he would be sinning heavily if he didn’t help me transport a dead man’s body.”
This commitment is in line with lineage – Bhatts, traditionally, were Brahmins entrusted with the specific duty of performing a Hindu’s Antim Sanskaar. What is not in line with lineage, however, is for a Brahmin to actually do any manual work connected with the funeral, leave alone the funeral of a person from another caste, or religion. “A funeral is a necessary tribute to life which transcends death,” Bhatt retorts. Step out of his shop into the big bad metropolis, however, and one realizes his work as a tribute to lives that were… and that could have been.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Another Brick in the Wall

Father Warner D’souza and Kamlesh Khemani are fighting the onslaught of cementia into their lives, and those of the people they love, reports Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty


If home is where the heart is, Mumbai has a lot of soul searching to do. Redevelopment plans throughout the city have provoked a series of protests. Here are two unlikely faces in the crowd. Father Warner D’souza, assistant parish priest, Mount Carmel Church, and Kamlesh Khemani, a software professional waiting to join a New York job, have veered from trodden paths to a road less taken.

Residents of the 125-year-old settlement witnessed demolition and violent eviction by goons in June under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) redevelopment scheme.These also violated a Supreme Court order prohibiting demolitions during the monsoons. Residents further allege that majority consent for redevelopment was attained by fraud, forgery and coercion. Mt Carmel Church is a rallying point for protesters.

Father Warner D'souza

“If I was able to choose my patron saint, it would be Arch Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. He was radical in speaking out against human rights abuse and social injustice, even after being stripped and humiliated by a dictatorial regime. He did this till he was shot, while celebrating mass, his blood spilling on the altar.”

Father Warner D’souza wraps up a meeting with four youngsters before settling down in his modest office in Mount Carmel’s Church. He’s just back from a Bombay High Court hearing on the Pereirawadi case where a hot discussion topic was the legal notice served on him, Father Larrie, Bombay Catholic Arch Bishop Oswald Gracias and President of the Bombay Catholic Sabha Dolphy D’souza for “giving the episode a communal colour”. “The numbers present at our meetings on Pereirawadi have gone from 20 to 1000,” he asserts. “Many are non-Christians. Many residents of Pereirawadi are non-Christians. Why must a Shabana Azmi be criticized for speaking for Muslims or another group for speaking for Hindus. What matters is the substance of the speech. If human rights are upheld, constructive ideas for a community suggested, why must such be decried?” Eight years ago, Father Warner was all set to work with Oberoi Hotels. He describes his enrolling in divine service as “a decision rather than a calling.” Much like another decision, made two months ago, when he attended a meeting about Pereirawadi. “We are used to seeing the poor as those we should help, but not stick our neck out for,” he says. “That afternoon, as I heard accounts of violence and deceit, something in me snapped.” He had prepared a spiritual discourse for the evening’s sermon, but spoke instead of Pereirawadi: “‘Finally, you guys are talking,’ people said to me, ‘finally you’re telling us to stand up!’” The church joined forces with the H West Ward Federation and Bombay Catholic Sabha to host meetings addressing builders’ arm-twisting. Father Warner got the youth to campaign for a series of issues, including Pereirawadi. “We have to deal with red tape, corruption, and builder-politician-criminal nexuses,” he says, adding that the current legal notice is just the beginning: “We know that we are easy targets for character assassination and more.” Or as Bishop Oscar Romero said on the assassination of his friend priest Rutilio Grande: “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”

A landmark Bombay HC order on the Sahara Society case last year said that the redevelopment of a housing society cannot be stalled if 70 per cent of the members have agreed to it, and that dissenting flat owners could be evicted, using police force if necessary.This order (which is distinct from a judgment) is being used by builders to convince dissenting flat owners to part with their homes. One such flat owner on whom a notice is served on is Kamlesh Khemani, living in Sahara Housing Society itself.

Kamlesh Khemani

“Your house is your world when you live in it – like a frog in a well. But when it is taken away from you, you see the real world, outside. After the initial shock, you realize that there are many like you, whose houses have been taken away too, and you realize a common cause.”

Kamlesh Khemani refuses a coffee. “Let’s get a drink instead,“ he offers. “That’s what my days consist of. All day I haggle with lawyers and the courts. Then get a drink. Then write on my blog!“ He had as tough a time finding a lawyer for his case last year, as he did understanding the loopholes of law. “You learn to swim when you jump into water,“ the 26-year-old grins. “You ask friends, study the relevant portions of law yourself… You get wise.“ Khemani, who worked with computers and marketing related jobs for long while residing at Khar, got his big break last year as he bagged a software job in New York. “And then this case started and my plans got postponed. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I’ll stick it out.“ The only other person in his Khar flat is his 80-year-old grandmother. “My father doesn’t live in Mumbai,“ he explains. “And it really wasn’t fair for me to run off to my career leaving her here to deal with things.“
Khemani isn’t against redevelopment. “What is fishy is that only one proposal for redevelopment came in, from just one builder,“ he claims. “When a few of us flat owners objected, saying we wanted a choice, the court handed us a ‘majority wins’ order.“ Khemani’s indignance at this order found outlet where any software professional’s indignance would: the blog. “From Orkut, to Sulekha to Blogspot,“ he lists. “I’ve used every platform I can find.
The blog led to comments and exchanges with Mumbaikars suffering similar fates, which led to meetings. One year hence, Khemani has emerged as a sort of encyclopaedia on builder Vs residents cases. “I ask many people to get together to fight this,“ he says, disillusioned. “But they’re scared.“ A ray of hope emerged with Vanessa D’souza, a woman threatened by a builder, to whom he had recommended the Mount Carmel Church which was “agitating on such issues for Catholics“. “She came back to me and said, “It’s not just Catholics! They’re agitating for everyone!“ And so Khemani found himself, listening to Father Warner’s address on Pereirawadi, and standing up to cite his own case.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder
speaks to two of the city’s top cops, chosen to be part of the National Police Mission, to revamp policing

The National Police Mission was announced by the Prime Minister two years ago, to study policing in India, and suggest improvements. The mission is to be implemented via six ‘micro missions’, studying communication and technology, human resource development, infrastructure, community policing, process re-engineering and pro-active policing. Each of these micro-missions, constituted by the ministry of Home Affairs, comprise 10 police officers each, selected from all over the country. Their reports will be submitted to the Home Ministry in the next four months. Ahmed Javed, Additional Director General of Police (Addl DGP), Establishment (Estt); and Hemant Karkare, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), are two police officers selected from Maharashtra to be part of the Process Re-engineering and Infrastructure missions respectively. Each an officer of great repute, they take a few moments from their busy days to sit back, and shed light.

Hemant Karkare

Where should the Infrastructure Mission’s
priorities lie?
The micro-mission on Infrastructure shall encompass the entire gamut of policing and there will be some overlap with the work of other micro-missions. Primarily our focus would be on empowering the police men on field with complete backup; he should have the all the necessary wherewithal which will enable him to discharge his duty effectively. So, the micro-mission on infrastructure will include not only brick and mortar that creates office and residential buildings but also vehicles for mobility, communication systems etc. Especially training facilities, because equipments and the system are only as good as the man behind the machine. One important mandate of the micro-missions is to make recommendations arising from outof-box thinking. For example, presently, residential accomodation provided to policemen is government owned. Instead, one could think of facilitating acquisition of accomodation owned by policemen themselves. This could be done by providing soft loans to policemen right in the beginning of service when they have lesser responsibilities. Another example could be outsourcing noncore police functions like housekeeping, canteens etc. One more possibility is that of suggesting structures which could achieve synergy between police and a very large private security establishment. All these ideas have potential to be ‘force multipliers’ for the police.

• What new challenges necessitate a re-look at policing?

Terrorism is the foremost challenge. It’s not that terrorism did not exist before, but now, thanks to the ever expanding reach of media, terrorist incidents are brought to your drawing rooms and played up again and again. So the impact of the incident is magnified manifold. Another challenge faced by the police today is succintly explained by Thomas Friedman’s concept: “The world is flat”. In this global village, we have to more than match the global connect of terrorists and organized crime syndicates. Unless we coordinate and network on the national and international level, neutralizing our adversaries shall be difficult.

• What about infrastructure needed to tackle cyber crime?
We have to look at systems in place to facilitate processes as well as prevent security breaches and criminal and terrorist cyber attacks. There is no national boundary to cyber crime as it occurs in an international virtual space. So, international cooperation is necessary to fight it. We must have systems in place for this.

• Will the 6th Pay Commission help correct corruption?
Corruption is greed based, not need based. Otherwise incidents of pay would have reduced it, or officials receiving higher incomes would be honest. Correcting corruption would involve correcting value systems, cultures etc. Also, there should be a ‘certainty’ rather than a ‘quantum’ of punishment. But the 6th Pay Commission should reduce the temptation for government servants to switch over to private sector jobs.

• In high pressure cases, how do you decide between respecting individual human rights and results? Some allege that the Gujarat Police has been more successful in the current terrorism investigations because they were given a free hand to crack down on a minority, which the other police forces didn’t have.
Your question suggests that human rights and results are on opposite sides. Violating human rights may yield short term results, but create anger and alienation, spawning more terrorists and criminals, in the long run. The Palestinian dispute, among similar flashpoints, stands testimony to this. Situations have to be dealt with firmly without resorting to rights violations. As far as the Gujarat Police is concerned, each police officer abiding by the Constitution and the law has a “free hand” to do his duty. His binding himself of his own accord is a different story, but not an excuse.

Ahmed Javed
What does ‘process reengineering’ mean?
Generally it would mean looking at the existing processes in a different way and re-engineering the same by modifying, adding or deleting. The ultimate aim is to arrive at processes which enhance the response and image of the police through effective, efficient and positive service delivery. The bulk of our processes are inherited from the colonial era and hence are totally out of sync with the needs of present times. Re-engineering would involve, inter alia, multitasking, simplifying, greater delegation, increased use of technology, outsourcing and overall maximising of existing resources with an avowed focus on enhancing core policing functions and reducing if not eliminating non-core functions presently being tasked to the police (eg. guarding duties, service of summons etc.) A better and more scientific system of performance appraisal, re-looking at working conditions, greater and smoother public police interface practices will be the other highlights of this re-engineering. Our micro-mission will also be interfacing with other missions on overlapping issues.

• What significant changes in policing does the National Police Mission strive for?
We are hopeful of significant changes in the way policing is done: better and more prompt responses, enhancing professionalism, and citizenfriendliness in an atmosphere of transparency. What we are endeavouring to achieve is an improvement in the overall image of the police.

• In high-pressure cases, how
do you balance individual human rights with results?
There ought not to be any conflict per se. As a matter of fact it’s under such situations that high professionalism and strong leadership will resolve any negative pressure. Ideally, human rights violations should never occur. When they do these aberrations should be dealt with most seriously and promptly.

What is your take on the never ending corruption issue?
Decidedly it is an area of grave concern. It is all the more so when its spread is not only wide but at various levels. This is compounded when both material and intellectual corruption exists. I have some reservation about whether a salary raise will end this. There are many complex issues which will need the greatest will and determination to enable eradicating this huge malaise.

• There have been allegations of anti-Muslim bias against the force, especially from Muslim accused in terrorism cases. Being a Muslim yourself, how would you answer these?
I’ll try and answer all these questions. First, there is now a nearly ‘templated’ Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) which an accused in a terror case follows just to stymie the police investigation and in an attempt to ‘misuse’ our democratic institutions and other agencies. Personally, I have never felt or been made to feel my identity as a Muslim during my career. We have been taught that ‘khaki’ is our religion, and ‘khaki’ it has been. But this is not to overlook the fact that there have been cases where bias against minorities have occurred.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Bollywood’s dholak gharana

Rishi Majumder meets the family of Ghulam Mohammed, celebrated for first introducing the dholak in Hindi cinema, and finds that the beats still ring loud and clear

Photographer: Nilesh Wairkar

From L to R: Ghulam Mohammed and his sons: Mumtaz Ahmed, Aziz Mohammed, Masood Mohammed, Mohammed Iqbal, Khalique Ahmed

From L to R: Ghulam Mohammed and his sons: Mumtaz Ahmed, Aziz Mohammed, Masood Mohammed, Mohammed Iqbal, Khalique Ahmed

A son was born to Ustad Nobi Bukhsh, music director of musicals, in 1903 in a village called Naal, near Bikaner, Rajasthan. His first tabla performance was at the age of six, after which he continued to work as a child artist with the Jodhpur-Bikaner Theatre Company (J B Theatre Co.) and the Albert Theatre Company in Lahore. The Nawab of Junagadh presented him with a golden sword when he was 13, for the singing portrayal of a prince, prophesying he would grow up to be one of India’s great artists. He went on to specialise in the field of percussion, commanding the highest pay any musician did during the ’20s and the early ’30s (he was paid one rupee and 50 paise per recording when the staple was 50 paise) for recordings that were played as a backdrop to silent movies. He continued his work in theatre alongside this to become the
Chief Dance Director and Chief Director of Musicals. It was with the talkies, however, that Ghulam Mohammed fulfilled the Nawab’s prophecy.
Playing a part in this fulfillment is his fast-paced composition of Ghalib’s somber ‘Dil-e-Nadaan’ for Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954) and his presenting of ‘La De Mohe Balma Aaasmani Churiya’ in a format akin to rap, long before rap became popular in the West, in Rail Ka Dibba (1943). But his being the original music composed for Pakeezah (1972) (Naushad took over towards the end when he passed away during the making of the film), has placed him securely in the Indian music directors’ hall of fame. He is credited with introducing to Hindi film music instruments like the duff, matka, chimta, kharkaal, manjeere and lota.
His family’s claim to him introducing the dholak to Hindi film music with Sharda (1942)
is contested by the Sen family (descendants of percussionist Jamal Sen). But there is no contesting him being the first ever person to have recorded the dholak in a recording of Begum Inaayati Dera Waali’s in 1934. His six sons (each a musician in his own right) have grown adept at the instrument too, prompting Pyarelal Sharma of Laxmikant-Pyarelal to call their family the dholak gharana.
“Begum Inayaati rejected many tabalchis because they couldn’t give her the rhythm she wanted for her recording,” recounts Mumtaz Ahmed, the eldest of his sons. “She was skeptical about my father playing the dholak, an instrument used only in mujras, instead of the tabla.” Ghulam Mohammed had been invited to a wedding in Jammu by Uma Dutt (Shiv Kumar Sharma’s father) where he had seen many women playing dholaks to per
fection as one woman kept rhythm by tapping a small stone to the ground. To discipline the dholak in similarly to match the precision of a tabla, he thought, one should use the chhalla (the metal ring seen on every tabalchi’s fore-finger). “But the dholak was a different kind of drum altogether,” Mumtaz explains. “So he decided that the chhalla should be placed on the dholak player’s little finger. Where it has remained ever since…”
The idea of using the matka, in Sharda (1942), stemmed similarly, from Ghulam Mohammed’s wanderings through festival celebrations in Punjab and Multan. “He suggested to Naushad that a soft rounded sound would match Suraiya’s 14-year-old voice,” says Aziz Mohammed, the second eldest brother and an acclaimed percussionist in the industry. “And he knew exactly where to find it.”
Ghulam Mohammed’s unabashed use of rough un-engineered musical instruments in carefully crafted compositions took a new turn when he was music director himself. “He introduced the khanjari, chimta, kharkaal, manjeere and lota (a small brass pot) all at once in Doli (1943), for which he composed the music,” remembers Mumtaz. “It was a riot.” Literally and figuratively!
Mumtaz, while experimenting with acting, directing and production work, has remained faithful to music, his dedica
tion culminating in his work as instructor at the Indian Music School in Dubai. Having produced a musical called Tamanna, his dream now “is to produce a film some day, where all of us brothers compose the music together”.
Aziz, a talented tabalchi from a young age, was egged on into the field by both his father and his uncle Abdul Kareem, another tabla legend (his solo recital makes ‘Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re‘ in Kohinoor come alive even today). His hands have hammered away since at both the tabla and the dholak to sculpt famous melodies for famous films like Aaina (1977), where he’s done a solo, Leader, Sangharsh and many more. Mohammed Iqbal, whose heart lies with the congo and the tumba, has served as an essential aide to popular Qawwal voices Aziz Nazan (‘Jhoom Baraabar Jhoom Sharaabi‘) and Altaf Raja (‘Tum to Thehre Pardesi‘). He and brother Masood Mohammad have jointly released an album Paigaam and are currently working on their second release.
Yusuf Mohammed, like Aziz, is an industry favourite, and his expertise with the dholak and tabla has led him to work with popular music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and more recently, Anu Malik and Aadesh Shrivastav.

