The Shoemaker & Other Stories

Rupali Gupte & Prasad Shetty

May, 2015




This was a new place. The ground was not yet firm. The sea and the land came together in a post coital embrace, creating an enormous marshy patch. When Illiyas’s family arrived here, stones and earth from a nearby hill were moved to fill up the marsh and make the ground firmer. Before this, Illiyas’s family lived in the south of the city, near an abattoir. They worked as butchers. The government had moved thousands of families that year to these northern marshes. The abattoir was also moved.


Illiyas’s father, uncles and cousins had to walk for about an hour every morning to reach the new abattoir. While they worked there, Illiyas spent most of his time playing. He had to discontinue his earlier school and was yet to be admitted to a new one. His family was too busy – either trying to get a new job or battling the marsh to build their house. Everything had become difficult here. Every morning a few trucks would arrive with water and families would queue up with Jerri-cans. Having a large family was advantageous for at least two reasons – to source larger amounts of water and to dominate during squabbles over water. Shitting was equally a project – one had to walk deeper into the marshes every morning to take a dump. Sending Illiyas to school was on nobody’s mind yet. Also, the school was too far and too small to accommodate children from the two thousand families that were moved here. A new school was required; which took about two years to come up.


Unlike his earlier house, there were plenty of things to do here. He would spend time at places where the marsh was being filled, a road being laid, or building built. He and his friends enjoyed the heaps of sand and stones, amongst which they invented many games. When they were driven away by building contractors, they would go to the faraway parts of the marsh. There were different kinds of snails, crabs, insects, lizards, snakes and birds there. It was fun to catch them or set up fights between species.


Only a few of Illiyas’s friends were from his old neighbourhood. His new friends spoke different languages at home and ate different kinds of food. Their fathers did different things – some worked in factories, some were tailors, some drove taxis, etc. They all believed in different gods. In Illiyas’s old neighbourhood, everyone worked in the abattoir, ate similar food and spoke one language. Here, each family was given a tiny piece of land and made to live in close proximity of each other. Most were able to build just one room for themselves. As everybody was a stranger, trust was low amongst neighbours. With such density, intense diversity, and absence of trust; high decibel quarrels were common, sometimes breaking into physical scuffles.


Illiyas’s best friend’s father was a cobbler, who had set up a shop in the neighbourhood. Illiyas would spend a lot of time at this shop observing him repairing old shoes. The shop was a simple wooden box with a lock. The cobbler would sweep the floor every morning before opening the box and spread a clean sheet of tarpaulin to sit on. The box contained a piece of wood, a cobbler’s stand, some hook needles, some special threads, and some old leather. Illiyas was particularly in love with the hook needles. The cobbler gave Illiyas one of those, which he kept on his person all the time, like a talisman. At home, Illiyas would mend all the broken shoes.


After the new school opened Illiyas still found time to visit the cobbler’s shop. The cobbler would often identify the animal from which the leather was made. Soon, Illiyas was able to do the same. He started collecting different pieces of leather and making a variety of things out of them.


In a couple of years, many families had extended their houses. Illiyas’s family had also built three rooms – two on the ground floor and one above. By now, the quarrels amongst the neighbours had become less noisy. The distrust was fading away as people started getting used to each-other’s idiosyncrasies. While some aspects of their languages, rituals, food and other practices mixed and fused; others remained distinct. People found ways to live with the peculiarly distinct practices. It was fine to poke fun at and call each other names, caricatured around their rituals, languages, food or even skin colour. In many ways, people found ways to adjust themselves to each other’s lives.


The municipal elections were to be held the following year. Several politicians started frequenting Illiyas’s neighbourhood. ‘Water’ became the main campaign issue for most politicians. Many of them carried out protests outside municipal offices. Later that year the neighbourhood finally got piped water. A few community toilets were built. The elections were held early next year. This experience taught people how to coerce the government into doing things. Several protests were held later for sewerage lines, roads, dispensaries, etc. The municipality often yielded with new infrastructure projects. Projects were good for everyone – for the municipal employees, for the contractors, for the politicians and for the people.


But other than farming out projects, the municipality and other government bodies mostly neglected the place. Due to this, many activities that were considered out-caste and illegal by the rest of the city took place here. The mangrove-covered marshes provided the right setting for rotting oranges and other things to make illicit liquor. This liquor was then distributed across the city through a network of taxi drivers. Rival liquor producers hired gangs of men to protect themselves from each other. The liquor lords soon diversified into drug and gambling businesses. People from the rest of the city avoided this place. It was not unusual to find a dead body in the marshes where Illiyas used to play. In the absence of state machinery, laws and morals started getting defined through a mix of muscle power and family ethics. The proximity of people to each other provided security. Neighbours readily jumped to help whenever there was a crisis in a family. Over time, a complex set of norms emerged to keep the neighbourhood consolidated.


