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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Bombay Number 3. (Memoirs of a Mumbai Boy)

(This is first of the series on old Mumbai.The series focusses on various aspects of the megapolis encompassing its social life, politics, crime and transformation.)

1979. It was one of those years when the cold war was at its worst. Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, the aggressive stances of US President Ronald Reagan & British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fuelled the fears of a third world war and the deadly arms race assured to destroy the globe multiple times. Newspapers were full of scary stories and the intellectual class talked about the perils of war. Whole world got divided into two power blocs. Although, India claimed to be a founding member of Non-Aligned Movement, its proximity towards Soviet Union was evident. It was in this year that I was born, unaware of what was happening in the world where I just entered. I grew up in Masjid Bunder area of Mumbai which too just like a new born was neither bothered nor aware of the World politics…because Masjid Bunder is a world in itself with its own colours, struggles and politics. The world changed after cold war, but Masjid Bunder remains more or less the same.

Masjid Bunder is an area of South Mumbai having close proximity to the ports on its eastern side. Take a walk from Mumbadevi Temple to Masjid Bunder station any part of the day and you will find it heavily crowded and filled with noises of various kinds. In fact Masjid Bunder is one of the most noise polluted area of South Mumbai. You may see a sweating hand cart puller who is putting more energy to shout for getting the way in the crowd than pulling his heavily loaded cart. They are known as “Haathgaadi walas”. The two wheel cart is like a sea-saw which is pulled and pushed by one or two men. Haathgaadiwalas are mostly from Bihar or eastern Uttar Pradesh states of India, but you may find few local Maharashtrians also. The carts they pull are peculiar only in this part of the city. They are mostly employed by small wholesale dealers of food grains, tarpaulins, industrial gadgets, clothes etc. Haathgaadi walas take utmost care that they or their carts doesn’t touch anybody in the crowd, but even a slight brush with somebody can bring trouble for them. You may see a poor haathgaadiwala being slapped by motor cycle riding youngsters for “touching” their bike or obstructing their way too long. Dozens of hand carts occupy a major part of the road which is already narrow and encroached by stall owners and hawkers on both the sides. Taxi drivers dread these haathgaadis and this is one reason why they refuse passengers for this area. Experienced taxi drivers avoid coming this way during day time. Only the ones who have newly picked up the job of taxi driving accept passengers for Masjid Bunder and they too after getting stuck for hours here twice or thrice learn the lesson-“Say no to passengers for Masjid Bunder.”
Apart from deafening shouts of haathgaadiwaalas you could hear different interesting sounds in this walk of about a kilometer. Audio cd stall owners mostly play Bhojpuri songs and that is to entice north Indian customers who alight at Masjid Bunder station in large numbers to visit Mumbadevi Temple. As you move ahead towards the station you will find numerous shops on each side of the road which are mostly run by Hindu and Muslim Gujarati businessmen. From stationery to dry fruits and clothes to perfumes everything is sold in here in wholesale and retail. Small retail shopkeepers from other parts of the city throng this area for their supplies. Heavy vehicles like trucks are another feature of this area. Food grains and other items brought from other parts of India and the world lands at the wholesalers storages and shops on trucks and tempos which park beside the roads till the goods are unloaded or loaded. This adds to traffic chaos in the area. The trader who calls the truck pays to the local traffic cops for looking the other way. Getting posted in this area turns out to be heaven for such cops. Often on Saturday traffic creates hell for Masjid Bunder as traders want to clear the deliveries pending since the week before a new week begins. Whole road is clogged with Haathgaadiwalas, trucks and tempos and it takes at least 45 minutes to cover one kilometer distance from Mumbadevi Temple to Masjid Bunder station.

Masjid Bunder derives one part of its name from more than a century old Jakaria Masjid which is situated at Yusuf Meherali Road and another from Ports. “Port” in Marathi is called as “Bunder”. Hence, the area got its name from two of its landmarks. The area has majority of Muslim population which are mostly of Gujarati origins like Memons, Bohras, Patels, Khojas etc. A part of Samuel Street which is also known Pala Galli  is inhabited by Shia Muslims. The non Muslim population in the area comprises of Hindu Gujaratis, Marathis and a small number of North and South Indians. There is a small synagogue also at the southern end of Samuel Street which indicates a miniscule presence of Jewish population. Most of the families belong to lower or middle economic class. You may not see many people who could afford a simple car here and those who can afford buy a second hand one. Many well to do families prefer motor cycles instead of cars due to traffic and parking woes in the area. The bylanes of Masjid Bunder are controlled by powerful parking mafia who grab the parking space and then extort heavy amounts from traders to let them park their trucks. If some resident confront these mafias and park his own vehicle at the space grabbed by them, he is not dealt with directly. Next day the vehicle owner finds the vehicle damage. Either the air from tyre is leaked or side mirrors or parking lights are smashed. This is a kind of warning given to the resident by parking mafia which says-“Don’t mess with us. Damage could be more next time.”

