The Sunday Story: Life in a Sumohttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/the-sunday-story-life-in-a-sumo/

The Sunday Story: Life in a Sumo

Khushboo Narayan meets the couple for whom home is a 78-square-foot expanse on wheels.

Salina, BM Shaikh, Tata Sumo, Sunday Story
The Shaikhs live in their car because they don’t want to live anywhere but in South Mumbai.

Salina and BM Shaikh have been living in a battered Tata Sumo for the last seven years.

It is a little after 8 in the morning and Salina Shaikh emerges from a battered Tata Sumo parked close to Scindia House in Ballard Estate, once a thriving business district in South Mumbai before India’s marquee companies decided to move to the fancier Bandra Kurla Complex or BKC. Salina, 52 — dressed in a pink kurta and jeans, with chameli flowers in her hair and shades on — could pass off as one of the many working women trooping into government offices and the few remaining corporate firms in Ballard Estate. But unlike them, she isn’t heading anywhere, only getting ready for the day after having bathed by the roadside and then dressed up in the Tata Sumo that has been her home for the last seven years.

Salina and her husband B M Shaikh are among the city’s homeless, the faceless thousands who sleep on pavements, on dividers, on the stairs of shrines, beneath overbridges, on railway platforms and by the sea. But as Shaikh tells you, there’s a difference: the couple live in their car because they wouldn’t want to live anywhere but in this part of the city. This and other parts of South Mumbai — one of the costliest real estate in the world, with monthly rentals of Rs 200 per sq ft — are mostly out of reach of even the city’s millionaires.

“I have worked in South Mumbai for the last 40 years. There is no other place like this,” says Shaikh, 67, who claims to have retired from the Navy as a driver in 2008 and now draws a pension of Rs 14,000 a month. Dressed in a blue T-shirt and black shorts, Shaikh is a reticent man. Over the course of two meetings, he is at pains to emphasise that living in a car is a choice, not a compulsion. “I get a pension every month. I am not starving like the others,” says Shaikh proudly. “Thousands live on the footpath in Mumbai. Write their story, not mine.”

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The couple are a familiar sight on Ballard Estate. Parked amidst a row of cars, there is nothing remarkable about their Tata Sumo, but for the ropes tied to electric poles next to it that serve as clotheslines. Go closer and you can see a blue plastic drum to store water and a kerosene stove in the boot of the vehicle. The vehicle, all of 78-square-foot, houses all the worldly possessions of the Shaikhs —  water bottles, kerosene cans and a couple of bags.

Every day, they build a makeshift bath by the side of the Sumo — the vehicle doors swing open, enclosing the wall of the Port Trust building, and an umbrella serves as the roof. Water is sourced from handcart vendors at Rs 5 for 25 litres, Shaikh says. That done, they are off for breakfast to one of the many street-side food stalls in the area. Shaikh takes umbrage when asked what he prefers to eat — he doesn’t like being asked too many questions.

After breakfast and just before office-goers throng the area, the two hit the road, without the car. They leave with two bags and Salina carries both — a shoulder bag and one that she slings diagonally across her shoulder. By 10, they are either at one of the public gardens in the area or at the beach. A favourite hangout of the two is the Horniman Circle Garden, a 10,000-square-metre green lung some 200 metres away from Scindia House. The garden is in the middle of the business district and next door to the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of India and bang opposite Asiatic Library, one of Mumbai’s famed heritage structures.

“Most days you will find them at Horniman Circle Garden. They spend time there because it has comfortable benches and lots of shade.

They also source drinking water from taps there,” says Shatrughna Chauhan, a driver who parks his car near Scindia House. Lunch is followed by a visit to Girgaum Chowpatty, South Mumbai’s most famous beach, in the evening. This beach is a good 4.7 kilometres from Scindia House and all that walking helps keep the Shaikhs “fit”.

But when it is summer and hanging around in the beach or the parks becomes physically draining, they head to one of many single-screen theatres in South Mumbai and catch a movie in the air-conditioned hall. By 6.30 pm, they are back at Scindia House, just as the government employees and corporates are getting ready to leave for home. These days, dinner is usually a takeaway as cooking outside in the summer attracts a lot of flies, says Shaikh. “By the way, I make good chicken,” he adds.

At times, this routine gets disturbed and the couple stay at ‘home’. “Once in a while we see him (Shaikh) making tea. We know then that they have a visitor. These visitors are mostly his retired friends. But it is a rare sight,” says Mahesh Mahadik, a driver with the income tax department.