Illiyas had started going to college in the South of the city. His interest in leather and shoe repair continued. While he would still stitch up broken shoes from his house, he also made new shoes. He wanted to set up his own shop. But his family did not have money to lend him. Illiyas did not have the courage to set up a shop on the street – he had seen other shops being evicted by the municipality. Once, on his way to college, he saw a cobbler setting up a new shop on the street. Illiyas was sure that the shop would be removed by the municipality soon. But that never happened. After a few weeks, Illiyas garnered up some courage to ask the cobbler why he was not evicted. The cobbler told Illiyas that he was protected because of his caste. He belonged to the ‘untouchable’ cobbler community and there was a government policy that allowed him to set up a shop anywhere. The government in fact protected such shops from vandalism by other communities. This was the government’s way of providing opportunities to the untouchable community. Now things were clear to Illiyas – he understood why the municipality never touched his friend’s father’s shop, while other shops were demolished.


Illiyas now had an idea for setting up his shop – he would partner with his best friend. This would ensure that the shop was never demolished. His friend readily agreed. But Illiyas insisted that the shop should be in the south, where rich people lived. There they would be able to sell the shoes at a good price. In a month’s time, a shop was set up on a market road. Like the friend’s father’s shop, even this one was just a small locked box when closed. But unlike his father’s shop, when opened, the box turned into a full-fledged shop with a lot of space for display. Illiyas decided to call this shop ‘Shoemaker’.


They rented a small part of an old lady’s house in a nearby building to store shoes in the night. Some young cobblers were employed. Soon they made enough money to expand their business. They rented a tiny cupboard shop on a wall. This shop was just a foot deep. But it could open into a large space that was able to display more than a thousand shoes. This shop was also called ‘Shoemaker’.


Illiyas, since his childhood, was familiar with a neighbourhood in the city, where every household produced shoe-parts. This was where most shoe shops of the city sourced shoes. He decided to get his shoes made here. He would design the shoes and make one prototype himself. Then he would make drawings of small variations to this prototype. The shoe making neighbourhood was able to produce all his designs. The business grew well in the subsequent years and several small shops were established. All of them were called ‘Shoemaker’. In ten years, Illiyas was able to buy a large shop in the market, near the place where he had set up his first box-shop. The box-shop was now used by his friend’s brother. He continued to call the newly acquired shop, ‘Shoemaker’.


Many things happened in his locality during the years when Illiyas was expanding his business.  Houses were extended in the front and rear and floors were added. Enterprise proliferated as ground floors of houses were converted into small shops and industrial units. The government had reclaimed most of the marshy areas and built a large commercial complex there. The police were able to dismantle the drug, illicit liquor and gambling mafia from the city. The mafia workers had to switch jobs. They now either worked as extortionists for big dons operating from outside the country or for large developers, who were always in need of muscle-men to evict people from ambiguously occupied properties. Illiyas had become popular in the neighbourhood due to his enterprise. People visited him during crises for various reasons; for money, to sort differences, to accompany them to police stations and municipal offices, etc. Illiyas readily helped.


Due to the proximity of the large commercial complex, Illiyas’s neighbourhood was now a sort-after place by developers, who unleashed the ex-mafia workers into it, to buy off houses. Several people approached Illiyas. The police were not helpful as they were heavily paid off by the developers. After thinking for some days, Illiyas came up with an idea. He asked people to form an association and become developers themselves. By doing this they could get the land from the government. This way, as the land would belong to an association, piecemeal evictions would not be possible. After a series of bribes, Illyas was able to get the land in the association’s name. Illyas became extremely popular and got elected as a municipal councillor that year


Illiyas does not get his shoes made from the shoe-making neighbourhood anymore. He now visits Guangzhou every month to procure shoes. But even today, he carries the hook-needle in a hand-crafted leather pouch, perched next to his mobile phone.




The story of Illiyas and his neighbourhood is one of the million interconnected stories that cities are made of. Cities settle through such stories. Settling here is a process, where people from diverse backgrounds come to terms with each other by constantly breaching and reconfiguring the contracts that they are born into. During settling, several new spaces, practices and objects get created, which are unique and may appear unusual to an outsider. Abusive language may be a form of endearment, ethics may not follow legalities, morals may be structured around claims and laws may not be universal. Settling is not a process in which contradictions get resolved; instead contradictions are able to co-exist. It is a set of processes by which things gets worked out – keeping the city in a perpetual state of becoming.  


