Village in the city: Bombay in microcosm

Abstract: The great majority of India’s Jews have emigrated to Israel (done “aliyah”). Of course, nobody forced them. They went of their own volition. Therefore there is nothing intrinsically sad about this. Yet when you visit synagogues in Bombay, they have a definite and indefinable sad air about them, a memory of a culture and a time now almost vanished. The Magen Hassidim Synagogue in Agripada in Bombay is one such. My short piece, written around a visit to Magen Hassidim, is reflection on things lost, and the reminders of them.

Bio: DD has a BE in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from BITS Pilaniand a MS in Computer Science from Brown University. Only, he doesn’t use either of those degrees now, professionally, except peripherally.He writes for his supper, mostly about political and social concerns, though also occasional travel writing. DD has won several awards for his writing, including the StatesmanRural Reporting Award, the Times of India/Red Cross prize, the Outlook/Picador nonfiction prize (for which he was also, earlier,runner up), the Sanctuary Magazine prize and more. He has written two books, “Branded by Law” and “The Narmada Dammed” (both Penguin).

He is married to Vibha Kamat, and they have two children, Sahir (6) and Surabhi (2). They live in Bombay.

Email: dilip.sarai@gmail.com

Blogs: Death Ends Fun and How the Other Half Lives

Postings:

Twice a day paper route (7 March 2006)
Bang the drums slowly (19 May 2006)
Old people’s garden (10 May 2006)
That bun-maska (27 April 2006)

Village in the City: Bombay in microcosm

Bombay, the big city, and everywhere else seems rustic. That’s the way I invariably feel whenever I return home to Bombay after a trip somewhere in the country. And yet the oldest truth about Bombay is that it, too, was once a collection of villages. What’s more, there are ways in which the big city has not lost that character. Or let’s say this: in this big city, you can still find traces of that character. There are parts of Bombay that are still essentially villages. In my suburb of Bandra alone, lanes narrow to warrens, houses look over low walls into each other, you can even see ducks being raised. Ranwar, Chimbai, Sherly, Pali Malla, these are the old villages of the Queen of Bombay’s suburbs. And there is also Khotachiwadi in Girgaum, still held up as a model of urban living; also parts of Agripada, CP Tank, Kalbadevi and more.
Yet there’s another theme I’m trying to get at here. This lies in the way people deal with each other in these neighbourhoods, the humanity that large cities make us pessimistic about finding.
For example, in CP Tank I once saw first- and higher-floor residents lowering baskets on ropes to the pavement, to buy vegetables from cooperative vendors. Seems to me a small indicator of a different time, a different place, a different pace. More and more city residents go to large supermarkets for their supplies, or pick up the phone and get their vegetables delivered in minutes.

Yet in Bombay’s congested heartland, some housewives use baskets on ropes.
Bits of humanity intrigue and appeal to me, not least because I fear they are vanishing as even these little spaces in the city get torn down and built over. So my plan is simple: go hunting for them and tell those stories. I want to document not just the physical reality of these villages in Bombay, but the little signs in them that speak of a possibly disappearing, or at least forgotten, humanity. My interest is also in the larger lessons: what do these daily interactions say about life in a city? Or about the great conundrums of modern India: secularism, liberalization, poverty? I want to emphasize that I don’t see this project as a paean to the past, nor as a mournful ode to a nearly-vanished history. I’m interested in making the case that life in a city is an experience made of these small interstices. That these may have been villages, but they are the foundation of great metropolises. Very simply, I would like my essays to get my readers thinking about the people who make up a city. Not the buildings or parks or flyovers, but the people.

21/1/06

Dear Dilip,

I cursorily ran through your idea of the fellowship project. Just a quick comment. I am not exactly sure at this point where you will be getting to/at through the process and period of six months, but an important things to think through is not just the humanity aspect of the city, but aspects of local relationships, systems and practices which are being transformed in the making of the global city – what are these local relationships? why are they important that is if they are at all? what happens in the making of the global city?

Focussing exclusively on the humanity aspect makes things very mushy-mushy, romantic and teary eyed which is something that I consciously avoid in my methodology and processes of research.

