The Unfinished Bridge: My Memoir From ‘Ground Zero’ On Mahaparinirvan Diwas

Representational image.

It was a tense day during chilly December. I was on my toes running helter-skelter to get my thesis work done when I got the news that I was posted for the medical camp set-up at Shivaji Park, to cater to the crowd gathered to commemorate the 51st death anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the sculptor of Indian constitution. As a knee jerk reflex, I was disappointed as I was never the type of person interested in attending such special duties. I tried to shrug it off by asking one of my friends to take up the duty in my place. But destiny had something else in store for me. My friend who himself was busy with his thesis-hassles declined politely.

So finally with a lot of unwillingness, I headed to Chaityabhoomi. The cabbie dropped me at Shivaji Park and I set foot on the soil of Shivaji park, for the first time in my life, in 24 years of my existence in Bombay-Mumbai. Shivaji Park is the ground named after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the man who is no way associated with this park except of course with name. In fact as per my limited knowledge and as per history, if at all I know any, he never for once visited the city, which was nothing more than an archipelago of seven islands inhabited by ‘Kolis’, the fisher folks.

But, the pace at which the places in the city of Mumbai are being named after him, it seems the name Mumbai will become synonymous with Shivaji and vice versa. In Mumbai there is always a tug-of-war between Balasaheb Thackeray (No, its not misspelled, his father changed the spelling from Thakre to Thackeray as he was inspired by William Makepeace Thackeray) and Babasaheb, be it the naming of places or claiming the superiority, the former the pioneer of the Marathi manoos, while latter the pioneer of the downtrodden. I wonder whether Shivaji Park itself will be able to recollect, to how many public gatherings it has been witness to; as I pray to God to bless Shivaji park with enough courage to face the burgeoning crowd in future.

While trying to find my way at Shivaji Park, I come across a melee of people from toothless breast-suckling infants to toothless octogenarians. Someone is here for the first time and someone for the last. It crosses my vision that the park has been converted into a mini mobile-market place; on a second thought I wonder whether ‘mini’ would be an appropriate word. Things are being sold and bought, services supplied and availed. Bargains and deals are flowing in the air. I realize that I’m not posted at Shivaji Park; as my friend Satish comes and picks me up from Shivaji Park to Chaityabhoomi. I am in awe looking at the façade that welcomes the visitors to Chaityabhoomi. It is followed at a short distance by a replica of Ashok Stambh, the symbol of India. While in the backdrop is the Dadar Chowpatty lining the vast Arabian Sea and the great Unfinished Bridge of Mumbai, the Worli sea-link project.

After having a look at this panoramic view, which will remain with me forever, I settle down in the ambulance parked at the foot of the façade, all set to attend the patients. But then, the reality was yet to bite. The paramedical staff informs me that we have only Paracetamol and some basic first-aid kits. I wonder how we are going to manage with just Paracetamol. Soon patients start trickling in; almost all of them complaining of body ache and headache; so miraculously our Paracetamol, the pain-killer seems to be one-drug-cures-all.

In Shivaji Park, all sorts of trades were flourishing, but what was selling the most was emotions; Ambedkar and Buddha. They were selling like hotcakes. Everyone wanted to buy a piece of them, a memento; be it a badge, a medal, busts, frames, books; just anything which had their picture, which was sanctified by their faces. Amongst the common men were roaming Buddhist monks. They were much different than what one visualizes them to be. They had no resemblance to Dalai Lama and his troop; they were shabby and dark.

Their maroon robes too had gathered a coat of dust, the dust of Shivaji Park, which is carried all over India by the visitors. They wore what were supposed to be black leather shoes with socks, and surprisingly carried no luggage. They were free and roaming, free of worldly bonds. Another site which was very conspicuous was that basically there were three activities being carried out on the ground. At one end the distribution of food was going on; people standing in long unending queues stretching till the horizon, and there were 4-5 such long queues.

