I don’t read the papers in the morning. I don’t switch on the television to watch the news. All I do is check my email, have breakfast and then plug into my iPod as I trudge into work. It’s pretty dull. Today was a bit different because last night, at midnight, the Mumbai police arrested Raj Thackeray at the circuit house in Ratnagiri, which is a little town about 300km from Mumbai. Raj Thackeray, the nephew of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray; founder and leader of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS), which wants to build a new Mumbai for the Marathis and by the Marathis; pilferer of his uncle’s campaign to protect the Marathi manus (Maharashtrian person) by beating up anyone who is not of Maharashtrian descent, whether it’s a cabbie who has been here for decades or a student coming into the city to give exams, and a fan of Adolf Hitler. Consequently, when I stepped out of the house this morning, things were a little different from usual. It was only 9 in the morning but already parts of the neighbourhoods of Mulund, Kalyan and Thane, further north from me, were on fire; chawls of Santa Cruz had seen furious MNS loyalists roar through them; taxis had been burnt in central Mumbai neighbourhoods of Parel and Mahalaxmi; every single policeman in Mumbai was out of his house and standing guard somewhere. “It’s not like we’re sad he’s been arrested or anything but just can’t risk it,” said one of the cabbies from the taxi stand near home. His mobile phone had been ringing since 6 in the morning, he told me, with calls from friends who, like him, are from Uttar Pradesh and who, unlike him, had been dragged out of their taxis and beaten up. They figured they were the lucky ones. The windshields of their taxis were intact. The weathered chassis of their black and yellow Fiats hadn’t been scorched.
Days like this, when you can listen to an autorickshaw driver who is furious at the leader of “his people” for threatening his livelihood, make me feel like I’m all grown up because I can argue with him and get a smile out of him when I get off the auto. Also because protective parental figures can’t keep me home, resigned to living vicariously through news channels. I think those who step out of their houses on days like this seem to feel a kinship with others who made the same decision. The autorickshaw driver who would generally not go beyond asking me for change or the time asked me what the tv news was saying. I told him that the Chief Minister has said they have good lawyers and that there are police everywhere so everything is under control. “Of course it’s under control,” he snorted. “Bastard policemen. As if they’ll manage to do anything more than bring him to court. He’ll stand there, he’ll get bail and then he’ll go home and we’ll be the ones who’ll have earned nothing.” Far off in Navi Mumbai, a friend was stopped in an autorickshaw and asked his name. He’s from West Bengal. He rattled off his Marathi landlord’s name and asked how far away was the convoy bringing Raj Thackeray to Mumbai. He was told it would take Thackeray about 2 hours to reach the city. My friend tapped the autorickshaw driver and loudly asked him to step on it because he wanted to reach before 11, in time to show those coppers driving Thackeray to Bandra court. For the rest of the ride, he tried to figure out whether or not he should tell the driver he’s not an MNS supporter.
Meanwhile, I reached the station just in time to leap on to a train. Just as I got on, a group of angry women shoved another passenger off the train. I heard the screech of a tearing sari. The woman who had been pushed off looked like any other sari-clad woman – parted hair tied back in a bun, a slightly sullen expression, gold bangles, the necklace of black and gold beads that Maharashtrian women wear as a sign of matrimony. She tried to get back on the train and was pushed off again. This time she fell on the pavement. “See what it feels like to be beaten up at a station!” a woman in a business suit yelled out in Marathi as the train left the pavement while another called out to tell the policeman helping the fallen woman that she had been travelling without a ticket.
Ultimately, Raj Thackeray did not reach the Bandra court at 11 as scheduled. He appeared finally at about 2.45, proving the ultimate democratizing feature of Mumbai is the traffic jam. I hope the airconditioning in his car conked off too. It must have taken him a little bit longer because while the roads were largely empty, his party’s rowdies had gathered in Bandra and were indulging in a spot of pelting. Now lazy our khaki-clad policemen might be, but if you start chucking bottles at them then they, understandably, get a bit upset. So it didn’t matter who came in front of their sticks, they got thwacked. Net result – roadblock. Somewhere along the way, the Samajwadi Party’s workers came along and started throwing things at the MNS guys. It began looking like a badly choreographed fight scene from an ’80s Bollywood film.
