It is early morning in Nizamabad. An hour before sunrise, the sound of a crying child shatters the silence of the night. The crying is the curtain-raiser for screams of grownups. It is clear that all these sounds are being made by women from one hut. The village dogs take up the refrain with a mournful chorus of howls. Disturbed by the untimely din, crows caw angrily to their heart’s content from the leaf-covered branches of trees.
Woken up by the jarring notes, Azma, living in one of the huts nearby, woke up her husband. “Seems Mumtaz has delivered. The wailing indicates that it is again a girl. Just imagine, this is the ninth daughter. Never a son.” Clearing his throat, Hussain, her husband, laconically observed, “Sab Allah ki marzi hai (It is the will of God)”. He lit a biri before getting up to check the texture of the clay kept in the verandah.
Nizamabad is a village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. About 20 km from the district capital, the village is famous for its black clay pottery which is used to make household and decorative items like engraved flower vases, lacquered bowls and plates. Originating from the Kutch region of Gujarat, the craft was brought to Nizamabad by some potters during the reign of Aurangzeb, last of the great Mughal emperors who ruled from 1658 to 1707.
Indeed, Mumtaz had delivered a daughter. But the effort was too much and as the newborn took her first gasps of life, her mother coughed softly before going on her journey to Jannat (Paradise). Hasan, the child’s disappointed father, on being asked some time later, on what to name the child, said, “Call her Nawaz (ninth).” Chiding him, Hasan’s sister Zubeida declared, “So what if she is the unluckiest of all your daughters. She deserves to be named like a queen. Just see the colour of her eyes, they are blue.”
The name chosen was “Mehrunnisa,” meaning “benevolent” in English. Emperor Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan‘s name prior to her marriage in 1611 to the fourth Mughal ruler was Mehrunnisa. As any student of Indian history would know, Nur Jahan had considerable influence and political authority and was regarded as the most powerful female personality of Mughal India. Born a little over 300 years later, only the Almighty would be aware of the future of Mehru, as she was called by one and all.
So Zubeida phuphi (Hasan’s sister) took charge of Mehru. In the 1980s, when Mehru entered her teens, her antics were too numerous to be related and none of her eight elder sisters could control her. Mehru, prettiest of them all, was an accomplished gupmaster (bluffer). “It is getting difficult to restrain Mehru’s mischievous side,” Zubeida told her husband Javed one morning.
Javed was sitting at the potter’s wheel. The rotating wheel was where the black pottery originated, made with locally available fine-textured clay. The clay moulds were baked, rubbed with water and mustard oil, decorated with floral and geometric patterned grooves and baked again to give the ware their shiny black surface. The grooves were then filled with silvery powder making the shine stand out against the black background.
So when Javed, faced with problems over an export consignment of potteryware being held up in Mumbai suggested “I’ll take Mehru with me for the company,” she gladly approved Mehru’s trip to Mumbai. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of villagers of the districts over 650 villages had migrated to Mumbai tempted by dreams of making money in Bollywood’s ancillary businesses.
At that time Abu Salem, originally from Azamgarh district, was operating a telephone booth at Andheri in Mumbai. Involved in petty crimes, he came in contact with the underworld’s D gang and became a gun-runner for them. In Mumbai, crime and the underworld had become a sunrise industry that attracted the villagers of Azamgarh district simply because they knew someone employed in India’s commercial capital’s world of gangsterism.
The birth of Mumbai’s underworld took place in the 1960-70s. The original dons, Haji Mastan, Yusuf Patel and Varadarajan Mudaliar were said to be variously involved in smuggling, bootlegging, gambling, passport racketeering and the sex trade. Karim Lala, reportedly a violence-prone don from Afghanistan, ran the Pathan gang with his sons. In the 1980s, there were fights between the Pathan gang led by Karim Lala and the Desi gang led by Haji Mastan.
Dawood Ibrahim, once a member of the Pathan gang, in retaliation to his elder brother’s killing in 1981 by the Pathan gang, wiped it out leading to bloodshed on both sides. Dawood, a petty thief in the 1970s, became the leader of the D gang.
Ahmed, sitting at a tea stall near the Mahalakshmi racecourse opposite Haji Ali Dargah, wondered if he has missed the opportunity to find a safe and secure livelihood. Seated next to him was Abdul, also from Azamgarh, who worked at a Unani dawakhana (clinic) in Goregaon East in suburban Mumbai.
When the D gang was scouting for youngsters in Azamgarh, Abdul’s father had packed him off to Mumbai to find a safer way of survival. It took him two years and a lot of hard work before he got the job in the dawakhana run by a highly experienced Hakim Ijaz Ali. “I’ve nicknamed him Ilaj Ali,” joked Abdul. Ahmed, in a detached manner hypnotically started his narration.
“With faith in my heart, I will walk towards this white spectacle of domes and minarets to this island in the Arabian Sea and be blessed by Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari,” managing to impress his friend. Abdul paid the chaiwallah, kissed the tabeez on his forearm, turned his palms skywards and with a “Salaam” in Ahmed’s direction headed towards Byculla station to reach Hakimji’s clinic in Goregaon.