Cheers,

Zainab

21/1/06
I don’t agree with you at all Zainab on this. I think your understanding and definition of humanity is extremely narrow and I would argue, incorrect, in this context. The dictionary definition of humanity (and I quote from the Websters dictionary)

1. the quality or state of being humane

2 a : the quality or state of being human b plural : human attributes or qualities <his work has the ripeness of the 18th century, and its rough humanities — Pamela H. Johnson>

3 plural : the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics)

Being human or humane (even if you include both these in the context of Dilip’s work) is neither romantic or teary-eyed. After all humanism, even though there are several critiques of it now which I agree with you, was one of the tenets of Renaissance Europe as also modern western civilization. Here, humanism refers to not merely the shift to a more secular world vision, but also the inclusion of modern science/scientific methods, technology, ancient wisdom (in the form of Greek and Latin texts), but above of all of accessibility – which is why a number of these texts were translated into the local languages in several parts of Europe. Even if you understand Dilip’s definition of humanity as the focus on being humane, I would argue this is not romantic. In fact if you read his proposed research carefully, you will see that he wishes to juxtapose these against the values of secularism, liberalization etc. I have a huge issue with this kind of value judgement, without understanding the social, historical or political context of someon’e work. In fact, if you come to the matter of subjectivity, I think you will find a lot of material on anthropological research that talks of the involvement of the researcher with his subject and this is definitely not teary -eyed. I suspect that subjectivity is very much present in your work.



21/1/06

Dear Aditi,

Thank you for responding to this conversation. As I had mentioned in my email, I had cursorily ran through Dilip D’souza’s proposal and therefore my apologies for making assumptions.Thanks also for bringing forward the ‘definitions’ of humanity. I definitely have a narrow conception of humanity and it emerges from an image. From what I understand now of Dilip D’souza’s proposal, he will invariably be mapping transformations of the city (and I stand to be corrected here if I have misinterpreted his proposal) through his essays on people’s interactions and practices in the village pockets. And what will be interesting to see is what of the interactions of the people of the villages influences/sustains/nourishes/enriches the present everyday life in the city.

From my own experiences, one aspect of mapping transformations is through conversations with people and in that sense, one gets the ‘humanity’ aspect. What I however find most critical is to watch how networks get transformed and what happens to the city in the context of the larger political economy (of which culture is an important aspect), something which Dilip’s works will bring out when he refers to liberalization, secularism, etc.
From the last one and a half years of investigation (literally), I find that my position against the global city is that it is not a sustainable system. It causes gentrification, has severe ecological implications, and public policies and civil society initiatives sometimes perpetuate the very violence and systems which we want to change (or at least I want to change). For instance, in a recent presentation by Mukesh Mehta where he presented his plan for transforming Dharavi and rehabilitating the slum dwellers in Dharavi (as part of the global city dream), one member of the audience pointed out that Mukesh Mehta was not doing anything different from the present SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) policy. Through using FSI in-situ, Mehta was simply promoting more density. In a later discussion with the same person who made the comment, he mentioned clearly that one of the solutions is to give the land free to the slum dwellers and enable them to build their own houses there, through their own labour, and allow them to pay for the houses through rent-free installments while the state pays the subsidy for interests. While he made this comment, it dawned on me that this could be a decent solution because there is no TDR game. But, the political machinery through the press has created a brilliant campaign against the slum dwellers through raising the argument of ‘public land’ and ‘entitlements of citizens’ and this campaign allows the political machinery to continue with the regulatory system of FSI and TDR along with the builders!

Similarly, projects like Khotachiwadi illustrate the dangers of alluding to village life (and humanity there). Invariably we make specimens of the ‘culture’ and of the ‘people of that culture’. In some public forums where I have heard residents of Khotachiwadi speak, they speak of themselves and their ‘lifestyles’ as ‘unique’ and make their case of that of privelged peoples. Therefore, I question intervention and consciousness of interventions and their consequences on people’s lives and their environments.

In the local trains of Mumbai also, one comes across numerous examples of ‘humanity’ with people helping each other, supporting each other, finding respite and comfort in each other’s company through train groups or incidents which take place in the compartments and these definitely give a lot of hope. But is humanity all that there is to the local trains?Down the line, I am trying to think in terms of everyday practices of locality and systems in the local trains. What need does a train group fulfill? Why do people form groups in trains? One refers to cosmopolitanism of Mumbai through its local trains but does that cosmopolitanism penetrate deeper into people’s mentalities when it comes to prejudices against Muslims and Hindus? Are there public spaces like the local train which can facilitate interactions between people and enable new experiences and deeper interactions? Can there be designs of such public spaces and are these designs ‘contextual/local’ or ‘global’?

