Life under the flyover revisited

Back in 2009, I wrote a romanticised take on the Life under the flyovers in Mumbai. I wasn’t in the mood of making any social point then and was just curiously observing an aspect of the life in this city. But a few events in the recent past made me revisit this story.

Two separate incidents of brutal attacks on young girls occurred towards the end of August-beginning of September. The first child a 5 year old was brutally sexually assaulted and left for the dead. She belonged to a family of pavement dwellers in Kandivali and had been picked up from her mother’s side in the dead of the night and brutalised in a chawl nearby. The second was another 5 year old girl whose family lived under the flyover overlooking the Borivali national park. This child too was picked up from her sleeping mother’s side and brutally attacked. Her body was discovered nearby the next morning. There was speculation that these brutal attacks, spaced within 10 days of each other could be relate and so we went to check this Borivali case out.

The national park flyover is a long one. On the city end of the flyover there is a traffic police thana. The cops pointed out to us that the said family lived at the fag end of the flyover, towards Dahisar, around 300-500 mtrs away from this thana. As we walked below the flyover, we saw many jobless men loitering around. We asked some if they knew about the incident, most said they had come there only that day. Then there were families who seemed to have just landed in the city, their bags by their side, sitting under the flyover to escape the weather.

As we proceeded towards the Dahisar end of the flyover, the landscape started changing. The soil was more damp, with the leakage from the dripping flyover or because of frequent urination we couldn’t tell. There were bundles of clothes stacked up everywhere. At some places clothes were put up on a clothesline to dry. A few children were playing about and one man pointed at an old woman, lying on a bed while minding the porridge boiling on a chulha nearby. This woman he said was the child’s grandmother. The grandmother was in a bad condition, her throat was all choked up and she couldn’t speak much, only informing us that the rest of the family was at the police station. Neighbours, also living under the flyover, told us that such a thing had never happened before. They hadn’t yet thought of tying their children to themselves, but hugged them tight while sleeping.

Since the grandmother was unable to speak much and seemed to have smeared some white powder all across her throat, we shot the locality and headed to the police station. There we met the girl’s parents. They seemed to be in their late 30s, early 40s. They had 6 other children who along with a few older ladies of the community were all waiting at the police station to hear about the investigation. Their oldest was about 15 and the youngest was still an infant. The girl’s mother had the same problem, she was unable to talk much and when she did it sounded like a squeal. She also had white powder on her throat. When asked she responded that she and her mother had cried two days straight and now could barely talk; they had applied chuna or limestone to their throats to ease them.

The father held his composure for a long while, telling us about how he and the eldest had been to their native village in Rajasthan the night of the incident. They were labourers who came to Mumbai in the months there was no work in the villages. Rest of the time they stayed back in Rajasthan. For years, their community would come to the same area and stay under flyovers or on pavements as they didn’t know anyone in the city and short term accommodation wasn’t possible on their budget.  The wife had discovered the child missing the next morning and after a search they found her body dumped close by. The mother claims to have been sound asleep and says she’d have killed the accused if she had seen him snatching the child. The father breaks down only while describing the child’s condition, her face he wails was completely disfigured. He fails to understand who could do such a thing to a child.

Among the cries of woe also comes the problem of bureaucratic procedure. For 2 days now, they have been at the police station they say and they haven’t eaten since morning, it is around 2 pm. The DCP had walked in for a briefing and the station officers see us and a few local journalists poking around. The family then gets a fresh batch of wada pav.  The family tells us their children are being questioned if their mother was having an affair with some rickshaw driver or other frequent visitors of such areas.  The husband vouches for his wife’s loyalty. This is the second case I have encountered where the police investigation focuses on the conduct of the women in the family as necessary for investigation. The first one was the death of a Dalit activist in Gondia, where the police arrested the wife and a neighbour saying they burnt the man alive. The man in his dying declaration from a hospital bed named some upper caste members of the village. Investigation is still going on in the Gondia case.

The DCP says that the two cases seem unrelated and that they have some definite leads already in the Kandivali case thanks to CCTV evidence, no such luck though in Borivali. The father keeps asking us and the police to do something soon to find the killer.

A few days after this, the police arrested a suspect in the Kandivali case, showing that both cases are unrelated. The Borivali case is unsolved so far. The child is lost and we haven’t been able to visit the parents again. Most likely, they’ll be under the same flyover, going about their daily jobs, with little time to mourn a life. Maybe days from now, the child will be a distant memory, one they give in to only in the dark of the night, when the roof above their head, the flyover has fallen silent. Maybe, they’ll never return to Mumbai the next season.

In the annals of the Mumbai police, flyovers are known as gambling and drug dens. There is not much policing done though in these dark, damp places because in some ways it is logistically impossible. During the day, the families living beneath it, conduct a very public life. Loud spousal spats, drunken antics, parents physically abusing their children, all this is for everyone to see. At night, these eerie places fall silent. Famished men and women seek succour beneath the flyover in a city where there is no space for anyone anymore. One could say that the solution is to evacuate all these people from under the flyover, hand it over to some corporate who’ll perhaps develop small gardens or other recreation there. But what happens then to these people? Where do they stay? No one seems to have an answer to that. Crime and basic family life co-exist in an uneasy equilibrium under these flyovers. And sometimes, some family, like that of this child get unlucky. As their neighbour put it, “Pehle kabhi aisa kuch bhi yahaan nahin hua hai, par ab kya karein, jo ho gaya, so ho gaya”. (Nothing like this has ever happened here before, but what to do, what’s happened, has happened).

(P. S. The 2011 census says there are 57,416 homeless people in Mumbai, but with the floating population, this number is sure to be much higher).