At 1.30 in the afternoon, a news report popped up that one of the boys who had come into the city yesterday for the railway recruitment exam had died as a result of the MNS beating. For some reason, most news channels aren’t mentioning it now and the website that had the article shown here has taken it offline but Pawan Kumar is definitely dead. He was the only son of a poor farmer who had gone to Mumbai hoping to get a job in the railways, which would help the family’s paltry finances. “There are Biharis everywhere,” said a man to his friend at the station, when I was coming home. “If those bastards actually killed that boy, we’ll show them. Just you wait and see what Lalu will do.”
Here’s what is somewhat uplifting – Maharashtra’s Chief Minister wasn’t lying. This time the state was indeed better prepared and they had a better lawyer. Raj Thackeray did not get bail and even as he was whooshed away to spend the night in jail, the city didn’t burn. It smouldered in places, yes, but it didn’t burn. A bunch of us stepped out of work at 8, completely unaware that in the other end of this sprawling country a bomb had gone off 30 minutes ago and killed 30 people (the second since Sunday), and dawdled our way to the train station. We walked past rows and rows of empty taxis whose drivers generally grin and try to persuade us to pay about 20 times the price of a train ticket to get home in the comfort of their gaudily-printed sofa-esque backseats; they were nowhere to be seen.
There’s a little temple between the office and the train station. It was glittering with lights, an odd little bubble of cheer in the middle of the strangely empty street. A little crowd of giggling people, mostly women in bright, shiny saris, rushed out of the temple. A couple spilled out of the gaggle and on to the pavement. They crossed the street. He was wearing white and had a pagdi fringed with gold. She was wearing a red sari with a gold tinsel border. While we kept walking towards the station, the newly-married couple peered into one empty taxi, then another and another.
UPDATE: or Why Mumbai Train Stations Are Dangerous Places So continuing my episodes of procuring insights into the residents of this fine city, I had an enlightening conversation with a random gent at the train station the day after Mr. Thackeray’s dramatic arrest (oh the joy that courses through me as I imagine him appearing in a court in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, not to mention being tried for murder in Patna!). The aforementioned gent said to me that the bad rep Raj Thackeray gets for saying pretty much the same thing as Barack Obama was puzzling and unfair. As I stilled my racing heart, he explained to me that Obama has said that if he becomes the president of America then he’ll stop American firms from outsourcing so that the jobs stay within America and for Americans. When Raju says that he wants the non-Marathis out of Maharashtra and Mumbai, he’s basically saying that he wants the jobs hogged by ‘outsiders’ to be availed by the Marathi manus. Ergo, Raju and Obama are same to same.
[To see the news reports on Raj Thackeray in chronological order, click here.]
UPDATE: (Monday October 27) Rahul Raj , 23, took a bus hostage in Mumbai at approximately 10 in the morning. Not quite what you expect from a guy looking for a job as a radiologist. There were four passengers in the bus. Raj shot at one police man and injured a commuter before the police gunned him down. Apparently, maiming him wasn’t an option despite the fact that he had no accomplices. Before that grisly end, however, Raj declared he was Bihari and had come to Mumbai to kill MNS leader Raj Thackeray. Why switches had been flipped in Raj’s head we’ll never know but clearly, this was an unmeditated attack. No one with any sense of planning finds himself writing his demands on the back of a currency note (he wanted to meet the Police Commissioner) and sticking it up on a bus window while being surrounded by 100 policemen. Not even in Bollywood movies does this work. Like a Bollywood hero, however, Raj was shot at 5 times (in the head and chest region) because, as followers of the genre know, one bullet only works if you’re the hero shooting the villain. In a case of 100 versus 1, establishment versus rebel (crazed one, at that), the underdog is definitely the hero.
UPDATE: (Tuesday October 28) On Diwali, four young lads got on to a train at Khopoli. A chance conversation with a Marathi-speaking group revealed that the four were from Uttar Pradesh and making their way home for a holiday. Next thing you know, the four boys were being beaten up viciously and now one of them is dead. Dharamdev Rai, a labourer, died about three hours after being admitted to hospital. His companions Veerendra Ramgopal Rai, Satyaprakash Kaushal Rai and Shivkumar Verma, are bruised but without any serious signs of being battered. A post-mortem will reveal what killed Dharamdev Rai because it seems he had no signs of external injury. The point, of course, is not so much whether Rai died because of the beating but the fact that talking to someone on the train can result in you being punched and kicked in the gut. Charming.