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Mumbai meri jaan
February 04, 2004
Is Mumbai a city without heart and soul?
Definitely, it is a cruel city; a place where the boys are separated from the men, to use a sexist simile. At its heart is commerce, but not everything that it does is cloaked in matlabi (selfish) terms.
An 'outsider' would be hard put to find redeeming features to a city constantly on the move, and I consider myself doubly blessed in that I had my baptism by fire within my first year in Mumbai and brought back some fond memories from it -- never mind the overall experience was not too pleasant.
It was getting close to Diwali, my first away from the family I was born into. Like every diligent newcomer I too had scrimped and saved from the meager monthly stipend of Rs 1,000, to buy goodies to take back home. In a pig-headed fashion I had refused to open a bank account, choosing to carry the Rs 2,000 in savings in my office bag.
Returning home to our pad one evening, I discovered that my close friend had a bunch of college mates dropping on him en route home from Goa. Magnanimously I offered to treat everyone to dinner, after a wash. When we were ready, I dipped my hand into my bag, but no wallet.
I emptied the bag's contents on the bed to rummage for it through the sheets of paper, but no wallet. Slowly the realization dawned that my bag had been picked, presumably on the train home.
So we hot-footed it to the railway police outpost nearby, only to be told that since the theft obviously happened on a moving train, the FIR should be lodged at the headquarters, at VT station.
Since we worked for a national publication, there was no worry about police cooperation etc, things that would bedevil the man on the street. The next day, as I sat at the railway police HQ and narrated by sorry tale, I realized how mistaken I was. The police couldn't give a damn if we were related to the prime minister, they were hardly helpful and to make things worse, the FIR was in Marathi, a language I barely knew after just nine months in the city. What did I sign exactly I had no idea, I was not explained anything barring that my bag had been picked and money missing, and that I had no idea who it could be.
That was not the only element of heartless Mumbai, when I went back to the office and asked for intervention from the crime reporters no one came forward. 'Oh, who has ever heard of a pickpocket being caught!' was the attitude I was faced with, never mind I had just Rs 10 left on me. I had to borrow money to buy my train pass to pay for my meals, but no one cared.
But I did not lose hope. True enough, a couple of days I received a call on the board number, from a lady who identified herself as 'Bharati' who wanted to know if I was the person who lost my wallet on a local train recently. Excited at the prospect at getting my money back, I could not say much. She told me to come to an address in Bandra to pick up my wallet. She did not say anything about the money in it, but I couldn't have cared.
As instructed, I wended my way to the address in a low income area, through narrow, dark gullies. In retrospect, it was foolish of me to not inform anyone of where I was going, but I was not yet 21 then so youthful devil-may-care attitude scored over caution.
I was greeted at the door by Bharati, who I learnt was a paying guest. The landlady, a young mother, was the one who wanted to speak to me, with Bharati as the interpreter.
The landlady had an interesting tale to narrate. Her brother-in-law Mehboob, with whom she was staying, was a pickpocket whose area of operation was the VT-Bandra railroad. The purses he would lift were destroyed by his bhabhi who at the same time was not too happy at his criminal profession. But any attempt to remonstrate would be met with violent threats, so she continued doing what she was told to, destroy evidence, and hope for a lucky break.
Which, she thought, was it on seeing my wallet. Apart from the youth whose photograph was on the railway ID ("bechara, what will his mother think?"), she also saw that it belonged to a journalist, and hence a plea for me to intervene.
"Saab, please, I cannot go to the police about Mehboob, woh to mujhe maar daalega (he will kill me). But you are a journalist, you can tell the police that you found out Mehboob is the pickpocket, they will be forced to arrest him, I will then give your wallet as evidence. Once he goes to jail and gets thrashed by them, he will reform. I am confident of it," she practically fell at my feet. In her guilt, she cooked me a hearty meal. After thinking it through I agreed to her request.
Heartless Mumbai, did someone say?
So the next day I once again hot-footed it to the railway police at VT to tell them Mehboob was the man they had to go after, here was the address. I honestly felt I would be thanked by them for the whole thing.
On the contrary, they unleashed a string of invective. "Who the hell do you think you are, Arun Shourie? You are an investigator? You want to teach us our jobs? Jao, do what you can, but we will not lift a finger in this case. Only recently you signed the FIR saying you had no suspect, today have a suspect? Get lost."
But I was not willing to go away so easily. I went back to my colleagues, told them this story, and sought help, a word with the police commissioner maybe. In return all I got was sneers, and even a limerick about my sorry plight! And thus the case died a natural death.
Whatever happened to that lady? Does she still continue to abet her truant brother-in-law in his life of crime? And Mehboob himself, did he graduate on to bigger things, or is he still a petty pickpocket?
So many years later, when I look back, I don't recall the apathy that met me at various turns when I was a newbie in this great city. But I remember with fondness, the lady who was caught in a web, and tried to break out to the best of her ability. Was she heartless?
It is situations such as this that tell you about the core of the city. And to me, so long as there are people like her around, this city can never be heartless, never mind the nay-sayers.
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