Khalique Ahmed, on the other hand, has taken his percussion skills live with shows for banners like Percept and Sahara. He’s currently touring Europe with an Indian music show called Bharti, and his dholak and tabla as hand baggage. The brothers are particularly proud of Javed, Mumtaz’s son, “whose left hand on the tabla is exactly like that of our chachajaan (Abdul Kareem)”. But some of their sons have taken to other fields – in business and service.
Their discontent at this runs parallel to their discontent at the way Hindi film music is created today. “I don’t want to sound pessimistic, because we have excellent music directors
even today,” says Aziz. “And I’m not against westernisation of music either. But the method has gone awry.” His brothers join in to lay down their contentions. Synthesised sound is in, they say, so even string, wind and percussion instrument sounds are strummed out on the keyboard, which can never have the same effect. “At earlier recordings, musicians were required to play an entire song together,” recounts Mumtaz. “There was live interaction among the musicians, through their sounds, which made magic that resonated in the recording.”
With recording studios being too expensive today, each musician is recorded separately, and their sounds are assembled technologically. “This often results in a musician not knowing what he’s playing for,” says Iqbal. “We are told about the general mood of the composition, but the complexities a musician used to work with earlier ceases to exist. Is our piece a sawaal (question), a jawaab (answer) or a paradox? Where do we fit in?”
As if to better voice this, in a language only they understand, the brothers settle down for our photo shoot, with musical instruments that their father presented to them as he did to the world and play out their sawaals, their jawaabs and their paradoxes.

the Dholak

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

It’s the Bhagats, you bet!

Rishi Majumder and Bhupen Patel profile a family that hit the jackpot when they invented the matka

Photographer (for Vinod Bhagat): Satish Malavade

I’m a jyotish, not a gambler,” said Kalyanji Gangadhar Bhagat on the April 2, 1962, at the ‘opening call’ of the first ever matka in the compound of his building Vinod Mahal, in Worli. Unlike latter matkas, picture cards—such as king, queen and knave—were included in the pack from which cards would be picked to determine the day’s winning numbers. “The queen and king represented numbers 11 and 12 respectively, the 12 figures signifying the 12 rashis of Indian astrology,” remembers Vinod Bhagat, Kalyanji’s son and Suresh Bhagat’s elder brother. “The knave, if picked would be tossed aside.” Today the Bhagat family’s cards, or jyotish-vidya, foretell a full circle. There’s a king, a queen and a knave. But it’s not the knave that’s been tossed aside.

Kalyanji Bhagat
Born a farmer in the village of Ratadia, Ganesh Wala in Kutch, Gujarat, Kalyanji’s family name was Gala. “’Bhagat’, a modification of ‘ bhakt’, was a title given to our family by the King of Kutch for our religiousness,” says Vinod. “The King didn’t give much else to the Kutchis, which resulted in mass migration to avoid drought and famine,” recalls Pravin Shah, a Kutchi financial consultant who’s researched the matka system as a hobby, and met Kalyanji often in this regard. “Kalyanji, one such migrant, came to Bombay in 1941.” From there on, after jobs like masala feriwala and kirana store manager, his journey from a room in a BBD Chawl to owning two buildings, ensued from his becoming a
bookie receiving bets on the opening and closing figures of the New York and Bombay Cotton Markets.
From the mid fifties however, the cotton figures became too predictable to be bet on, prompting Kalyanji to study the American numbers game, and introduce matka. “The name matka is because the idea occurred to my father while seeing people bet on numbered chits drawn from a pot,” Vinod clarifies. “No actual matka was ever used.”
This non-existent matka travelled from Worli’s Vinod Mahal, to an area near Zaveri Bazaar (where it was managed by to be rival Ratan Khatri) to various parts of India and eventually the world (bets were booked from the Middle East and the US). Even with Khatri breaking away in 1964 to form ‘Ratan Matka’, a daily ‘turnover’ of rupees one crore (cited in 1974) left plenty for everyone.
Kalyanji’s ability was one reason for his meteoric rise. He instituted a syndicate to overlook card picking, to ensure gambler’s trust. Unlike Khatri, he shunned publicity to keep his operations away from public glare, yet had hotlines to the city’s who’s who. The brand ‘Kalyan Worli Matka’ was spread by word of mouth and through goodwill generated by countless philanthropic activities he undertook. But another reason for his success was the game’s format. “You can bet even with one rupee, so even beggars bet,” Shah lists. “You can bet on just one digit, and have better odds than at a lottery (odds vary from 1:9 to 1:15,000). And the process is so simple.” And still, the for
mat of matka resembled that of a lottery, a fact that, coupled with a tremendous amount of bribe, prompted authorities to treat it lightly.

Vinod Bhagat

Suresh Bhagat
“The spread of matka In India has been phenomenal,” says Joint Commissioner Crime, Rakesh Maria, who’s in charge of the Suresh Bhagat murder investigation. “It is has the capability of subverting an entire system. It is with this case that we have understood its magnitude. It is the underworld’s economic pipeline.” Though Maria refuses to state figures, another police officer quotes on condition of anonymity that rupees one crore is now the daily ‘profit’ generated by the business. “I left the family matka business 30 years ago,” claims Vinod. “And so did Jayantilal (the eldest of the brothers).” While Jayantilal Bhagat diversified into the wholesale sugar market, Vinod started a film equipment business, supplying the latest in the field. “A popular area of diversification for all three brothers, as indeed many who transferred illegitimate funds to legitimate businesses was shops, given to a relative or friend to manage,” says Shah. Suresh, known like his father for his acts of charity, often placed a person in need of a job in such a shop, for which he would pay the pagri (advance), on condition that he continue to receive a share of profits even after the pagri was repaid.
Vinod keeps emphasizing every once in a while that Suresh, despite being in the matka business had a “kind heart”. “He was a simple man. His only hobby, which is also mine, was listening to Hindi film songs,” continues Vinod, pointing to a closet full of Hindi film CDs. “Even if someone betrayed him, he would never harm the person… just tell him to get lost.”

Yet why did he not let the matka business go, even after it became dangerously imbued with underworld influence? “Whoever runs this business has too much power,” Vinod protests. “He didn’t want it to go into the wrong hands.” Police sources believe otherwise: “No one would let go of a goose that lays golden eggs. Yet the business was slipping from Suresh’s hands because he was unable to control the huge network of bookies it operated through.”

Jaya Bhagat. Background: Board used to declare Matka results...

Jaya Bhagat. Background: Board used to declare Matka results...

Hitesh Bhagat
Jaya Chheda had an arranged marriage with Suresh Bhagat in 1979. Vinod refrains from talking about her, simply saying, “I have my family to fear for. I don’t want to say anything that may put them in danger.”
“Her father, who had a grocery store in Kalbadevi, was known as an extremely pious man,” cites a family friend of the Bhagats, as the reason for the Bhagats’ choice of Jaya as bride. “The Kutchi community in Bombay held him in high regard.” This friend and certain members of the family, while choosing to remain anonymous, cast a variety of aspersions on Jaya’s “bad character showing early”, ranging from her being unduly ambitious and siphoning off the family’s funds, to her alleged affair with Gawli aide Suhas Roge. “She was eager to show off and live the good life, while Suresh had a modest lifestyle,” is the reason stated for the rift between the two. Suresh and Jaya’s son Hitesh Bhagat (in his late 20s), meanwhile, is simply described as a wayward child, who takes his mother’s side.
A source within the police department who witnessed Jaya’s interrogation during an earlier arrest claims differently: “She cited endless instances of psychological cruelty by family members, culminating even in death threats.”
But even if psychologically oppressed and morally debauched, how did a traditional Kutchi housewife take over 70 per cent of a matka empire worth hundreds of crores? (An empire that she supposedly commands even
while in police custody today, via her brothers Deepak and Kiran Chheda.) “The process was gradual,” the same officer continues. “First she learnt the business from her husband. Then as her husband lost control over the bookies, they started referring to her. Even Roge was a person she met as a Bhagat family friend.” Her alliance with Roge, he says, could have facilitated her getting her husband trapped in the series of narcotics cases which kept him in and out of jail for three years.
When asked whether the murder of Vasant Shah in 1998, which the Gawli gang is accused of executing to safeguard Pappu Saavla’s matka empire, bears a parallel to this case, police officers refuse comment. Joint Commissioner Maria does too, but says, “The person who draws the card and calls the numbers (called ‘chief’ in matka parlance) holds immense power. Enough to entail a mass murder like the one we have witnessed.” Put differently, Suresh Kalyan Bhagat’s ‘closing call’ came early, at around 2 pm, June 13, 2008. It would appear the matka was fixed.

matka in the yesteryears

matka in the yesteryears

The inimitable Ratan Khatri...

The inimitable Ratan Khatri...

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Hindu Gods from Karachi

Rishi Majumder and Santosh Mishra discover a place of worship in Mulund where the prominent idols were shipped from Pakistan. It continues to draw devotees from the neighbouring country

Photographer: Deepak Turbhekar

   The Maruti Mandir near Mulund station bustles like any temple situated near a busy station and in an even busier marketplace. It is swamped with crowds during the Hindu month of Saawan, and during festivals like Shivratri, Govinda, Ganpati, Navratri and Diwali. Originating from a supposedly swayam prakat hanuman moorti (a statue whose features were as per legend, outlined on stone, not by man, but by natural elements) the temple has spread to approximately 700 square feet of enclosed space and sprung a carved pyramidal dome, just as the hamlet shed its cocoon and emerged a north-eastern suburb, boasting multiplexes, malls and skyscrapers. What is not known here is that in this sacred sanctorum lie two old statues and a Shivling which trace their origin to Pakistan. Lesser known is the real connection between these subjects of worship and their official address: Ganatra Chowk, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Marg.
   The statues of Laxmi and Narayan, together as always and splendidly dressed in ornaments and colourful garments, have been sculpted from marble in the style of the traditional Jaipur school. The Shivling is encased in silver, both for conservation and adornment. Engraved marble plaques lie in between the statues and the shivling citing their original location, names of those whose possession they were in before, and those who’ve contributed to their maintenance since. Belonging to a famous temple in Karachi, they were removed in the event of partition and communal violence subsequently. They were shipped across and lay for months unattended in a storage godown at the Bombay Docks. Then, freedom fighter Ganatra who was informed about the statues asked Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to help in overriding red tape with the dock authorities to release them, telling Patel he had found a suitable spot at which to have them reinstituted.
   “And so this temple, on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Road, at Ganatra Chowk, is held by many to have blessed the area of Mulund as a whole, not just individual residents,” says Ratan Maharaj, a priest herein. “So, besides granting personal wishes, it has also led to the area’s rapid development.” The temple is supposedly maintained only on what devotees slip into its donation boxes. And it still manages to donate upto Rs 50,000 yearly, for the medicinal needs of the impoverished. Part of the reason for this popularity, according to Ratan Maharaj, is that the Laxmi-Narayan statues and Shivling have undergone a “double pratishtha” (been instituted twice), hence the rituals and prayers accompanying the second institution granting them twice their original religious potency. Old migrants from west and east Pakistan settled in this suburb over half a century ago relate to the veracity of these symbols. Like the statues and Shivling, they were pretty much left in the dock for long before being given a chance to redeem themselves. And like them, they re-built their fortunes, some attaining even greater prosperity than before. An elderly gent from Lahore, a regular visitor here, makes sense of his routine trips here: “To some questions, only God has the answers,” he smiles, before folding his hands towards the temple and leaving. All he can pray for, is that he won’t have to ask them again.

Ratan Maharaj

Ratan Maharaj


This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Forbidden world

Rishi Majumder and Santosh Mishra discover Hijra Gully, a lane Mumbai would stay away from

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Durgadevi Udyan

Durgadevi Udyan

A Hijra Gully building, where eunuch sex workers reside

A Hijra Gully building, where eunuch sex workers reside

G***du Bageecha …Ananta Kaalcha Andhera Aani Soneri Kinaara

O A*** – F*****’s Park! …An eternity of darkness Lined by a golden shore.
—From G***du Bageecha, by Namdeo Dhasal, translated by Dilip Chitre.

The G***du Bageecha inspiring Dhasal’s lines is Durgadevi Udyan, located on Duncan Road. A two-minute walk away lies Kamathipura Gully No 1, the nearest of the red light gullies. It’s called ‘ Hijra Gully’ for the specific sexual service it offers. Till 15 years ago, the park was a quick pleasure spot for those renting hermaphrodites, eunuchs or transvestites from the gully, hence the garden’s crude nickname. The lane’s proximity also led to community Hijra activities, including the emasculation ritual, which makes a man nirvan or a ‘true’ Hijra, and cataract operations for Hijras denied hospital admission. The park was then renovated, and secured by home guards. But despite replanted greenery, children’s jungle gyms and slides, and a woman’s-only area, no ‘decent’ citizen visits it today. It is populated only by occasional political or activist gatherings, and frequent junky and street gambler meet-ups. The latter ensure that the stigma imposed by its erstwhile occupants remains.
Hijra Gully, like any red light area, changes from surreal shades of blue, green and red at night to grey poor-locality-drabness during daylight. The Hijras live in a decrepit but vast four storey building, with a gigantic blue tarpaulin veiling slow repair work in one wing. Each Hijra belongs to a Gharana and a Guru, photographs of whom are framed and given pride of place in their rooms. The make-up and stylised glances of these portraits resemble a ’60s Bollywood heroine’s. ‘Zeenat Aapa’ is one such Guru, who, bedecked in orange chiffon and ornate gold for a function, might pass off for a heroine if captured on film reel. Hailing from the Poonawaala Gharana, she came from Hyderabad 17 years ago. Treated with respect by most Hijras, she has allied with many social work organisations (Humsafar Trust, DAI Welfare Society) and political parties but is too disillusioned to join any. She talks in between answering phone calls regarding a man in love with her, who’s telling everyone from the local police inspector to the local don that they’re married. “I only remember him creating a ruckus, and us throwing him out,” she replies patiently. “That doesn’t make me his wife.”
“We’ve received support from political parties like the Congress and Shiv Sena,” Zeenat begins, her gaze intent, intelligent and judging. “But old issues continue to haunt.” The root issue being a continuing social boycott, which means that no one will give Hijras jobs, or do business with them, leaving two recourses: prostitution and begging. “And prostitution too is now waning,” she continues. With Kamathipura being a publicised red light area, once regular clients are now scared to be seen here. An older problem compounds this one: policemen harassing prostitutes standing on the road, to only claim higher hafta. “I’ve retired,” Zeenat finishes, her lips hinting at a smile. “But I worry for the others.”
Dhasal, a dalit activist, indicates a broader meaning to ‘untouchable’ when speaking of Kamathipura as his “do number ki duniya” because of the way society regards it. This urban untouchability is categorised by poverty and prostitution. The Hijra’s untouchability is categorised also by sexuality, which can be traced to the beginnings of British rule. During earlier periods of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim rule, the Hijras were treated with respect, given positions of official power and included in mainstream life. The proportion of Hijras in prostitution was more or less the same as that of women, or even men. The British labelled them as ‘sodomisers’, banishing them from society, as was done with transgenders in the West. And Indians who parroted such ‘modern western thoughts’ changed attitudes accordingly. Still, a Hijra being called ‘Chakka’ isn’t different from an Indian being called ‘blackie’, or ‘wog’, while being kicked out of train compartments, clubs and jobs.
We fell united by our untouchability then, as we stand divided by it today.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder and Santosh Mishra
spend a night with a family of folk, ghazal and classical singers who have found an unlikely audience in orchestra bar customers

Photographer: Raju Shinde 

The Pawars with son Sanjay...