All were standing to get a handful of hurriedly cooked food, which I am sure would not have passed the lowest quality tests. After having put the hunger pangs to rest, the people themselves rested, so almost one-third of the ground was converted into a jumbo tent with red carpet thrown in, where people stationed themselves. It was clearly visible that the families had demarcated the areas for themselves using their luggage. Any sort of trespassing was met with furious uproars. It was as if they had created a little abode for themselves over there.

Already, the tent was filling, most of the early-birds had claimed the interior space, and as far as possible the center of the tent, to prevent sunlight, whose oblique rays would bake the people at the peripheries. Maybe this was the reason why people had started flocking to Shivaji park, 3-4 days before the actual event; to claim their space.

After you have eaten the unpalatable food, rested in sunlight and digested it, there are chances that nature will send you its bigger call. So parked there were huge vans; the scavengers ready to gulp down the human excreta, without asking for the caste of the person from whose guts it was ejected. Unsurprisingly the vans also had queues, and in the queues were mostly women. It’s anybody’s guess where the darker sex went to attend nature’s call. The tents also had idiot boxes at regular intervals. All flat screens and color, of varying sizes. The larger ones acted as an attraction for the groups to nestle near them. None of them were on, but they would be, now or later, they assumed and clung on, waiting for them to come to life.

At Chaityabhoomi where the last remains of the cremated sculptor are kept, also the crematorium of Hindus, there is a constant flow of visitors. Again at that place, a mini-market had been set-up. People were buying a single leaf of Peepal with few marigold flowers on top of it and two incense sticks.  This was the thing that most people were presenting at Chaityabhoomi. A general look around the place and it was evident to any that this time there was a sizeable proportion of visitors from north India. They were our main chunk of patients. They had traveled for two days, packed in inhuman and inanimate conditions and dumped at Dadar station. No doubt none of them was left with any body part that didn’t pain.

During this journey, many of them have been hungry, thirsty, sleepy and tired to the bones. They might have come standing all throughout these 2 days. It made me wonder, what was this great need, great urge, great magnet, which attracted them to Chaityabhoomi, removed them all the way from their dingy but cozy shanties and brought them here, in this cruel, ruthless, selfish cosmos. I was astounded. A look at them, the north Indians especially, gave you a glimpse of the other India. The unfortunate, downtrodden, oppressed and suppressed India. Some of them didn’t even have footwear. But they were walking, walking barefoot on the scorching tar road of Mumbai, chasing their aspirations.

Just ten days back Shivaji Park had witnessed another mega event, the rally of Mayawati, the new princess of Uttar Pradesh. For her rally, a huge crowd had come from Uttar Pradesh and I guess some of them had stayed back to attend this function too. And everyone knows a huge number will stay back in Mumbai, even after this function is over, awed by the sea of opportunity in Mumbai, by the glitz and glamour of Mumbai, by the exhibition of indulgence in wealth and prosperity of Mumbai.

This visit will germinate numerous dreams in the tender minds of the adolescents, dreams of achieving their aims in Mumbai. So many visitors who came to visit the Chaityabhoomi will stay back to make Mumbai their Karmabhoomi. It was pleasing to see that in spite of having an enormous crowd with no civic sense, the place was remarkably clean; all credit goes to the sweepers of Sant Gadge Baba Swachchhata Abhiyaan. They would rush to pick-up any freshly thrown garbage as if it was not garbage but money on the street.

Our ambulance has a driver, a ward boy, and a male nurse, apart from me the doctor. The driver, Hegde, is a man just a few months away from retirement. But it will take anyone just a few minutes with him, to realize that he is energetic enough to carry on for another decade or more without tiring before retiring. He is a great character to observe. The wardboy Sunil is a man in his 30s, who is impeccably dressed and has a fair resemblance to Rajnikant, the screen God of Tollywood. Even his actions are heroic. When asked about his native place or place of birth, he first denies having one, only later proudly to add, Dagdi Chawl, the fortress of Arun Gawli. I ask him if he is invited to Gavli’s daughter’s wedding scheduled for tomorrow and he replies in positive.

