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.
“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.”
SAHARA SOCIETY, KHAR
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.
“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: http://alturl.com/pxc3