Photographer: Deepak Turbhekar
More than five lakh people sleep on the streets of Mumbai every night. That’s the conservative estimate given by civic authorities, though an actual census has never been carried out due to the ‘fluctuating’ nature of street population.
But even those who still haven’t been hit can hardly be called lucky, Mumbai Mirror reporter Rishi Majumder found out. Spending six hours of the night on street-corners in various parts of the city, he experienced firsthand how street-dwellers live and sleep dangerously as cars ‘within striking distance’ whiz past nonchalantly in the dead of night, how robbers come calling without a warning and how hostile occupants of street-corners will zealously guard their ‘space’ and are even willing to cause physical harm to protect their territory.
11 O’ CLOCK. FOOTPATH OPPOSITE YOKO’S RESTAURANT NEAR SANTACRUZ STATION.
Finding no-one on the footpath, I approach two people laying their chatai outside a now closed medical store. “No. Sorry, but we work in this store,” says one of them, “That’s why we can sleep here. Both the owner of this store and the cops do rounds at night. They’ll create a ruckus if they see you.” It seems like a lame excuse. I ask an old man sitting on the footpath what to do. “If you sleep here either the cops will tell you to leave or you’ll be robbed of your clothes by some mawali,” he says. He then points at a departmental store in front of us. “You said you’re a Bengali. So are they. Speak to them in Bengali. Maybe they’ll allow you to sleep in their store.” Not a good idea. I want to sleep on the pavement.
TWELVE O’ CLOCK. AMERICAN EXPRESS BAKERY AT HILL ROAD, BANDRA (OF THE SALMAN KHAN ACCIDENT FAME)
There’s one man sleeping outside American Express Laundry service. I lie down on the steps of the bakery. The watchman passes by twice but doesn’t say anything. Then I move on to another part of Hill Road. Here there are at least 10 people sleeping across a narrow pavement. As I lie down I realise my legs hit the road and the pavement under me ends at my knees. My legs are tempting targets for roadragers. Almost asleep, I feel someone feeling my pocket. Startled awake, I see that someone pretend he mistook me for someone else. He moves on to talk to the woman next to me in whispers. Later my photographer says, “You shouldn’t have woken up! I would have clicked him stealing your wallet!”
ONE O’ CLOCK. MAHIM STATION.
The road is a line of bastis with people on a bed or on cloth. Even opposite Mahim Station, pavement dwellers lie in rows . I ask one man if I can sleep there. “I don’t mind you sleeping, if you don’t mind getting robbed,” he says. Towards Dadar we cross more bastis. The number of people sleeping on the street instead of the footpath increases. Mosquito bites wake up a baby who, ironically, reaches out towards a mosquito net propped around another family sleeping nearby. People are asleep both on beds and below them. I lie down with six others near a garbage dump. The road bends at this spot and all of us could easily be run over by unsuspecting motorist. One of the sleeping men, dressed in rags, wakes up, looks at me in confusion and goes back to sleep. He doesn’t seem to mind the five-odd rats scurrying around and over him. I do, and leave.
THREE O’ CLOCK. OUTSIDE DADAR STATION There is a parade of village women – old and young – who come every two days from their village and stay overnight to sell their Saal leaves the next morning. They always reach Mumbai at midnight and leave the next noon. They spend the night before the market opens arranging their leaves, chatting around a street fire or taking a nap. “We enjoy being here even though it’s away from our village – it’s a change for us,” one of them giggles. There are also two garland weavers – both young boys from a U.P. village – putting marigolds into a thread. They have been in Mumbai for a month and live on this pavement. They say they love it here.
There are large numbers of people asleep here. But no families. Only young or middle-aged men. As I lie down and drift asleep, I’m woken up. “Who are you?” asks a man. When I tell him I don’t have a place to stay, he asks, “Have you got into trouble with the police? Hurt or killed someone?” When I deny it he disbelievingly tells me, “It’s okay. Sleep. But I don’t believe you haven’t done something wrong.” As I walk away in half an hour I see some people cooking a chemical to make powder. Unfortunately, they see the photographer trying to sneak a shot and scoot before I can talk to them.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/o7md