The third guy, Praveen Surve, the male nurse, is actually an assistant in OTST, the surgical trauma center of KEM hospital. He is there in place of a surgery resident, to manage the trauma cases. In fact, for the past two days, he was the one managing all sorts of patients in the absence of a doctor. He is a nice cool guy, thin and wearing oversized shirts. He asks for my native place and on listening the name of Sawantwadi immediately replies and mentions Ratnagiri to be his. In a few seconds, a bond is established. He proudly declares that we are Konkani though both of us really are Mumbaikars.

It is amazing how people, wherever they may move, always remember their origins. When they are in one place, they claim themselves to be of some other place. So when Praveen would go to Ratnagiri, he would say he’s from Mumbai, and when in Mumbai, he’d say he is from Ratnagiri, maybe because of the place where you are people accept you to be of that place, it’s the other world which needs introduction.

One of our patients, a constable, who comes with a burn wound on his leg, briefs us about the police postings here. He says that staff from all the police stations and headquarters are deployed in addition to rapid action force, commandoes, civil defence, etc for this mega function. He puts the figure at approximately 1000 police personnel. He also guides us into the importance of this function this time.

A film released last weekend, Aaja Nach Le, the comeback movie of Maduri Dixit. It had a line in its title song, penned by Piyush Mishra, which annoyed the backward castes. The line was ‘samjhe mochi bhi khud ko sunaar hai’. This one single line had led to a ban on the film in UP, Punjab, and Haryana. This brought forth apologies from Yash Raj Films, and it was only after their assurance that the offending line would be deleted that the theatres restarted playing the Maduri-starrer.

The constable, however, is on defensive and says that what the lyricist meant was that even a cobbler ‘can’ think like a jeweler, so basically there is no backwardness of thoughts. But he was sure and afraid, that the leaders will voluntarily misinterpret the lyrics to gain public favor. Praveen does the constable’s dressing and he leaves shaking our hands and thanking us. Meanwhile a journalist with Lokmat, the Marathi daily comes and asks my friend regarding the type of medical arrangements made available at the venue.

In the evening we spot a young couple, sitting behind a newspaper stand, which had no newspapers. Our driver, Hegde was highly interested in watching them. Amidst the dirty, soiled bodies with shabby clothes, these two sparkling fair-skinned bodies with fashionable crisp clothes were very much noticeable; nevertheless Hegde brought them again to our notice. He remarked in Marathi, “ See how they are kissing, see how they are licking, see how they are putting their mouths into each others’.” He further added “If I am getting a high looking at them what must be happening to you young guys, referring to Surve and myself. Surve swiftly replies, “you’re only looking at them we have turned our backs to them long back.” After some time, a girl, one of the many visitors arrives and sits at the other end of the newspaper stand. Looking at her, Hegde remarks, “No, she shouldn’t see all this, it will make her yearn for sex.” Surve says she is too young to understand all this, but looks at her chest and says “look carefully she has grown-up.” Looking at the gathering crowd, the couple moves well behind the newspaper stand, so that now only their lower half of the body is visible. But this doesn’t Hegde prevent from commenting on the position and gyrations of their limbs. Looking at a fairly well-dressed woman in the queue, Anil remarks, I should ask her “come with me to the restaurant, why stand in this queue for the free food.”

Soon after sunset, a van arrives near our ambulance. A man in his thirties, partially balding and his tummy showing muffin-effect approaches us and informs that he has brought food for distribution. They select a site exactly across our ambulance. Four big vessels full of rice are brought out. Meanwhile, the visitors had temporarily stationed themselves near the adjoining pavement. He goes and announces to them that they will be giving food to them right at their location and that they shouldn’t make a queue. He brings out disposable plates. Meanwhile his familial accomplices arrive at the scene.