The spaces, objects and practices that get produced during settling have different transactional capacities depending on different intensities of flows they support. ‘Flows’ here are the movements of bodies, commodities, ideas, money, etc. Illiyas’s houses, the water-truck, the hook-needle, the community toilet, the different forms of the ‘Shoemaker’ shop are all such transactional spaces/objects/practices. The city settles through these objects. These objects are constantly transformed and readapted for newer imaginations. The logic of this transformation is often incremental, sporadic and based on parameters that are beyond the detection of empirical methods. It is difficult to identify Illiyas’s role and position in the city – a poverty stricken child, an artist, a businessman, an encroacher, an activist, a politician. He behaves differently at different times and places, doing unusual things – visits the marshes, plays on sand heaps, collects leather, contests elections, strategizes escape from the developers, repairs shoes, and also keeps a hook-needle. Nothing results from a long plan or purpose. He does these things because he gets a kick out of them. People in the city get a kick out of doing different things – collecting strange objects, behaving like spies, writing stories, achieving mundane targets, dismantling machines, making plans, opposing policies, saving the world, etc. These are practices that go beyond the acts of routine. These practices are not useful to produce grand conceptualisations of cities and are often discarded as stray individual preoccupations or anecdotes. While some of these obsessions are related to earning and occupations, others are simply ‘useless’. But everyone seems to have such trips that give them a kick. These trips seem to provide individuals with their energy. Such energies cumulatively produce a city. These absurd quests, unusual obsessions and bizarre interests seem to be making the city.






Anand had to sell off his truck as it had become completely inefficient. He had managed to save some money while working with a market research company and had bought a second hand truck from the savings. He had hired a driver and a cleaner (an assistant) and conducted his business by transporting goods largely in south India. Though he knew that the driver and the cleaner were cheating on him by selling fuel, he offset such costs by overloading the truck. Moreover, in the truck business, this kind of behavior by the drivers and cleaners was common and acceptable. Anand liked his business and had started making a lot of money. But in about four years, the outgoings had become too much as the truck guzzled a lot of fuel and also required high maintenance.


After selling his truck, Anand planned to buy another one. But the money that he had saved from his earnings and by selling the old truck was not enough. To get the remaining money, he decided to approach his bank for a loan. But navigating through his bank was not very easy: they asked him questions that he couldn’t answer. He then approached many other banks, applied for loans, opened accounts, paid service fees, became a shareholder, and did everything that was required to get a loan. But none of his applications realized. This went on for about a year and he lost much of his savings. After meeting several people from the banking industry, he gathered that Mumbai banks did not trust people from two sectors – transporters and people from the film industry. He gave up hope of getting money from banks.


This was when he met Sameer through a friend. Sameer was the loan agent. Amongst all forms of capital access systems (like the auction-based chit-funds, the micro-finance, the private financer provided, commercial loans from banks, private loans from banks and housing loans from banks), the housing loans had the lowest interest rate and offered the longest payback period. However, the paper-work and loan approval process was the most cumbersome. Sameer and his agent friends specialized in providing capital to their clients through the housing loan system. The total service cost of these agents was expensive – almost twenty percent of the loan amount – as many people were involved. But it still worked out cheaper on a longer run for their clients.


Sameer explained to Anand that getting a loan was all about having the correct papers. For the next couple of months, the two of them met several others agents, who together organized the loan. The first was a banker, who worked in a cooperative bank just outside Mumbai. The loan was to be got from this bank. Sameer had got several loans done through him. The banker’s job was not much, just to see that the papers move fast and go to the right people. The banker had to be paid half a percent of the loan amount in advance.


The housing loan requires three things – a guarantor, an assurance of paying capacity by the client and a house (asset) to mortgage. Sameer asked Anand to arrange for a guarantor. As Anand had several friends who had a stable income, the guarantee was easy to get.


Sameer then introduced Anand to Altaf, an agent who arranged for the assurance of paying capacity. Altaf got papers made for Anand of a lingerie trading enterprise. The enterprise was less than a year old, so no returns were to be filed. But paperwork for invoices, receipts, orders, etc. had to be put together. Moreover as entire dealing was shown in cash, taxes had to be paid as proof of income. Anand paid about five percent of the loan amount as tax on the lingerie trade that he was supposed to be running. Altaf also arranged for a rented premise which was to be shown as Anand’s warehouse and office to the inspector who came to verify the business. For about a week, Anand would go everyday to this warehouse and spend his day there waiting for the inspector. When the inspector came, Altaf had arranged for good snacks and coffee along with a small gift – a silver Ganesh statue for the inspector. Some packets of lingerie were also packed for the inspector’s wife. Altaf made sure that the inspector wrote a good report.