The Pawars with son Sanjay...

Yunhi Pehlu Mein Baithe Raho,
Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Naa Karo,
Haye Mar Jaayenge,
Hum To Lut Jaayenge,
Aisi Baatein… THUD!
   A table tumbles over as an inebriated rotund customer stumbles across to leave the orchestra bar (once a dance bar). He doesn’t like the fact that the buxom bar girls crooning item numbers have given up the stage to a short bespectacled man and his conservatively dressed wife, who’re more concerned with the undertone of Farida Khanum’s classical Khayal than with that of pelvic gyrations. But two other customers prod the singers on, with wah-wahs uttered to equally loud thigh thumps. Anil and Naina Pawar continue. Their son Sanjay, playing the keyboard behind them, carefully compliments the undertone.
   Pawar learnt Marathi folk or Bhav Geet from his uncle when in school. Then, he worked with groups like Geet Sadhna and Melody Rhythm, which performed folk and popular Hindi film hits, to finally perform solo at age 27. His wife Naina was inducted into Indian classical music at age five, by her mother’s ustad. She rendered her first ghazal when she had but completed her 1st standard. Her training under many ustads includes a two-month period with Ustad Allah Rakha Khan. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who had once performed in a hall next to hers, came to hear her and later commended her.
   They met while performing at a Pali Hill restaurant. “I’d decided earlier on I’d marry a singer, so he could understand my career and support it,” says Naina. Pawar, in turn, found in Naina his guru, and voraciously absorbed Indian classical and ghazal nuances.
   But attempts to land a record or movie music contract, remained thwarted throughout. “I waited for long hours outside Gulshan Kumar’s office, after which I was only allowed to leave my cassette there,” Pawar narrates. “After such experiences we decided not to approach anyone anymore but continue singing on available platforms. If someone had to launch us, they would see us there and decide for themselves.” So they served ghazal nights at Holiday Inn, The Club and Hotel Ashoka. Appreciation followed from people like Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas, and Pawar also got an opportunity to perform abroad. Slowly however the demand for ghazals in the leisure industry withered. With big hotels and bigger budgets conquering the recreation scene, those that held such shows started featuring only established names from across the country and globe, running over small time musicians. And so it happened, that the couple sought solace for their refined voices in a Bhayender orchestra bar.
   Two heavily made up bar girls replace the couple on the floor, rendering in terrible tones ‘Yeh Mera Dil Pyaar Ka Deewana’ from Don. They sway slightly, smiling at particularly fond patrons, occasionally walking up to them to express counter fondness. The next Himesh Reshammiya number is a duet between Pawar and one of these girls, which is a challenge because he has to keep bringing her back into tune. This doesn’t prevent one particularly drunken customer from appointing himself Pawar’s alter ego, standing up to lip sync his words while unleashing a complex gamut of Rajesh Khanna mannerisms. With the song ending and Pawar going solo with
‘Duniya Banaane Waale, Kya Tune Duniya Banaayee’ from Teesri Manzil, the man continues mouthing the words, now slumping back in his chair to reflect weepily on it’s lyrics.
   “We have unexpectedly found a large audience in orchestra bars for ghazals and classical music,” Naina remarks. “The ratio of these to those who prefer pop is actually about 50-50.” So, at the three bars the family has been contracted in yet, the owners have alternated the two genres proportionately.
   The family resides in a small simply furnished flat. It converts this into its “retreat from mainstream music” on weekends by rehearsing classical recitals. The clock, one of the few living room adornments, displays, “3 am”. “This is the time we usually get back from work,” they tell us. Pawar, who’s taken up an office job to make ends meet, leaves for work at seven in the morning. He catches up on sleep on train and bus. “A doctor told me once, that as long as you can sing, you’ll live,” Pawar grins. “So that’s my only health guideline. I originally took to music on seeing the respect legends like Pankaj Udhas accorded my parents,” adds Sanjay, who taught himself the keyboard and drum pad to join the orchestra. “But now, I’m trying to understand it as an end in itself.”

Anil Pawar

Anil Pawar

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Manohar Bagoew, who works from Parel
Rishi Majumder hangs out with murtikaars, Mumbai’s traditional idol makers, to get the lowdown on the trade (and the faith that comes with it)

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Anna Shetge - who chose professional Ganpati making after losing his job during the 80's Mill Movement

Anna Shetge - who chose professional Ganpati making after losing his job during the 80's Mill Movement

“First, a tall iron pole. Then iron rods are welded to shape a skeleton, keeping the centre of gravity intact. Grass is stuffed and tied with rope and bamboo. Plaster, rope and kathya (string derived from coconut shell) is used to give further shape. Then patchwork using POP (Plaster Of Paris), rolled out almost like chapattis. This is 50%. A second POP coating balances body contours. Knowledge of human anatomy is required for this. A third thin coating of POP is scraped and leveled to begin the ‘finishing’ process, up to the raised curve of each eyebrow. Then oil paint, primer and colour… finer shading… and a final finish for the final look.”
— The making of the Ganesh Gully Ganpati idol,
   the city’s tallest, described by its makers.



Gajanan Tondalkar, Mumbai Murtikaar Sangh President, at his Parel workshop

Gajanan Tondalkar, Mumbai Murtikaar Sangh President, at his Parel workshop



Gana: Group, category, class, community, association, corporation.

Pati: Lord

Ganapati: Lord of ‘the order’.    

 — Definitions cited from various dictionaries
Rajan Vitthaljad at his Parel workstation

Rajan Vitthaljad at his Parel workstation

   In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak took the annual Ganapati festival from private family celebrations to public gatherings, to bridge the gap between Brahmins and non-Brahmins and build a grassroots unity. The festival served “as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule”. By the 1970s and early 80’s, the festival was celebrated most in the Dadar, Lalbaug and Parel areas. A primary reason: the vast population present, comprising mill workers. The trend of giant idols caught on, almost simultaneously, with the Mill Worker’s Movement, both serving as rallying points for workers of every caste, region and even religion. Not so far back in 1996, the God of good beginnings blessed another order, formed in 1992, to be registered thus: Brihanmumbai Ganesh Murtikaar Sangh.
   “Murtikaars (idol makers) were being exploited by businessmen, not given facilities by the government, and yet held to ransom by customers,” Gajanan Tondwalkar, current president, recounts. Born out of miniscule meetings, the organization expanded as news of results achieved (especially vis-a-vis the BMC) spread. Results like getting electricity connections on a priority basis, which otherwise a murtikaar would get only by the time the festival was over, courtesy red tapism.
   “Today, a major concern is of the trade being flooded by businessmen who concentrate on quantity rather than quality. This will be addressed by petitioning the government for a training facility,” says Rajan Jhad, a third generation murtikaar and treasurer of the Sangh. This facility will ensure a quality of craftsmanship in the next generation’s trade. The Sangh also intends to plead for a role in the selection process for the Ganpati Prizes doled out by the BMC. “This is to ensure that the judges appointed are qualified to gauge such a specific art, and avoid partiality,” Tondalkar explains. Other smart moves include inviting sponsorship from companies producing the oils, paints and POP that the murtikaars use in return for advertisement, keeping donations and subscriptions in a Murtikaar’s Emergency Fund as an insurance against accidents or business mishaps, and vying for handicrafts initiatives launched by the centre or state government so as to provide seasonal Murtikaars with year-long employment in the profession. 


Ratnakar Kamblee - maker of Lalbaghcha Raja. Enough said.

Ratnakar Kamblee - maker of Lalbaghcha Raja. Enough said.

   “The most vital issue confronting us is the proposed POP ban,” says Shashikant Bagwe, the eldest of three brothers who have been making the Ganesh Gully Ganpatis for some time now. POP, enables a murtikaar to make 30 idols in a day, whereas natural clay would take 3 days for a single idol. This is in addition to the fact that the latter is far more expensive and breakable. And finally lies the issue of land: “If we don’t get BMC permission and land for the mandaps (shed for making the idols) in time, we can’t deliver in time for the festival,” Tondalkar states simply, adding that while June was when they should have ideally gotten their mandaps up by this year, they weren’t able to do so till July end.
   But while what they have been and are fighting for is significant, the most fascinating aspect of the order is its ethnic composition. Most of the murtikaars hail from the Konkan region, where many mill workers came from too. “I was a mill worker, and worked as a Murtikaar only during the festival in my village,” says Anna Shetge, a senior member of the Sangh. “After the mill workers’ strike in 1982, we were left suddenly with nothing. And I turned my hobby into my profession.” Despite the strike’s fallout, Shetge speaks in support of its leader Datta Samant, holding on to a communist ideal as he does to his god. The Sangh has among its members a Muslim and a Christian. Such integration is best enumerated by Tondalkar in describing the Ganesh Gully idol’s most essential feature (he too has been its crafter): “Not one part of the idol is made separately. It is all built at one time, in one place. But the centre of gravity should stay intact.”

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Bhendi Bazaar blues

Rishi Majumder discovers the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana, Mumbai’s homegrown haven of classical Indian music

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Shubha Joshi
Shubha Joshi
   Gharanas, using the guru-shishya system to maintain musical ideology since time immemorial, acquired a new significance in the 19th century. Dwindling royal patronage forced musicians to migrate to urban centres; the names of our gharanas (Agra Gharana, Gwalior Gharana, Patiala Gharana, Indore Gharana etc) mark the identity of not only their music, but the hometown from which this music emerged. Yet while most gharanas are named after where their musicians migrated from, the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana, Mumbai’s only native classical music gharana, stands out for being named after where musicians migrated to. 


Meenaxi Mukherji
Meenaxi Mukherji
   The din of South Bombay (then Bombay City) was interrupted with music in 1870, when three brothers – Chajju Khan, Nazir Khan and Khadim Hussain Khan – left Bijnaur in Moradabad District, UP, to live with their brother, a merchant. Having trained under their father Dilawar Khan, they continued to learn: Dhrupad Damar Gayaki from Inayat Hussain Khan of Sahaswan Gharana. By 1890, their music had touched many a heart.
   While some called their style the Moradabad Gharana, the brothers being dubbed “Bhendi Bazaar Waale” by music-loving citizens, led to a re-christening. Some say the brothers didn’t stay in “Bhendi Bazaar” at all but in a residential area known as ‘behind the bazaar’, a phrase corrupted by local colloquialism to eventually become “Bhendi Bazaar”, thus giving the Gharana (and area?) its current moniker.
   The Bhendi Bazaar Gharana won acclaim through its second generation. One important name from this generation is Aman Ali Khan (Chajju Khan’s son) whose popularity in the 1940s led to the gharana’s gayaki (singing style) often being called Aman Ali Khan Gayaki. Another is Anjanibai Malpekar (who taught Kishori Amolkar) whose performances won the gharana nationwide recognition, even at a time when female singers were frowned upon by society.
   Stalwarts from the third generation (most of them have passed away) include Shiv Kumar Shukla, Pandurang Amberkar, Master Navrang, Ramesh Nadkarni and TD Janorikar. We’ve spoken to the current generation, which came after this. 
Shaila Piplapure

Shaila Piplapure

   While some critics claim the bandishes (compositions) of the gharana bear a resemblance to the Gwalior Gharana, the originality of its singing technique stands universally acclaimed, especially its improvisation with Meerkhand Gayaki, involving an intricate weaving of laya (rhythmic tonal pattern) and taana (sequences in fast tempo). “Our rendition of the laya resembles a wave,” explains exponent Shaila Piplapure, as opposed to a staccato. Another distinctive feature is the presentation of khayal (the rendition of a poem without accompaniment, followed by improvisations on the phrases). Sung in an open voice with the aakaar, it demands immense breath control. “There’s a lot of stress on pronunciation,” says Shubha Joshi, another renowned artist from the gharana. Joshi adds that the improvisation lent the students a versatility to adapt to semi-classical or even Hindi film music. While many of the gharana’s exponents have sung playback for the movies, the soundest testaments to this observation are Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey, who’ve trained under Aman Ali Khan. “Two significant achievements of the Bhendi Bazaar gharana are the inclusion of Carnatic ragas and the improvement it inspired in Hindu devotional music composition,” says renowned vocalist Meenaxi Mukherji.
   The question of continuity, foxing many a gharana today, sounds particularly ominous here. Why? Its stalwarts have often refrained from public performances, thus leaving the gharana largely unpublicised. Some have had the misfortune of an untimely death (Aman Ali Khan for one), leaving behind fewer disciples than the other gharanas. There is an organised effort by these disciples. Suhasini Kolatkar, for instance, has besides singing, taught, organized annual conferences and documented the gharana’s history. Piplapure and Joshi have taught too, and are willing to do so again. “Patience” however, is what every guru of today finds lacking in his or her shishya of generation next. Tradition demands that a disciple stay at his mentor’s house and give 10 to 12 years to be able to master this art enough to evolve it. But while the women in the profession often have to re-prioritize their career plans to look after spouse and child, the men have to do the same to be able to earn for their spouses and children. “Giving too many singing lessons ruins the teacher’s voice. Many talented male singers have sacrificed their vocal health to make ends meet,” says
Joshi, a lady who has chosen to remain unmarried so
that she may be able to dedicate her life solely to music.
   But not everyone is like her. The same ‘patience’ is lacking in today’s young listener, who has little time to cultivate a taste in music whose spiritual significance he cannot comprehend. While CDs of this music do today travel as far as France, this makes one wonder where the sales of this gharana’s music (and that of the others) will lie tomorrow. ‘Amar’ ironically was the pen name Aman Ali Khan used while composing his bandishes. Sadly compositions, even those created by a genius, cannot survive by themselves. Classical music needs a culture of singers and patrons to keep its impressive reservoir of music immortal. But India as they say is moving fast, to say nothing of our overheated metropolis.