As a researcher, I find it important to be conscious of the fact that instead of alluding only to humanity (which I understand as conditions of human beings), it is useful to think in terms of system. I will admit that my own position comes from the question of where is research directed towards? Is it research for research’s sake? – sure, and there is nothing wrong in that. But for me, the process of research is a deeper understanding of society and looking at what changes in systems can bring about paradigm shifts. In that sense, I am candidly a researcher-cum-wanting to bring about change in the world being. Dilip, I would apologize for two things: one, if I was too harsh, though that was not my intention and secondly, if I am projecting myself and my ideas on your proposal (which I am certain you will not allow me to as a matter of freedom and democracy!!!)
Continuing conversations,

Warmly,

Zainab



22/1/06

Dear Zainab and Aditi,

Thank you for the welcome exchange on my proposal, something I didn’t at all expect! First of all, Zainab, there’s no need to apologize, and I am quite happy for you to project your ideas on my proposal. Let me say this: I’ve never been much good at posing the larger research or academic questions (I think I first realized that when I failed my PhD exams). What I think I can do reasonably is write the stories of people I meet, and use those stories to ask questions ortouch on broader themes. When I look back on the stuff I’ve written, this is the pattern I see, and it’s the only way I know how to write.

So my proposal to Sarai was, in essence, this: I want to write those stories — about Bombay’s villages, in this case — so will you give me the funding? no facetiousness meant.
What questions those stories will pose when I write them, we’ll have to see, and my readers will have to tell me As for humanity: perhaps I used the word for want of a better one. I have no use for the romantic view of people’s interaction, for the assumption that we are all really good-hearted do-gooders at heart. Though two things interest me in that vein: the dark things that people do, and the way people survive and live through them anyway.
But with this project, what I hope to get some handle on is what makes up those large issues — secularism, poverty, development, those things. We debate them, but how do they translate into everyday lives (or do they translate at all)? Again, when I look back at my writing, it’s the times that I’ve had conversations with ordinary individuals when I’ve gained some better understanding of themes. Not the papers I’ve read, or seminars I’ve attended. So I hope to keep on with that over the next six months.

I don’t know if I’ve done anything better than a stream of consciousness reply to you both, nor if it has clarified anything. But I thank you again for thinking about what I wrote and for letting me know your thoughts; for giving me things to think about. Any other thoughts always welcome.

cheers,

dilip.


23/1/06
Thanks for this detailed response Zainab and Dilip, for your comments. I apologise if I sounded too harsh, as well. Its just that the hierarchies between what is conventionally considered valid academic exercise (such as understanding of systems, interlinkages etc , along with extensive intellectualising) as opposed to other forms of recording- whether that is oral history, story-telling, music, folk etc, jars with me. I believe that these forms very often reveal as much, if not more and they speak for themselves as well, we do not need to intermediate with interpretation.

Anyway, keep the discussions alive! Aditi


24/1/06
Dear Aditi and Dilip,

I think this has been a very interesting and useful interaction. To me, it reveals issues about academia and methods, a discussion which I think is important and useful for a list like this. Raising the questions that each one of us has about academics, ‘knowledge production’, research, I believe, gets me to question my own work as a researcher (if I may call myself one, though the people I interact with call me a journalist.

Looking forward to more of this!

Warmly,

Zainab

29/6/06
June 28

Dear All,

Here’s my — I’ve lost count — next post on my theme, “Village in the City”. I want to express here a note of thanks to Mamta Mantri, fellow fellow, who took me to the film mentioned.

Comments welcome. More on the way.

cheers,

dilip d’souza
——————
The Film, Then the Road

———————–

Dilip D’Souza

The attraction is two-fold. One, it fits with my recent forays into Bombay neighbourhoods — its “villages in a city” — that I do not ordinarily frequent. Two, it takes me to one of this city’s older (-est?) cinema theatres. They’re a vanishing breed, these single-screen affairs, with a character all their own. So when I get the chance to see a film in the area known as Playhouse,I I jump at it. Talk about multiplexes — true, everyone appreciates the choice of films they give you, all under one roof. But apart from the roof, it’s close to being the same in this area. The choice, I mean. Within a 150 metre radius from the Falkland Rd/Grant Rd junction, there are at least 9 theatres. Novelty, Super, Nishat, Alfred, Gulshan, New Royal, Roshan and some more whose names escape me. So my first task in Playhouse was to decide which theatre to visit.
Two things had some bearing on the decision: I’ve always wanted to see a Bhojpuri film, and I’ve long wanted to see a film at Alfred on Falkland Road. The latter, because I have an soft corner for theatres that still use those rosy-cheeked lurid hand-painted posters, and Alfred is one of those.

