In 2018, I wrote a blog post on some unforgettable men from the neighbourhood I grew up in. Our spread of chawl was called Cheeta Camp (meaning the spot where funeral pyres are burnt) and it fell on the Sion-Trombay road that basically ended by the ESEL Studio—where court scenes for Bollywood films were shot—at the fish-breezed jetty. However, my family moved to our little slummy kholi (house) in 1990, with my brother and I growing up not knowing that there is a world that exists beyond the closeted town of ours.
We, the fellow kids and I, genuinely believed that that is that.
If you lacked curiosity, chances are you’d end up spending your whole life in one place. And that pretty much was the driving principle in Cheeta Camp. In fact, there were so many people around who haven’t been anywhere else except a few parts of Bombay. No, not even their native places. These folks would often express a strange sigh when we mentioned that we are going to our muluk (village) because they haven’t been to theirs in ages.
Although I featured some remarkable gentlemen in my previous blog post, I didn’t consider their rootedness to our neighbourhood. Perhaps, we take this aspect for granted when it comes to the masculine side of the society: that a man can just leave whenever he likes. This luxury is seldom granted to the fairer sex. She will stay rooted not by volition but by persuasion. As a result, you will find hundreds and hundreds of women in Cheeta Camp back then whose only real connection with the outside world was via their crinkly TV screens.
Despite these suffocating conditions in place, there were some women I grew up admiring for their inherent guts and grin. Long before Hannah Gadsby made the millennial lot aware of the unfathomable courage of a broken woman. Today, I am going to feature some of these ladies who simply didn’t toe the line. And I continue to have nothing but boy-eyed admiration for them.
Let’s start with Aai. Like the moniker suggests, she was a Maharashtrian woman and very grandmotherly. As was pretty much the case all around us, she was blessed with utterly useless children. In our neighbourhood, very rarely would you come across kids who looked after their parents with even half the enthusiasm as desired. To her misfortune, her only son was consumed by alcohol and her daughters seldom visited her after their weddings. But here was the crux of the problem: the tiny hut she lived in was in her name. The home she had worked hard all her life for by doing menial work at BARC after her husband passed away. Her son wanted her to transfer the ownership to him. Long story short, on her deathbed, she ensured that her ‘property’ will be bequeathed to her long-suffering daughter-in-law.
She must have been named Shehzadi (princess) by her parents wishing for an opulent life someday. People who haven’t seen poverty don’t understand its quicksandy nature. Shehzadi was born and bred on the outskirts of Hyderabad, before getting married off at the age of 16 to a man more than 10 years elder. After moving to our neighbourhood, she had her first child at the age of 18, followed by a daughter two years later. Things seemed fine for the next three years until one day, her husband decided to marry another young woman aged 19. With hardly any veto power, she could only keep her head low as her marital company transformed into a crowd. Loud squabbles, aided by air-borne utensils, became a common sight for the neighbours. Unlike when men fight, nobody stopped two women in action: particularly when you know that the root cause of their problem is their husband’s affection (or lack of it). This went on for a while before Shehzadi decided to leave her two kids behind and work as a maid in Dubai. She left for two reasons: to provide for her children and to save for her old age. For several years, I barely saw her until one afternoon, the police gathered outside her husband’s. Apparently, after a bitter quarrel in the morning, she went to the house she had bought with her money and hung herself. That day, my friend and his sister effectively became orphans.
There was a tiny—everything back there, back then, was tiny; the concept of large was alien to us—shop close to our house. It was run by a Sri Lankan Tamil fellow named Annachi. A tall, dark, handsome man with an accented gritty voice. He had an elegant wife, whom we called Akka, and they lived behind the shop in a tiny room with their two kids. My mother used to tell Akka that she resembled Smita Patil (for some dyslexic reason, I thought it was Smita Patel) as they were both dusky and beautiful. Given my ma’s fluency in Tamil and Akka’s reluctance to speak Hindi, the two used to chat a lot and she often cribbed about Annachi’s gambling issues. Whatever little profit he made from the shop, he would end up ruining it in matka (jackpot). Now when I think about them, I acknowledge so many facets of human relationships that I couldn’t imagine as a young boy. Annachi was a sad soul, the sort who stayed lost in his thoughts whereas Akka was a vibrant person who wanted to talk all the time. As fate would have it, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late-30s and I even paid her a visit in 2006. She was lying down in that crampy house, having lost all her physical grace, and submitted to agony. She could hardly recognize me as I tried to introduce myself in broken Tamil. A few months later, she passed away.