The biggest hurdle was to get the house for which the loan was being taken. Sameer had made friends with many small developers outside Mumbai who worked this out. In case of Anand, Sameer took him to Jain, a small developer in Vasai, which is about 30 km to the north of Mumbai. Sameer chose to engage developers outside Mumbai because the house transaction registration process was managed easily. Jain had built several small apartment buildings in Vasai. He made an apartment sale agreement for one of the his apartments with Anand, who had to pay ten percent of the cost of the house to Jain. This was Jain’s fee for the service. This agreement was then registered at the local revenue collector’s office and stamp-duty was also paid on it. The stamped and registered agreement was good enough to get the loan approved by the bank. Of course, the bank sent a valuator and an inspector to ensure that the property exists and is of the said value. Everything was arranged to ensure that the valuator and the inspector went back satisfied and happy.


Anand got his loan in the next few days. Today he has a couple of trucks and pays his mortgage regularly. Jain finally sold off the house to a real buyer after selling the house to couple of more persons. The family currently occupying the house does not know that three people are paying mortgage on their house. Everything will be fine until one of these default their payments. But chances of this were very low – Sameer worked with only very honest people.






I met Raghav after several years. He showed me his old photo albums. This was one of the things he would do to start talking about old times. The conversation that followed was biographical. He spoke about how he came to Mumbai as a runaway kid and worked in a restaurant, how he got beaten up by a group of bus drivers, how he saved a rich man from ten goons trying to kill him, how he chopped off the leg of a man who had killed his friend. While all his stories were engrossing, two left me intrigued.


The first was about his dead friends.  While showing me the albums, he kept pointing at his friends who had been killed. Some were stabbed, some strangled, some shot, either by the police or by other gangs. He spoke about them casually, with his wife and children around. For me, conditioned into morals and ethics of another world, this conversation was awkward. But for him, and probably for the people he knew, it was routine.


Raghav came to Mumbai as a child in the late 1970s and worked at his uncle’s restaurant at Ganga Building near Mazgaon. At night he would sleep on the tables in the restaurant. His uncle had come to Mumbai in the mid sixties and had managed to establish a restaurant in the industrial area of Mumbai. While some migrants got into blue or white collared jobs, most started working in the city’s massive unorganized industries and enterprises, largely as labour, but also sometimes as owners and managers. The migrants who found place to work and sleep assisted their relatives and friends to come to Mumbai. The desperation of finding work and a place to sleep shaped them. It did not matter to them if they had to bribe a policeman or a municipal official to occupy a pavement to set up their business and earn a living. As his business required making and maintaining networks, Raghav’s uncle would oblige several important people from the police, municipality and even from the underworld. The underworld then largely smuggled gold, electronics and cocaine. The uncle’s restaurant was often used to store (hide) the smuggled goods. Because of this network, the uncle had also developed a significant social status, one that reflected in his image and mannerisms. He had become a sort of a local leader, a Robinhoodish character who commanded respect not only due to his dadagiri (bullish attitude), but also his generous organizational capacities. He would organize local festivals, give free food during festival days, sort out neighbourhood problems with his contacts in the government department, manage chitfunds (a kind of local microfinance), provide money for people in his native place to build houses, organize elaborate ritualistic ceremonies in his village, etc. The uncle was not only a hero for Raghav, but also for the entire community from which they hailed.


The uncle died in the early 1980s and the restaurant shut down. Raghav started working in an automobile workshop that belonged to another relative, but wasn’t happy repairing cars. The image of his uncle in his mind was powerful and Raghav aspired to be like him. He had made friends with petty workers of the underworld while working at the restaurant and decided to get in touch with them for better prospects. Things worked out and soon Raghav was transporting illegally manufactured alcohol to several restaurants in the city. He slowly went up the ladder to become a key member in one of the gangs. He had not only managed to gather for himself status similar to that of his uncle, but actually went much beyond. People from his community would call him to resolve disputes of various kinds, especially disputes requiring muscle power. Younger people from the community aspired to be like Raghav and came to Mumbai. The morals and ethics of this community, like several others, got shaped differently. They were influenced by the desperation for work and the search for a place to sleep, as also by the image of the achievers.


Now, after all those years, Raghav spoke about each of his friends from the underworld with fondness. He told many of their stories with ease, including those of their murders as if it was one of the things to talk about like one speaks about a wedding or the birth of a child.