So Super was showing “Pyaar ke Bandhan” in Bhojpuri. That was a possibility. But in the end, I chose Alfred. (Super, next time). Not that the film at Alfred was much of an attraction: Himmat from1996, starring Sunny Deol, Tabu, Naseeruddin Shah and Shilpa Shetty. “Superstar kalakar ka jhamela dekhiye!” (“See the drama of the superstars!”) says a hand-lettered poster in the theatre, not much of an attraction either. We enter a good 30-45 minutes late, leave after an hour. But as always with such films, it hardly matters when you enter or leave. You still get the same cocktail of deafening music, execrable songs, meaningless plot sequences and horrifying acting. Naseeruddin Shah probably shudders — well, I hope he does — when he remembers his performance in this one. Tabu is tall, dressed gaudily and does little of any note. Shilpa Shetty is all cleavage and simper, which grows old fast. (Yes, I said that). Sunny Deol, the man should pick any vocation but acting. Enough said.

But of course, my feeling is that people come to see a film like Himmat only for the pretty faces and the melodrama. Who cares about acting ability? And so this is the usual delightful Bollywood film experience. I have myself an absolute all-round blast. Alfred is old all right, but it’s not as if Alfred is gorgeous heritage-value art-deco. It does have a cavernous hall, long poles from the ceiling that whirring fans hang from, an obvious stage in front on which the curved screen is mounted, and a steeply-sloped balcony. Given where we are in this city, the general seediness here,I naively expected dirt and a noisy audience. But even with the hall packed as it is, it is surprisingly quiet. No cellphones go off, nobody has to be asked to hush. Several women are watching the film, some with kids, some clearly on their own. My companion tells me that this is one of the few theatres in the city where women feel comfortable enough to come alone. Oh yes, no rats, and it is about as clean as any other theatre I’ve been to.

And outside the hall, plenty of open space, long silent gleaming corridors (remember we walked out while the movie is still on) where you hear every footfall, big windows to let in the evening air and sounds. Those windows! Through them drift the sounds and sights of this heart and soul of the city: traffic, horns, brisk walkers, lights, signs, cafes. Opposite is “Pestonji Building, 1928″ — home to the temptingly lit and crowded Nekzad Restaurant. And there are posters plastered in every direction for the new film Mobile Phone (“This film is inspired by famous MMS scandal of New Delhi”). All I can say about that is that the cleavage on display on those posters comfortably shades Shilpa Shetty in Himmat. It’s been a delicious 90 minutes or so. When done, I stand at that bustling junction for a long time, looking around. Firdos Guest House is across the road, promising “homely comfort”. Cafe Heaven is over there too. I look over at Nekzad (“Just tonight, I stood before the tavern/Nothing seemed the way it used to be”, Mary Hopkin’s throaty voice comes back to me), wondering if I have the time to go have a coffee.

Have to return soon to see another film at one of the other little theatres here. That Bhojpuri one first, but I want to come back after it. And again.
***
See a film, see a road …
Falkland Road is, of course, really Patthe Bapurao Marg. You knew that. It angles jauntily off the severe east-west gauntlet of Maulana Shaukatali Road, stretching actually from the Tardeo junction to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Road. It is only the final segment — from Maulana Shaukatali Road to Sardar VP Road — that is, of course, Bombay’s long-time red-light district.
Speaking of cleavage. Many others have written far more eloquently than I could about the sex-workers of Falkland Road; and it’s unlikely I can find something new to say about them. Yet even so, it is a sobering experience to walk down this street. Never has so much flesh looked so sordidly sad, and I truly mean no offence when I say that. The females of the species who stand on the road are certainly past adolescence — their tight blouses leave you in no doubt of that — yet most of them have an air of utterly tragic youth. Oh, they wear those lurid petticoats, they probably pad their blouses, they paint themselves thick with lipstick, some dust themselves with powder to look fairer. And they meet the eye of every male who passes with an unmistakable, disconcerting, yet somehow still imperceptible, inquiry.

This is adult territory in every sense. Yet so many of these women are so obviously children. What are they doing here?
Silly question, yes. What’s the point of bemoaning the second-oldest profession? Of all the incongruous thoughts, this is the one on my mind as we walk this street.