Untold stories rarely remain untold. During the 1971 migration crisis, a Bengali woman ended up with a Bengali boy. She had run away from her village to avoid persecution and found him stranded in the transit. So, she picked him up, having no idea what she will do to keep them alive. Five years later and two thousands kilometers away, they found themselves in Janata Colony, with her working as menial labour. This was before the two, along with thousands others from their strata, were moved en masse to Cheeta Camp, to make space for arguably the world’s largest cluster of scientific group (Anushakti Nagar). In Cheeta Camp, people wondered why a woman with nobody to call her own would extend her hand to an unknown boy, not realizing that she had every reason to show kindness in times of extreme unkindness. While growing up, this ‘mother-son’ duo stayed as a constant reminder to me that the distance between empathy and love is very minimal. She raised him the best she could and he took care of her in her old age. Not exactly a terrible ending.
She was the queen of hooch but herself never had a drop. According to legends, in her business, it was essential to stay sane all the time. Interestingly, this woman from Ratnagiri was once a child bride whose husband passed away to tuberculosis, leaving her with nobody to call her own. Her own family wouldn’t take her back while her in-laws abandoned her in style due to her invalid (read: childless) status. Circumstances dictated that she took up a job and somehow found herself selling home-made arrack. With the growing business at hand, her confidence and ambition expanded as well. And she was soon running a factory of sorts where the smell of jaggery filled your nose. Everybody in the neighbourhood respected this nine-yard-sareeed lady as she was popular for helping the poor financially and built the local Dattatreya temple. There were many raids too but that’s another blog post altogether.
Motherhood can make a woman seem weak thanks to the unconditional attachment she has in store for her children. Yet, when time demands action, the same mother can do the right thing by refusing to tolerate nonsense any further. Something similar happened with Areeba-apa as she called the authorities on her own son. Fayaz was a known drug addict who would steal from home to furbish his addiction. I vividly remember how the constables dragged the young man as the bystanders watched with a mix of relief and disgust. On one hand, there was no way she could have carried on being a provider as a single mother (her husband left her with her baby). On another, she somehow forgave herself by letting the hospital take over her son’s case. It took extraordinary courage because there were hardly any precedents to follow.
Nagu-maami was simply my favourite. Always warm, funny and full of stories about her childhood in Janata Colony, she spent most of her time sewing clothes for neighbourly clients: a little stitch here, a big fall there. She was mostly working, cooking, fetching water from our local tap, and working again. According to my ma, once while she was beating me up with a stick for disobedience, I apparently screamed at her that my real mother was Nagu-maami. Something both the women used to laugh about later. As a kid, if a splinter got stuck on my fingertip or heel, I would run to her and she would apply a bit of her sweat on the surface and carefully needle the tiny intruder out without causing any pain. I haven’t seen her in about two decades now but I am sure she is still the adorably generous figure she always was.
In places like Cheeta Camp, even during the latter part of the 20th century, girls didn’t get to say what they wanted to become in life. But Sameera was an exception. She wanted to become a teacher. Her frail father functioned as a zari (embroidery) artist and her mother was a housemaker. Despite being in a 10-by-10 koli with 2-by-2 mori (bathroom) congested with three siblings, all younger to her, she remained focused on her original goal. After completing her SSC from an Urdu medium school, she did her HSC and then pursued her BA. With this degree in hand, she went back to the same school where she earned her secondary education from. Sameera teacher became her name and she even stood in the municipal council election eventually.
Last but not the least, this is a special mention for the woman who used to fill the earthen pot outside our playground. I had seen her several times with the steel kalsi (pitcher) resting on her hip, before she emptied the water into the pot, so that the tired kids can have a fill in the sun. She didn’t need to do that but she did. Walking all the way from her house, crossing the road and doing this thankless job during summer: I believe her attitude pretty much sums up the good spirit of Cheeta Camp. A place that had more than its share of darkness.
These are just a few of the many unforgettable female personalities from my childhood. And their memories make me proud of my humble past, a past I used to be embarrassed of a couple of years ago. But I am sure there are many more personalities as well as stories that I could have added here. In the same vein, there are so many women out there who remind us every day that the essence of life is to live to the fullest in spite of the odds against you.
Loved this one!
I have been following you for a couple years now. This is my favourite of all your posts. ❤️