He is accompanied by his wife, she is in her thirties and looks much younger compared to her husband. She has a big orange tilak on her forehead. By her looks, anyone can mistake her for a call-center girl, as she is clad in a flowing knee-length dress, with a jacket thrown over. And her medium length hair let loose. There is also a third member, their son, Aman, who was adorning a heavily embroidered kurta and denim shorts. The combination looked vague. He might be around 3-4 years old. Praveen gesticulates that it’s Aman’s birthday. Soon the distribution of the food is started. Our driver, Hegde, readily helps them out in separating the plates from the stack. Within a few minutes, the thing which was most expected and unwanted happens. People get up. They didn’t like the idea of their food directly served to them.

They wanted to stand in the queue, fight it out; basically they wanted to strive for their daily bread. They couldn’t wait till the person before them had received his share. The queue became a swelling crowd. Frustrated by the unmanageability of the crowd, the food distribution is stopped, only to be resumed a few minutes later following the hue and cry of the hungry people and sheer appeal of Mr. Buktar, the donor.

Again, the same thing is repeated. The crowd, full of hungry men and women, children and elderly, affluent and barefoot, becomes restless, more so after being assured food and seeing it, but not able to get it. Mr. Buktar is drenched in sweat. His sleeveless vest is visible beneath the body-hugging wet shirt. Mrs. Pimple-Buktar is also equally frightened and restless. While for Aman it is making a great scene. While Hegde and Anil are involved in controlling the crowd, Praveen is babysitting Aman and also simultaneously taking care of the purse of Mrs. Buktar.

As the crowd becomes uncontrollable, I suggest Mr. Buktar take help from the policemen who were standing just meters away from ambulance standing like a mute spectator. Mr. Buktar goes and makes an emotional appeal. So they come reluctantly with their lazy legs lagging behind and fail to manage the crowd. Finally it’s decided to distribute the food from two stations, instead of one. The second one opposite our ambulance. Once again the distribution starts.

Meanwhile, a teenager, leaning from the window of the backdoor of the ambulance, tries to befriend Aman and calls Mrs. Buktar as aunty. However, she never for even once makes eye contact with him. We, I and Praveen apprehend he is trying to kidnap Aman. We were quite paranoid about him. We thought he would any second pull Aman, who was playing on the edge of the ambulance and disappear in the sea of people.

However, we are relieved when he receives his food out of turn and leaves. Within a few minutes, the disposable plates are over. The Buktars have no idea how to carry on further, it would have taken quite a long time to get new plates, and they didn’t want the chaotic crowd to erupt again.

I advised them to ask people to get their own vessels. Soon a scene is created which will stay with me for long. People start looking around the street. They lay their hands on any piece of paper or plastic bag that crosses their eyes and immediately return to reclaim their place in the queue. They lay before us plastic and paper pieces to get food. Some don’t even move an inch and spread their saree pallu or soiled handkerchief to get a fistful of food.

The scene looks familiar. It resembled a picture of two afro boys from sub-Saharan Africa holding out plates to beg for food. It was used in a PowerPoint presentation on malnourishment by me. My teacher Dr. Solanki had asked me why I had shown pictures of African malnourished while the topic was about India.

I remember I had answered that there was a dearth of malnutrition pictures from India. Now while sitting in that ambulance and looking at a scene that would make for a great snap to be posted on the internet, I get so emotionally touched that I just miss the opportunity to use my camera phone. In no time, the food, made of one quintal of rice, is finished. However there were quite a few salivating mouths in the crowd yet.  They don’t leave. They are optimistic. They were hoping that somehow from somewhere more food will be brought. It is only after repeated request that they budge from the scene.

After some time we get our dinner coupons and head towards Shivaji Park to have a meal. On reaching there we realize that the meal hasn’t been readied yet. So we roam around for half an hour. I go to the bookstall but fail to find any books in English, except one. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to find one, taking into consideration the customer base.

A person on the dais next to the bookstall was addressing a sparse crowd on how Dhamma can be practiced by everyone. He was also extolling on Babasaheb’s character, as to how he believed that any person can reach and surpass the stature of Babasaheb. That he always encouraged others to excel, to do better than him. I wondered if that applied today to the affluent amongst the backward castes who have usurped most of the reservations.