Standing tall amidst a teeming Dalit stronghold is a unique Japanese temple, with an indelible connection to Dr Ambedkar, writes Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

A worker at the Japanese temple, Worli

A worker at the Japanese temple, Worli

The teachings of Buddha are eternal, but even Buddha did not proclaim them to be infallible… What is the basis of Buddhism? If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason…”

Six years before his conversion, and death soon after, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, declared on September 29, 1950 at the Japanese Buddhist Temple at Worli, that he would devote the rest of his life to the revival and spread of Buddhism in India. Sankar’s Weekly at Delhi, a periodical famous for its cartoons, followed this declaration with a caption labelling the leader Bhikkhu Bhimrao.
A family of four walks up the temple steps as it readies itself for evening prayers. Built of solid stone, the structure attracts attention from afar with a conical stupa towering atop it. Inside, amongst rock cut octagonal pillars, is a large outer chamber and an inner room which holds a marble statue of the Buddha at focal point. One of the workers starts beating the huge ornately carved Japanese style drum; it’s a two-hour evening ritual everyday. He starts with a basic beat of onetwo… one-two-three… .
Two blocks away from the temple stands a giant concrete leaf, held up by four miniature gold coloured laughing Buddhas. It reads: “Jay Bhim”. Below that is engraved: “Jag Mein Buddh Ka Naam Hai, Yahi Bharat Ki Shaan Hai.” Still below: “Siddharth Nagar Ambedkarvaadi Yuvak Sangh.” The largest slum in Worli, Siddharth Nagar comprises approximately 3000 hutments over 240 hectares of land. “Eighty per cent of Siddharth Nagar’s residents are Buddhists,” says Ravi Pawar, the ‘adhyaksh’ or head of the Sangh. As per the 2001 census, 58,38,710 is the number of Buddhists in Maharashtra, larger by far than that in any state. On asking Ravi what caste he hailed from originally, he answered simply, “Since I’m a Buddhist, I can’t belong to any ‘caste’.” Ravi and his friends visit the temple once everyday and for a long span on Buddh Poornima, when it’s crowded till midnight.
“We believe in the Buddha, but we’re not Buddhists,” says Dinesh Jhaade, gardener at the temple for two years. Bholanath, a worker incharge of cleaning the temple, refuses to talk about such issues in the absence of the head monk — Mr Morita — who’s out of the country on tour now. Instead, he prostrates before the drum and then takes his turn at beating it. The exterior of the temple, though Japanese in design, is dotted with swastikas on its terrace. Inside, oriental Buddhist paintings and photographs vie for space with Indian styles. On the two walls adjacent to the altar, lie large photographs of Ambedkar and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, facing each other. While the numerous brass statues of the Buddha, seated and standing, in the inner room represent him with the long etched eyes characteristic of the far-east, the principal marble statue is carved in Indian features. A sign dedicates the temple to the Japan Buddh Vihara Temple Trust. Another reads that it was created and run by Seth Raja Baldeo Das Birla’s family. There are pictures of the same family as well. Yet another sign near the entrance of the temple welcomes all Hindus in, with “including Harijans” written in brackets, as an engraved extract from the Dhammapada prescribes the correct conduct for a Brahmin. This Japanese edifice was built, and thrives on the altering subtext of Indian multiculturalism.
“The Yuvak Sangh is not political. It was begun 15 years ago to bring about a sense of social unity within Siddharth Nagar,” stresses Ravi. Their activities since then have encompassed providing free stationery and books to school-going children (though they’ve managed to do so for only 40 students so far), organising health camps and AIDS awareness programmes every six months, and an ‘andhya shuddha’ or anti-superstition drive. Ravi, who’s doing his LLM now, was the first person in Siddharth Nagar to clear his LLB two years ago. He says, “After me, three other boys did so. And we have four more studying.” His next move is to organise a legal aid camp in the area. “While using Babasaheb’s teachings as inspiration, we have no restriction on caste or religion. Both upper caste Marathas and Muslims are active members of our Sangh. We have to work together to survive.” Ambedkar’s book The Annihilation Of Caste attracted much controversy when first released. Much later, he settled on conversion to Buddhism as a means of such. Siddharth Nagar today, appropriately so named, experiences a far more potent caste annihilator: collective poverty. Which brings to mind another Babasaheb’s line: “There can be no finality in re-thinking.”

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder dons the local colours and slips into the ancient country of Turkey



When King AttalosII of Pergamum asked his men to find ‘heaven on earth’ in the 1st century BC they settled after a winded search on the region now dubbed Antalya, filtered from ‘Attaleia’ a name Attalos had (rather pompously) coined from his own. Approaching the Antalya airport by a Turkish Airlines flight, however, what greets our gaze towards this ‘gateway to the Turkish Riviera’ is lots of greenhouses. “Those greenhouses nurture agricultural produce – citrus fruits, cotton, cut flowers, bananas etc,” answers Nazli, our sprightly tourist guide. Antalya’s suitable soil has sprouted a wholesale food market meeting 65% of Turkey’s wet fruit and vegetable demand, much as the magnificent mountains from its Taurus range plowing sharply into the lucent blue Mediterranean Sea have created ideal vacation bays with diverse beaches like the Lara, Topcam and Konyaalti, prolific National Parks like the Olympus and towering incandescent waterfalls like Upper Duden, Manavgat and Kursunlu. “Approximately 99% of (secular) Turkey’s population is Muslim,” Nazli continues to inform. The race that was long ago pagan though, has lots to thank Mother Nature for.
“In the early 1970s there was just one hotel in the city,” Nuzli harks back. Since then tourism initiatives by both the government and private sectors have made this region Turkey’s tourism hub. So in the age of competition, ‘theme hotels’ thrive. While giant hotel chains like the Dedeman shun such distinction, the Gloria is a swank golf resort with 45 holes. Then comes hotels built to replicate historical structures, Turkish and otherwise: the Topkapi Palace Hotel; the Venezia Palace Hotel; the Kremlin Palace hotel etc. “Advertisement which certain foreigners would connect to” and “Making foreigners feel at home” are reasons given for hotels designed on foreign monuments. So with India being a new tourism focus we may hope in some time to alternate between visiting the ancient ruins of Perge and Aspendos and reclining with a Turkish hookah in the courtyard of what looks like the Red Fort. History: across cultures.
Halis Cakmak, who leads a company appropriately named Hello Tourism directs us onto these ruins. Perge, which records date as far back as 1000 BC, bears monuments which are more recent: a Hellenistic gate (built post Alexander the Great’s invasion) from the 3 rd century BC; a Roman gate from 4th century BC; the remains of baths and shopping centres from such eras; a hippodrome (stadium) remains; statues of gods and goddesses; the town’s trading area… The city ruins, like so many Turkish locations catalogues history from the Hitite civilization through Alexander’s arrival to the Roman times. But while the ruins where mathematical genius Apollonius once resided only bear trace to it’s past via perhaps the astute geometry of it’s remains, Aspendos – with the best preserved amphitheatre of antiquity – re-roots itself in current context. The 7000-seater, with a diameter of 315 feet still hosts concerts, grease wrestling events, festivals and the Turkish State Opera and Ballet. “But after a rock music concert resulted in possible destruction to the structure, only classical music programmes are held here,” Halis mentions. The burden of heritage is not easy to bear.
The Antalya city centre is a mix of the charming and the commercial. The seafront defines an ideal idyllic evening: Walking the winded hilly road past the numerous stalls, to descend to one of the cafés and sip Turkish coffee by the sea and embark on a boat ride for a closer look at a mountain on the other side of the ocean. Besides shops offering the latest in high end and mediocre designer wear and brands, lies what is perhaps Antalya’s consolation prize for those missing Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Mimicking the renowned market in form rather than in structure or actual product supply, the ‘bazaar’ near the city centre is where a bystander directs a shopper to. It supplies a mix of traditional junkets like daggers, clothing scarves and bags and modern brand fakes at prices to be wrung only by a master bargainer.
While the most popular night spots here are Club Ally, Club Arma and Club Ceila, Antalya’s nightlife sifts various cultures to present flavours to suit each palette. So in between Turkish hits are popular western numbers, Punjabi hip-hop, or even English classics rendered in Turkish. Bars, discos or nightclubs with belly dancing shows abound. While every tourist is warned to be careful with being cheated, sometimes the bartender (as in our case) supplies an on-the house drink that is a special. Telling him that he’s your guest whenever he comes to your city and exchanging numbers helps.

When King AttalosII of Pergamum asked his men to find ‘heaven on earth’ in the 1st century BC they settled after a winded search on the region now dubbed Antalya, filtered from ‘Attaleia’ a name Attalos had (rather pompously) coined from his own. Approaching the Antalya airport by a Turkish Airlines flight, however, what greets our gaze towards this ‘gateway to the Turkish Riviera’ is lots of greenhouses. “Those greenhouses nurture agricultural produce – citrus fruits, cotton, cut flowers, bananas etc,” answers Nazli, our sprightly tourist guide. Antalya’s suitable soil has sprouted a wholesale food market meeting 65% of Turkey’s wet fruit and vegetable demand, much as the magnificent mountains from its Taurus range plowing sharply into the lucent blue Mediterranean Sea have created ideal vacation bays with diverse beaches like the Lara, Topcam and Konyaalti, prolific National Parks like the Olympus and towering incandescent waterfalls like Upper Duden, Manavgat and Kursunlu. “Approximately 99% of (secular) Turkey’s



“Come come again… whoever you may be… a pagan or fire worshipper, our hearth is not the threshold of despair, even if you may have violated your vows a hundred times. Come again,” is the saying the stands embossed outside Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi’s tomb. The same saying is most precious to the head of a group of whirling dervishes who perform before us that night. While the great Persian poet, philosopher, theologian and jurist who continues to draw followers from all over the world for his liberal preachings, is referred to often as simply ‘Rumi’, in Konya and Turkey at large, he is only addressed as ‘Mevlana’. 2007 being declared the International Year Of Rumi by UNESCO due to the 800th birth anniversary of the

mystic, has further encouraged crowds from various continents to seek their solace in the Mevlana’s preachings. And so both orthodox Muslims and unorthodox Americans bow next to each other in the Mevlana Turbesi – the main room of the former whirling dervishe’s monastery, which holds the saint’s tomb. Covered with a velvet gold embroidered cloth, the tomb like that of his father and other Sufi sheikhs is capped with a huge turban – the spiritual authority of Sufi masters. But for those who can read the Persian inscriptions engraved above the tomb, it does more than create spiritual aura.
As do the dervishes. A show of the whirling dervishes is held not as a performance, but as an invitation to partake of the union with God which they rejoice in. Hence audience members are warned not to applaud such a sight. The head of the group, after the show, patiently answers questions pertaining to the order of the dervishes. He also informs us smilingly that being a member of the order does not require one to leave their daily profession. Hence the dervish who whirls in front of you for an hour on end, not for once losing his balance, could be anything from a restaurateur to a clerk. The youngest member of this group is 13 and the oldest in his 40s. What challenges does such a faith present? The head answers calmly: “None. For God is with us.”
Konya is a religious orthodox city, different from any other part of Turkey. Everything, even a restaurant or coffee shop, will shut at 10 pm. What then does a stranger to such norms do when on asking at the hotel reception at two o’ clock whether any disco is open, he is glanced at as if he’s mad. He goes back to his room and reads… Rumi’s poetry: “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the door sill, where two worlds touch. And the door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”

whirling dervishes

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder visits two of the city’s oldest European burial ground sites, and gauges where they stand today

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

The classical pillar at Madonna colony

The classical pillar at Madonna colony

   All the graves here are really old,” informs Rizwan. The 13-year-old and his mother, after his father’s demise, live with his Naani—a local bai—in Madonna Colony, Antop Hill. The colony was set up, post independence, on an ancient British grave yard. So, amidst cramped two-storied hutments and open gutters stands a classic stone pillar, with sculptured Roman motifs. The remains of a tombstone, found while digging a drain in one house, acts as floor stand for a makeshift roadside stall. It reads: “John Cowa… Who Died September 1…” Some testify to the adjoining year having read “1753”.

Abbas Akhtarkhavari at the Armenian section of the graveyard

Abbas Akhtarkhavari at the Armenian section of the graveyard

Abbas Akhtarkhavari, employed by the Baha’i Spiritual Assembly, maintains the nearly two centuries old Armenian cemetery between this settlement and another newer one. This burial ground lost 3,000 square feet to the other hutment group. “And was about to lose more, before Shaapoor Rowhani and Dr Aram Yegiazarian changed things,” says Akhtarkhavari. Rowhani, a Baha’i, owned Fountain Sizzlers at Fort. Dr Yegiazarian, an Armenian, ate there post-Sunday service at the Armenian Church. Both their graves lie in this cemetery. Their friendship sprouted the idea that the Baha’is should manage the graveyard of the dwindling Armenian community, keeping encroachers at bay, in return for shared space for Baha’i funerals.
   But old grave encroachments aren’t new. The destruction of Armenian and Baha’i cemeteries in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Iran has caused much outcry. In Mumbai, the grand Byzantine building that’s gone from being the Royal Albert Sailor’s Home to the Maharashtra Police Headquarters today, was built on the site of the city’s first British cemetery. Antop Hill was chosen as a site for Chinese, British, Armenian, Baha’i, Hindu and Muslim cemeteries because it was uninhabited. Today, the city’s growth sheaths an underlying clash in the area between it’s most voiceless: the immigrant poor and the ‘departed’ dead.
   “In memory thoult cherished be/While a spark of life remains/Till the dawn I long to see/ when we both shall meet again,” reads a wistful epitaph on an Armenian grave, under a white marble cross with flower-and-leaf sculptures. “Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved,” spells a Baha’i reciprocal. Akhtarkhavari explains the different attitudes: “The Baha’is see this life as a ‘womb’ that people leave to go to God.” Another difference is that unlike the Christians, the Baha’is build vaults where they lower their coffin into the ground. “I’ve often created ‘double vaults’ to bury two family members vertically – with one lain to rest above or below a relative,” says Akhtarkhavari, as a boy carrying buckets of water (one of the colonies still lacks tap-water sanction) looks curiously over the cemetery wall. “But this isn’t tradition – it’s to solve the space problem.”

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

“Globalisation has caused everyone to be on hire”

Rishi Majumder in conversation with the revolutionary balladeer Gummadi Vittal Rao
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Gadar, with his 'Dolu'

Gaddar, with his 'Dolu'

Gaddar In Mumbai!” the press releases announced. After his fiery outcries in Pune, Gaddar alias Gummadi Vittal Rao alias Telegu balladeer and revolutionary spoke (and sang and danced) out at The Press Club, Lovelane BIT Chawl – Mazagaon, and Ambedkar Bhavan. His topics: Khairlanji, acquisition of land for SEZs, American imperialism, and Left hypocrisy. He juxtaposed Manu Smriti with the Constitution. He critiqued the politician with a four legged chair. He integrated Mahatma Phule, Savitribai and Bhim Rao Ambedkar. And he targeted George Bush, SS – BJP, Sharad Pawar, middle class dalits… and then some. Our first glimpse of the bard was minus his vast audiences. He was rehearsing the evening’s performance with a group of boys from Telengana, tapping his dolu (Telegu for drum) to check their timing. The venue was a bare flat in a government servant’s building quarters. When we remarked this was ironical for a man whose life was dedicatedly anti-establishment, Gaddar laughed his booming laugh: “Working with a government bank (Canara Bank 1975-84) hadn’t stopped me from striking in the same bank – far less carrying on my ‘fight’. I am a revolutionary… within or without the system!”

Why does a folk singer wearing a gochi (dhoti), black gongali (a rough wool shawl) and anklets build such a beat? Because he sings social and revolutionary songs? Isn’t that every balladeer’s trademark? And how was Gaddar’s Apuro Rickshaw (his first big hit – 1971) on a rickshaw driver’s plight any more novel than Nanduri Subbarao’s Yenki Paatalu (on a washerwoman)? Gaddar’s name shot to major headlines during four and a half years of exile (spurred by the police raiding his house in 1985 post his denunciation of dalit killings in Karamchedu village by upper caste landlords). It came after an assassination attempt – which he alleges was by the police themselves – where one of the three bullets shot into him couldn’t be removed due to medical complication. It came after he was chosen as an emissary for Naxalite peace negotiations with the Telegu Desam Party in 2001, and later the Congress Party in 2004-05. With Varavara Rao and Kalyana Rao – the other two emissaries for the 2004-5 negotiations being placed under arrest, that leaves Gaddar as one of the only really prominent free-wandering spokespersons of the now CPI (Maoist).
“I hail armed revolution,” Gaddar retorts. He speaks, even in private conversation, as though he is announcing and intersperses dialogue with singing liberally. Just as he confidently poses for our photographer and asks him every now and then: “Do you want a different pose?” Even in opposition to imperialism he has perfected the key imperialistic weapon – image marketing. Take a book: John Perkins Confessions Of An Economic Hit-Man, where the author admits to having been a key player in frauds inducing developing countries to borrow from the world bank as per misrepresented forecasts… only to use their debt to extort economic, political and military favours for the US. “We have been saying this since Bhagat Singh’s time,” Gaddar laughs again. “But this book is important for spreading awareness among the middle class – since it’s by an American himself. We’re arranging for Telegu translations!” But what if for a moment, Gaddar and all those he speaks for, were in power? What great changes would the revolutionaries induce? “We would put those who have caused and continue to cause such tragedies in our land in jail.” As we gape (and then he demands civil liberties!), he elucidates: “We are in an ‘economic jail’ because of a handful of people exploiting the population! Do you think that those who’ve caused so many deaths should be left free to cause them again?” Moving on to the main priorities he outlines: “Land, water and electricity has to be liberated! And the World Bank has to be told…” he sticks out his thumb here as the boys around us laugh “…sorry, thank you, go home!” Then he points to a mineral water bottle: “Tell me please. Why is this label supplying me with my drinking water?” Gaddar was criticised by some Dalit supporters because he supported the CPI (Maoist), which had a high caste (read Reddy) bias where it’s leaders were concerned. “The ‘high-caste revolutionaries they are talking about have stayed with Dalits in Vidarbha, despite being sons of crorepatis.” He also talks about people who despite belonging to the high caste are “economically Dalit” winding up with “the problem at hand is a caste and a class problem. We have to say Jai Bheem and Lal Salaam in one breath.” About the caste problem, this born Dalit has an interesting perspective: “There is a greater problem than education – it’s self respect. I have forbidden my children from availing of any reservations. Reservations have led to many Dalits in high posts who do nothing for their community. It doesn’t change anything.” OF OTHER THINGS…

Post political discussion, we shift to other things of life. Does the Maoist supporter believe in God, for instance? He skirts the question: “I don’t force beliefs on anyone. It’s the misuse of religion I’m against.” What about education? “Many people in Andhra Pradesh (quite a few Dalits) are educated – right upto an MA or Phd. But they still don’t have Pragnya – an intuitive consciousness of what is right. You cannot assume that education will bestow this on someone!” And family? “My family has suffered a lot because of me… psychologically as well as physically. But what I am fighting for involves them too.”