People live in old buildings which are as old as 100 years old. Although, multistoried towers are being constructed now in the area, most of the buildings in Masjid Bunder are of maximum 5 or 6 floors. There are very few buildings with elevators in the locality and residents have to climb up the stairs to reach their house. Most people live in a 1 or 2 room’s house with common toilets on each floor used by all the residents of the building.
A one room house serves as an all in one arrangement with kitchen, cupboards, bed, praying area, television etc in the same room. There is a grave issue of privacy as large families manage themselves in tiny rooms. When the boy of a family gets married the parents leave for pilgrimage or head to their native place so that couple could get privacy and time to “make efforts for family expansion.” Even in the absence of parents, privacy is not assured considering the intrusions of neighbours who come to borrow sugar or salt and then there are hawkers who knock the door to sell pani puri, utensils and grocery. On each floor there are 3 to 4 rooms and they are so close to each other that aroma tells everybody who is cooking what. Unlike flat system which is mostly prevalent in suburbs, the occupants of the rooms are not their owners. The housing in this area like other areas of old Mumbai has a unique system called “Pagadi” As per this system whole building is owned by a landlord and residents buy their rooms from him. Although, the purchaser pays the amount equal to the prevalent real estate price in the area, he doesn’t get the right of owning the room which he has purchased. He lives in the rooms and pays monthly maintenance also, although a person could own a flat by spending same amount in suburban Mumbai. The landlord is called as “Ghardhani” and purchaser is called as “Bhadoot” (tenant) in local housing lingo. Although, technically the landlord is owner of the room, he/she cannot sell the room with Bhadoot’s consent. If a Bhadoot wants to sell the room, then he has to pay 1 or 2 % of the total deal in cash to the landlord so that he allows the next purchaser to occupy the room. With redevelopment of old buildings in the area “Pagadi” system is on the decline.

The social life in this part of Mumbai is quite different from what one sees in suburban Mumbai. Infact, life in old Mumbai resembles the life of Indian villages where everybody knows everybody. An occupant of a room in Masjid Bunder’s old building knows what his neighbour is doing, how many members are there in neighbour’s family, his children go to which school and his parents are suffering from which medical problems. Almost everyday there is gathering of housewives near the staircase (which is the only common area in the building after toilets) where personal information, gossips etc is shared and back biting is done on those who are not present. Youngsters unite for “Gulli Cricket” (street cricket) matches and to organize festivals like Ganesh Utsav and Dahi Handi. Quarrels are also frequent especially among the housewives and most of the time reason for quarrels are petty issues like priority in filling water from common taps, putting ones belonging close to others house or playing loud music. However, rarely such matters are reported to the police and even in cases where the police are called, both the sides get a verbal bashing and warnings that they will be put in jail. The hostility between the warring families end within days and housewives of both the families are soon seen at the gossip corner near the staircase.

Residents of Masjid Bunder like other residents of south Mumbai take pride for being a “townwalla” (belonging to downtown Mumbai.) and are subject of envy for people who live in suburban Mumbai and travel everyday like cattle in local trains or drive with snail speed on road to reach Mumbai for work. Contrary to this, if a south Mumbai resident has to travel everyday to suburbs for work, he is at an advantage because in the morning the rush is from suburbs to South Mumbai and trains heading suburbs are not crowded. Traffic also moves smoothly towards suburbs. Hence, although having a lifestyle inferior to a suburban resident, a south Mumbai resident feels himself as fortunate & superior.

The general style and mannerism of majority of young and middle aged people from this area seems to be inspired from Hindi films based on underworld. Every motor cycle riding youngster will appear to be imitating film stars like Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan or Sanjay Dutt. The kind of clothes, caps or glares wore by these film stars take no time to influence youngsters of Masjid Bunder.

