Mint Street Man

The area outside the main post office near CST, or GPO as it is better known, showcases Mumbai’s gully enterprise at its best. In this congested microcosmic world of trade and commerce, you get everything that is cheap and untrustworthy—fake ayurvedic body massages, two-rupee pens that stop writing after you scribble a few lines, Chinese toys and watches that stop working as soon as you buy them and pirated CDs of Bollywood flicks that don’t play beyond the intermission.

    It was here that I met Razak seven years ago. He sat crouched beneath a torn umbrella in the noon sun at
Mint Street that runs perpendicular to the GPO. I did not notice him initially, I only heard a husky voice while passing by, “Seth, vajan karna hai? (Sir, do you want to be weighed?)’’

    I looked down and saw a cumbersome weighing machine with a brass foot-holder and a Swastika insignia on its head. A man with a grey stubble, who must have been in his late sixties, glanced at me as if he was doing me a big favour. “Yeh machine chalu hai kya? (Does the machine work?)’’ I taunted him.

    “Saheb, imported machine hai,
Germany sey. Yeh machine jhoot nahi bolta,’’ he said. (“It’s an imported machine from Germany. It doesn’t lie.’’) I climbed on the brass footer and its needle moved smoothly and then stood steady at a slanted position. “Tujha vajan chaangla aahey (Your weight is good),’’ Razak said, switching breezily to Marathi.

    He nevertheless advised me to put on some more weight, saying I could afford to do so. “Do come next month,’’ he said as I gave him a Re 1 coin. In the ensuing years, I used to stop at Razak’s weighing machine counter whenever I passed through
Mint Street. He spoke fluent Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi and I assumed that he was a migrant from Gujarat. But once he blurted out to a man who passed by in Malayalam, “Eda, oru chaya venum (Hey, I want tea).’’
    On being asked whether he was a Malayali, he just smiled. It turned out that Razak hailed from Thalassery in
North Kerala. He had run away from
home when he was 17 years old to escape poverty. He initially worked in the
Bombay Docks and then at the ship-breaking yards in Gujarat. He lived frugally in the back alleys and dormitories of the Fort area for years together.

    Razak managed to save money for the nikaah of his three sisters, but never thought of his own marriage. In the late ’70s, he went back to Kerala to be with his parents, but there was no work back home. He went to
Gujarat in the early ‘80s, but paid a price for the prolonged exposure to salt water while breaking many ships’ hulls—he sustained a wound on his toe that refused to heal. Then he came back to Mumbai again. A few months later, when he was passing through Chor Bazaar, he saw a weighing machine. “I took all my savings and purchased it,’’ he said.
    For 20 years, the machine provided him sustenance. Two years ago, Razak took me to his dormitory located on D N Road. Inside the cramped room, there were about nine people sleeping on bunk beds. Near Razak’s bunk was a small window, from where he could see the GPO’s beautiful dome.
    Uday Yadav, a migrant from
Bihar, who sold Bermuda shorts at Churchgate station, slept on the lower bunk. “We come here just to sleep. The gully is our home,’’ Razak said.

    In February this year, I met Razak for the last time. I gave him Rs 20 after weighing myself, but he did not have enough change to return the balance. We spoke for a while and he said he was upset about the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s attacks on migrants. 

“The city is no longer safe for poor migrants,’’ he said. After that meeting, Razak disappeared from Mint Street. When I inquired about him, one of the hawkers told me he had gone back home, permanently. A few months later, as I was passing through a bylane at Fort, a man called me from behind. I did not recognise him initially. He said, “Razak bhai asked me to give this to you.’’It was Uday Yadav, Razak’s room-mate. “What is this?’’ I asked. “Rs 19, vajan ka baaki (the balance).’’ “Where is bhai?’’

    “He is no more. He developed gangrene in his foot. One of the things he told me as he lay dying, was to give you back this money.’’ I stood there, holding those fistful of coins.Yadav pointed downwards and said, “Bhai gave this to me.’’ It was the cumbersome brass footer, gleaming in the noon sun.

(This is the first in a series in which TOI reporters narrate the stories behind the news or tell the tale of the city through people they met)
The Times Of India 24/12/08

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