The second story that made me uneasy was when Raghav discussed how he found his family’s Naaga (Snake God). Raghav hailed from the Tulunadu region in the South of India. Native communities of Tulunadu worshiped ghosts, devils and snakes with elaborate rituals.  People of Tulunadu believe that every family has a unique Naaga.  After a series of sudden deaths in Raghav’s family, his elders advised him that maybe the family’s Naaga is not happy. Raghav’s family was fairly urban and lived in the small town of Mangalore. Raghav had lived in Mumbai most of his life. Though he was familiar with the concept, he didn’t know about his family’s Naaga. After the elders’ advise, he asked his relatives if any of them knew about the family Naaga. Nobody did. He approached many godmen and tantriks (priests performing occult rituals). One of them gave him a convincing explanation. He said that Raghav’s family had split some hundred years ago and his part of the family had migrated to Mangalore. It was around this time that his family had stopped worshipping the Naaga. The tantrik also gave him the exact location of his family house in the north eastern part of the region. By this time Raghav had mobilized the entire industry that worked with gods, devils and snakes. He lost no time in finding the remote location of his ancestral house and the stone image of the Naaga there. As the image was in ruins, it had to be restored. Raghav decided to build a small shrine for the Naaga. He spent generously on elaborate rituals. This generosity was spoken about by everyone in the community. His family, relatives and his friends believed that this was truly the best thing that he could have done for society.  They knew he was a gangster, but this did not matter to them. His maternal uncle was a policeman. For members of the community, Raghav had risen higher than his uncle in social status. He had managed to find their god and make him happy.






There was always a need for small supplies at the Metropolitan Authority Office (MAO) like printing of diaries, small stationary, books, quick exhibition production, models, etc. And usually there was never any time to go through an elaborate tendering process for procurements. Another route available for such ‘petty purchases’, was through inviting three quotations and buying the goods and services from a bidder with the lowest quote.


At the MAO, whenever, there was such a requirement, everyone called Tondon. He had some five companies all doing various kinds of things – printing, retailing of stationary and hardware, event management, etc. So whenever anyone called from the MOA, Tondon would be ready with three quotations from three of his companies signed by different people on different letter-heads. But Tondon also ensured well that only he would and no one else – He would personally meet most of the officers, send the gifts for Diwali, chat with them about life and maintain – in his words – accha (good) relationship.


His journey of becoming an infrastructure consultant started when he was called to get some quick surveys done of the Mithi River, which flooded in 2005 and caused havoc in the city. The MOA was asked to give a report on the river within a fortnight by the Chief Minister. Tondon was putting up stalls for an interior design exhibition when he was summoned to get the surveys done. He had never done anything like this before, but figured out quickly that the MOA wanted some numbers to prove that the illegitimate occupiers along the river were cause of the floods. Tondon hired some planners and surveyors to do the job. A drawing was made and numbers were gathered within no time.  Tondon had become an overnight star.


Slowly he started undertaking sub-contracts for social surveys – headcounts, number of houses, number of families in a locality, traffic counts, etc. Tondon was very quick at delivering results and everyone at the MOA wanted that. Along with sensing the value of primary data, he also figured out that it was quite simple to organize such data.


The JNNURM changed everything for Tondon. The Government of India had launched a nation-wide mission called the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to upgrade infrastructure in more than 60 cities with population more than one million people. The Government’s strategy was to simply pump money into these cities. But to get the money, the cities required a clear plan with a set of priority projects and a detailed project report on each of these priority projects. The kitty of the Government was finite and cities were to compete with each other to get the money – whichever city could make good detailed project report and get it approved early by the national scrutiny agencies would get the money early. The Government expected that this would push the cities to plan and build their capacities in planning projects. The cities on the contrary appointed consultants. Suddenly there was a large increase in the number of consultants floating in the country. Tondon had also joined the bandwagon. He hired some engineers and planner and had started his own consultancy company. Since he had already done large number of surveys in the metropolitan region of Mumbai, he had an advantage over other consultants in the region.