Two of the parties Prakash Karat had blasted in Naxalism Today: At An Ideological Dead End were the CPI (M-L) People’s War and the Maoist Communist Centre Of India. These have in 2004 merged to form the CPI (Maoist) mentioned above. Their strength, earlier estimated at 10,000 armed fighters and 6,500 firearms is only increasing. (Gaddar claims there are 10 lakh more “mentally armed to use stones and sticks”).
And their supposed liason with the Maoists in Nepal isn’t a sign of any “failure to unite” on ideology. Gaddar’s views while still extreme come laced with diplomacy – forwarding separate solutions for separate situations. Is this the sign of adaptability? Gaddar shoots another viewpoint at us. “Globalisation has caused everyone to be “on hire”. You people may be paid Rs 30,000. Your boss much more. But do you have a moment to listen to music. Saying this, he launches into a song: “Lootere Ki Chandni Loot Jaata Hai… .”

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


The Buddhists have claimed the Bauddha Smashan Bhoomi for themselves against many odds, reports Rishi Majumder
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

The guard, next to one of the first graves...

The guard, next to the first grave on the spot - that of Ramji Gaikwad

   In loving remembrance of Ramji Gaikwad, butler of O. Meyer. Died in Bombay on the January 19, 1912, aged 35,” reads an engraved sign at Bauddha Smashan Bhoomi, Carter Road, Bandra. Sometime in the late 1890s, Gaikwad’s mother passed away. “We have neither houses to stay in, nor graves in which to bury our dead,” the Mahaar Buddhist, holding his mother’s corpse wailed in front of his master Meyer, the British Collector of the area. So the collector led a procession of Dalits to the seaside and pointed out a vast area. “Our community then used rocks from the sea to mark out the boundary of the first Buddhist funeral ground in Mumbai – which till now, is also the only one,” B B Mohite, chairman of the Bauddha Smashan Bhoomi Trust, narrates. “And it is for Buddhists only.” More than half a century before provisions for backward sections were enshrined in the Constitution, these Dalit Buddhists had claimed their first ‘reservation’. 

B. B. Mohite, Trust Chairman

B. B. Mohite, Trust Chairman

   With Indians being inducted into the suburban municipality in the 1920s, a tar compound was laid out for the ground. “And post Independence, around 1975, when the Congress Government was in power, our community’s majority in the area ensured us cement walling,” Mohite continues. The compound has provisions for both burnings and burials: “Burning costs Rs 2500, Rs 1000 being just for the wood itself. The poor can’t afford that – so they go for a Rs 300 burial.” Of these costs, Rs 50 is for a stretcher-cumtrolley the trust provides for transporting the body. “We weren’t always this organised,” Mohite remembers. In 1978, the Municipality threatened to take over the land because of the way it was neglected: “The dead were being dumped here… and there was garbage from the neighbouring area.” So a management committee was formed, which promised maintenance. “The collector still asked us what proof of ownership we had! We retorted – The English, your predecessors had given us their zabaan! The buried bodies are the proof!”
   The committee today has organised a Corpus Fund via donations, the interest of which pays for the burial ground’s upkeep. They’ve built a shed, and grown a pretty park next to the graveyard. In addition, Mohite claims the salt in the seaside soil causes the bodies to decompose fast: “That’s how there’s always place for new burials. If we still come across a bone while burying a new body, it’s gently pushed aside.” The graveyard cannot however, accommodate Buddhists beyond Khar and Bandra: “The other Buddhists have to go to the Municipality crematoriums. But the state of our community is better today.” He’s shuffling through the register, for there’s been a funeral this afternoon. His name was Bhimabhai Satpal. He had a burning.


This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Rishi Majumder meets Shambhaji Bhagat, who has sparked off a mass movement through his songs and plays

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty



Ye Hitler Ke Saathi Hai Bhai, Janaazon Ke Baraati Hai Bhai,
   Poochte Nahin Insaan Ko Kaun Hai, Poochte Hai Bas Jaat Aur Jaati
   Who is Sambhaji Bhagat? Waving gingerly, a man with a medium height and rotund frame in faded t-shirt, well-worn shorts, moustache and shoulder length hair beckons into an equally aged Siddharth Vihar Hostel room, Wadala. Inside lies a corroded iron bed crowded with a dholkis and a harmonium. The man pushes aside a clothesline to let us in, even as he clears books and used clothes strewn on the chatai on the floor to make space to sit. He has to make space. This dilapidated room is all he has to write, compose and rehearse songs, poetry and plays that crown many a civil protest. “People wonder why I don’t capitalise on my name and make some money,” he smiles wryly. “By giving up money, I have amassed people.” A thrifty exchange! Sambhaji Bhagat’s average janata audience amounts to over a thousand.
   Hum voting karte hai bhai, woh ‘setting’ karte hai bhai.
“Sambhaji Bhagat is part-writer and composer of We Are Not Your Monkeys – a re-interpretation of the Ramayana from Dalit standpoint” reads one news article. “Bhagat sings songs for Girni Kamgar mill workers” reads another. Anti WTO protestor, speaker on the nuclear issue, joint protests with communist Gadar, accusations of Naxalite connection are only some of the taglines associated with Bhagat’s name.

   “Let me simplify things for you,” the ‘great contemporary Dalit poet’ (another tagline) begins. “There is a Brahmanical ruling class and an imperialist globalization that combines in a fascist way to oppress the Adivasis, Dalits, landless labourers and farmers in the name of post-mordernism. I want to tear through this post-Mordernist veil.” Right! And Postmordernism is? “An attempt to demolish history. Exponents of globalisation claim there is no class and caste. But there is one, and such attempts only break up active unions and groups to leave man alone against the ‘system’.” Hence even NGOs today attempt to work at specialised issues. So an NGO sworking for women’s welfare, doesn’t look at the woman’s child and family, or connected health issues. So Bhagat says. “As for Gadar, I’ll tell you what I tell the police. He’s my ‘Jail Bhai’…because of the amount of time we’ve spent in Jail together!”


Bhagat with his troupe

Bhagat with his troupe

Wall Street Pe Baithe Hai Bhai, Vanar Sena Hum Ban Gaye Hai Bhai…
Bhagat came to Mumbai from his village as a college student: “I joined Avaam Natya Manch, a group bent on living with slum dwellers and villagers to consequently create theatre, music and literature for their awareness and unity.” Then came the double graduate travelling with beggars and fakirs: “I used to carry their bags around and beg with them to learn their vocabulary. To communicate to the people, you have to use the language in which they think.” So Bhagat adapts plays and songs for different areas as per local dialect. He packages his political messages with common touch. “As for street theatre, with the youth organisations that came up in the ’70s being stamped out by the government, it was on the wane,” he remembers about an art he resurrected in his own way to make his vehicle. “And others draw on it too,” he retorts. “The political marches with Advani or Sonia Gandhi wearing long shawls and crowns and companies using mini-street plays to sell blades are proof of that!”
   Ye acting karte hai bhai, hum fighting karte hai bhai.

That was the last line of an excerpt from one of his popular songs as proof of how he uses local lingo. Bhagat drums his dhol to a crescendo and then lies back to talk of the future: “We’ve started training programmes for tribals, villagers, slum dwellers and college kids – so they can write these songs and perform these plays by
themselves. We’ve also started distributing CDs of our songs. But to take street theatre to the level of a revolution, we’ll have to do it on a big scale…” He means mixing “technology with tamasha” to have a large “MTV kind of presentation” to battle MTV culture. He means their own radio channel, news channel and CD centre. “But we will never agree to sponsors. That will curb our expression and make this struggle meaningless.” Where does he even get money for this much, one questions. “The thousands who see me donate enough to feed my troupe and take care of some clothes and medicines. Our money always has to come from the ‘people’.”

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:



'Shaar Ha Rahamim' or 'Gate Of Mercy' Synagogue


…is not a masjid, but reportedly the oldest synagogue in the state, that lent its name to the bunder, discovers Rishi Majumder
Photographer (except for the synagogue’s external pic – posted above): Rana Chakraborty

       Synagogue? What’s that?” “What do you mean by Masjid Bunder was named after a Jewish temple?” “Who’s Samuel Divekar?” These are questions hurled by educated gentlemen walking or conducting business next to Maharashtra’s oldest (and India’s second) synagogue at Samuel Street when asked about its location. Built by Samuel Ezekiel Divekar (1796) on his life being spared by Tipu Sultan despite being taken prisoner of war, the Gate of Mercy synagogue was called Juna Masjid by locals, ensuing in the British giving Masjid Bunder and Masjid Station their respective names. And well, the street was named after Samuel.

          “The first Jews who came to India dissolved sugar in a glass of milk in front of the local king, telling him that was how they would blend into India,” laughs acting secretary of the synagogue’s managing committee, Menash Moses. And the Bene Israelis in this part of town have done just that. Israeli muhalla, next to Samuel Street, which had 2000 jewish families once, is now left with two. “It’s sad to see only 60 people here. When I’d left India 40 years ago, there were 400,” remembers Avidan Tered, now an Israeli citizen who visits occasionally. Finally, none of the synagogue’s members actually speak or understand Hebrew—their spoken tongue being Marathi. But still 150 families, now scattered all over Mumbai keep praying at this “foundation of Jewish identity”. 


The high priest and two others at the tebah

The high priest and two others at the tebah

   And this identity starts at the door of the blue building with mezuzah, the silver doorpost. Then on to the temple with the 210 -yearold teakwood benches, facing a platform called tebah where the high priest reads out the prayers from. It’s a festival today, and so accompanying these is a thunderous blow of the shofar, a bugle like prayer instrument made of deer horn. And behind this platform is the staunchest keeper of tradition – the hechal, a sumptuously carved teak wood cupboard (also over 200 years old). This holds the sepher torahs—the holiest of holy Judaic books brought out for prayers. Flanking it are two chairs with magnificent flower motifs. “One is the chair for circumcision, and the other for ‘seating’ the prophet Eliyahoo,” informs secretary of the state Judaic trust Samuel Waskar. Two brass lamps—the tamid (lit 24/7) and eliyahoo hannabi, light this place as a giant balcony for women (women aren’t allowed into the prayer hall) overlooks. 


Jhirad blowing the shofar

Jhirad blowing the shofar

   “I’m only learning to blow the shofar,” smiles young Samson Jhirad proudly. “I’ve come here
since childhood and this is the first festival I’m blowing it for.” The festival is simaht torah—the day the Ten Commandments were received. Also called the day of rejoicing. “It follows closely the Jewish new year and the day of repentance,” Waskar enlightens, while Moses lets in on a legend: “Supposedly a vast treasure was buried by Samuel under the steps leading to the hechal. He said when the synagogue was ‘in need’, it would burst forth from the ground on the lamp being lit!” Maybe Samuel’s prophecy worked as a metaphor. For while the lamp has been lit for 24 hours every day, the Synagogue has never been in want of donors “to maintain its invaluable treasures,” as put by Waskar. He adds, “Foreigners offered us millions for the hechal, but we wouldn’t lose our ‘identity’.” Moses wraps up with what brings people here from even far-flung Ghatkopar: “I’m an Indian first. But this synagogue is the only link my son and I have to our forefathers.”

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Uneasy calm at ground zero

 This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India. However, due to time constraints and other difficulties the article was hastily written, and chopped to fit wordcount. So a ‘fairer’ version is presented below to suit a story close to my heart. The published version may be obtained by following the link provided at the end of the post.  


Photographer (for three photographs – Bhotmange family relatives + Gajbhiye + police patrol): Rana Chakraborty  



Policemen and journalists witness the culmination of a case that has wound up on the front page of New York’s Wall Street Journal, from an unheard of hamlet in Bhandara District. Shutterbugs click on with machine gun safetys at the Bhandara Court gate as those supporting the warring factions reconcile… voices… to murmur “Bhotmare!” (the victim) or “Nikam!” (the public prosecutor). The court room bans the shutterbugs, seating only activists, press, lawyers, victim, accused, witnesses who carry police passes reading ‘pravesh patra’. There is reason for such caution. The Naxalites have stepped in to declare that they will punish any accused the court relieves. But the Naxalites are a different story.




Khairlanji, since its massacre, has been quoted as a shining example of un-shining India, where the law of the land is actually only just the law of the land. Today, Khairlanji is not that India. The three routes into the village have been blockaded by police forces (more machine guns) that ensure Section 144. For the villagers, this means they can have no guests over. For us it means an hour long wait, before the officer in charge drives us to the scene of crime… past the canal where it was first discovered… and just as ‘justice’ for it is being dealt.

In one of the first houses we approach, Anju, aged five, swings around a sparrow whose feet are tied to a long thread. She swings it, to the tune of sweet innocent giggles emanating from her, and her playmates. Anju’s face would have radiated no less innocence and joy had she been playing with an new rattle. She can’t comprehend why she shouldn’t choose a sparrow instead. And this analogy dictates the Khairlanjian dilemma. Khairlanji’s 125 families – 3 Mahar, 4 adivasi, and the rest Kunbi or Kalar (Other Backward Castes or OBC) – don’t get why rural tales they’ve been brought up on (the Chundur and Neerukonda massacres are near carbon copies that come to mind) have gotten to their doorsteps a State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) wirelessing army commandoes and world media asking questions like, “Why are you silent?” When even the police patil – appointed after the massacre, when his predecessor was sacked – answers basic questions about the village with fear: “I haven’t been here before my appointment” and “I don’t understand your language”, we can only assume that the language he refers to is not Marathi.

Bisauji Titirmare breaks this silence. His son Purshottam Titirmare is one of the three just acquitted, and he can’t stop saying, “I always said he was innocent.” On the way to his terracotta roofed pakka house, is a wall that reads “Mumbai Dilli Aaplam Sarkaar. Aamchya Gawaat Aamhich Sarkaar” (Mumbai and Delhi has our government. But in our village we are the government). His wall carries framed pictures of Bose and Gandhi alongside other gods. There is no picture of either Ambedkar or Shivaji. “I don’t know what happened that day, because I wasn’t here,” he replies on further questioning. “But I knew my son was innocent.” A short walk away leads to what policemen call ‘ground zero’. Two monsoons have transformed Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange’s house into a rubble of bricks and hay. Another reason for this, however, is that he was never granted permission by the Gram Panchayat (required in most Indian villages) to build it properly.



“They want to use this issue to divide people,” says V K Sarode, Thanedaar of nearby Seora, in charge of guarding one of the roads into the village. “I’ve dealt with naxals in my earlier posting. I’m aware of their means.” While Naxal interest in dalit issues is not a novelty, their getting a foothold in Bhandara District would be. Sources that choose to remain unnamed for obvious reasons point out that Bhandara would be a significant tactical gain, giving naxals a connect in between Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.