Motorbikes are a craze in this locality. As soon as a teen passes his tenth grade he urges his parents to get him a bike even if by that age he is not eligible for a driving licence. In the decade of 90s Yamaha RX 100 and Hero Honda CD 100 were the most seen bikes in the area which were replaced in 21st century by new age bikes like Honda Unicorn and Bajaj Pulsar. A ride to Nariman Point for a Chinese soup or a plate of Pav Bhaji every night is relished by the youth. The guys also visit this place for “bird watching” which means having an eyeful of beautiful girls and women who come to Queen’s Necklace for an evening stroll or jogging. These are mostly guests of Trident-Oberoi Hotels or residents of Marine Drive. Few youngsters who get over excited after seeing some “Hot Item” (this is how a sexually attractive girl is referred) start doing “wheelies” on their motor cycles to grab the girl’s attention. “Wheely” means a stunt where the motorcycle’s frontal wheel is lifted vertically. Many have broken their bones or have got thrashing by cops while doing such stunts.

The craze of bikes made an illiterate mechanic Mohsin Rizvi a celebrity in the city. Rizvi migrated to Mumbai in early eighties from Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh and started a garage near J.J.Hospital. Very soon he realized that young boys in the area are willing to spend any amount of money for bikes which looks attractive and different from others. Hence, he started modifying bikes and started experimenting with popular bikes in the market. Mohsin Rizvi who publicized himself as MR introduced several features in motorcycles which were later imitated by bike manufacturing companies. He not only twisted the body of motorcycles, but also made alterations in engines for better pick up and performance. Rizvi installed mechanism in bike which prevented stealing of fuels. His remote control starting bike and chutki start bike became very popular in the area. An educated and computer savvy motorcycle freak Umar became his friend in early 90s and started a website for him. This made MR popular throughout the country and he was also noticed by motorcycle manufacturers who used to send their representatives at his workshop to check what his latest innovation was.

Mohsin Rizvi earned an image of honest and sincere mechanic. He never used substandard parts and delivered a complaint free vehicle to his customers on time. He chose his customers and provided services only to those who were ready to abide by his conditions. One of his conditions was that he will replace any part of the motorcycle without asking the customer which he feels needed to be replaced. MR’s service charges were 10 times higher than other mechanics in the area and were non negotiable. Rizvi used to rudely throw out customers who tried to bargain with him on the cost. Still, he had a line of customer’s everyday at his garage. Very soon he attracted the attention of press also and every other day some media person visited his garage for interviews.

Rizvi was a very strict boss and a ruthless teacher. He was a terror for the boys working under him. If he noticed any laxity in their work a tight slap or a hit by hammer on leg joints was imminent.  Many boys who learnt from him have become established automobile mechanics today and follow his values of professionalism and honesty.

I was a friend of Mohsin Rizvi and got my own Hero Honda Splendor modified from him. Mohsin Rizvi’s story didn’t continue for more than 10 years. I have been a witness of his glorious rise and sudden fall. Most of his acquaintances claim that Rizvi was not able to digest his quick earned success. He became very arrogant and also started behaving rudely with his well wishers. Very soon Umar left him and this marked the beginning of his decline. Few issues with the landlord on whose place Rizvi was running his garage cropped up and he had to shift from the main road to an interior street of Imamwada area. The change of location also affected his customer base. Rizvi was not getting oriented with his new workshop. Meanwhile, he developed a sudden interest in religion and spirituality and started devoting more time on religious activities. The brain which was earlier engrossed in innovations and experimentations had changed. Meanwhile, other mechanics also started their garages in the locality and poached Rizvi’s customers by imitating his style of service, with only difference being that they were polite and respectful to their customers. Very soon Rizvi realized that he was unable to bear the expenditure for his new workshop and hence he shut it down by 2007. The new motorcycle riders of the area don’t know anything about him.

The area is also characterized by gross disrespect to traffic rules and lack of road manners. In reality Motor Vehicle Act is neither followed nor enforced between 3 kilometers stretch under J.J.Flyover from Crawford Market till J.J.Hospital junction. You will see traffic policemen on duty, but they are just there to be seen and not to be feared by rash drivers and riders. Stand at J.J.Hospital junction any time of the day and you may find a helmetless biker with two pillion riders (triple seats) jumping a signal while talking on his cell phone unmindful of the traffic cop’s presence. You will be shocked to see that the cop makes no attempt to stop and penalize the rider. In other areas if such a motorcycle rider would have been caught, he would have been charged for four offences- a) Triple seat riding, b) Signal Jumping, c) Riding without helmet and d) Talking on a cell phone while riding an automobile. Nobody stops at red signal in this stretch and nobody is worried of penalty for violating traffic norms.

