City Of Dreams
Shravan Maishe talks about his life
WHEN I FIRST MET Shravan Maishe ten years ago he was 16, peeling prawns at Sassoon Dock. At that time, he was just like any other lively and mischievous boy. His parents were working on construction at Nariman Point. His brother had just joined them, and Shravan would do likewise within a year.
Ten years later, Shravan is transformed. I scarcely recognize him. A capable, thoughtful young man, married to Lalita, with a boy of three and twin girls six months old. His parents have returned to cultivate their patch of land in their native place in Karnataka. This has been made possible by the little money they had saved, and the regular remittance Shravan can now send home from his salary of 2,500 rupees a month (about $100). He says: ‘This is what they always wanted. To cultivate their land in peace. When we were children, they could not survive at home. People want to go back home if they have land. No-one who had the choice would prefer to stay in the city if they were guaranteed a living from the land.’
Shravan has achieved a great deal in the past decade. He joined his parents on the construction site when he was 18. After several years as mason, carpenter and bricklayer, he has become a building-site supervisor. It turned out he was working only a few minutes’ walk from where I was staying in Bandra. Every time I passed, I called to see him. He has worked, both for the improvement of his family and for the community. He says: ‘You cannot separate them. The people of the community were all our family when our parents worked on construction. The children belonged to everybody.’
He is working on a heritage building on the seafront at Bandra; a colonial bungalow that cannot be demolished, but behind which the owners are building a 12-storey block of flats. The ground has been excavated, but because there was some irregularity in the plans, work has been temporarily suspended. Shravan must be on the site all the time as a security measure. He sits in a back room of the house – tessellated floor, desk and telephone – waiting for the work to resume. In the compound are the hutments of rough hessian, bamboo and polythene which shelter the construction workers – the kind of place where he and his parents lived not so long ago.
Shravan has a house on the edge of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, near the enclosing wall that bars it to intruders. It is made entirely of metal. The tin has weathered to a thin rusty lattice where it has been eroded by heavy monsoon rains. The structure is spacious, but very hot in the sun.
The house is still poor. Lalita urges him to rebuild; it is shaming for a skilled construction worker to be living in such a place. But in the renewed atmosphere of uncertainty that has now affected the slum, Shravan doesn’t want to spend money that may be wasted.
Inside, as in most of the houses, there are few possessions. The twins, Anita and Sunita, lie on a bamboo mat. Lalita washes them, dusts them with baby powder. When she picks up Anita, Sunita cries for attention. Lalita sits cross-legged and places both in her lap.
There is an electric fan; little shrines on the wall to Krishna and Ganesh. The kitchen is separated from the sleeping and living space by a corrugated metal partition; there, brass and aluminium vessels gleam in the light from the fire. Next to the kitchen is a stone wall which divides it from the bathing area. Lalita makes tea: they take theirs in metal tumblers. To me they offer a fluted china cup.
There is a filter on a shelf to purify drinking water. Bathing water stands in big metal vessels. Water comes to the taps between two and five in the morning. Women rush to fill petrol cans, tins, bottles, jugs; so that in the middle of the night the area around the public taps is busier than at midday.
Shravan works from eight in the morning till six in the evening. Then he goes to night school until half-past eight. He has taught himself English and speaks fluently. He is now making good the childhood deficit in his education and has just started a degree course. The faith in study as the best way to improve life-chances has not yet been diminished in India by the millions of unemployed graduates. Shravan learned everything he knew about building from carpenters, fitters and masons on the construction sites; learning by example, which remains the most effective instruction of all.
Would Shravan go back to Bidar to rejoin his parents? ‘Of course. But what would I do there? Work is here and we have no other income.
‘What we have are dreams of going back; making enough money to live in comfort. This is a city of dreams; every slum, every pavement is made softer by them. How else would we survive?’