Deep inside the Annabhau Sathe Nagar slum in Mumbai’s far eastern suburb of Mankhurd, 21-year-old Deepak Shivshankar Gupta says he knows only too well the difference between freedom and responsibility. “Till November 26, 2008, when Pappa was alive, I would see my mother and father strive to make ends meet for us. Now, I am the one trying to manage expenses with my salary,” says Deepak, whose father, a bhelpuri vendor in South Mumbai, was among those killed when terrorists opened fire near Cama Hospital.
That change, he says, did not happen overnight but over the next few years, as he grew from a 12-year-old school student to being the only earning member of his family. A few instances hastened the coming of age, such as a train accident in 2010 in which he nearly died.
“I was working as a medicine delivery boy then. I was coming home from work during the peak hours in the evening and there was no space inside the overcrowded train. I should not have tried getting into it but I wanted to get home soon and somehow managed to get in but fell off subsequently. I was at home for over a month due to the injuries. Even before anyone could tell me the consequences, I realised I should not be taking such risks. I had to take care of my family,” he says. “I used to also be very aggressive. Living in a slum, there are fights over the most basic amenities — water, space. I told myself I had to calm down, there is so much riding on me,” Deepak says.
At home, Deepak has his mother Rajkumari, his grandmother and two younger siblings, Sandeep and Sheetal. Elder sister Neelam, now married and with a newborn, lives in Dombivali. After completing his Class 12, Deepak has been taking up temporary jobs. He currently works at a firm in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, earning a salary of Rs 10,000.
“Rent for the house, Rs 3000, and other expenses at home is where my salary is spent. I am waiting to apply for a permanent government job. I cannot afford to study further. But I want to ensure my younger siblings study and take up good jobs,” Deepak says.
While Sandeep is currently doing a computer hardware repair course in a government-run Industrial Training Institute in Vidyavihar, Sheetal is pursuing a BCom degree. “I feel lost sometimes. There is not much guidance about what I should do. All I worry about is getting a good job,” says 20-year old Sandeep. “Our father had only studied till Class 6. We were too young when he died, so we never had the chance to discuss our future with him, but he wanted us to work hard on our academics,” says 18-year old Sheetal.
For Rajkumari, along with the memory of the night of 26/11, is a constant fear about the future.
“My husband would go to work at 9 am and return home around 2 am, by the last train that leaves CST. On November 26, 2008, I remember a neighbour came to tell us that some firing had taken place in south Mumbai. We did not have a TV so we rushed to another neighbour’s home. I remember seeing images of people running helter-skelter. I felt he would have rushed to a place of safety too,” she says. Even as the children fell asleep that night after hours of waiting, she stayed up hoping to hear from him.
“A neighbor told us that trains were not working. Such was our dependence on the daily wage he earned that when he did not come home, I assumed he must have waited till morning and would now return only after work,” she recalls. Instead, in the morning, they got a call from an acquaintance about Shivshankar being injured in the firing.
She took Deepak along and rushed to GT Hospital where they were told he had died immediately after a bullet struck him. “I haven’t studied, nor do I know the city well. I was offered a job after his death but I decided against it. I did not think it was wise to leave my children by themselves. I was worried about them falling in bad company. We managed on the compensation given to us but it has been nine years now. My only hope is now from the children,” Rajkumari says.