16 April 2020

Dear Ms Farah,

As we left Dharavi at 3.30 a.m. this morning, my grandma’s words rang in my ears: No good happens after midnight. It’s the hour of the dead, when angels sleep in their white robes and demons in black capes take over the world. The secret to the universe, says Dadi , lies in those colours—black and white. She did not engineer the philosophy, of course not. That glory rests with the millennia of human civilization, moving indomitably through time and space, shaping the world with their evolutionary wisdom—white is pure and black, occult.

Dadi , so you’re warned, is the doyen of killjoys, but she insists that she’s the enlightened one, a domesticator of the esoteric, whose ‘state-of-the-art life skills’ have revealed the world’s greatest secret to her. Our astute ancestors and contemporary sapiens know something, she believes, the reason why they’ve demonized black and sanctified white. For instance, black is the colour of death, worn by mourners at funerals in many cultures, while priests perform their prayers in white. Black amulets are so malicious that they can stave off the evilest of evils, and the sacred thread that men wear around their torsos, white. It’s doom if a black cat crosses one’s path, while a white dove symbolizes peace. People get blacklisted and end up in black books if they blunder, and white lies are polite. The black market is illicit, while white-collar represents the respected suit-and tie workers. There are black sheep of the world, and their saviours, white knights.


‘It’s an age-old world order, evident across realms—life and death, religion and sorcery, vocation and emotion, virtues and vices, and animals and humans,’ explained Dadi . ‘That’s why the whites are still the overlords of the world, much after the British ruled us for two hundred years. The darker-skinned, meanwhile, still find themselves at a disadvantage. Go on now; put some of that turmeric paste on your face. White skin also begets richer in-laws.’

See, I told you, d-o-y-e-n of killjoys.

The British rule in India ended over seven decades ago, and yet, it often crops up in conversations, still immortalized in popular culture. I’ve inferred it’s because the past never passes, that we study history only because we cannot bear to wipe the slate clean, and that historians are gatekeepers of nostalgia, helping us cage our bygones.

As we left Dharavi today, I too attempted to abduct our past, clicking pictures of our empty home, trying to hold it hostage in Baba’s phone. I also likened our long march to a historic walk from India’s yore: Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, exactly ninety years ago.

It was March 1930. Clad in a homespun white shawl and dhoti, armed with a walking stick, the Mahatma set out for the 386-kilometre walk from his religious retreat in Gujarat. His purpose: a non-violent protest against the East India Company’s lucrative monopoly on salt. The British Raj’s Salt Act, which criminalized salt production and sale, burdened every Indian, compelling them to buy the imported mineral at exorbitant, heavily taxed prices.

Even before the Salt March commenced, thousands thronged Gandhiji’s ashram in anticipation of the dramatic events that lay ahead. When protestors reached the Arabian Sea in a coastal town twenty-four days later, the group had swelled to 50,000. Then, as the world watched, the Mahatma committed his symbolic crime—he lifted a lump of salt-rich mud from the beach and held it aloft in triumph. The gesture signified that he had breached the salt law, defied the Crown.

‘With this,’ the Great Soul announced, ‘I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.’

Pompous, no? It worked! I studied it two years ago; Class Eight history. There was something peculiar about the image of the old, underweight Mahatma that stirred my imagination, and evidently, that of the entire planet. Millions around the world watched the black-and-white reels, as they broadcasted the nationalist leading his three kilometre–long trail of protesters. Mass civil disobedience swept the country, government officials resigned from their posts, and aroused Indians went about violating the Salt Act. 60,000 were thrown behind bars, including the Father of the Nation.

‘It was one of the greatest walks in world history. It rattled our rulers, drew massive international interest, and Time magazine named Gandhiji as Man of the Year,’ our history teacher proclaimed as we wondered about the significance of the foreign publication. ‘The walk also inspired the likes of Martin Luther King Jr during America’s civil rights movement in the sixties.’

When Baba locked the door of our Mumbai home, I thought about Gandhiji and the fears that might have plagued his mind, as he left his ashram for the celebrated walk. There were many terrible possibilities—cops could tan his hide, hunger could kill him on the way, the summer sun could beat his spirit, fatigue could defeat hisbody, and/or he could end up in prison.

These were the exact fears that also tormented my being, only three differences:

1. We had a bonus adversary: the virus

2. Our destination was almost thrice as far as Bapu’s.

3. The Mahatma wanted to attract attention; we intended to avoid it.

‘Shhh,’ said Baba, as Proton Uncle and his family walked out of their shanty.

‘Shhhhh.’ ‘Relax,’ said Uncle. ‘Even the strays are snoring.’

‘I don’t have a good feeling about this,’ Electron Aunty started. ‘How much food do you have? Ours won’t last beyond three meals.’

‘Shhh,’ said Happy. ‘You can have my bananas.’

The no-noise rule, along with our masks, made me feel like a thief. Baba’s friend, a tailor in our slum, had given us the masks without charge. The man, who used to sew cloth bags, had turned into a business mogul overnight. With mask sales running into the thousands, his home-based industrial unit runs round the clock. He also employs neighbouring aunties, outsourcing the stitching for `2 apiece. Some complain that the micro-entrepreneur’s product is substandard. They say his sewing machines aren’t disinfected, that he follows no sterilization protocols and that his home is unhygienic. I say shut up. Do you know how much masks cost, ma’am? ‘30, ‘50, ‘70, ‘150, even ‘400.

Tailor Uncle, meanwhile, parts with one for ‘15. If you purchase in bulk, anything upward of 2,000 pieces, he slashes his price down to ‘8. So what if his masks don’t meet the basic safety standards? They’re washable, and more efficient than the alternatives other skint Indians are using—leaves fastened around their mouths and noses, loose ends of saris, and tattered scarves and towels.

As if leaving on an undercover mission, Baba discreetly turned on the torchlight of his cell phone. The glare helped us overleap the occasional rodent and many broken tiles on the floor, as we walked through Dharavi’s alleyways, one elongated dungeon making way for another. The previous night, the men had drawn out our escape strategy—we would walk through the maze of our ghetto, avoiding patrolling officers on the road, until we reach the furthest end of the slum. There on, we would take the highway, and in just 900 kilometres, we would be home.

About the Book
  • Homebound
  • Puja Changoiwala
  • Harper Collins
  • Rs 438; 288 pages

Check out the book on Amazon

(Puja Changoiwala is an award-winning journalist and author of two non-fiction books – Gangster on the Run and The Front Page Murders )