The minor horrors of daily life

Three witnesses, one from each of the blast sites, talk about how they tackle Mumbai.

mumbai Updated: Jul 16, 2011 23:22 IST
Radhika Raj
Radhika Raj
Hindustan Times

Chandrika Bauva, 53, scurries around with a duster in her cramped, chaotic one-room home. On Wednesday, when one of three bomb blasts that ripped through Mumbai went off at Kabutar Khana in Dadar at dusk, dust, smoke and mangled bits of flesh flew in through her second-floor verandah. A twisted bus stop and bloodied limbs were the first sights she saw when the smoke cleared. “I was so upset, I had a fever all night,” she said.

The next morning, Bauva was up at 6 am to pack lunch for her two children, an engineer and a microbiologist, who then elbowed their way through the local trains to get to work. Bauva then spent the afternoon sweeping out rainwater that had entered through the balcony because of a downpour. At 4 pm, with water still flooding her 12 feet-by-12 feet living room, her tap was still running dry. “In a flooded city, you’d think there would be enough to drink,” she said.

For most middle-class Mumbaiites like Bauva, the blasts are only a fleeting problem, a higher blip on the up and down graph of daily struggles. The other downs include food inflation, flooding, a water scarcity, pollution and absurdly high property rates. “This city hardens you. It teaches you to block out one thought and move on to the next,” she said. “It is not something I am proud of. But Mumbai leaves you with no choice.” At 5.30 pm, water trickled in from her tap for about an hour, then dried up again.

Bauva’s struggles are similar to those faced by millions of others in Mumbai, who live in a city starved of space: It has meagre 0.03 acres of open space per 1,000 people, against an international standard of four acres per 1,000 people.

Within this overcrowded city, crumbling and outdated infrastructure, such as colonial-era pipes and potholed roads, add to the daily struggle. On the suburban train network, 4,500 commuters are packed into a nine-coach train meant to hold just 1,700. About 3,500 people die in railway accidents every year, seven times as many victims that the past eight terror attacks in Mumbai have claimed.

On the streets of Zaveri Bazaar, the second blast site, Shiva Raj Devan, 26, has his own daily struggles. After the blast, he has one more. He lost a friend in Khau Galli, where the bomb killed several people. His first instinct was to return to his village in Tamil Nadu near Kanyakumari. But the next day, he was back. On Saturday, huddled under a plastic sheet on a rainy morning, Devan fried steaming hot, golden vadas for his customers. “I would leave the city if I could,” he said as he deftly wrapped the vadas in newspapers carrying headlines about the blasts that took place two days earlier, not far from where he was standing.

When he was sixteen, Devan came to the city from a village in search of work, and like millions of migrants, he made Mumbai his home. He lives with four other men in a 100-square-feet shanty in Sion in central Mumbai, which gets flooded every monsoon. “You don’t get respect in this city,” he said. “They push and shove you in the trains every morning. There is no privacy, no space.”

Bauva agrees. “Even if you make more money in this city than in others, you still live in a matchbox-style home,” she said “Or you live in the suburbs and spend your life travelling back and forth.”

But Devan’s biggest worry are the losses he has incurred over the past three days, when he couldn’t set up his idli-vada stall. He makes R1,000 a day, which he splits with three partners. With business down for three days, he won’t have enough money to send back home. A couple of hours after Devan opened his stall on Saturday, a police constable walked by and tapped on his vessels. “Shut it,” he ordered. Devan packed up his food and started walking. A few regular customers sneaked him in to an alley, told him not to worry and bought their snack. But after that, he had to wind up for the day. “I can’t hate Mumbai. It feeds me,” he said. “I can’t love it. It might kill me.”

At Opera House, the site of the third blast, diamond merchant Chirag Vora, 36, who lives in a two-bedroom flat in a far-away suburb, Borivli, has the same fear. “This city gives me a livelihood, but it isn’t safe any more,” he said. Vora’s hand was injured in the blast, but his colleague’s was torn away and flung across the room. “I escaped death by chance.”

Instead of heeding his doctor’s advice and allowing his hand to heal, Vora was back at work on Saturday. A bright red curtain with orange flowers covered his window directly across the blast site. The vada-pao shop in the corner remained shut. “A police chowki used to stand in its place four months ago,” he said, smiling wryly.

Despite making enough money to lead a decent life, Vora struggles daily. The trains are overcrowded, the roads are packed with traffic, he complained. During the 2005 floods, Vora walked for 13 hours, wading through filthy water and dodging dead bodies and debris. “This is not how a commercial capital should function,” he said.

First Published: Jul 16, 2011 23:21 IST