Is there any special order from the government for not taking any action against traffic offenders in this area? I asked Deepak Lad a traffic constable from Colaba who became my friend during my days as a junior crime reporter.
“Oh God…all traffic policemen dread to be posted in that area. It’s a headache to be there. First of all if you try to stop a traffic offender, he will not listen to you and speed away and even if you manage to catch someone he will abuse you and start shouting. The offender will not only abuse the police department but also the government saying that it is harassing poor people. Very soon the policeman is surrounded by a crowd of passersby and then the offender will make a false allegation that he was asked to pay a bribe. The crowd becomes sympathetic towards the offender and sees policeman as the culprit. They join the offender in abusing the policeman and the government. The cop is threatened and psychologically pressurized to leave the offender. Ultimately after observing the growing anger of the crowd the cop feels it prudent to leave him rather than getting beaten up by the crowd. A newly posted traffic cop in this locality never intercepts a traffic offender after having such experience once or twice. This is the reason why we don’t do anything in this area.”

“But you can always take down offender’s vehicle registration number, track down his residence and take action against him. Cant you?”

“Yes…that system is there…but that is like another punishment to us rather than for the offender. Once you take down the registration number, you have to go to the Regional Transport Office (RTO) to find the offenders address etc. After that a notice is issued to him and tedious legal proceedings begin. It is like an extra burden for a policeman who stands for 8 hours on the road, facing harsh sun, bad weather and noise and air pollution.”

Lad also informed that traffic policemen were teased and insulted here by being called as “Mamu”. Although, in Urdu language “Mamu” means maternal uncle, in Masjid Bunder and adjoining areas it means a foolish policeman. There are few notorious youngsters who speed away on their motor cycles after lifting away policeman’s cap even if he hasn’t intercepted them. Fearlessly they make fun of the poor traffic cop who desperately chases them to get his cap back. Cops feel insulted with this kind of proactive harassment and hence maintain a low profile.

Considering the temperament and general style of behaviour of the residents of Masjid Bunder, one high profile mobile phone company came up with a smart idea to handle customers in this locality. They opened an outlet at Mohammed Ali Road and employed only local boys and girls to deal with the customers. This led to a very different kind of experience for customers who have visited outlets of this company in other areas. The welcoming and smiling faces of staffers were replaced with expressions like “Why the hell have you come here?” and “Get your job done fast and get lost.” There was no sophistication in the behaviour and the employees seemed- “Not happy to help”. The local youth dealt arrogantly with customers who raised their voice and often spoke in intimidating tone. They were trained for a “Tit for tat behaviour.”

I was born in Laxmibai Maternity home of Vadgadi Street in Masjid Bunder area. The maternity home got shutdown few years after my birth and then the premises was leased to a commercial establishment.  After getting discharged from the maternity home, I was brought to my “Nana’s (maternal grandfather’s) home. My father who ran a small shop of imported and cutlery items in Zaveri Bazar was staying with him that time. As I grew up to the age of schooling, my parents started looking for a good English medium school in the locality. My parents who were educated in a Hindi medium school of rural Uttar Pradesh considered it to be a handicap for not being fluent in English in a city like Mumbai. They didn’t want me to grow up with such handicap. They got me admitted in junior K.G. class of St.Ignatius School of Koliwada area when I was about 2 years old.

 I have very blurred memory of the classes which I attended there. I remember a middle aged Christian lady who used to teach us ABC for sometime and then took us at the school terrace for games. I don’t remember what exactly happened that I had to leave this school, but my mother tells me that I fought with a classmate. He had thrown away my tiffin box from the fourth floor of the school building and to take revenge I bit him so forcefully that he fell ill. When the teacher got to know about this, she thrashed me black and blue with a foot ruler. I got so scared next day that I refused to go to the school. I informed about the fight with that classmate and subsequent thrashing to my mother and Nani (maternal grandmother). They got enraged after listening to my story and straightaway headed to Principals office asking him to take action against the teacher in a very high temper. The Principal defended his teacher and told that I was a danger for other students of the class. This further angered my mother and Nani and they immediately decided to withdraw my name from St.Ignatius School.

After leaving St.Ignatius, my parents had to search for another school. In any case they had to do that later on as St.Ignatius was till just Class 4. They decided to admit me in Khoja Khanmohammed Habibbhai High School, shortly known as Khoja Khan School. The school is located in Samuel Street, just 2 lanes away from where I stayed at Masjid Bunder. It is run by a trust of Khoja Muslims. Khoja Khan is an all boys English medium school and has classes uptil 10th standard. Although, the medium of instruction is English here, teachers explain everything in Hindi and communicate with students in Hindi unlike convent schools.

