“Don’t worry. If they push you out, they also pull you in.”
Bombay (now officially Mumbai) is a city with an identity crisis; a city ex-periencing both a boom and a civic emergency. It’s the biggest, fastest, richest city in India. It held 12 million people at the last count – more than Greece – and 38 percent of the nation’s taxes are paid by its citizens. Yet half the population is homeless. In the Bayview Bar of the Oberoi Hotel you can order [a bottle of] Dom Perignon champagne for 20,250 rupees, more than one-and-a-half times the average annual income; this in a city where 40 percent of the houses are without safe drinking water. In a country where a number of people still die of starvation, Bombay boasts 150 diet clinics. Urbs prima in Indis, says the plaque outside the Gateway of India. By the year 2020, it is predicted, Bombay will be the largest city in the world.
Four years ago, this divided metropolis went to war with itself. On 6 December 1992 the Babri Masjid was destroyed by a fanatical Hindu mob. Ayodhya is many hundreds of miles away in Uttar Pradesh, but the rubble from its mosque swiftly provided the foundations for the walls that shot up between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay. A series of riots left 1400 people dead. Four years later, at the end of 1996, I was back in Bombay and was planning a trip with a group of slum women. When I suggested the following Friday, 6 December, there was a silence. The women laughed uneasily, looked at each other. Finally, one said, “No one will leave the house on that date.”
The riots were a tragedy in three acts. First, there was a spontaneous upheaval involving the police and Muslims. This was followed, in January, by a second wave of more serious rioting, instigated by the Hindu political movement Shiv Sena, in which Muslims were systematically identified and massacred, their houses and shops burnt and looted. The third stage was the revenge of the Muslims: on 12 March, ten powerful bombs went off all over the city. One exploded in the Stock Exchange, another in the Air India building. There were bombs in cars and scooters. 317 people died, many of them Muslims.
Yet, many Muslims cheered the perpetrators. It was the old story: the powerful wish of minorities all over the world to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Almost every Muslim I spoke to in Bombay agreed that the riots had devastated their sense of self-worth; they were forced to stand by helplessly as they watched their sons slaughtered, their possessions burnt before their eyes. There are 1.6 million Muslims in Bombay: more than 10 percent of the city’s total population. When they rode the commuter trains, they stood with their heads bent down. How could they meet the eyes of the victorious Hindus? Then the bombs went off, and the Hindus were reminded that the Muslims weren’t helpless. On the trains, they could hold their heads high again.
Last December, I was taken on a tour of the battlegrounds by a group of Shiv Sena men and Raghav, a private taxi operator, a short, stocky man wearing jeans labelled “Saviour”. He was not officially a member of Shiv Sena, but he was called upon by the leader of the local branch whenever there was party work to be done. He led me through Jogeshwari, the slum where, on 8 January 1993, the second wave of trouble began. A Hindu family of mill workers had been sleeping in a room in Radhabai Chawl, in the Muslim area. Someone locked their door from the outside and threw a petrol bomb in through the window. The family died screaming, clawing at the door. One of them was a handicapped teenage girl.
Raghav and a couple of the others took me into the slums through passages so narrow that two people cannot walk abreast. They were cautious, at first. But as we passed a mosque, Raghav laughed. “This is where we shat in the Masjid,” he said. One of his companions shot him a warning look. Only later did I learn what he meant. The Sena zealots had burnt down this mosque; it was one of the high points of the war for them, and they recalled it with glee. One man had taken a cylinder of cooking gas, opened the valve, lit a match and rolled it inside. He then joined the police force, where he remains to this day.
We were discussing all this not in some back room, in whispers, but in the middle of the street, in the morning, with hundreds of people coming and going. Raghav was completely open, neither bragging nor playing down what he had done; just telling it as it happened. The Sena men – the sainiks – were comfortable; this was their turf. They pointed out the sole remaining shop owned by a Muslim: a textile shop that used to be called Ghafoor’s. During the riots some of the boys wanted to kill him, but others who had grown up with him protected him, and he got away with merely having his stock burnt. Now it has reopened, under the name Maharashtra Mattress. Raghav pointed to the store next to it. “I looted that battery shop,” he said.
He led me to an open patch of ground by the train sheds. There was a vast garbage dump on one side, with groups of people hacking at the ground with picks, a crowd of boys playing cricket, sewers running at our feet, train tracks in sheds in the middle distance, and a series of concrete tower blocks beyond. A week ago, I had been standing on the far side with a Muslim man, who pointed towards where I now stood, saying, “That is where the Hindus came from.”