We get back to the food station, we go a little farther and discover, tucked in a distant corner, a gymnastics classes. Shree Samarth Vyayam Mandir, where young lads, clad in only shorts with slim and toned bodies were practicing Malkhamb. We go further in and find teenaged girls performing rope dance, something we saw in the film Kisna. The display of fine talent over there, made me wonder why India has not been able to win even a bronze in Gymnastics in the Olympics. We return when we realize that food distribution has finally started.

Adjoining the buffet table was a hall with properly arranged chairs around the dining tables. So, after filling our plates we head toward that hall but are stopped in the way by the caterer who says that place is reserved for ‘officers’. I inform him that I am a doctor from the KEM hospital, so he allows me in, but not Praveen and the ward boy. So I decide not to go in and instead have meal together outside. However I don’t leave the place before asking him, what does he mean by an ‘officer’. He fails to answer. The division and reservation were everywhere to be seen. Such a thing during the conference on equality of people was intolerable to me.

The next day I have night duty, for which I turn-up at around 12 midnight. As soon as I get on the foot-over bridge of Dadar station, a horde of men women and children dressed in best whites becomes visible. As I get on to the road, I see people walking towards Chaityabhoomi. They are so densely packed on the comparatively narrow road, that the individual groups seemed merged into a mammoth procession. An interesting group consisting of 5-6 lads was traveling from a foot’s distance from me. They had contagious energy. Even while other groups were walking sleepily at midnight, this group was marching shouting the slogan, “Babasahebaancha Vijay aso.” (Victory for Babasaheb). Their decibels reached new peaks once the pedestrians were made to stop at the zebra crossing by constables who had taken up the role of traffic police, holding and leaving a rope to stop and leave the road crossers. They were especially vigilant to prevent anyone from trampling over the rope and that leading to a cascading stampede. They were shouting slogans looking at the police as if trying to challenge them; as expected the police were just a mute spectator. They knew any reply from their side would add to their own woes.

As I further walk towards Chaityabhoomi, I overhear a group say, “we’ll not have to wait in the queue, I know someone,” as I reach near the entrance of the Chaityabhoomi, I notice that the main wide entrance of the Chaityabhoomi was closed to the public, instead they were led inside through a narrow footpath. The main entrance was reserved for the VIPs. Again I feel the impact of class-divide. I’m sure the soul of Babasaheb would be crying looking at this class-divide amongst his people. He strived to eliminate the caste inequality, but today the play of inequality of the rich and poor amongst the backward classes was played on his own Chaityabhoomi.

It was the eve of 6th December. As we walked out for a stroll, we noticed how there was a large crowd of connoisseurs of spirits, in the shop adjoining Chaityabhoomi, ahead of the dry day on 6th December. A board in the wine shop declared ‘deshi daru milnaar naahi’. (Country liquor will not be available). Again, a division of class. While on the death anniversary of the Babasaheb, the man instrumental in getting reservations for the backward castes, the rich can soak the grief of losing jobs or their children’s’ admission to reservations in quality wines, the backward will be deprived of the opportunity to soak their grief of losing their only leader, in cheap country liquor.

As we head a little further, we find that an entire petrol pump is virtually converted into a shelter for the guests who have traveled into Mumbai. We notice many workers fixing up banners and posters of their individual parties and organizations, only to go a little further near Mayor’s bungalow to see people removing the choicest banners to sleep on. Then we head in the opposite direction and walk up to Siddhivinayak temple to find the queue reaching the horizon. We give up our efforts to trace the end of the queue and return back.

The newspapers have estimated the queue to be up to 2 km long. While in the Crossword store, atop the petrol pump, affluent readers were glancing through the books in the air-conditioned environs, lazing on cozy sofas, down below were avid readers, glancing through Marathi literature spread on footpath regarding Buddhism and Ambedkar. How many of them might have extended their neck and looked at the scene upstairs with jealousy, I don’t know.

All along the footpaths, there were tea/coffee vendors who were selling tea in cups holding such a minuscule amount of beverage that it would hardly fill half the mouth. As all couldn’t afford the expensive readymade tea in the chilly December night, the visitors came armed with stoves and made their own tea on the street. So all the footpaths were converted into bedrooms and interspersed amongst them were kitchens.