The first project he got involved was to make a detailed project report to develop a solid waste system for a city near Mumbai. He quickly understood that such reports were quite standard and could be easily made with available data. The bigger problem was to get them approved through the various stages of approvals and the city officials generally struggled very hard to get them approved at various stages. These had to be approved by the local Municipal representatives, then by the state level nodal agency, then by the parliamentary and state legislature representatives, then by the evaluation and scrutiny agencies set up by the national government and finally the national level committee of senior bureaucrats. One had to navigate through political, technocratic and bureaucratic systems to get the projects approved. Tondon understood the weakness of the city officials in getting the project approved and decided to build his niche through getting the projects approved. It was not difficult to get approvals from the political representatives as they saw these projects as large contracts from where kickbacks can be earned through the contractors – and they were quite experienced in that. Getting bureaucratic approvals were also fairly easy – with lower level officials, petty gifts like I-Phones, silverware, gold coins, etc. worked. In case of mid-level officials, a foreign study tour or expensive gadgets for children was usually the strategy. The higher level officials had to be paid in cash usually through a middleman. The most difficult was to get approvals from the technocrats – the sincere types. Generally, a good engineering or planning argument worked with these technocrats, but sometimes political or bureaucratic pressure had to be used. But Tondon was went a step ahead: he would constantly meet all officers and politicians involved, chat with them, keep gifting them and maintain his ‘accha relationship’. This made them feel a little indebted towards him – and Tondon knew this very well. His strength was not in making good detailed project reports, but rather on getting these reports approved. And that was what was required by the cities from this mission.


Tondon started doing all kinds of project reports – water supply, sanitation, drainage, housing, transportation and even e-governance. Today Tondon Associates is one of the twelve consultants empanelled by the national government to advice it and take up projects across the country in the e-governance sector. Tondon now not only competes with international consultants for projects but even manages to get them.






Madhu came to Mumbai with a technical diploma in welding from Mangalore. His brother ran a restaurant called Swaraj at the Ganga Building in Mazgaon. Like everyone else, he had come to the city in search of work. Until he found a mechanic’s job, he decided to work at the restaurant during the day time. During the nights he slept in the same restaurant. The day would start early at around four thirty in the morning, when many things had to be done – water had to be filled, potatoes and pulses had to be boiled, rice had to be cooked, spices had to be ground, batter of various kinds had to be made, tables, chairs and cutlery had to be arranged and the entire place had to be cleaned. Except for the malwala (the chief cook) and Madhu’s brother, the other nine people working in the restaurant slept in the restaurant with Madhu. Generally, the nights went on until midnight when everything had to be cleaned and preparation for the next day had to be done. On eves of festivals however, the nights continued until dawn as special food was made. The people sleeping inside the restaurant would put together the tables to make their beds. Swaraj would open at about six thirty in the morning to provide tea and breakfast for the morning shifters of the mills. Madhu assisted in most of the works in the restaurant.


Even though, the restaurant had a constant flow of people, Madhu was unable to build a network which could lead him to a job as he could not speak either Hindi or Marathi. The only languages he knew were Tulu and Kanada and he never left an opportunity of having elaborate discussions with people who spoke his language. Swaraj was a meeting place for people from Tulunadu, the region of Tulu speaking people from where Madhu had come. Moreover, his brother ran a chit-fund (an informal saving scheme) which had several people from his community as members. There were lots of people who had come and most of them had got into the food industry of Mumbai that served the industrial labour. The variety of Usal (a Maharastrian spicy preparation with different pulses) that used only white peas with lots of oil and chilly served with Pav (bread) was a distinct contribution of people from Tulunad to Mumbai’s foodscape.


Madhu came from the coastal Bunt community of Tulunadu. The Bunts worshiped snakes, ghosts, spirits and many other totemic forms along with all the gods in the Hindu pantheon. As land was scanty in the coastal areas, most of their worship rituals, marriage customs, beliefs, morals, and inheritance systems were connected to land and property. Specific snakes, ghosts and spirits were all connected to specific families and their lands and inheritance was matriarchal. So if one is born in a specific family, then he/she was entitled to the land as well as the ghosts and the snakes. In many ways, these snakes, ghosts and spirits guaranteed the land titles to the people of the community. Maintaining of land within the community was extremely important as the deities were connected with it. This made the Bunts closely knit and marriages were not allowed outside the community.   When these Bunts came to Mumbai, their sense of community was more accentuated and customs were followed more aggressively. This was necessary as it kept the community together and provided the social security. But this condition was also extremely intrusive and suffocating for some people – especially ones who had left their native without much land or anything to go back to. These people often disappeared in the city – often living with and marrying people from outside the community.


Madhu used to get irregular works at different places in the city – often recommended by another Bunt. As he had to send money back to his mother, he tended to save whatever he got. As breakfast, dinner and bed was available at Swaraj, the he had to spend largely on travelling and afternoon meal. To save travel costs, he would walk a lot – and as he worked in different places across the city, he had walked and been to most places. Moreover, he would also save his lunch costs by visiting homes of people who were largely part of his extended family.  As Bunts were very close knit, every other bunt was generally a relative. Madhu was also a very pleasant and jovial person so families would not mind having him for food. Moreover, as he would visit so many houses, he was also the biggest carrier of gossip that was so necessary to sustain the community.