Raghav remembered. This was where he and his friends had caught two Muslims. “We burnt them,” he said. “We poured kerosene over them and set them on fire.”
“Did they scream?”
“No, because we beat them a lot before burning them. Their bodies lay here in the ditch, rotting, for ten days. Crows were eating them. Dogs were eating them. The police wouldn’t take the bodies away because the Jogeshwari police said it was in the Goregaon police’s jurisdiction, and the Goregaon police said it was the railway police’s jurisdiction.”
Raghav also recalled an old Muslim man who was throwing hot water on the Sena boys. They broke down his door, dragged him out, took a neighbour’s blanket, wrapped him in it and set him alight. “It was like a movie,” he said. “Silent, empty, someone burning somewhere, and us hiding, and the army. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, thinking that just as I had burnt someone, so somebody could burn me.”
I asked him, as we looked over the waste land, if the Muslims they burnt had begged for their lives.
“Yes. They would say, ‘Have mercy on us!’ But we were filled with such hate, and we had Radhabai Chawl on our minds. And even if there was one of us who said, let him go, there would be ten others saying no, kill him. And so we had to kill him.”
“But what if he was innocent?”
Raghav looked at me. “He was Muslim,” he said.
White all over
A few days later I met Sunil, deputy leader of the Jogeshwari shakha, or branch, of the Shiv Sena. He came with two other Sena boys to drink with me in my friend’s apartment. They all looked around appreciatively. We were on the sixth floor, on a hill, and the highway throbbed with traffic below us. Sunil looked out of the window. “It’s a good place to shoot people from,” he said, making the rat-tat-tat motion of firing a sub-machine gun. I had not thought of the apartment this way.
Sunil was one of the favourites to be pramukh, the leader, of the entire shakha one day. He first joined the Shiv Sena when he needed a blood transfusion, and the Sena boys gave their blood, an act which touched him deeply – his political comrades were, literally, his blood brothers. He was in his twenties now, helpful, generous and likeable. He has a wide range of contacts with Muslims, from taking his daughter to a Muslim holy man to be exorcised, to buying chickens in Mohammedali Road during the riots for resale to Hindus at a good profit. But what preyed on his mind now was the conviction that the handicapped girl who died in the fire in Radhabai Chawl had been raped by her Muslim assailants. There was no evidence of this; the police report did not mention it. But that didn’t matter. It was a powerful, catalytic image: a disabled girl on the ground with a line of leering Muslim men waiting their turn to abuse her, while her parents matched her screams with their own as their bodies caught the flames.
Sunil insisted on referring to the riots as a “war”. Certainly, at the J.J. Hospital, he had witnessed scenes typical of wartime: corpses identifiable only by numbered tags. And at Cooper Hospital, where Hindus and Muslims were placed next to each other in the same ward, fights would break out; wounded men would rip saline drips out of their arms and hurl them at their enemies. During the riots, the government sent tankers of milk to the Muslim areas. Sunil, with three of his fellow sainiks dressed as Muslims, put a deadly insecticide in one of the containers: the Muslims smelt it and refused all the milk. Sunil’s men also shut off the water supply to the Muslim quarter. After six days, he said, the Muslims were forced to come out to the big chowk in the centre of the quarter. “That’s when we got them,” he recalled.
I asked him: “What does a man look like when he’s on fire?”
The other Shiv Sena men looked at each other. They didn’t trust me yet. “We weren’t there,” they said. “The Sena didn’t have anything to do with the rioting.”
But Sunil would have none of this. “I’ll tell you. I was there,” he said. He looked directly at me. “A man on fire gets up, falls, runs for his life, falls, gets up, runs. It is horror. Oil drips from his body, his eyes become huge, huge, the white shows, white, white, you touch his arm like this” – he flicked his arm – “the white shows, it shows especially on the nose.” He rubbed his nose with two fingers, as if scraping off the skin. “Oil drips from him, water drips from him, white, white all over.
“Those were not days for thought,” he continued. “We five people burnt one Mussulman. At four in the morning, after we heard about the Radhabai Chawl massacre, a mob assembled, the like of which I’d never seen. Ladies, gents. They picked up any weapon they could. Then we marched to the Muslim side. We met a pau wallah [bread-seller] on the highway, on a bicycle. I knew him, he used to sell me bread every day. I set him on fire. We poured petrol over him and set light to him. All I thought was that he was a Muslim. He was shaking. He was crying, ‘I have children, I have children.’ I said: ‘When your Muslims were killing the Radhabai Chawl people, did you think of your children?’ That day we showed them what Hindu dharma is.”