After meeting countless dalit activists back in Bhandara – angered at the court’s acquitting three accused out of 11, when the original number of people charged for the massacre was 36 – we meet Bhotmange’s closest relatives at Warati.

“Titarmare (Purshottam) was the main culprit,” says Kailash Narnavare, Bhotmange’s nephew, at his chicken shop. “The only reason he got away was because his father-in-law Shri Krishna Padode is the NCP president for Mohadi Taluka”. Sudhan Raut, Surekha Bhotmange’s sister, and Narnavare’s younger brothers explain further. Titirmare was responsible for spreading venom against the family, besides being involved in the main incident, they say. And Bhaiyyalal, who had stayed with the family after the incident, was suddenly wrapped up – and they insist, brainwashed – in the care of Dilip Uke, an NCP man himself. Their final point is that Surekha had written a letter alleging harassment from specific names around a year before the incident. This letter, despite being with Bhaiyyalal, wasn’t presented in court. All this while, even as the eyes of each family member water, one can’t help but notice a flag bearing BSP’s elephant flutter right next to Narnavare’s shop.

Milind Pakhale, chief convener of Khairlanji Action Committee who lost his class 1 government job after holding the first press conference on Khairlanji in 2006, refuses to say anything more than “We are not satisfied with the judgment… “, before introducing us to Siddharth Gajbhiye.

“There was no cause other than caste. The villagers wanted them out!” says Gajbhiye, the neighbouring village’s Police Patil who is looked upon as having unwittingly caused it all. Gajbhiye, accused by the accused of having an illicit affair with Surekha, repeats for the umpteenth time that she was his cousin. He also says that he didn’t have the alleged altercation with a labourer called Sakru over his wife’s due wages, leading to an assault on him: “Why would a villager from Khairlanji come so far to work for me – a dalit! The reason the accused attacked me was because I was helping the Bhotmanges resist their harassment.” The criminal case for the assault on him is pending in Bhandara Court too. But that’s a different story.

For the article that appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange (centre) after the verdict
Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange (centre) after the verdict
Priyanka Bhotmange

Priyanka Bhotmange

Bhotmange residence, before it collapsed... or 'Ground Zero'

Bhotmange residence, before it collapsed... or 'Ground Zero'

Siddharth Gajbhiye - the central figure in the case

Siddharth Gajbhiye - the central figure in the case


L to R: Kailash Nanavare (Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange's nephew), Sudam Raut (Surekha Bhotmange's elder sister) and Rashtrapal Nanavare (Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange's nephew)

L to R: Kailash Nanavare (Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange's nephew), Sudam Raut (Surekha Bhotmange's elder sister) and Rashtrapal Nanavare (Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange's nephew)


A police patrol on one of the roads leading to Khairlanji

A police patrol on one of the roads leading to Khairlanji




Rishi Majumder talks to Dr Anand Teltumbde whose upcoming book Holocaste is the first in the series on the Khairlanji Massacre 

Dr Anand Teltumbde is renowned for his writings on dalit issues, particularly Hindutva And Dalits and Ambedkar In And For The Post Ambedkar Dalit Movement. His latest, the first of a series called Holocaste, is called Khairlanji, A Strange And Bitter Crop. The book will be in stores next month; but the author talks to us, keeping step with the judgment of the case on which it is based.

Rural India is full of atrocity. How do you decide what is biased by caste?

Crimes aren’t committed only on dalits. Violent clashes do occur within the same caste. But when the clash involves dalits, violence gets an extra intensity, extra vicious with a tinge of extra hatred. Caste lies in that ‘extra’ and demands sensitivity to see it that way. If the Bhotmanges had not belonged to the Mahar caste, it is improbable that they would have met the horrific fate they did. The disputant may have beaten and harassed them but would not have been successful in mobilizing an entire village into gruesome violence. Every crime against dalits invariably has this ‘extra’ casteist dimension. It is precisely for this reason that the Atrocity Act has a simple definition of atrocity – any crime committed by a non-dalit on a dalit person.

The perpetrators of the Khairlanji massacre were from OBC (Other Backward Castes). Those in the Chundur massacre were from Reddy and Telaga castes, and those in the Neerukonda massacre from the Kamma caste. Does the status quo of the perpetrator’s caste determine the build-up of caste crime?

The post-Independence development paradigm has created the contemporary phenomenon of caste violence by OBC castes against Dalits. While these castes benefited economically by land reforms, green revolution, and capitalist development in the countryside and politically by consolidating themselves into a constituency, the dalits, despite an assertion of their human rights, were left relatively powerless. This basic power asymmetry in the rural setting has been at the root of increasing violence against dalits. All the infamous atrocities have these castes as perpetrators of crime. Earlier the oppression of dalits was embedded in social process and seldom manifested into violence. Now because of increasing resistance of dalits to accept these processes and the aspiration of the OBCs to flaunt their new found baton of Brahmanism, and their relative lack of cultural sophistication, the caste order is enforced often by violence.

The reservation allotted to SCs by constitution and laws allows for upliftment, yet imposes a stigma.

The paradox lies in the prevailing conception of reservation as a device of upliftment of dalits who are assumed to lack in ability. In the context of India, reservations ought to have been reckoned as the countervailing force of the state against the disability of society in treating its constituents with equity. The disability is with society, not with dalits. This simple alteration in conception would remove this paradox. Reservations then would become coterminous with society overcoming this disability and would even present a challenge to dalits to transcend its limitation.

• Do you think conversion to Buddhism succeeds in creating a separate identity that liberates a dalit from the chains of caste?

Conversion of dalits to Buddhism has certainly given dalits an emancipatory identity resulting in almost instantaneous increase in self-esteem and perception of self-worth. However, it could not liberate them from the chains of caste. The foremost reason is that dalits did not have an existing Buddhist community to get merged with and lose their caste identity. This was merely an identity transformation. They remained mahars or jatavs for others.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Why do you feel the khairlanji massacre should have been addressed under the sc and st (prevention of atrocities) act, as it was not?

There is no additional justification required for Khairlanji massacre to be tried under the Atrocity Act than the fact that the victims were dalits and the perpetrators of crime were non-dalits. Any crime against dalit could be easily attributed to non-caste factors such as land dispute, poverty, gender and so on. This is a kind of self delusion to blind oneself to reality of caste. The early communists obsessed to see things in class terms had suffered this delusion, which their successors painstakingly try to overcome today. This tendency to deny the blemish of casteism is innate in the caste society. The very fact that Khairlanji like crime also can be painted as lacking in caste dimension, only shows this self-deceptive attitude. Precisely for that reason the Atrocity Act has adopted a very simple definition for atrocity on dalit.

There have been allegation cast on Congress, NCP and even BJP members for effecting a cover-up operation in context to Khairlanji… post your delving into the issue, who would you place the most blame on… and why?

All of these parties represent the establishment and they have stake in suppression of Khairlanjis. If BJP is seen responsible in cover up operation because the village largely belonged to it and that the local mla was seen actively performing dubious roles (in raking up a case of Ankita Lanjewar for instance by organizing an anti-dalit demonstration by the so called OBC Bachao Samiti), the NCP also did not remain far behind thereafter. Congress, though not as visible, also cannot be absolved from these acts of commission and omission because it is in power at the center as well as the state. Personally, I do not see them any different vis-à-vis the lower classes and castes. They never reflect contradiction on any policy issues relating to the interests of common masses of people. All have their share in whatever that has happened in Khairlanji.

Issues of casteism, like those of communalism, are tricky issues to write on. in trying to get justice, a writer faces the danger of propagating further reaction – and hence violence… how do you,as a writer deal with this dilemma?

No. I do not agree. No doubt, issues of casteism and communalism are somewhat tricky issues to write on. But they are too important to be shied away from. Unless some one comes forward to hold a mirror to the society to see its ugly face, there will never be any hope of the latter to rectify itself. Unless the likes of Phule and Ambedkar had written on caste, India would have never woken up to this revolting reality. Whether the writing evokes ugly reaction or furthers violence depends upon the kind of writing. If one writes for promoting communalism or casteism as protagonists of the Hindutva movement try to do, it will certainly provoke such a reaction. But, if one writes against these evils, as the source of violence, such writings could be a veritable mirror that impels people to introspect. These writings work as antidote to the disease of society. Frankly, I never faced this dilemma. I have always written against the contemporary reaction on behalf of people and found my writings getting great reception from them and activists working for them.

Hurricane Heroin

Almost unseen, a drug storm is blowing across India. Vast stretches are turning into hubs of home-grown heroin at shocking speed. Rishi Majumder hits the trail, and discovers too many people willing to risk everything for a quick fix

Photographs: Aniruddha Banerjee and GP Awasthi (some photographs have been obtained from drug enforcement authority records), credited as per.

This article originally appeared in Tehelka magazine in its January 29, 2011 issue



THERE’S NOTHING that scares you as much as talking to Aykhatha, the one-handed. Aykhatha, 35, is emblematic of the tenacity of a heroin trafficker. In Bangla, ‘aykhatha’ is slang for a person with one hand. Aykhatha lost his left hand when he was seven. That didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most feared drug lords in Lalgola, in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, on the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Unknown to most, Lalgola is India’s emerging smack capital. Three years ago, the police chased Aykhatha as he was transporting heroin across the border on a motorcycle, Catching drug lords with drugs is next to impossible, because they rarely carry consignments themselves. Aykhatha hadn’t found a carrier that night, and it was too big a deal for him to resist. If caught, they would surely find enough heroin on him to put him away for 10 years. Instead, Aykhatha drove his bike, with one hand, over and beyond a small hill slope. The jeep skidded down the slope in pursuit.

Aykhatha stands and speaks in the corner of a dark dingy mustard oil mill. He wears a black polo shirt, jeans, Reebok jogging shoes and a thick brown jacket. The colour of his teeth, that show when he grins or laughs, varies between yellow and black. The empty left jacket sleeve that would have covered a hand is tucked into a pocket in an apparent denial of what it’s missing. But that’s not what scares you.

The area under illicit poppy cultivation has shot up over the years
1,820acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected in 2007-08 5,532acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected in 2008-09 7,620.5
acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected in 2009-10

“I’ve left the heroin trade for the past two years,” he says, pointing to the mustard mill with his right hand. “This is all I own now.” Aykhatha is today Lalgola’s best known informer. He informs drug enforcement agencies about heroin traffickers, and heroin traffickers about drug enforcement agencies. He informs those who want to buy heroin, and those selling it. He’s informing us because he thinks we’re from a drug enforcement agency. He’ll pass on this information too. If he finds out we’re not, he’ll pass on that too. But that’s not what scares you either. What scares you is the following conversation:

TEHELKA: Who’s doing the jobs now?

He gives us the names.

TEHELKA: Where’s the heroin coming from?

AYKHATHA: It’s being made here.

TEHELKA:Made here? I thought you got heroin from Barabanki.

AYKHATHA (flashing a triumphant grin): That was till six months ago. Not anymore. Lalgola is independent now.

TEHELKA: Independent?

AYKHATHA (still grinning): Have you been to the fields yet?

 Image  Image  Image
1. Illicit poppy fields located 2 km from Dubrajpur police station in Naxal-affected district of Birbhum in West Bengal 2. The first poppy flower of the season 3. Poppy seeds are sown in October and the crop is harvested in March. Each bigha yields 3.5 kilos of opium, which translates to 225 grams of heroin

Photos: Aniruddha Banerjee

That Lalgola, in the past only a transit point, is now manufacturing its own heroin is scary. What many officials still believe is that Lalgola relies on Barabanki — that is currently infamous as ‘India’s smack capital’ — for its heroin supply. What else is scary? That the “fields” that Aykhatha is talking about are poppy fields, from which opium to make heroin is extracted. Such fields exist legally only in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Till 2004, heroin makers would divert opium, meant to make medicines, from these fields — and use it to make heroin. Drug officials would, strictly amongst themselves, call these three states India’s ‘Golden Triangle’, referencing the illicit poppy growing areas of South East Asia that had once supplied heroin to the world.

But the fields here are illegal poppy fields in West Bengal. According to a recently compiled Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) intelligence report, a shocking 7,620.5 acres of illicit poppy cultivation was detected and destroyed in 2010. These illicit fields had sprung up nine Indian states. And 7,620.5 acres was only what had been detected. Enforcement officials say that as much as 10 times this area of illicit poppy cultivation may be going undetected. The NCB expects more cultivation to pop up in 2011 in the same nine states.

Fact Nugget 1: Heroin made in India and sold to addicts is mostly smack or brown sugar. When made it has a purity ranging between 20 and 60 percent

Eight of these states (except for Karnataka where the poppy cultivation detected has been negligible — 0.5 acres) are Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. When these states are traced on the map, they form a crescent — like the poppy growing belt of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which holds sway over the world opium supply and is called the ‘Golden Crescent’. Going by how India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ was named, these nine states can easily be termed India’s ‘Golden Crescent’.

Lalgola, in turn, is a point on the crescent that uses this new source of opium to make heroin. This is the basis of how it has become “independent” — where heroin is concerned. If similar heroin making hubs evolve all over India’s Golden Crescent (and this story shows how they might already be), then India would reach a point of no return in heroin addiction.

“So why did you leave the smack trade?” we ask Aykhatha. “Is it because drug lords making their own heroin took over?” “I left because they (the police) caught my brother in possession of my heroin — and jailed him,” he says. “He suffered for my misdeeds. But, I should have left it long ago. I should have left it for what it does to so many heroin addicts.”

KAMAL AGARWAL, 20, has been one of so many heroin addicts for five years now. Syringe marks seem to form galaxies along his arms and legs. His hair roots have turned a freakish brown. His face is shrunken and scarred from beatings he has received from police constables. His eyes, hollow, have dark rings under them. He weighs 50 kilos, which doctors claim is an improvement from when he was admitted into the National Drug Detoxification and Treatment Centre (NDDTC), at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). When admitted, Kamal was facing classic heroin withdrawal. His body was constantly writhing in pain. His nose kept running. His mind had descended into a depression only an addict would understand.

Kamal comes from the archetypal Indian middle-class family. His father, a Ghaziabad building contractor, earns Rs. 60,000 a month. His mother is a housewife. His elder brother has started a movie store business. His elder sister is married. But Kamal, when he was 15, got hooked on to brown sugar because a gang of friends he started hanging out with did it. The first week’s trial supply of smack was free. He got expelled from school and refused to enrol in another one. He stole money and jewellery from home to feed his habit. When his family found out and locked everything up he joined his friends in picking pockets on trains and buses.

They would earn Rs. 20,000 a day in this way and blow it all on smack. The police wouldn’t arrest them because they were minors – and because they were heroin addicts. “You’re always scared they have AIDS,” says a constable about arresting heroin addicts. “And that they’ll stick their syringe needle into you.” Injecting brown, instead of chasing or smoking it, gave the boys blisters. Their limbs swelled. But they wouldn’t stop.

Then one of them, a boy from the same social background as Kamal, overdosed on smack and died on the street. Another boy in the gang saw this and went into rehab. Another was caught pick-pocketing and sent to a juvenile correctional centre. Still another migrated to a different city. With no gang left, Kamal couldn’t pick pockets alone. He had no way of getting money for heroin. The withdrawals began. He reached a detox centre.

“Kamal is one of crores of heroin addicts in India,” says doctors at NDDTC. “Unfortunately, the previous national level user survey was conducted only in 2000-01,” says NDDTC head Dr Rajat Ray. Today, we have no idea how many heroin addicts there might be in India.” The NDDTC released figures last year based on a survey of a sample size of 25,000 people seeking treatment at central government detoxification centres. Leaving aside alcoholics, heroin addicts formed the biggest section: 60 percent non-alcoholic drug users sought treatment.