While in one of such lunch discussions with a woman, he came to know of her brother, Shiva who had not contacted anyone from his family for about seven years. Madhu’s and Shiva’s families were neighbors in Mangalore. When Madhu had just come to Mumbai, he had met Shiva at one of the workshops where Madhu had gone to repair a carpet making machine. Shiva had come there to pick up carpets for some hotel he was working in. Madhu went back to the workshop the next day itself and asked about the whereabouts of Shiva. The owner of the workshop Kisanlal did not remember Shiva, but told Madhu that only one hotel gets carpets made from him directly, while others are sold to wholesalers. Madhu spent a lot of time with Kisanlal, who found Madhu useful for his workshop. Kisanlal offered him a job and Madhu readily accepted it as the workshop was at a walking distance from his brother’s restaurant. Madhu started work from the next day itself – and he worked with Kisanlal for the next thirty two years.


The workshop was shut on Wednesdays. So the following Wednesday, early in the morning, Madhu went to the hotel in search of Shiva. He enquired with the hotel staff and found that Shiva had left some three years ago and was working at a Bar in Mira Road, another city, just outside Mumbai. Madgu immediately went to Mira Road to look for the Bar. It was too early for the bar to open so Madhu decided to enter it from the rear door. There he met with the bar staff who told Madhu that Shiva now drives a rickshaw and does not work in the Bar any more. But one of the staff had his address. Shiva lived very close to the bar in Shanti wadi chawl. Being a Thursday, Madhu wasn’t sure if he would be able to meet Shiva at his house. But since he had come all the way to Mira Road, he decided to take his chances. He went to the chawl and the door of the house that was searching for was open. He went inside and found a woman dressing up a child for school. Madhu thought that he had made a mistake, but decided to ask the woman if she knew any man called Shiva. She replied that Shiva was her husband. Madhu introduced himself as the childhood friend of Shiva. The woman told him that her name was Neelam. She could sense surprise on Madhu’s face and asked him to sit and told him that Shiva would be coming home for lunch. For Madhu, the surprise was mixed with a sense of achievement. He had found of where Shiva was and why was he hiding from his family. Neelam told him that she and Shiva used to work in the same hotel where they had met. Madhu’s mind conjectured that Neelam was a Muslim girl and she had eloped from her family to get married and that is the reason why both of them had left their jobs and stay away from their relatives.   Neelam also informed that Shiva used to work in a bar earlier, but the timings were not very suitable, so now he drives a rented auto-rickshaw. That evening Madhu went to meet Veena, Shiva’s sister to tell her about Shiva. When Veena heard this, she had a mixed feeling – she was excited that he brother was found, but did not know how to deal with his marriage with a Muslim girl and their child. She did not know how to inform her parents.


Madhu on the other hand was kicked by his discovery – he felt like a detective who had solved a mystery. He started looking for other cases to solve. And there were plenty. As he knew the city very well, he could find the whereabouts of most people who had chosen to disappear – most of them had chosen not to return to their families because of their relationships with women. There were some who had simply chosen to get away from their families and live a secluded life – these were men who had affairs, but did not marry and were living an ascetic life. There were others, who had disappeared after marriage leaving their wife and children in their native place and had another family in the city. There were also some who disappeared because they did not do very well and were ashamed of going back. Madhu would find all such people. He had become a community spy.


Today, Madhu no longer works with Kisanlal and lives in a tiny chawl house with his wife, mother-in-law. He has three sons, one of whom works in Abu Dhabi and the other two live with him. He is an expert carpet machine mechanic and gets called by large carpet making companies to install and repair their machines. But this kind of work has been quite irregular. But Madhu likes it this way; it gives him a lot to time for doing his other job of finding people who had disappeared in the city.






When he was shifted to the resettlement wing of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP), Vishram was happiest man at the Metropolitan Authority Office (MAO). He was fed up of competing with the planners and engineers of the MAO and found his new position appropriate for his social science background. He thought that the planners and engineers would not have much of the role to play here.


The MUTP project included widening and building of fourteen large roads in Mumbai. These roads passed through several slums in the city and the policy of the government was to resettle them at another location. The government did this by giving development right incentives to developers, where if a developer builds houses and gives them free of cost to the government anywhere in the city, then he/she would get equivalent development rights that could be used anywhere else in the city. This was called transferable development rights or TDR. A lot of developers used this policy to build houses on extremely low value land in the outskirts of the city, get incentive development rights on these and transfer them into extremely high value land. In this way, most of the developers were able to dispose their low value land for very high returns.


