A letter from a pavement dweller in Mumbai

In a letter to her sister-in-law, Mumbai's Heena writes about the hardships and horrors of living off the road.

Written by Anjali Lukose | Published: May 10, 2015 12:40 am
Heena and her husband at the spot under the JJ flyover where they sleep every night. (Source: Express photo by Vasant Prabhu) Heena and her husband at the spot under the JJ flyover where they sleep every night. (Source: Express photo by Vasant Prabhu)

Yogita Harkhande,
Karavli, Nagpur
May 7, 2015

Dear sister-in-law,

We were nearly run over tonight. I thought it was a nightmare at first, but it wasn’t. We were sleeping at our usual spot — under the J J flyover, the one next to the tapri (shack) behind Crawford Market on Mohammed Ali Road.

It took us some time to fall asleep and I had to give Nilofer a knock on her head to put her to sleep. Can’t really blame her — there was some band baaja nearby and that tapri stays open so late. I fell asleep around 11.30, I think.

Suddenly a loud screeching sound jolted me awake. For a split second, I thought I was dreaming about the Salman Khan case. Remember the actor Salman Khan? That Ek Tha Tiger hero? Did you know that one night he was driving at full speed and people say he had a few drinks and lost control of the vehicle and ran over some people. I’ve heard that one person died. This happened some 13 years ago and he got jail for five years. It was in the news. Now, he got something called bail, he is back home.

I was just thinking how sometimes I worry when I see boys on bikes doing stunts or cars speeding nearby. That screeching sound can scare anyone.

So anyway, people had been talking about Salman Khan all day so I suddenly thought I was dreaming when the noise woke me up, but the headlights piercing my eyes told me it was actually happening. I saw the car tyre just inches from Nilofer’s leg. I don’t know what got into me. I jumped up and dragged Nilofer who was almost under the car and then, pushed my boy aside. The black car’s tyre had climbed the pavement and had actually brushed Nilofer’s leg and the driver was beginning to flee. Gaali galoch hua.

I was still recovering, but the crowd managed to block the car and one nice man called the police chowki. I guess everyone had the Salman Khan case fresh in their minds. I even heard one of the policemen make a similar remark.

I couldn’t believe that something we had discussed all day almost happened to us. That car’s front portion was damaged. I noticed it at the police chowki later, a black Santro car.

Don’t worry, none of us is hurt. Nilofer cried out of shock. But I tell you, whatever mercy I was feeling for that actor for all his good work has changed now.

I’ve lived at this same spot since I was born 25 years ago but never before have I experienced such a thing. We chose this space because it was considered safer than most other places. It is a one-way street and one side is so narrow that vehicles cannot ply. We are also protected by some parked cars, plus that tapri ensures there is a crowd always. All in all, a good place for homeless like us.

Just don’t tell our mother-in-law about this. It’s best she continues to believe we live in Ghatkopar, in Yogesh’s kholi, not on the road. With Rs 1,500 a month and three kids to look after, I can’t even afford to go back to the kholi.

This black Santro was also speeding, just like that actor’s car. Otherwise, I like Salman Khan. Ek Tha Tiger was my favourite movie. But it’s shocking when you see one of your own almost under a speeding car. The policewoman at the chowki was mean. She said we were doing this to blackmail and extort money from the car driver. Bacha toh wapas nahi aa sakta na. Humare liye bacha bada hai, note thodi hi (Our child is dearer to us than money). I told her we never asked for any money, the friends of the driver themselves kept offering to pay Rs 1,000. The policewoman made a face, and said pavement is not meant for sleeping.

But what can we do? We can’t tell her our story, not that she was interested. She even abused us, called us m********d. I can’t tell her about our parents, both drug addicts who abandoned us years ago. And why would she care that Nilofer is actually my sister, who my husband and I care for. Poor Nilofer, she is so young — only eight. Our parents, always intoxicated, roam the streets of Mumbai and visit us sometimes, but never bother to ask about the children.

Our story interests no one. Not the cops who do their duty. Not the driver who just wants this to get over. I guess the actor felt the same way.

Under the J J flyover,
Mohammed Ali Road, Mumbai

(As told to Anjali Lukose)

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  1. K
    k g
    May 11, 2015 at 6:00 am
    excellent and touching letter.
    1. N
      Nikita Parekh
      May 11, 2015 at 11:54 am
      True, only a person who has gone through the situation can understand the pain of the victims and their family. The people who support won't be supporting Salman if their family member was a victim.
      1. N
        May 10, 2015 at 1:03 am
        a question: how does the indian express got hold on this letter?
        1. S
          May 14, 2015 at 10:12 am
          Why are there still people sleeping on the pavements? What is the government doing about it? If people say Salman is guilty and should be punished, shouldnt the system that allow for people to sleep on the streets be questioned? Why isnt that being addressed? People are harping on Salman, abusing him but that is not the root of the problem. There still will be people driving off the road up the curb for various accidental unwarranted reasons. Whats being done to curb this other then reprimanding the drivers involved in the accident (and yes its an accident, it can happen to any of us)