Around 10 pm, the Shaikhs drive their car to the crowded area near the court at Ballard Pier, a street away from Scindia House. Although Shaikh and Salina prefer to sleep in the gardens, “it is safer for a woman to sleep in the car”, Shaikh says. “Once we were preparing to sleep in a park when a policeman on night duty approached us and told us not to sleep there. He said these gardens are dangerous and deserted and that anyone can come and hurt my wife. He told us to either sleep on a crowded pavement or in the car. So my wife always sleeps in the car. I sometimes sleep on the pavement,” he says.

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So, how did Shaikh and his wife end up in a car after a career in the defence forces? He says that after retirement, he suddenly found himself without the cover of a government accommodation and without savings or a plan for the future. Neither did he want to return to Gorakhpur, the town of his birth and where his sisters live, because of “pesky relatives”. The couple are childless and Shaikh’s last visit to Gorakhpur was in 2001.

“Now I will go back only when I am dying. I don’t have money to buy a house in Mumbai. A one-room-kitchen set-up will cost me at least Rs 30 lakh even in the suburbs of Vasai. Plus, I am retired. Who will give me a loan?” snaps Shaikh.

The couple can well afford to rent a place in the distant suburbs of Navi Mumbai though. However, Shaikh terms it “troublesome”, adding, “Who wants to move away from South Mumbai?” The other option is, of course, to buy a jhopdi for Rs 5-6 lakh. But that would mean living in uncertainty, given that such huts get demolished.

For two months after his retirement, they did rent a room in a chawl in Sewri for Rs 2,000 a month but “hated it”. “Har roz landlord ki khich-khich. Kabhi paani kabhi aur kuch (we’d have problems with the landlord every day, sometimes over water, sometimes other things)…” And so, they decided to turn the used Tata Sumo they had bought for Rs 1.20 lakh with Shaikh’s retirement money into their home.

“I didn’t want to take a chance by buying illegal accommodation either. This way, we are not dependant on anyone. We stay in a place of our choice (South Mumbai) and we are not doing anything illegal,” says Shaikh.

It is Salina who is protective about the vehicle. “Shut up, don’t talk to me and don’t come near my car,” she screamed in English, waving a brick threateningly when this reporter first approached the couple to speak to them.

The drivers of government vehicles, vendors and other traders on the street too say Salina is very touchy about her car. Indeed, when it is time for the couple to leave for breakfast, Salina spends at least 10 minutes inspecting the locked car. She presses the hood of the vehicle several times, jumps on it to see if it is secured properly, and then tries to open the doors to check if they are locked. Next, she slides her hands down the car windows to check if they too are locked. She repeats this routine in what seems like an endless loop till she is satisfied. That done, Salina checks herself out in the glass of the rear window, adjusts the flowers in her hair and straightens her kurta.

“This is a daily routine,” says Santosh, a cobbler, who sits about 50 metres away from the parked Sumo. “She doesn’t let anyone stand near her car. I guess she is overprotective because they live on the road and have to deal with miscreants all the time. They must be scared, too.”

That probably explains Shaikh’s reticence and the couple’s mistrust of strangers. “No one dares to talk to them because his wife has a sharp tongue. People here refer to her as the ‘danger lady of Ballard Estate’,” says Mahadik.

“The woman hardly talks to anyone but once in a while, the man sits at my shop under the tree and we chat,” adds Santosh, the cobbler.

Although Shaikh did allow The Sunday Express to photograph him, he did not agree to a request to spend a day with him and his wife. What appears to have shaken him was an incident of a few months ago. One night, Shaikh says, he woke up at 3 am and saw two motorbikes with four people on the deserted road leading up to Scindia House. He says they were probably thieves. “I was sleeping on the footpath right next to my car and my wife was sleeping in the car. When I asked them what they wanted, the men started pelting stones at me and at the car. After two minutes, they drove away,” he says. Since then, Shaikh and his wife have been moving their vehicle around to the Ballard Pier court area. There is safety in numbers there — “a lot of people sleep in the pier area and there is a dog as well”, says Shaikh.

“Do I look 67 years old?” Shaikh asks this reporter in a rare moment of warmth. He also wistfully talks about his father, claiming he owned a small one-room kitchen set-up in the Colaba region in the 1960s. He says they had to sell it for a paltry Rs 18,000 to fund his sisters’ weddings.

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After an hour of talking, Shaikh has had enough of the interview. “Why are you interviewing me?” he asks. “If you tell my story will I get government help to buy a house? So many babus come to Ballard Estate every day and our plight is not hidden from them. They have seen us like this but till date no one has even bothered to offer any help,” he says snarling.