Most of the students of Khoja Khan were from Muslims families. I was one of the 3-4  non Muslims students of the class and when I reached class 10, I was the only Hindu student in my class. It was few years after leaving the school that I realized that grandsons, great grandsons, nephews and cousins of the deadly Pathan gang which were one of the key players of Mumbai underworld had been my classmates. During my school days these class mates flaunted their relationship with the Pathan gang, but I never recognized the importance of that gang in Mumbai underworld nor was I interested to know about criminal gangs. There were children of other local gang members also studying in that school. Most of the gangsters wanted their children to be educated in English and have a decent career. Khoja Khan School came handy for them where fees were not very high, parents were not interviewed and it was located near to their residences. However, there were few cases where teachers came under attack by gangsters when their sons complained of “harassment” by them. One of the cases I remember is of “Popat Sir”. Popat’s original name was Robert Perira. He was our physical training teacher and was called “Popat” because of his parrot like nose and Hitler style moustaches. He was infamous for becoming over friendly with students and talking to them with words which abused mothers and sisters. Once he jokingly abused son of a local gangster. The offended student reported the case by adding his own spice to his father. Next day the gangster entered the school with a naked sword in his hand along with two of his associates thundering abuses. Popat, who was taking a P.T class on the terrace, got an idea that he was the target of gangster’s wrath and rushed towards the toilet to hide, but was caught. The gangster pulled him back again to the terrace and rained dozens of kicks and punches on him in front of the class. Popat  touched his head on gangster’s feet and begged for forgiveness. The gangster pulled him with his hairs , pointed his sword towards Popat’s neck and thundered-
“You are a teacher of my son and that is why I am leaving you alive…but you don’t behave like a teacher. You should be ashamed of yourself. Next time if you repeat what you did yesterday, this sword will cut your body into so many pieces that people will not be able to count. Leave this school if you want to be alive.”
After giving an earful to Popat, the gangster left. The whole incident happened in front of 40 students of 7th standard. There were around 6 teachers and 3 peons also present, but nobody came to Popat’s rescue. The matter was not reported to the police and after few months Popat resigned from the school.

When I was in 3rd standard  Principal S.A.H Abedi died due to a heart attack in his office  and  Zamirul Hassan Khan known as “Khan Sir” took over as the Principal.
Khan Sir, a short heighted man with a French beard was a local resident.  He was a sincere teacher and a good administrator. He reached office before time and was last to leave from the school. He identified others schools in the locality like Dawoodbhai Fazalbhai High School, Habib High School, St.Joseph’s High School etc as rivals and wanted that the number of students passing SSC exams should be more than these schools. Although, never a student of Khoja Khan made it to merit list or scored over 90% of marks, Khan Sir got satisfied that his school got 100% passing result in SSC (meaning none of the students failed) Khan Sir went out of the way to deliver 100% passing result. He started taking extra classes of students in 9th standard and taught them syllabus of standard 10th. He identified weak students and focused more on them and even if they didn’t show improvement, he threatened them to repeat in 9th standard next year also. For 10th standard students there were no weekly holidays, no Diwali vacations & no summer vacations. Khan Sir himself used to take extra classes on these days so that students are better prepared to face SSC exams. Being very strict in his approach, Khan Sir was not very popular among students & one can see numerous abuses and cartoons of him on the walls of school toilet.

Although, Khan Sir was not very popular among the students he was seen with great respect among the educationists of “Bombay Number 3.” Masjid Bunder has postal code 400003 and that is why it is known as Bombay number 3, but over the years “Bombay Number 3” has become much more than a postal code. It has become an identity for those adjoining areas also which have different postal codes like Dongri, Bhendi Bazar, Pydhonie & Null Bazar. “Bombay Number 3” has become a description of a geographical area which has a unique character and represents an aggressive, flamboyant, vibrant, polluted, multicultural, multilingual and multireligious lifestyle. “Bombay Number 3” in its exhaustive sense has been not only crime prone but has been also a breeding ground for criminals who have ruled the Mumbai underworld. Pakmodia Street where underworld Don Dawood Ibrahim’s ancestral house is located is just about 3 kilometers from Masjid Bunder. His sister Haseena Parker stays nearby at Nagpada. Around 4 kilometers away from Masjid Bunder is Grant Road where the founder of Pathan gang Karim Lala lived. Another gangster of his time Haji Mastan who later became politician opened his office opposite J.J.Hospital. During the last 4 decades these areas have witnessed tremendous amount of bloodshed caused by gangwars, communal riots and extortion rackets. This is why there is a certain degree of fear associated with Bombay Number 3. Whenever there is a dispute between cricket teams of lads, a particular team gets defensive if the opponent is from Bombay Number 3. Nobody in Mumbai wants to have confrontation with people from Bombay number 3. Old Mumbaikars from other parts of the city often refer to residents of this locality as “Bombay number 3 ka shaana.” (Smarty from Bombay number 3) 

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