There is, never mind the girls, plenty else to see here too. One strip of shops has both Ma’s Dental Clinic (where the dentist is Dr HK Ma) and Dr CH Yi’s all-purpose clinic. There’s also the “Indo-Chinese Institute for Medicine”, which pursues “Research in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture and Allied Sciences”. What Chinese doctors and dentists have meant to this part of Bombay is another story altogether, worth its own exploration. Close by is one more of those theatres, Silver Talkies (“Balcony Ticket Rs 16″).

Today the feature is “Swiging Love in Pagal Diwani” (sic), which sounds intriguing enough to miss. I could say the same about New Roshan Talkies, even if the feature there is the more demure “Sher-E-Hindustan.” Then there’s Pila House, marked by a number of this city’s ornate horse-drawn rickshaws parked on the road outside (tight-bloused girls pouting behind). Inside is a small yard which houses, incredibly, dozens more of these horse-carts and the horses themselves. All getting a morning cleanup.

Plenty to see, yes, but on Falkland Road it’s really about the women. Reminders of that everywhere. On that balcony, a sheaf of coloured saris, drying in the sun. That building, a long row of dark cages, women standing outside. Many more women, many more of those famous cages. Then, as we approach the Alfred theatre and Maulana Shaukatali Road, right up against a row of those cages, I see the sign. And for some inexplicable reason, it seems to sum up this neighbourhood of clinics and horse-carts and theatres and Chinese medicine and girls, girls, girls. It says:

“Coffin will be issued free of charge to any people and caste indeed no relation.”

30/7/06



July 29

Dear All,
Here’s my sixth article on my theme, “Village in the City”. Though this completes the requirement, I have material for a couple more articles and I hope to share those when I get them done. (Which, I hope, will be before the August jamboree in Delhi).
Best,

dilip d’souza.
(PS: a substantially different version of this was in Tehelka, issue of July 29).

The worst act

————-

Dilip D’Souza

Anywhere else, you cannot help thinking, the Irani Masjid would be a major tourist attraction. Here in Bombay, this gorgeous blue-tiled beauty sits on a nondescript road that meanders through Dongri, massage parlour on one side, tea shop on the other, apparently unknown outside this area. It’s on my third visit that I find a side door open and a short friendly man who beckons. “This way!” says Mr Abid. “Come in and take a look!”
Inside, it’s reminiscent of Lucknow’s Imam Bara, though on a far reduced scale. Neat courtyard, rooms lining the sides, long rectangular pond, mausoleum of sorts at the other end. Peaceful. I can’t help that last thought, because this third visit is only days after the horrific train blasts of July 11, and I’m in the funk I get into from time to time. I’m so tired of the hatred and violence of the world I live in. A great big cosmic thought, sure, but in this little haven of calm — and yes, in this obviously Muslim part of my city which I’m told is unsafe for being so — it comes naturally. Just why isn’t this place better known?

Nearby, two men are sitting in their tempo. What’re you doing, I ask. “Waiting for work,” they say. “Since the blasts, nobody wants to hire us. Everything is down.” (“Sab kuch down hai” are the exact words one of them uses to express this thought). And what are people here saying after the blasts, I ask, feeling that I simply must find a less naive way to ask this. “What will they say?” asks the younger man, Shahjahan. “Nobody likes it, everyone’s frightened. Take me: I had to walk my daughter to school here all the way from Wadala, because the taxi drivers all refused to come.”

His companion, Nazeer, says: “See those policemen, sahib?” (There’s a detachment of singularly idle-looking cops at the street corner). He goes on:

“Only here! You won’t find them in Umerkhadi, just across the street! I want to know, why do they trouble only the Muslims? You remember the 1992 riots, sahib? As much rioting in Umerkhadi as here! So why the policemen here? And do you know how many Muslims from here gave their clothes to cover the bodies?”

No, I don’t know. Shahjahan takes over: “And do you know what’s happened since then? I now feel safe only in Muslim areas. Just like they feel in their areas.” He doesn’t say whom he means by that “they”. Doesn’t need to, of course. It’s evident. “If I go to Dadar market,” says Shahjahan, “I’m not sure I’ll come back alive.” I begin spluttering some homily about how there’s no reason to feel that kind of fear. Nazeer ignores me and comes back to the blasts.

“You know, people should understand that these terrorists are not Muslims. Nobody here considers them Muslims.”

That kind of sentiment, over and over again from person after random person in these parts. Sitting in nearby Cafe Khushali over delicious kawa coffee in an elegant little glass, looking out at a poster that advertises “Al-Serat Tours” to Iran/Iraq/Syria for Rs 49000, but “only Iran” for only Rs 25000 — days after the blasts how much more normal can things be? — sitting there, a fellow drinker says: “Look outside. See how few people there are?”