When we return to our ambulance, we go near the parapet lining the Dadar Chowpatty. I envied the dead; the structure across the sea was Hindu Smashaan Bhoomi. They were getting the view of the Arabian Sea, for which people would pay crores had there been an apartment there. We notice Jeev-rakshaks, wearing yellow jersey and shorts patrolling the rocks and shooing away the visitors from entering the sea. A constable advises them to hit the trespassers, while their warnings are reprimanded by another constable who tells them that it is the police’s work to shout, not theirs.

The dark seashore had started illuminating with candles which were made to stand in the sand by the visitors. It was their way of offering Shradhdhanjali to Babasaheb. But what made a mockery of the entire scene was that just near the point where the waves were embracing the shore, the women were attending to natures’ major call; all in full public display.

I joke to Satish, the similarity between those Jeev-rakshaks and us doctors, who are also Jeev-rakshaks, but still they are hurled with abuses for stopping people from going into the sea, while we’ll be thanked if we save a drowned victim. Praveen makes a great comment. He says, how accepting the sea is, it takes everything into itself without discriminating. It doesn’t ask the people sitting on its shore, their caste. It also takes into itself the faith of the devotees, whatever may be their faith.

In the morning, when I was returning home, I see a market set-up along the footpaths, selling apart from Babasaheb memorabilia, clothes at throwaway prices, artificial jewelry, children’s toys, etc. Everyone was buying something, taking something from Mumbai to their native places to their people who would be expecting something from Mumbai-return people. Out of millions of people who came to Mumbai for this function, I’m sure many will stay back in hope of a job, in hope of achieving a tiny amount of Mumbai’s glitter and glamour, in the hope of fulfilling their small, innocent dreams in the apparently attractive fields of opportunities of Mumbai – Mumbai; the city of dreams.

The next day, when I return after the function has ended, there is a cloud of dirt in the air, and it’s difficult to breathe. You feel you have landed in a sandstorm. We try to go near Shivaji Park but are repulsed by the stench of decaying human feces. No doubt it’s said that people staying around Shivaji Park, leave the comforts of their homes and go out to some other place in the week surrounding the Mahapariniravana day taking into consideration, the law and order and sanitation problems created by this mega function. Some suggestions were made to shift the location of Chaityabhoomi out of Mumbai, which was however immediately dumped after counter-demands were made to shift even other temples and shrines out of Mumbai.

Sometimes I imagine how grateful God has been to send the angel of death for Babasaheb on 6th December. What would’ve happened if he had died during the monsoon season? There would have been annual epidemic of Cholera in Mumbai. What mass tragedy it would have been if his death anniversary would fall on 26th July. How many of his devotees would have attained Mahapariniravana themselves? But come what may I’m sure they would have braved everything, showers, and thunders, sun or heat, to just get a glimpse of the place made hallowed by the ashes of Babasaheb; the person who strived for them. Yes, strived for them. That’s how most of the people interviewed by a TV channel described as the contribution of Babasaheb. They further added that the hardships faced by them, while visiting Mumbai were nothing compared to the efforts made by Babasaheb. It’s nothing short of a pilgrimage for them; every Dalit person has a dream to visit Chaityabhoomi at least once in their lifetime. This is so much similar to Hajj pilgrimage, I wonder.

After reading so far I’m sure you must be confused why I have titled this piece ‘THE UNFINISHED BRIDGE’. It’s the analogy between the unfinished project of Bandra-Worli sea link bridge and the unfinished dream of Dr. Ambedkar to connect the oppressed Dalits with the mainstream of the society. His dream is being unnecessarily delayed, tangled in socio-political issues, just like our dream bridge, which though conceptualized in the early 90s is still far from complete.

Note from the author: This piece was written a decade back when I was posted as a doctor-on-duty at Chaityabhoomi. All events are factual. The names of places and persons have not been changed. 

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