The view from the summit of Siddharth Nagar made it obvious to anyone living there that the rest of Worli had left it behind. While Worli built modern homes with roofs which didn’t leak in the rains, bought cars and air-conditioners and took the family out for roast pork in oyster sauce and honey noodles served with vanilla ice cream at Flora, Siddharth Nagar, trapped like a fairy-tale hill inside a snow globe, watched on enviously.
On the eastern skyline, never the same two months running, tower after new tower gave Siddharth Nagar the finger: fuck you, you filthy hill people and stay where you are thank you very much.
To the west, aerial empires rose from the graves of century-old bhavans on Worli Hill and the Sea Face like so many weeds. To the boys and girls doing their homework on the hilltop garden, the towers seemed to blot out of the sun. Every new floor snatched away a wisp of the Sea Face breeze which fluttered the children’s hair and toyed with the leaves of their books until the scaffolds came off and the air in the garden grew still.
Worli had wilfully excluded the people of Siddharth Nagar, kept its boot pressed on their throats and rubbed its diamond rings in their noses. And yet, Worli needed these people. Worli needed them to clean their toilets, watch its children, drive its cars and keep guard at night.
Worli left the children in the garden with three choices— get angry, get high or get out. The child who chose the middle path, numbed by charas, burgled homes in the hill, nicking anything he could lay his hands on. Lightbulbs. Trousers drying on clotheslines. Even door knobs.
Occasionally, when he became too serious a menace to ignore, his family trussed him up and locked him indoors. Forcing a charsi [drug user] to go cold turkey is to invite trouble. This one responded by breaking free of his bonds on the second day and set his house on fire.
The angry boy snuck into homes at night. Door knobs were of no use to him. He stole cash or gold to live Siddharth Nagar’s version of la buena vida: an entire weekend of teen patti, booze, girls and dance bars.
Siddharth Nagar was not a safe place to live.
It was only a matter of time before the epidemic of theft struck Baby’s home.
Despite her hatred for the police, the young widow had to turn to them for help when her home was burgled in 1996. Baby did not lose much but the break-in convinced her that she couldn’t live in a slum forever. Not if she wanted her sons to remain in school. Pushing ganja and brown sugar, Baby was working towards an express ticket out of Siddharth Nagar. But without a man to provide for her and look after her sons, she felt helpless.
At Worli police station, plainclothes detectives were assigned to look into the burglary. Among them was a promising young detective named Dharmaraj Baburao Kalokhe, an unsmiling, pensive presence. Yes, his perfectly pressed shirts were, even for a cop, a tad too severely tucked in. And yes, it was impossible to imagine him as anything other than the stern police dada who mothers claimed took away naughty children. But by 1996, as his six-year-long stint in Worli came to an end, there was no doubting Kalokhe’s reputation as a reliable sleuth.
For the second time in three years, the police took an interest in Baby’s life. On this occasion, it was on her and not so much the case that the cop had an eye. Investigating the theft gave Kalokhe a perfect, legitimate reason to visit Baby as many times as he wanted. His arrival cast a forcefield around her home, one that no starving charsi or angry thief could breach. In Kalokhe, Baby found a companion, a man she needed to talk to, the kind of straight-talking father figure she hoped would keep her boys from ever straying. Single and smitten, Baby fell for him.
Kalokhe had much more to consider, specifically a wife and two children and a flat at the police quarters in Grant Road. Like his colleagues, he knew that Baby was a peddler, knew what corners of Worli she worked and knew that the next time his boss ordered him to purge drug peddlers, she would have to be on or near the top of his list. When the call came, would he slap on the handcuffs or make like the three monkeys? Commit to Baby and he risked committing not just adultery but also aiding the sale of drugs.
A few months after Baby reported the theft, Kalokhe shut down the inquiry—the one his conscience had initiated. From this point on, he would be two-faced Dharma.
The couple exchanged garlands and rings one morning at Mahalaxmi Temple. On the seventh circuit of the pyre Kalokhe violated Section 26 (2) of the Maharashtra Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1979: no government servant, having a spouse living, shall enter into, or contract, a marriage with any person.
Marriage to a policeman brought Baby a modicum of stability but not societal acceptance. Word had spread that Baby was now a police patni (wife). This was one twist Siddharth Nagar’s grapevine hadn’t seen coming. To Siddharth Nagar she was still ‘gard (brown sugar) powder waali Baby tai (sister)’. The tai wasn’t meant affectionately.
While people talked, Baby worked. Migrants and destitute families were pouring into Siddharth Nagar every day. They needed a place to stay from where the municipality wouldn’t chase them away. So, they all gravitated to the hilltop where there were no municipality taxes to pay or government officials asking for ownership papers. As Baby watched the slopes of her hill disappear beneath blue tarpaulin sheets, it occurred to her that she could profit. She didn’t own the hill. She just had to act like she did. Siddharth Nagar was repulsed by Baby tai. Now it would learn to fear Baby tai. This was her hill.
She was not Siddharth Nagar’s first squatter. But no one had perfected the art of turning patches of the hill into ready-to-move shacks quite like she had. Hers was the leisurely construction operation of a landowner. Not of some stealthy sneak thief. She assembled a house in five stages: first came a skeleton of bamboo poles, then an aluminium roof above, then walls and flooring and finally, to render its occupant eviction-proof, an electricity meter.At the end of every stage, Baby disappeared for days and left the site unguarded, as if daring the authorities to pull it down while her back was turned. As space on the hill began to run out, Baby leased and sold dozens of homes in a market where she was both realtor and landlady. Fixed price. No bargaining please. Siddharth Nagar learned, begrudgingly, to respect Baby tai.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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