Now to me, this seems like a bustling street — plenty of walkers, vendors, handcart-pushers, idlers. So I say so. “No, no!” says the fellow drinker. “On normal days, the public goes past ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-bum! These blasts have scared everyone.” (Now he switches to English) “This was the worst act! They are not Muslims!” That’s certainly true. And on the door of the Cafe is a 4×6 green sticker that I later notice is also stuck on several other walls, windows, mirrors and doors, all over this neighbourhood. It reads:

Don’t Create Mischief on Earth (Al-Quraan Al-Baqarah 11)

To Act Against Public Interest Spreading Terrorism, Killing Innocents,

Destroying Properties is in fact, Creating Mischief.

Then I stroll past a dilapidated building on a side street. I don’t see the green sticker anywhere on it, but I do see a large black sign displayed prominently above its front door, and this is what it says verbatim:

In this building any (Bachelor) are strictly restricted from purchase of room or on live license. Only Family is Allowed. Who was it, Cliff Richard who sang “I’ll be a Bachelor Boy/Until my dying day”? No way we’d find him in this building.

Nazeer and Shahjahan take a break from waiting for work and walk me to a roadside tea stall near the rear of the Dongri Children’s Home. I’m struck immediately by what’s on the wall behind the stove: images of Hindu gods. In these parts? The stall belongs to stocky Mohan Sharma, about 40, ex-Rajasthan by way of Nariman Point. Yes, he used to run a canteen in some Nariman Point office building. It folded when the clientele began asking for meat dishes.

“The day that happened, I gave the keys back and came here. I’m a Brahmin, after all.”

He and his brother have run this place for the 20 years since. Yes, but why here, in this place occupied by those … well, those other people? “These people are like my brothers. It’s a very good atmosphere, and they take care of me.” And what happened during those riots, Mohan-bhai, back in ’92? “What happened? The people here told me, you don’t worry, we’ll protect you. Sahib, ten days they gave me food! This is my family.”

Walk on, to visit 79 year old Shaukatali (name changed) in his family’s one-room tenement. The overwhelming impression in the room is of — of all things — cats. Back firmly to us, one is asleep up on a shelf. Another is asleep in a deep basket on the floor. Third walks nonchalantly in the door. Fourth peeks from under the bed. “And there are about ten more outside that we feed,” says Shaukatali. Plus several stray dogs outside whom they also look after. That kind of family, one that cares for animals.

I get more of a sense of that from the small plaque on the wall near the door:

Allah bless our home

Bless these walls wherein we dwell

The trees and flowers too

Bless the things that make our house.
Bless those cats, yes. What do you think, I ask Shaukatali, about the blasts, what’s it been like afterwards for you all here? His thirty-something daughter answers first: “What to do, people will suspect us! Because every time there’s something like this there’s some Mohammed-bhai Jaffer-bhai involved!” Shaukatali, a friend who’s visiting, the daughter, her son, maybe even the cats — they all burst into rocking, gasping laughter. Laughing and laughing at this state they are in, automatically suspect.

“I’ll tell you this,” says Shaukatali, when he’s stopped laughing.

Serious now, so’s his daughter. “Things were so much better in the past. Food was cheap, and who asked who’s Hindu, who’s Muslim?”

Not quite what I had expected to hear, but by now, I know where he’s coming from, why he’s saying this. He must be tired and dejected — every bit as much as I am — with the faith-tinted glasses we all learn to wear.

Which past are you talking about, I ask.

“British! I was happier in British times. Nobody cared that I was Muslim. But after ’47, everything has changed. Hindu this, Muslim that! We don’t believe this killing is taught by any religion!”
Yet the killings happen. And for too many of us, they come to characterize an entire religion, come to taint everybody who follows it. That’s the profound reality of the Muslim areas of Bombay, the burden their residents must learn to carry. (Sometimes by laughing out loud at it). The feeling that an entire city, an entire country, maybe the whole world, sees them as responsible for terrorism.

In Dongri, I spend a lot of time wondering what it must be to live like that. To know that whatever happens, the men and women around me are assumed to be apologists for, sympathizers with, terrorism. That’s why the effort to introduce me to Mohan the tea-man. That’s why the green stickers that are everywhere. That’s why the large banner on

Mohamedali Road:
We want peace no terror

Save humanity, condemn terrorism.
In no other part of my city have I seen such a banner. Tells me a few things.