Streetview: Mumbai

Murzban Shroff

India

Illustrated by Gaurav Ogale

India

The gypsies had been there ever since I can remember. There were men, women, and children. The men were dark, surly, and unwashed, often bearded. They looked older than the women, who were too young to be mothers. And yet they were – young mothers – with babies at their breasts and runny-nosed infants to chase and berate for daring to venture out of permissible limits. That could kill, the venturing out. For this was outside Grant Road Station, on the main road.

The area occupied by the gypsies was a large size quadrangle, separated from the main road by an old rusted railing. The gypsies had made this their home, their camping ground. Where did they come from? From somewhere in North Gujarat, said the cops who were positioned outside the station, inside the quadrangle, cheek to jowl with the encroachers.

The cops had their office inside a small chowky no larger than a tent. The chowky had a large desk, two chairs, a wall calendar, and a small bench at the side. The cops rarely sat inside. Only when the afternoon sun came up, you could see them sheltering inside, or when they had their ears picked by the ear-cleaners and did not want to be seen by passersby. Besides, the cops needed to be outdoors, where the action was.

Exactly opposite the station, facing the gypsy’s enclosure, were two bars. One was a ladies’ bar, the other a country liquor bar with a mouldy curtain at the entrance. There was no door at the entrance of the country liquor bar. Just this curtain, on which everyone wiped their hands as they came in: the sweat of working-class hands. On the other hand, the ladies’ bar had a thick silver-plated door that gleamed like a Hindi film backdrop. The entrance was guarded by two bouncers, who looked like twins and were dressed alike, in black safari suits.

Come seven in the evening and young sexily-clad women would draw up in cabs and trapeze into the bazaar, which was, again, exactly opposite the gypsies’ enclosure. The newly- arrived women would shop for fruit and vegetables, paying the vendors the prices they asked for. The vendors’ delight would know no bounds. These women were the real memsahibs, they would think, as they watched them disappear into the ladies’ bar.

The cops would not interfere in the running of the bars. They would never be seen crossing the road to check on whether the ladies’ bar had fulfilled its promise of having an orchestra. Or whether the ladies were mere waitresses. Or whether the male customers behaved appropriately with the ladies. The cops were well-mannered, self-contained, and polite. They had been positioned there after the bombs had gone up. They were watching everything and doing nothing, except, perhaps, preventing mishaps by their presence. Crime in this area was next to negligible. Which is why the cops could afford, sometimes, to step outside their line of duty and perform acts of kindness. Like: when a senior citizen would call and request them to bring some medicines or request them to hail a cab. These seniors were bereft of support. Their children would have moved to the suburbs or out of the country, leaving them alone in large crumbling apartments.

Meanwhile, on the road, the gypsies would fight like starving animals. It was always the men versus the women. The men would snarl, abuse, and rush at the women. It was almost always over money. The men were drunkards, wastrels, and wife-beaters. They lived off the women, who made garlands and baskets or traded in old clothes or hopped onto trains, selling combs, trinkets, and plastic articles. The women had to bring in the mullah. For that, they even did a bit of rag picking from the garbage dump outside the station. There was enough waste in the city to feed its poor. And the gypsies and the dump were old neighbours.

When the gypsy men attacked them, the gypsy women would scream their regrets into the night. They had louder voices than the men, and more anger. After that, they would slip under their blankets, pull up their saris, and wait. Wait for the inevitable: the unspoken truce.

The gypsies were great breeders. Over time their population grew, a whole colony sprang up. Noise levels increased: fights, dissensions, and quarrels. And yet the cops said nothing. Why upset a beehive when the bees are resting?

Then, one day, while entering the station, I see an eviction in progress. The gypsies are being removed. Cops, wielding sticks, threaten them, even while their belongings are dumped into the back of a truck. The gypsies are shrieking and abusing the cops. The women are hysterical; the men look stunned and defeated; the children are crying.

I stopped and asked a cop what was happening. He said: “These people make too much noise. The residents in the opposite building have complained. Besides, these people have now been allotted flats outside the city. They each have a home of their own. There is no reason for them to use the road anymore. It is public property, after all.”

A squint-eyed gypsy woman came rushing up to me. “They are lying, sahib,” she screeched. “Look! We have got ration cards and voting cards from here. Why should we go? How does it bother those buildingwallas if we are here? Their building will come down one day. And they will get a new flat in the new building. But it will be in the same area, no? They won’t be forced to go where they don’t want to. Where there is no transport, no life, no trains, no work, no garbage to pick.”

Her voice was anguished, her face stained with tears. In that moment I saw a citizen who had lost her fundamental right to movement and right to work, without even knowing, perhaps, that she had those rights in the first place.

The next few days it felt strange, seeing the quadrangle empty. A sense of foreboding pervaded the area. It was as though the gypsies’ curses hung in the air.

The cops kept a close watch on the quadrangle. They patrolled regularly, conspicuously.

Then, after a few days, the old railing that separated the quadrangle from the main road was dismantled and a new line of demarcation set up. These were small rounded poles of polished metal, which made the place look spacious. Immediately, thereafter, a team of dabbawallas swept in and set up a hub outside the station, a collection point for their tiffins. The gypsies had no hope now. They might as well begin to enjoy their new home, which, going by the looks of it, was on the overhead skywalk – the skywalk that emanated from the station and snaked over the long side road, onto the busy main road junction. There was enough walking space, breathing space, sleeping space, on the skywalk.

There the gypsies waited and watched, safe in the realisation that it was outside the jurisdiction of the cops. And the cops, too, knew that: no point getting into things that did not concern them. Things like the ladies’ bar and the country liquor bar and the mounting garbage dump, just outside the station.

And, from where they sat, the gypsies enjoyed a better view of the city. They could even stop passersby and engage them with their wares, while keeping an eye on their infants, who would be fascinated with the view, the altitude. And the street dogs had joined them, too, in this vast dormitory of space. And, once in a while, the gypsy women could stand up, stretch, and rail their curses at those buildingwallas, with whom they now stood eye to eye. Ha, ha, let them see, let them know – those sahibs and memsahibs! – that they had not got away with their evil designs. The city had found the gypsies a home. At least for a while.