HEROIN MADE in India and sold to addicts is mostly smack or brown sugar. It looks like brown powder. When made it has a purity ranging between 20 and 60 percent. The purity of heroin indicates the percentage of diacetylmorphine (the chemical name for heroin) in it. It is determined by the care and time taken to make the heroin. It is the purity of heroin that determines its price. A kilo of Indian heroin sells for between Rs. 7 and Rs. 15 lakh to wholesalers. They then adulterate it with what they call ‘cut’ or substances like alprazolam and dye to make 15 kilos out of one, and sell it again.

 Image  Image  Image  Image
1. The poppy pod is ‘lanced’ or cut expertly by a special knife with three to six blades 2. First drops of opium coming out of the pod to be collected the next day 3. The pod is cut in the direction facing the sun so that a film can form on the opium when it emerges 4. The end user of the heroin, which usually takes 11-15 hours to processn

Last photo on the right: GP Awasthi

The new buyer repeats this process. Finally, the heroin that goes down this chain into the streets of India has an average purity of about two percent. It is sold in most places for 100 per ‘puria’, or a light paper packet weighing a few grams.

“While this may decrease the high, it doesn’t affect the addictive nature of the smack,” says former NCB additional director general Om Prakash. “Try brown sugar for a few days at a stretch — and you’re hooked.” If you’re willing to pay more and go to areas where heroin is made, you can get heroin of a higher purity. Says Prakash: “The adulteration and consequent marketing of smack is driven by specific ‘customer segments’. Areas of high student population will have smack of a higher purity, and those with impoverished populace will have a lower purity.”

Other heroin seized in India comes from the AfPak region. This has a purity of 60 percent to 85 percent, and costs 1 crore a kilo. It looks like white powder or white crystals. Most of this heroin travels out of that region, using India as a transit zone. Six hundred and twenty-six kilos heroin were seized in India in 2010, 5,104 kilos in the past five years. Officials at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate that the actual heroin in the market would be 10 times the amount seized.NCB officials estimate that half of the heroin seized is made in and supplied to India (the rest being from AfPak). This would mean over 22,000 kilos of heroin has been consumed in India over the past five years.

Fact Nugget 2: 626 kilos of heroin were seized in India in 2010, 5,104 kilos in the past five years. The actual heroin in the market is thought to be 10 times that amount

Most of this heroin has been seized at wholesale purity — of between 20 percent and 60 percent. This means that this would have been adulterated into many more kilos before it reached the streets. Going by the prices mentioned, this would generate a yearly turnover for the heroin industry running into many thousands of crores. NCB officials say most of this profit goes to the heroin makers and wholesalers.

BUT TO make heroin you need opium, which comes from poppy. This brings us back to India’s Golden Crescent. Why did India’s drug lords choose to mastermind illicit poppy cultivation over such vast areas — instead of continuing to divert opium from licit cultivation? “Since 2004, the area licensed for the cultivation of poppy was cut by over half,” says Ashok, deputy narcotics commissioner, Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN). It gives out licenses for growing licit poppy in India. He adds: “This was because the government decided it had enough opium stock left over.”

The area licensed for poppy cultivation in the crop year 2003-2004 was 21,141 hectares. In 2004-2005 this went down to 8,770 hectares. By 2007-2008, only 4,680 hectares were licensed for licit poppy cultivation. Alongside, 1,820 acres of illicit poppy cultivation were detected in 2007- 2008. In 2008-2009, it was 5,532 acres and in 2009-2010, 7620.5 acres.

Here are the figures for illicit poppy cultivation destroyed in nine Indian states in 2010, as well as the districts where NCB intelligence reports indicate poppy might be grown in 2011.

• Jammu & Kashmir, 417.65 acres. Poppy crop is suspected in Anantnag, Pulwama, Doda, Shopian, Budgam, Kawani, Awantipura, Kulgam, Srinagar, Baramulla and Gandharbal

• Himachal Pradesh, 532.72 acres. The districts affected are Kullu, Kangra, Mandi, Shimla, Chamba and Sirmaur

• Uttarakhand, 428 acres. The districts here are Uttarkashi, Tehri Garhwal, Dehradun and Nainital

• Bihar, 5.15 acres. The districts under the agency scanner are Rohtas, Aurangabad, Gaya, Bhojpur, Nawada, Jamui, Katihar and Munger. This means far more cultivation could be taking place

• Jharkhand, 208.07 acres. The districts are Chatra, Lohardaga, Gumla, Simdega, Sahibganj, Chouparan, Hazaribag, Latehar, Ithkhori, Ranchi, Kodarma, Giridih, Bokaro, Khunti, Ramgarh, Chaibasa and Palamu

• West Bengal, the maximum, 3941.13 acres. The districts are Uttar Dinajpur, Bankura, Malda, Burdwan, Birbhum, Midnapore, Murshidabad, Howrah, Cooch Behar and Nadia

• Manipur, 850 acres. Districts: Churachandpur, Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul

• Arunachal Pradesh, the second highest, 1,237 acres. The districts are Lohit, Tirup, Anjaw, Upper Siang and Changlang

• Karnataka, 0.5 acres, the lowest. But, suspect districts of Bijapur, Shimoga, Bidar, Bellary, Chitradurga, Tumkur, Hassan, Kolar, Chikkaballapuram and Chamrajnagar are expected to yield much more this year

JUST WHAT do these acres mean? For perspective, it took us a month to find the fields where huge illicit poppy cultivation was detected last year in West Bengal. This is because poppy, sown in October and reaped in March, is impossible to tell at this stage from perfectly licit crops that it is often camouflaged with. Finally, a network of informers, former drug lords and intelligence officers lead us to a local guide we pick up from a bus stop opposite the Dubrapur police station in Birbhum district. A lean short man gestures directions to the driver without speaking a word. He is always turning back anxiously to ensure we are not being followed. Two kilometres later, he signals that we stop. We walk a bit and then cross a rivulet that is irrigating some fields. Poppy fields.

The leaves of poppy plants look like cabbage leaves. They are being grown on tracts of land, strewn around the rivulet, adding up to a bigha (a bigha = 0.329 acres in West Bengal). A Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) official says this bigha can yield 3.5 kilos of opium, which can be converted into 225 grams of 80 percent purity heroin. Going by this, 7620.5 acres, where poppy cultivation has been detected in 2010, would yield over 80,000 kilos of opium — and over 5,000 kilos of heroin.

To protect the plants from flooding, they have been planted on raised ridges. These are sensitive plants. Besides flooding, moisture can also kill them; moisture breeds fungi. Dry winds will shrivel them. So, some of these tracts have been hedged in by Kashful, a local crop five times the size of a poppy plant. To shield them, and prevent people from noticing them when they flower towards the end of January

One plant, however, has already sprung the season’s first flower. It looks white and incandescent in the afternoon sun. In 15 days this field will be full of such flowers. Mingled with white would be specks of blue and pink. “They look like a sea of tulips,” says a villager who is around. “It looks like Switzerland on television.” He adds, shaking his head: “If only they didn’t extract the atta.” Opium, in these parts is called ‘postor atta’.

By February end these petals will fall, giving way to a green pod. This pod will be ‘lanced’ or cut expertly by a special knife with three to six blades. Expertly, because each pod will be touched first to gauge whether it is ripe. Then it will be scored from top to bottom so the opium flowing out doesn’t touch the blade. Equal space has to be left between each cut for more lancing over the next two days. The pod will be cut in the direction facing the sun so a film can form on the opium when it emerges. Most importantly, the incision has to be 1 millimetre deep. Any deeper and the opium will drip onto the ground. Any shallower and it will refuse to flow.

Our guide points to a pair of hills near the fields and speaks his first word: “Maobaadi”. Maoist territory begins just after these hills, all the way into Jharkhand which is 40 km away. The guide says many more poppy fields can be found beyond these hills, and at Khairasole (which also has a huge Maoist presence), 50 km away. But he refuses to take us to these places. “Maoist land is out of bounds for me,” he says. “It is too huge a risk.”

An officer says, after insisting that he should not be named, Maoists probably charge protection money from heroin traffickers for operating and growing opium in areas under their influence — as they do from every entrepreneur. The traffickers on their part are more than willing to pay up. As a result, areas marked ‘Maoist’ by authorities are safe havens for drug lords to function in — for a price. Our guide also adds that poppy is a sure cash crop for poor villagers. So the Maoists, who protect the illicit poppy fields, are seen to be acting in their interest. Addicts dying in far-off towns are not of immediate concern to the Maoists.

Maoism isn’t the only problem the NCB faces in detecting these fields. “We use satellite imagery, intelligence gathering and past records of destruction to track illicit poppy cultivation,” says OPS Malik, NCB Director General. “The resolution of satellite imagery last year has been far better than in the years before.” But satellite imagery comes with a catch. Images are difficult to interpret. UNODC officials, who are helping Indian agencies with satellite imagery technology, claim: “In Thailand it took nearly a decade for satellite imagery to yield results — because they had to connect the images with their topography. In India we expect good results in two years or so.”

Fact Nugget 3: The purity of heroin determines its price, that is percentage of diacetylmorphine. A kilo of Indian heroin sells for between 7 lakh and 15 lakh to wholesalers

“Satellite imagery is only the first step — an indicator,” says Malik. “For instance, sunflower fields look much like poppy fields on satellite images. So we have to keep sending our officers on ground to verify.” But there are not many officers either. The strength of the ncb now rests at 673 to monitor an entire nation. Malik hopes to take this beyond 1,000 “soon”. Also, NCB officials say the local police are often working with poppy cultivators and so don’t inform on them. The field we discovered in Birbhum, for instance, is only 2 km from the Dubrajpur Police Station. Other poppy fields in Birbhum come under the jurisdiction of the Kankortala, Bolpore, Khairasole and Elambazar police stations.

THE DISCOVERY of unbelievably vast stretches of illicit poppy in West Bengal’s Nadia and Murshidabad districts in 2007 shone the spotlight on illicit poppy cultivation. These were around the villages of Choto Chandghar, Kulgachi, Choto Nolonda, Boro Nolonda and Beur. We drive to these villages, with the DRI officer who discovered these poppy plantations — who wishes to stay unnamed. He found “continuous poppy fields on a 50 km highway stretch from Kulgachi to Boro Nolonda — save for some patches where there were markets or settlements”. At one spot, he found poppy fields growing for “as far as the eye could see”. He found poppy plots “the size of professional soccer fields”. He then started checking on neighbouring Murshidabad and found even more fields. In Murshidabad’s border patch of Jalangi he found “poppy growing in every second village”.

Compare this to licit cultivation. The Department of Revenue released its opium policy on 29 September 2010 that says each licensed cultivator is now allowed to cultivate poppy on 35 ares (35 ares = 3,500 square meters). In illicit fields, landlords would contract an average of 10 bighas (13,333 square metres) for illicit poppy cultivation. In Baul, a village in Murshidabad, 200 bighas were used for poppy cultivation. How did such vast stretches escape detection? Investigations unearthed a meticulous network of corruption.
•Those cultivating poppy would pay Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000 a bigha as advance rent to a landlord. Most other cultivators paid them such rent only after harvest. As 10 bighas was the average size of land contracted, Rs. 1,50,000 was the minimum advance many landlords received

•The sharecroppers and landless labour who grew the poppy on this land would be paid Rs. 15,000 a bigha too — to be distributed among those working on that bigha

•Police stations were apparently paid bribes of up to Rs. 5,000 for each bigha in their jurisdiction. Police stations in rural areas have vast jurisdictions with hundreds of bighas under each station

•Panchayat members were said to have been paid between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 10,000 a bigha, depending on the size of a panchayat. This ‘egalitarian’ system made sure that panchayat members of villages that had less land didn’t feel left out. So, both the police stations and the panchayats earned lakhs of rupees

Finally, before lancing and collecting the opium, a workforce of farmhands was trained for this specialised task. A farm worker here normally earns Rs. 100 a day at best. These farm workers were paid Rs. 400. Even after all this expenditure, the masterminds made Rs. 50,000 from each bigha.

This information was passed on to the CBN, but drug enforcement officers in the area claim: “By the time we acted on it, nearly 80 percent opium was extracted.” There was also immense local protest against the poppy plant demolitions. Local Congress MP Adhir Chaudhury, for instance, apparently didn’t know that poppy in India cannot be grown without a licence. He made an agitated public statement against this “bhaat maara” (stealing the rice) of poor peasants. It was only after the implications of poppy were explained to him clearly that he backtracked.

Landlords and sharecroppers were arrested and granted bail. But the principal masterminds or their men weren’t to be found in these areas. The extraction of opium from a poppy field takes only three days. They came in for three days, took whatever opium they could, and left. Was any opium recovered? In these parts, opium after extraction is filled in sealed mud pots after adding a salt preservative. The pots are then buried at fixed locations to be retrieved later — like pots of gold in a Panchatantra tale. At times, when they are not collected, rumours abound of a pot of opium worth lakhs of rupees. This prompts locals to go on a treasure hunt.

And what of the poppy cultivation? It has continued since 2007 in a systematic way. Every year it has been shifted to two new districts. In the crop year 2006-07 poppy cultivation was concentrated in Murshidabad and Nadia. In 2008-2009 it shifted to Malda, Uttor Dinajpur and Dokhin Dinajpur. In 2009-2010 it’s been at Birbhum and Bardhaman. This crop year, 2010-11, a sea of poppies is expected to bloom in Midnapore and Bankura. These happen to be areas under Maoist influence. They also happen to be growing the opium of the masses.

BACK TO Lalgola, where this story began. An important arrest has been made. The NCB has caught Habib-ur-Rehman, a heroin kingpin, with 4.81 kilos heroin and Rs. 17,83,060 cash. “They didn’t declare all they seized,” claims Aykhatha. “They had seized 100 kilos heroin, and Rs. 75 lakh in cash.” He touches his neck and swears he’s saying the truth. An officer gets 10 percent of the value of the resale value of a legitimate good. An informer will get 20 percent.

 Image  Image  Image  Image
1. The porous Indo-Bangladesh border at Jalangi, where morphine enters Bangladesh to be converted into heroin 2. A BSF jawan keeps vigil, a rare sight along the border at Jalangi 3. A female carrier who is on her way to Bangladesh across the river. She was carrying Phensidyl, a banned cough syrup that is Bangladesh’s staple drug 4. 250 litres of acetic anhydride bound for Bangladesh, seized by Customs

Aniruddha Banerjee

But for heroin, an informer gets Rs. 20,000 and an officer Rs. 10,000 for every kilo of heroin that has 99 percent purity. For heroin less pure, the rewards decrease proportionately. A kilo of 99 percent heroin would cost at least Rs. 1 crore. This would mean 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent for an informer and an officer respectively. So there is always temptation for an officer not to declare some of the heroin seized. He’d want to sell it back into the market. And there are officers who have done this in the past.

We pass by Habib-ur-Rehman’s house at Uttor Lotiper Para, a Lalgola village. It looks like a haveli, and stands out among the village houses. Habib is 50 years old. He owned a brick kiln, and was preparing to contest an election as president of the Lalgola Brick Kiln Owner’s Association when he was arrested.

This — the intermingling of crime and respectability — is the story of many big players at Lalgola. Another person who’s continuously watched by agencies is Jairul Khan. Informers have named him. The NCB suspects him. But no one has been able to prove anything. Khan owns a huge building right at the entrance to Lalgola area, with an MRF showroom on the ground floor. Not even the intelligence officials can tell when Khan is trading, and when he’s not. As an informer puts it: “He’s extra cautious not to get his hands dirty. He operates through others, and never keeps any stuff with him.”

There are other names under the scanner too. First names. Nick names. The surnames are not known, and irrelevant to officials and traffickers alike. One name is enough in Lalgola to recognise a heroin trafficker by. Full names come into question only when they are arrested. The names are Zia, Hemraj (he operates with his brother Satyanarain who connects him to Rajasthan), Chobi and JD (intelligence officers claim JD’s initials are enough to identify him).

“Lalgola has traditionally been a trafficker’s haven — because it’s a border town.” Says Shankar, Additional Director General NCB — in charge of the east zone that includes Lalgola: “But heroin smuggling brought it almost overnight wealth.” DRI officials say: “People suddenly started wearing better clothes, building better houses and buying the latest bikes. And we knew something else was on.”

