Everyone knows the Savlas now. On May 16, from a house where they had lived in for at least 13 years in Mumbai’s suburb Mulund West’s Guide Society, officials took out eight truckloads of waste and an 86-year-old woman lying unconscious on plastic bottles. Another house rented by them, and located minutes away, was found to be as filled with garbage.
But who did know the Savlas?
In this corner of one of the world’s most densely populated cities, the family and its garbage remained an open secret till the rats got too much. Since officials came and went, the neighbours have retreated into their homes, and the four Savla siblings into theirs. The 86-year-old mother, Maniben Savla, is the only one to have left, and doctors at the civic-run hospital say she will recover.
The siblings roam aimlessly between their two houses, in tattered clothes and grey hair, carrying with them an unmistakable stench of decay. The Guide Society house, as the one in Dedhia Niwas, has no light bulb, though working fans. The windows are kept shut, even partially boarded.
The family may have had an LPG connection once, but it has been cut for long, as the Savlas don’t cook any more. “They eat either at a thrice-a-week community lunch in the neighbourhood or beg for food. A lot of families leave out leftovers for them,” says Raju Gupta, a neighbour at Dedhia Niwas.
Paresh Rambhiya, who lives next door to the Savlas at Dedhia Niwas — the ageing chawl a lane away from Guide Society — tries to explain it. “They are like Jain sadhus and sadhvis,” he says. “Their bodies have become used to living like this.”
Doctors have diagnosed Maniben, who can’t see or hear very well, as suffering from severe weakness and “altered sensorium”, a medical condition in which a person is unable to think properly owing to a state of semi-consciousness.
Rambhiya, who was among those who watched as the BMC removed window grills to force entry into the Savlas’ house at Guide Society, after the front door was found blocked by garbage, claims to have known them the longest. And nearly not enough.
The cloth merchant says Maniben and husband Virjibhai migrated to Mumbai nearly 70 years ago from Gundala village in Kutch, Gujarat. Virjibhai found work as an accountant at a firm and his oldest son Chimanlal, now 68, followed in his footsteps.
Nearly 50 years ago, the family moved to Mulund West, renting the 300-sq ft house on the first floor of Dedhia Niwas, a one-storey building where 20 residents live as permanent tenants. Over time, the couple had six children and rented an identical flat in Guide Society.
Of the six siblings, four now survive. Chimanlal and younger brother Harilal work as grain dealers at the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Market (APMC) in Vashi. Sisters Hemlata and Jayashree, both in their late 40s, though educated, never worked. Rambhiya claims Chimanlal got married several years ago but his wife left him “seeing the condition of the house”. None of the other siblings got married.
The visible poverty is at odds with hushed accounts of wealth, “stored between the garbage”. Neighbours at Dedhia Niwas talk about “three apartments” in Mulund and others in Vashi. “Their godown in the APMC market is also very valuable,” says Rambhiya.
Chimanlal, dressed in an oversize purple T-shirt and brown shorts, is sobbing about some of this “treasure”. “The BMC took away our gold and silver and Rs 1 lakh in cash that we had kept aside for buying medicines and to pay bills,” he says.
Harilal claims over the phone that neighbours in both buildings are eyeing their flats. “We haven’t committed any crime. We are poor people threatened by the society, police and BMC,” he says.
No one knows for sure when they started collecting garbage, but Rambhiya claims it began at least 30 years ago. First everyone treated it as just a compulsive habit. “They would stay out of home all day and most of the night, picking up things. It was alright when they just kept it at their homes, but then they began piling it in the corridors,” he says.
Another neighbour, Bhakti Manek, says the stink was overpowering. “The only way to keep it out was to lock our doors.”
The children had stopped playing near the house at Guide Society.
Once, when the garbage spilled over to the awning of the house at Dedhia, the neighbours took matters in own hands. “We picked up the garbage and set it on fire. It burned for two days,” says Rambhiya.
“Holi ke jaise kachra jala diya (burnt it like on Holi day),” chips in a young fruit-seller, who claims to have seen at least 10 such bonfires of the Savlas’ garbage.
Over the past few years, even the siblings had taken to sleeping outside the house, perhaps driven out by the smell. “The sisters sleep here,” says Dedhia Niwas’s Prachi Mogre, pointing to a landing outside their door.
The brothers slept on a grassy patch outside a nearby clothes shop. Chimanbhai admits that’s true, but adds, “We do sleep outside when we reach home late.”
By around a decade ago, the Dedhia neighbours had ensured that the Savlas didn’t dump the garbage outside their home.
At Guide Society, a group of retired bank employees kept urging the BMC to clear the Savla home. The secretary, Chirag Gandhi, claims to have contracted a skin infection due to the dumpyard. Finally, they approached local BJP activist Viral Shah.
When the BMC and police went in on May 16, out came mounds of plastic bottles, beer bottles, rotten food, plastic bags, countless pairs of footwear and assorted rubbish.
It was the discovery of a metal ‘No Parking’ sign that led Rajaram Vhanmane, a senior inspector at Mulund police station, to dub the family “psychos”. But while the residents of Guide Society quickly agreed, Rambhiya says he wouldn’t call them that. “Jo bhagwan ko maanta hai, wo bolta hai ki unko shaap hai. Koi bolta hai ki unke karm hain. Hum to bolte hain ye aadat hai. Yeh aadat hai, jo kabhi jayegi nahi (Some say they have been cursed, others say it is their karma. We say it is a habit, which will never go away).”
It was the discovery of unconscious Maniben that was the real shock for the neighbourhood. At Guide Society, no one remembers having seen her in all the time the Savlas have been here. At Dedhia, they say, they kept thinking she lived in the other house.
Only two rooms were cleared last week. Sisters Hemlata and Jayashree sit on the floor in a dark bedroom amidst the garbage that still remains, stuffing plastic bottles into bags. The stench hangs like a curtain around.
As the sisters stay silent, Chimanlal tries to put up a defence. While police have decided not to act against the siblings, they are investigating whether they neglected Maniben. They have also served the BMC a notice to clear the rest of the house.
Chimanlal speaks in a tone as indignant as it is pleading. “My mother is old-fashioned. She doesn’t like to throw away things. We bought things cheap and when they got old, we bought new ones,” he says.
Wheezing, the 68-year-old pauses to catch his breath, before adding, “Can anyone keep garbage in their homes these days? I don’t know what smell they are talking about.”
Again he halts, the burst of speech tiring him. Hemlata, peeping out from behind a pillar, beckons wordlessly to him to come upstairs. Before he turns to follow her, Chimanlal blows his nose loudly.
“We only had a little garbage, you know,” he adds. “They have made it into a big issue.”