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Avocado Ajay and Strawberry Suleman
Despite everything that's been happening around us, I'd still like to believe that 'Ram and Rahim' aren't buddies only in Bollywood schmaltz. Mumbai endorses this belief " even if it is for down-to-earth 'paisa-taka' reasons, not for some lofty secular ideal. In its dominant economic activity of 'dhanda', Muslim craft and Hindu trade are so interlinked that neither can afford the bitterness of hate. Our metamorphosing Sewri area is no exception. Yes, the roadside temples far outpace the two mosques, but both communities are represented here in the tenements and zopadpattis, separate but strife-less. I'm ashamed to say that the shabby street is more liberal than the swanky towers. Scores of them have an unwritten policy to keep out YouKnowWho.
So, this fortnight, I'd like to present the stories of two TJ Road hawkers who coexist in the camaraderie of commerce. Ajay, the 'veggie-man' at our gate, and Suleman, the fruitwalla, a mango-stone's throw away. Both have witnessed the area's full circle of change from the quieter bustle of the mill-years to the cacophonous busy-ness of the present, with the sinister silence in between. Both value the new income that the 'tower-wallahs' bring, but both look back with fondness at a gentler time. Which, to my surprise, was also a busier, more profitable time for them.
Says Mohammed Suleman Raini, "Ji, Madam, I would be working till 1.30 am, when the last shift got over, and the millhands bought fruit on their way home." Says Ajay Rajat, "Ji, Aunty, the daily earnings may have been a little less, but the expenses were much less. I could get a full meal for Rs 5, today Rs 25 will buy me only a snack."
Suleman, 47, grew up in Bombay/Mumbai. He doesn't have the grey-eyed, craggy features of his father, Ikramuddin, who left Uttar Pradesh's Moradabad district some '50-55' years ago. Ikramuddin was the only one of his six brothers who had the gumption to get out; the surviving three are still in the village. Suleman recalls the deciding factor, "When Papa said he wanted to try and make a new life, my Dadaji told him, 'Acchha, if you can manage to save two rupees a day, you'll survive in that big city. If not, you better forget about it, and wapas ghar laut aana.' So Papa came to Bambai, and he managed to save not two, but two and a quarter rupees a day. He would treat himself to something extra with that bonus 'chavanni'."
Ajay, 37, arrived 22 years ago. "From Jharkhand." When I ask him for the zilla, he says, "Chitarpur, Rajrappa mandir ke paas." Since this is a COVID-enforced phone interview, I have trouble catching the name. Tired of repeating, he advises, "Google kar dijiye". He adds, "No one had heard of Jharkhand till Dhoni built a house there, and refused to fight the last election on a BJP tikkat."
To my rather obvious question he replies with a hint of impatience, "To earn a living, aur kya, Aunty?" Salvaging some self-respect, I counter, "Why not some place closer, like Kalkatta?" Again, the obvious: his chacha-bhaiya were both were already here.
Suleman and Ajay had remained in Mumbai during the last lockdown, and are still here during this curfew. Both speak of the difficulty of even covering their purchasing costs in the limited sale hours of 7 am to 11 am, but they get by with 'thoda-bahut online'.
Both buy their wares from the Vashi APMC. Here there's a change with the changing times. Says Suleman, "Papa started off by buying bananas from the Nagpada wholesale depot." Then father and son graduated to papaya and 'pippin apple' " the latter he tells me was also the most popular fruit for the mill workers. "No, there's no difference in the preferences of tower and tenement." Which I know from my fellow customers at his cart, and the fact that even dragon fruit is now peddled from a sack on the grubby street itself.
The colours on Ajay's cart have also changed with changing taste. The tower people began asking him to keep 'braccali, musroom, zukni, lal-peela simla mirch, Chinese (baby potatoes)'. Now even his 'ordinary' customers, prompted by their TV-glued kids, have developed a 'shauk' for these exotic veggies. 'Fashion ka zamana hai' as he puts it. Changing times are even more clearly signposted by 'Paytm-Gpay'. "None of the new residents wants to pay cash, especially when its 'parcel'/ delivery."
Ajay and Suleman speak mistily of the old days when doing business was more pleasurable on quieter streets. Like the shopkeepers, they too miss the sudden surge as millhands poured in and out of their shift, and the special 'mahaul' when they shopped eagerly with their Diwali bonuses. "Yes, the area has developed, but that has also brought in more competition for us."
Suleman's enthusiasm drops a few octaves when he recalls the intervening six years when the mills collapsed. The three on TJ Road shut down in 2000, having escaped the deathblow of the 1980 strike. Desperation and 'taporis' held sway. "No outsider dared to venture here after dusk, deterred by the loot-paat aur chaku-bazi."
Ajay's kids and wife are still in his village. Suleman's are in school here. They are just five and seven, but already city-slickers. They don't want to spend holidays in their dad's sleepy, insalubrious Moradabad village. They prefer to go to Suleman's 'sasural', their nani's home in Old Delhi. As we have seen, 'gentrification' is as much about people as areas " and looks like it covers much younger age groups too.