EVEN AS far back as the year 2000, drug lords from Barabanki would use Lalgola as a crucial transit point for Bangladesh and Southeast Asia, as well as for southern and eastern India. Even today heroin travels from Lalgola to Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad and key towns in Bihar. Trafficking in Lalgola happens in trucks and buses with cavities in them to hold the heroin. Sometimes the heroin has been transported in ambassador cars with klaxons on them, or in jeeps marked ‘police’. Drug enforcement officers say “this leads to comic situations where we go to great lengths to check every ‘VIP vehicle’.”

Aykhatha’s words “Lalgola is independent” still perplex us. Where would Lalgola traffickers learn how to make heroin from morphine? NCB officers say Barabanki is “outsourcing its knowhow”. This means that apart from the drug lords, “independent heroin experts” go to various hotspots in the nine states where poppy is grown and teach them how to make morphine and heroin. They even make the first few batches for them. They do this for a “professional fee” ranging from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 50,000.

Even so, an essential precursor for making heroin is acetic anhydride. According to a 1993 Regulation Of Controlled Substances Order this is one of the five key precursor chemicals the NCB monitors. So, procuring it is difficult. Barabanki has easily access to this because two of India’s biggest acetic anhydride factories are at Dhampur and Gajraula in Uttar Pradesh. Where would Lalgola get this from? Officials say that a channel of acetic anhydride smuggling has opened up along these nine states that make up our ‘Golden Crescent’. So while procuring this for Lalgola would be difficult, it isn’t impossible.

Finally, where would heroin makers at Lalgola make the heroin? Acetic anhydride gives out a pungent smell for miles around. Heroin making at Barabanki was inside forest areas, and then inside a system of joint houses that were designed for this purpose — to keep in this smell. There is no forest area in Lalgola. Each house has been built apart from the other. The bamboo groves used for making morphine will barely keep in the smell of acetic anhydride.

On 18 September 2009, Lalgola customs seized 250 litres of acetic anhydride which was being taken to Bangladesh. Why? Add to this, endless reports of large quantities of morphine being smuggled into Bangladesh. Intelligence officials say Bangladesh isn’t known to make heroin. Bangladesh’s main fix is Phensidyl. “They drink more Phensidyl than alcohol,” says an informer. Earlier, heroin was sent to Bangladesh in large quantities primarily because Bangladesh was used as a transit point. But that traffickers in Bangladesh will go to the trouble of making brown sugar, all the way from morphine, is unlikely.

WHAT SOME officials suspect instead is that most of Lalgola’s morphine goes into Bangladesh, along with the acetic anhydride. It is converted into heroin in villages there, and brought back into India. The conversion is done by Indians who have shifted just across the border, and sometimes by those who carry the drug through. Can this be so easy? We move to the border at Lalgola. A wire fence has been erected across it. A part of the land on the other side of the fence belongs to Indian farmers, because the fence has been erected 200 metres into this land.

This is an ‘open border’, which means that the fence has gates which are opened at fixed intervals for Indian villagers to travel through and farm their land. The Bangladesh side has no fence 200 metres in. There is only a pillar in between — indicating the ‘zero point’ where the border really lies.

The wire along the fence has been cut — in many places. We convince the BSF guards manning the fence that we’ve been sent by the government to do a security survey. Why has the wire along the fence been cut so frequently? The guards launch into a series of complaints. “Our shift is supposed to be for eight hours — but we’re made to work for 48 hours.” “There is no light here — so in the dark it’s impossible to see anything”. “There’s fog at night too — in winter. But no fog lights.”

As a result, this fence is cut regularly by using simple wire clippers so people and goods can pass through. In stricter borders like those with Pakistan these fences are electrified — so smugglers have to toss their wares over the fence at a coordinated time to facilitate smuggling. Here, the smuggler goes in himself — along with his wares — into Bangladesh. Then, suspect the agencies, he makes the heroin in a hut inside Bangladesh. The officers there are bribed easily because they don’t care — they know the heroin made would go right back into India.

At Kaliachowk, a large section of the fenced border is actually unmanned. Finally we arrive at Jalangi — which a BSF Major posted there calls “the most unbelievable border I’ve seen.” This is because at Jalangi, the zero point is at the centre of the river Padma. And Padma is a fickle river. It changed its course drastically in 1994 and then in 2002, redefining the entire border. Even since then, it alters its course at least slightly every year. Also, because of an Indo-Bangla agreement, many Bangladeshi citizens have land on the Indian side, and vice-versa. These citizens are allowed to visit their land and work on it.

Consequently the border at Jalangi is a ‘porous border’ — with no fencing. People travel in noukos or country boats across the river at will. NCB officers say heroin traffickers often use women and families to carry their wares through. Sometimes women with babies. Many heroin seizures have been made from the base of a baby’s milk bottle. When the BSF guards stop them, these carriers say they are being assaulted.

This porous border is an ideal place for heroin traffickers to function through. Morphine and acetic anhydride can go into Bangladesh. Heroin can come out and back into India. While we take pictures a child points out a petty carrier — a middle-aged village woman carrying Phensidyl into Bangladesh tucked inside her saree. She sees the child pointing to her and understands what’s going on. She rushes into the boat that will carry her across.

I’m not Tarannum

Devastated actress Tamanna Bhatia exposes e-mail fraud pix


Photographer: Mahesh Kumar A


Actress Tamanna Bhatia is considering legal action against cyber pranksters who have floated her pictures on the net claiming that she is Mumbai’s notorious dance bar girl Tarannum Khan.
The pictures, taken during the shooting of a Telugu film, Shree, have been popping into in-boxes across the country from someone called, appropriately enough, idle brain, saying: “Now do you understand why so many cricketers and film stars have gone mad behind her? Yes, she is Tarannum Khan, the famous bar girl, nowadays in news”.Tarannum, the crorepati bar girl, is at present in police custody while Tamanna is shooting in Hyderabad. “I cannot believe that this is happening to
me,” said a traumatised Tamanna who discovered the pictures on Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve heard of this happening to people in this line of work, but I never thought it could happen to me.” Tamanna is a first year junior college student at National College, Bandra, and is at present shooting for Shree. The actress, who claims to be only 15 – – “I started acting when I was 13” — says that she has heard of Tarannum through newspapers. “I’m just a youngster getting to know that such people and incidents exist in society,” she said during a telephone interview.
Ever since they discovered the e-mail the family has been distraught. Tamanna’s furious father, Santosh Bhatia, says his nephew forwarded the e-mail to him. “I and my son were horrified when we saw the mail,” he says, agitated. “We just didn’t know how someone
could do this.” Tamanna, who had earlier acted in an obscure Hindi movie called Chand Sa Roshan Chehra, says the pictures in the e-mail were taken during a song sequence for Shree five days ago and were distributed to the local press. Ashok Kumar, spokesperson for Shree Laxmi Productions, the producers of Shree, corroborated her claim and added that the unit was shocked that someone could do this “to a 15-year-old girl. Our entire unit is standing by her side and if we find the guy who did this we will rip him apart.”
Tamanna’s mother, who is with her in Hyderabad, is reportedly on the verge of a breakdown. “It’s just unbearable seeing her go through this,” says Kumar, “She’s almost a wreck.” Though considering legal action, Tamanna’s father said they were still unsure how to go about it.

one of the defamatory images

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

A life in images

Rishi Majumder

rafeeq ellias

What does a coffee table book containing 30 years of a photographer’s work represent? If Rafeeq Ellias’ career as award-winning documentary filmmaker and famous photographer provokes amazed befuddlement, then this showcase brings into focus his statement. “I would professionally restrict my skills to photography and filmmaking only.” Personally his interest zooms further into categories chosen for an upcoming exhibition on November 5 (Musuem Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum): Travel and Portraiture. “There are overlaps between these ‘categories’,” Ellias clarifies. “Portraiture can happen while traveling or in a studio. They form a common oeuvre.” Yet traveling by itself remains an addiction, being the best way to “eliminate prejudices and bridge divides”. He also talks about how this addiction was intertwined with his photographing the ballet and opera, over a decade: “My fashion photographs prompted a dance festival company to invite me to shoot a ballet in Uzbekistan. On seeing the results, I was invited again, and again, to Eastern Europe, Russia, Hungary…”
Vying for pride of place beside the ballerinas is the depiction of communities by the maker of The Legend Of Fat Mama (on the Chinese community in Kolkata). “We have singular and multiple identities,” Ellias explains. “While the Jews in Brooklyn merge their Hungarian origin with being New Yorkers and the Punjabis in Southall with being Londoners, the Chinese in Calcutta love Luchis as much as Bengalis do.” Even more identities arise on his images with age: “I remember working with two distinct generations in England – a Punjabi grandmother who was occupied by old Hindi films on Zee, and her completely modern, nearly British granddaughter.”
The pages turn over, as does the conversation, to fashion: “This has limitations, being advertising photography. You have to work with a commercial brief.” And yet, in his portrayal of saree draped models besides rural folk wearing complementary colours, or a black model standing in sharp focus before a dissolving landscape, he adds elements to his frame as deftly as he would have captured them while photographing that suit clad Palestinian smoking a hookah, or the portrait of a poet in Gulzar. “That’s because I’m lucky to work with clients who allow me to experiment because of long standing relationship,” he answers, humbly.

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

A yatra for healing Bharat

Azad Bharat Rail Yatra, to celebrate 60 years of Independence and spread the idea of social enterprise, will take off from city


Photographer: Deepak Turbhekar

Shashank Mani

Shashank Mani, a management consultant, took a journey called the Azad Bharat Rail Yatra on the 50th year of Indian Independence with a train full of Indian youth bursting out of their coaches to define their country. The detour led him beyond Bharat’s latitudes to write India — A Journey Through A Healing Civilization.
Ten years later, the quest continues. The Tata Jagriti Yatra 2008, will celebrate the 60th year of our Independence by taking 400 youngsters, in the 18-25 age group, to 13 cities in 18 days from December 24, 2008 to January 10, 2009. Only, this yatra will focus on social entrepreneurship by introducing Generation Next to R K Pachauri, Bunker Roy and Kiran Bedi. Mani, now chairman, Jagriti Sewa Sansthan, tells us more…

Why does the selection procedure involve only essays instead of meetings?
The candidates are allowed to
submit essays in languages they’re comfortable with, which are translated for us.
As for meetings, some candidates are as far out as the North-East and don’t have either the means or time to come to Mumbai. And we don’t have the manpower to visit them.
We hope to develop an alumni base spread out across the country to be able to meet candidates in their hometowns.

Urban middle class youth find it difficult to connect to small town, rural or belowthe-poverty-line urban India. Social enterprise must come from those it affects.
Our target is those earning Rs 40 to 120 a day. They are not destitute, but not middle class in the sense you and I are. They have a lot of josh and want to benefit from the nine per cent GDP growth.
We want to encourage them to start their enterprises instead of looking for jobs. We also want them to have a sense of purpose – a passion
that only money can’t bring. We want 70 per cent of yatris to belong to this group — though anyone’s welcome to apply. But I suspect attaining such a participation percentage will take more awareness … and about five more yatras.

The revelatory nationalistic yatras of Gandhi and Guevara were stuff of legend. But they travelled in small groups. Such a large group will become insulated, with people interacting with each other instead of locals they visit…
That’s why we are choosing people proportionately from different states to create an Indian microcosm on the train. We’ll make sure that no two people from the same state share a compartment. This will create an undercurrent of tension — especially where language barriers exist — but we want that. So besides interactions with locals, interactions with companions will create a ‘revelatory nationalistic yatra’.
To add to this spirit, we will
have group debates on issues at hand at various destinations with respective locals involved.

You’re starting your trip from Mumbai. How does the city fit in?
Mumbai consists of a variety of people with one common denomination — enterprise. How it copes with this influx of people is still a wonder. Many on the trip would be visiting Mumbai for the first time and we’re planning to visit many sites, including Dharavi — to bring out the beauty and, sometimes, the beast that the city can be.
Discussions will centre around migration — how it adds adventure and individuality to entrepreneurship, while being a stark reminder of the deprivation that exists in the villages and small towns that these migrants come from. Discussions will also centre on how many small towns will grow into cities in the next 20 years, and how their growth must be better planned than previously.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


Tendulkar’s hero or anti-hero comes on again to hammer out issues of morality and marriage


Om Katare's Sakharam

When Sakharam Binder emerged from Tendulkar’s informed imagination a couple of decades ago, he shocked a society unaware that merely 20-odd years later ‘boldness’ in art and media will be passé. Unlike Gidhade, however, Sakharam did not mean to shock, it meant to speak. What about, is still open to investigation.
Those who did not go on a rampage to ban the play for its ‘anti-social’ and ‘immoral’ outlook, were quick to praise it for its central character who challenged middle-class morality and its central institution – marriage. The rebel hero became mythical in his immortality over the years, as the play was performed countlessly in many different languages.But, he was somewhat simplified and restricted by his familiarity.
Is he really a frank-speaking hero who
knows his mind? Does he really care so little about what society thinks? Why then does he justify his stand by saying he simply does openly what others enjoy secretly? Makrand Deshpande, who recently wrote and directed Sakharam Ki Khoj Mein Hawaldar, has been fascinated by our hero too. He feels that Sakharam is a fallen man in the end. His ego reveals that beneath his rebellious bravado there was little but basic instinct. “Everyone would like to lead, but only some can,” Deshpande says.
In killing his latest lover girl, Champa for her ‘infidelity’, does Sakharam fall prey to the morality he critiques? Or simply reveal that the foundation of moral codes runs deep up unto the core of human psychology and instinct?
Or is Champa the real hero of this play? His female alter-ego displays more compassion and strength of conviction. Her rebellion rings truer. She dies for challenging his ‘masculine ego’ – for revealing his frailties to himself. She is a rare Tendulkar heroine as she goes all the way with her rebellion, not coming around in the end after exposing male hypocrisy and domination.

Marriage is also a centre point of religious orthodoxy. Is that the real target
here? Sakharam is a Brahmin and Lakshmi, his wife-like partner, a staunch Hindu. They commit a murder most foul, unable to stomach Champa’s freedom of spirit. Lakshmi is almost a right-wing crowd pleaser in her meek modesty, piety to her husband, her prejudice against “musalmans”, her moralising, and her devotion to her idols. But perhaps she is only using her religious beliefs as an excuse to secure her interests.
Tendulkar never judged his characters. He did not justify them, thereby leaving room for interpretation. Direc
tors are still eager to do their own version of Sakharam. Om Katare who is reviving his production, feels it is an excellent creative exercise for an actor and director. Jaimini Pathak, who directed a reading of His Fifth Woman – a prelude to Sakharam Binder, found himself discovering layers to the relationship between characters that he had not previously considered. However, the innumerable ‘versions’ hardly ever attempt a truly fresh interpretation of the play. It is not easy to sum up who Sakharam really is. The only certainty is that he is among a lot of other things, a victim of his own dramatic potential.
Sakharam Binder directed by Om Katare plays at the Nehru Festival today, 7.30 pm.


This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:



Photographer: Mukesh Panchal

A D Singh and Kim Sharma

So Olive celebrates its fifth birthday. Like any spoilt rich brat with many stepfathers (read: AD Singh, Henry Tham Jr, the singer Sagrika, Martin D’Costa, and Anupam Mayekar’ s baby), this five year old’s popularity cuts across the cross section. Digging into the authentic Italian fare at this otherwise contemporary Mediterranean restaurant were Kabir and Pooja Bedi (obliging cameras with joint interviews), Hiten Tejwani and Gauri Pradhan, Astad Daeboo (playing Spartan tastefully in an arty white kurta), Suchitra Pillai (Mirror Question Of The Week: Which party has Pillai not graced of late?), Tanya (with yet another escort… never say die spirit…like the Aussie cricket team) and the like.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: