Tuesday, February 03, 2009

India IV: Bombay

Ranjit lived not far, in a chawl that he paid 15 lakhs for. He lived there with his parents, who had grown old in the city. It was a one-bedroom affair, and had its own bathroom. And they'd hung a nameboard on the door. Patels. They owned the land now, a piece of the earth that wasn't the government's, nor the police's to raid. Even the local bhai wasn't going to stake a claim, so slickly had Ranjit greased every proferred palm.

The politics of land-owning, in the thick of the city, are complicated. There's no paperwork to speak of, no documents that will deter an encroacher. Ownership is never absolute, it only grows as generations hold on to the land. A newly settled couple can be ousted overnight from the basti, pans and almirahs flung out, onto the galli. But with a family that's lived there two generations, it's much harder. The mastans might scare the family, but there are neighbours to deal with. Neighbours who've shared salt with the family for decades. These neighbours are spokes in the wheel the mastans turn. The mastans can be young, their arms puffy, but their Bhai takes hafta from the bastiwalas. The bhai is sheriff and dictator, ernesto and castro all in one, but he isn't absolute, he's the thread that loops through the basti, in, out, in, out. In fact, Bhai is pixel art, each pixel a beating heart from the basti. There's a grand order in this universe that even the next Bhai will toe. Age, caste, money, all will be accorded gravity before the Bhais, present and future, order action.

And Ranjit, at 19, has played this game remarkably well to buy his chawl. The other bastiwalas rent, and do so indefinitely. Bhai splits these rent amounts into several piles. One for the Deputy Inspector in charge of the area, another for his minions, one for the MP who contested polls at the basti, another for the city to bring their sewage and garbage clearance machinery by once a month. It's a country within a city. The rent and the hafta support Bhai's fiefdom by funding defense budgets, diplomatic offices, infrastructure, and relief funds.

Ranjit is free from all of this. There are no sluices to drain his money every month. He's paid his dues, all black, but all cash.

Ranjit's father, toothless now, grandparent to Ranjit's many nieces and nephews, appreciates the land more than anyone. Three strides and you've covered the area of their home, but the old man finds an infinity hidden in there. He once explained it to Ranjit "Yes, I can see the walls of our house, here's one and there's the other, and they need a coat of lime. I can see why you think this is small. But look through the ceiling. Look up at the square of sky you've bought us. How many miles is it to that sky? I don't know. And how deep below the earth does our land run? I don't know. Look from that square in the sky through the floor, to the center of the earth. That is what we own. No more these debts, those vacant stares into bombay's traffic, that talk of home and the world. Son, you've freed us from the cycle..."

I understood then where he learnt to grin like that. Within his four walls, Ranjitrulez was king.

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