Ahmed crossed the road and headed for the dargah set 500 yards into the sea when it had been constructed in 1431. He had not told any of his friends and acquaintances in Mumbai the problems he was facing. The news would reach his parents and they would be pained. When he sat on the pathway to Haji Ali Dargah with a handkerchief spread out before him, the dargah was a source of money and food for him as also for the many hawkers and beggars.
Beggars can’t be choosers was a proverb Ahmed had never heard. Ahmed, as a beggar, always considered the Hindu temple Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Mandir dedicated to Lord Shri Ganesh located in Prabhadevi a better place to seek alms. The temple was often visited by politicians and Bollywood film stars to seek Lord Ganesha’s blessings.
The choked roads of Mumbai overflowing with traffic and filth, naked children playing on pavements, all this sickened the youth from Azamgarh. Ahmed had his happy moments too, especially when he went to Juhu beach on weekends when the place was crowded. He often managed to get leftovers of street food like bhelpuri and sevpuri. The dancing monkeys, lithe acrobats and smiling visitors amused him.
The cosmopolitan city had it all. From Bollywood to crime, grand malls to ugly slums, Udipi restaurants to Irani cafes, bun maska to pasta, the imposing Gateway of India to sleazy dance bars. The dissimilarity took a toll on Ahmed.
He finally did what his father had feared and had dispatched him from Azamgarh. He joined a gang of criminals and was on the road to earning some izzat (respect). From a roadside beggar, he started sleeping with “bhailog” in a hut in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. He had no assets, no liabilities. His futuristic journey to earn an income through extortion, kidnapping and prostitution had begun.
The return journey of Mehru to the village was cert in spite of her wish to see Mumbai properly. Javed’s work on the export consignment concluded and he was impatient to reach his village. He was thankful to his chhote nana (grandfather) Hakim Ijaz Ali for his hospitality in Mumbai. Mehru was reluctant.
“I want to stay longer with Nanaji,” she pleaded. Javed agreed and Mehru danced with joy. She loved to visit Aarey Milk Colony and see the bovine population chewing cud, at peace with their existence. She had not got the chance to visit Film City in Goregaon. Spotting their favourite stars is any small-city girl’s dream and for starry-eyed Mehru, her dream was so close.
So one day when there were hardly any patients, Abdul took Mehru to Film City. The huge sets, the world of make-believe, the swaggering junior artistes, all fascinated Mehru. That evening Ahmed landed up in Goregaon to meet Abdul. He was introduced to an all-too-thrilled Mehru who was imagining that somebody would spot her for the role of a heroine. A generous Ahmed offered to take them out for dinner. Another first for Mehru, going to a restaurant for dinner with Nanaji and the two youths excited her.
The entrance to the restaurant near Goregaon railway station was shabby but the insides were tidy. Once seated, Ahmed showed his familiarity with the place. “Best place to have non-vegetarian dishes, especially seafood. The taste is typical Maharashtrian,” he spoke while ruffling the menu card. Ahmed ordered for all of his guests
Hakim Sahib and Mehru, unaccustomed to the environment, felt uncomfortable but when the mehak (aroma) of the Masala Chicken in the serving bowl floated in their direction and the platter of Mutton Biryani was placed before them, they were too occupied to notice anything else. Ahmed had not missed the look in Mehru’s blue, starry eyes, the hunger to lead a life better than the present one.
Businessmen, shady dealers, touts, gangsters, informers showed their enjoyment of the jhatkas, belly-dancing, hip-grinding and chin-thrusting moves of the dancers on the platform by showering them with high-denomination notes. A sprinkling of curious tourists was an exception. The bar girls moved their hips suggestively and jiggled their breast in tune to loud Bollywood numbers under blinking, red, green, blue-coloured lights in a hall reeking of liquor, food, cigarette smoke and sweat.
The morning after the Goregaon dinner party, Ahmed visited “Mona Aunty” at the Paradise Dance Bar to discuss a deal. “Mona Aunty” did not haggle with Ahmed. She pushed a package of currency notes on the table towards him.
From past experience, she knew Ahmed brought her only “A” quality goods. She also knew the worth of undamaged, unbroken, brand new goods. Ahmed put the notes in his shoulder bag, once again promised to deliver the goods on the day fixed, clicked his heels and left as silently as he had come.
It was child’s play for Ahmed to send Mehru to meet “Mona Aunty.” An unwilling Mehru, picked up by his bhai log (gang members), was forced to join the army of many thousands of bar girls who earned their living by dancing, their looks and their thin bodies. There was nowhere for them to run. The Mafia controlled and owned their lives. It took a few months but Mehru gradually came to terms with her future. The baby born before the sun had risen learnt to survive the nightly debauchery.
While pirouetting on the platform in a tinsel-encrusted green sari worn much below her navel and a bright red blouse barely covering her breasts, she would imagine travelling into another world. Spinning round and round on her heels, she could imagine herself to be the wet clay spinning on the potter’s wheel. The wheel only spun faster and faster. When a drunk customer tried to clutch her gyrating hips, it was like he was giving her body a shape, fingers shaping a body made of willing and wet clay.
As the heat in the bar increased, she would feel as if she was being baked in the kiln. The silver sequins on her sari border reflected the silver powder filled in the grooves of the finished ware. Then she would quietly open her sad blue eyes to view the triumph of the tragedy of her soul which shone as black as the clay pottery of distant Nizamabad.