Typically these resettlement apartments were about 250 sq feet in size, strung along a long double loaded corridor in a building of eight stories that were stacked next to each other at a distance of ten feet. The living condition in these houses was pathetic. The lifts usually stopped working within a month of occupation and water supply has still not reached the houses in most of the buildings after six years of occupation. Water has to be carried from a common street tap in most cases. Moreover, as the new houses were apartments with very little external space, things that were possible in the slum which had infinite outdoor space was not possible anymore. Families that depended on household industry had to move back to the slum. Economic networks were severed. Women who worked in middle-class neighborhoods and could manage their household with their work due to the proximity of their houses with their work place suffered most as they it was too far to travel for work and manage their houses as well. Household violence also increased in these houses.


The slum communities resisted being moved. The government was shrewd and employed the NGOs to ‘resettle and rehabilitate’. The NGOs were to negotiate with the slum dwellers and move them and also help them resettle economically. The NGOs happily agreed to pimp for the government.


Vishram’s role was to coordinate with the NGOs, police and the demolition team during demolition, survey and certify parties that were eligible for getting the new house and allocate new houses. Though the houses were pathetic, the slum dwellers realized that they had to move out of their slums as there was no protection from law. They looked at these houses as assets that could be used to get some capital and planned to move back into other slums.


As the work progressed, Vishram realized the madness involved. Surveying and identification of the eligible party was complicated. The families would build walls inside their houses overnight and open new doors such that one house would appear as two or more houses, with an expectation that they would get two or more houses. In one instance, a husband and wife had separated and living in separate houses. But they were not legally separated or divorce – there was no time for following such legalities; moreover, a divorce was also not very socially acceptable thing. The policy clearly stated that one house for a single family so Vishram called them to his office and told them that they would get only a single house. Both of them rebuked and told Vishram that he cannot force them to live together. Then Vishram said that they would require a divorce – which angered them more – “How can you ask us to get divorced?” they said. Vishram had no arguments – he simply could not convince them that there is a legal requirement and Vishram also did not believe in trying to convince them by forcing his legality on them. He decided to record them as different families and allotted two houses.


Compensating work spaces was another complicated matter as everyone was eligible for a tenement of maximum 250 sqft. There were many enterprises of different kinds that needed to be accommodated. There were grill manufacturers, eateries, grocery shops, hardware shops, small industries and hundreds of enterprises. Most of them were accommodated in the ground floors of the new buildings where at least they get the outdoor space where they could spill. However, there were more complicated ones. In the case of buffalo sheds in the slum, resettlement of buffaloes was not possible in the apartments. Vishram did not know how to deal with this situation. After a lot of thinking, he proposed that the government gives incentive development rights to buffalo owners equivalent to the value of the business – he called it ‘Buffalo TDR’. The government rejected this. Vishram allotted two flats for this entrepreneur.


As the government got the houses free and the speed of the projects was very high, Vishram could convince his bosses for several kinds of concessions. Many houses were allotted on his discretion – particularly to the renters in the slum. These tenants and the sub-tenants were thrown out by ‘owners’ of a slum dwelling as the owners wanted to keep all the compensation for themselves.


All of this started taking a toll on Vishram’s life and health. Vishram would generally work about fourteen hours a day and had to deal with thousands of phone calls – from lawyers, politicians, local leaders, developers, goons, etc. the phone calls became such a problem that he started getting scared and felt uneasy when his phone rang. One of the most difficult things for him was to order the demolitions and see it happen. He could not deal with the saddened and crying faces and knew that something was wrong in destroying so much of human asset where life was lived until recently. After a couple of times, he avoided visiting the demolition sites. Over the three years he worked with the resettlement wing, his physical and mental condition deteriorated. He was later diagnosed with a clinical mental problem and had to give up his position. He has joined by the MAO in another department, but even today he does not carry a mobile phone. He gets scared of it even today.





Like many other cities, Mumbai’s geographies, legislations, economy, and systems of claims, kinships and information overlap to form a nice mess. Here networks, spaces and practices get worked out in complicated ways. Most of life is led navigating through these nicely messy conditions. These stories of navigation open up ideas of home and infrastructure as not only spaces to aspire, long for, claim, appropriate or even run away from, but also as networks and practices to navigate, adjust and live. Thinking of a city as a set of navigations is a useful tool – while it is sharp enough to identify the city’s various spaces, networks and practices, it simultaneously remains ambiguous enough, allowing a rich engagement with the messy conditions.