“We used to roller skate down Teen Batti,” an architect said to me. He used the past imperfect tense; he meant that he used to be able to roller skate down Teen Batti. Teen Batti is at the top of the road that winds up from the sea; the Ridge Road leads from there up Malabar Hill. The area is now a shabby high-rise ghetto where the cars leave no room for the juvenile traffic of roller skates and bicycles. What he said stuck with me because I used to roller skate down Teen Batti and cycle around there too. I cannot imagine a 12-year-old boy doing so now.
The sounds, colours and moods of the sea lent heft and weight to my childhood. From my uncle’s apartment I can still see the rocks where the boys from our building would catch little fish trapped in the hollows when the tide went out. We sat down there and watched the whole progress of the sunset, from light to dark, and planned our lives – who would become the police inspector, who the astronaut. Gradually, a colony of hutments took over these rocks, and when we walked on them we would sometimes slip and fall on shit. The rocks are now a public latrine, full of strange smells. There are two million people in Bombay who have to defecate in any space they can find. The sea air sometimes wafts the stench over the skyscrapers of the rich, nudging them, reminding them.
We lived in Bombay and never had much to do with Mumbai. Mumbai was what Maharashtrians called the city; and Bombay was the capital of Maharashtra. But so far as we Gujaratis – migrants, like so many in Bombay – were concerned, Mumbai meant the people who came to wash our clothes or look at our electricity meters. We had a term for them – ghatis: people from the ghats – meaning someone coarse, poor. There were whole worlds in the city which were as foreign to me as the ice fields of the Arctic or the deserts of Arabia. I was eight years old when Marathi, the language of Maharashtra, became compulsory in our school. How we groaned. It was a servants’ language, we said.
I moved to New York when I was 14. When I went back I found that the city had grown in wild and strange ways. In front of my uncle’s building, for instance, was a monstrous skyscraper, its skeleton completed more than a decade before, lying vacant. Several such buildings dot the city. The flats have been bought for huge sums but are empty because they violate municipal height limits. The builders knew they would not get planning consent but went ahead anyway. The first priority was to put up the concrete reality; they could deal with the extraneous issues – municipal clearances, legal papers, bribes – later. But the city corporation put its foot down, and the fate of the building entered the courts. While the most expensive, most desirable real estate in Bombay lies vacant, half the population sleeps on the pavement.
Land is to Bombay what politics is to Delhi: the reigning obsession, the fetish, the raison d’être and the topic around which conversations, business, newspapers and dreams revolve. Property is the mania of island dwellers all over the world, and Bombay is washed by water on three sides. It regards the rest of India much as Manhattan looks on the rest of America: as a place distant, unfamiliar and inferior. The lament I kept hearing – from both Hindus and Muslims – was that the riots were an ungentle reminder that Bombay was part of India.
In 1994 a survey revealed that real-estate prices in Bombay were the highest in the world. There was general jubilation in the city. It confirmed something that Bombayites had long felt: that this was where the action was, not New York or London. Here, if you wanted a flat in a new building shooting up from the narrow strip of land behind the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Nariman Point, you would need three million dollars.
A lover’s embrace
The manager of Bombay’s suburban railway system was recently asked when the system would improve to a point where it could carry its five million daily passengers in comfort. “Not in my lifetime,” he answered. Certainly, if you commute into Bombay, you are made aware of the precise temperature of the human body as it curls around you on all sides, adjusting itself to every curve of your own. A lover’s embrace was never so close.
One morning I took the rush hour train to Jogeshwari. There was a crush of passengers, and I could only get halfway into the carriage. As the train gathered speed, I hung on to the top of the open door. I feared I would be pushed out, but someone reassured me: “Don’t worry, if they push you out they also pull you in.”
Asad Bin Saif is a scholar of the slums, moving tirelessly among the sewers, cataloguing numberless communal flare-ups and riots, seeing first-hand the slow destruction of the social fabric of the city. He is from Bhagalpur, in Bihar, site not only of some of the worst rioting in the nation, but also of a famous incident in 1980, in which the police blinded a group of criminals with knitting needles and acid. Asad, of all people, has seen humanity at its worst. I asked him if he felt pessimistic about the human race.
“Not at all,” he replied. “Look at the hands from the trains.”
If you are late for work in Bombay, and reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and you will find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outward from the train like petals. As you run alongside you will be picked up, and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway. The rest is up to you; you will probably have to hang on to the door frame with your fingertips, being careful not to lean out too far lest you get decapitated by a pole placed close to the tracks. But consider what has happened: your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts drenched with sweat in the badly ventilated compartment, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss this train and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari; whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.