This is the second story in a series about a wide road, 126 kilometres long, that will wind through NAINA, a planned city in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Part one of the series can be found here.
NERE – You should see it. The country outside Panvel heaves with the energy of a rare opportunity. This has happened by fiat; ancestral land has been given another job to do, and has been carved up as hidden compulsions demand. Wander anywhere. There are mounds of rubble, stacks of building material, and lanes worn down by trucks. Fibreglass statues of men in suits have been commissioned to decorate lawns. Someone wants a giant Buddha. Someone wants a Chinese warrior. A man passing by on a motorbike stops and offers to sell 17 acres. Everybody knows something. Nobody knows anything.
Old money must have been made in times like these.
Development has come here with a persistent feeling that it borders on lawlessness. People speak of unverifiable deals too many times, and their questions about exemptions made for this man or that plot are not really questions. What they really mean to say is that the opportunity they seek is selective, and they hope it favours them – of course, after feeding someone money. So best not stand here, looking at a patch of land where the grass grows wild, because a watchman used to loneliness emerges from the foliage, or peeks out from a single hut, to ask what business you have with this place.
Into this dazzling new world will come a road. As of now, it is all on paper. To one planning agency, the MMRDA, this transportation corridor, which is a hundred metres wide, is at the centre of a plan for a region that needs new ways to travel, and new places to travel from. To NAINA, the agency that is charged with planning a large swathe of land outside Panvel, this road is a main artery, sending cars and trains into commercial centres and new homes whose names – La Riveria, Uptown Avenue, Jupiter Commanders Renaissance – evoke a life outside India.
It isn’t clear how much the road and this place are spurring each other into being. What we know is that the corridor is important, and that the land it requires will be acquired. What we know is that everybody knows it is coming, and they are either doubling down in the knowledge (or hope) that it will pass by harmlessly, or scampering to get out of the way, or, further down the ladder of economic importance, sitting tight and mustering all the support they can find.
The boys at the adharghar know about the road. Of course, their faces go. “Seth told us this house is going,” Balu Patil, a lean and watchful young man, says. In a neighbourhood where the jangle of money can almost be heard, his work as a caretaker here keeps him relatively deprived. He grew up in a home that looked after lepers and abandoned people, and has kept at it after his tenth-standard exams. “That is where my childhood went,” he says. Childhood is recent for Balu, who is just 26 years old.
The old folks’ home carries no sign. To find it, one must know it is there. Old children who seek something like it for their parents usually hear of it from a friend. Sometimes the parents make their own inquiries out of consideration for their young, and show themselves out. This journey, when it is finally undertaken, is long and gripped with remorse. They arrive at a sign for car repairs, along the road from Panvel to Matheran. An ajar front door reveals no workshop, only a squat building’s living room filled with rows of beds, each taken up by an aged person who wants to sleep. A scent wafts out without warning and turns the viewer into an unwilling participant – the sharp musty odour of medicines and age and thick cotton chadars that summons a particular vision of the future. This fate is not a certainty, but it is the one before them at present, and feels like a judgment.
To work here turns the remarkable into an everyday occurrence. Amit Shirke, whose uncle has left him in charge of the home, says, “There’s no time, and there’s also a lot of time.” The 30 residents are called “inmates” because “they are not patients,” Amit says. “We call them nivasi, they are like family.” They’re in excellent health. They aren’t on any medicines. “All we do is look after them. But their children, who are 50 or 60, have diabetes, blood pressure, sugar. They have those problems. And their children too.”
He thinks the purity of the air here extends life. “That man, there,” he points to a large scruffy 95-year-old whose head is raised on a pillow, who watches us constantly. His wife died three years after they admitted themselves together. “He hasn’t been sick for ten years.” The paralysed man agrees, raising eight or nine unsteady digits. “Ten years,” he says, forcing out the words through a smile for new company.
These family members are from the city. Mumbai, Pune, and Navi Mumbai. But mostly Mumbai. “The first problem is space,” Amit says. Time passes, families grow, apartments shrink. “Their children’s children’s children make it a big family.” And caretakers are hard to find. “A man has to take a day off, no?” Amit says. “And what will happen that day, when they are all at home in that small space? It will be difficult for everybody.”
A chicken walking along startles itself, bolts inside and ambles back out.
“There’s nobody here to talk to them. Their kids aren’t there. Or they are bachelors. They have more problems. There are about ten people here with no children, or no spouse. And it’s not like other old age homes here. They send sick people to the hospital, or back home. We started this place for that reason. In bigger homes, where we worked, if a patient could not go to the toilet, he would be sent home. It’s like, ‘stay in your room, come to the canteen to eat, then go back to your room to sleep’. Old people can’t move like that.”
The facility seems to take in the disabled too, however old or young they may be. The primary consideration for entry here is helplessness. About a decade ago, a young girl from Nere entered a jungle nearby. Hours later, anxious family found her immobile and sick. They deduced from the froth on her lips that a snake had poisoned her. Tests revealed no reason for the aberration, and she was sent home. Amit describes her years after that with his fingers: they bend, curl, and hold tight, like a midnight spasm that teeters between pain and pain. This was her body, growing steadily tighter, curling until she could not move. Her father gave up, and her mother died. Now I walk by her withered frame, the drape of her clothes defined more by bone than mass, and she looks back. I focus on the bottle of powder and comb balanced on a grill above her until she looks elsewhere.
There are very few rules here. So the woman with the foul mouth upstairs can clean her teeth obsessively without interference. The man in the room can make birds out of paper all day. One resident, a former bank employee, comes and goes as he wishes, just happy to have a family. At home, family bathed the paralysed man once a week. Here he experiences one of the home’s few rules: a bath everyday.
Eight people work here. Today, two of them are taking the day off. Meanwhile there are meals to prepare, tea to serve, chats to be had, firm shoulders to lend. Amit waits outside. The place runs itself. He studied till the tenth, and dropped out after failing. Just today he has returned from Panvel, where he has applied for a bachelor of arts correspondence degree. He feels the need for a degree more urgently now. The home has been his to manage and mould but he’s about to get married. He thinks he should focus now, a recent belief he isn’t completely convinced by. “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”
There’s money to be made in this, but he isn’t in it for the money. He says that other homes close by have made it a profession. Not for them the nothing income that this home lives on. “They want patients who can manage themselves. There’s a place in Pune that charges Rs 35,000 a month. There’s one more in Magarpatta that costs Rs 50,000 a month. There are many people who can give you that kind of money.” He calls the home a “final destination” for its residents. No one is sent away. They can stay here until they die.
Another time he said to me, “There’s no loss, and no profit in this.” Being part of the family here is cheap, all things considered: 6500 a month, although some people don’t pay for months and others, not at all. And the expenses are consistently large. The monthly light bill is around 7000. Milk costs 4000. Salaries are 30,000. The rent is another 30,000. Food is about 40,000. And five kilograms of vegetables everyday add up to nearly 15,000 a month.
Land acquisition in the area has led to a unique situation. Salaries have gone up, and the locals don’t work, Amit says. This rings true. Seeing grown men well-groomed and reasonably well-off chatting, hanging about, doing nothing after lunchtime in Nere is a common sight. One beneficiary has made a massive temple inside his house, and does nothing else. Amit explains, “Money has come to everyone now. And they don’t need to work. They have money, so they’re sitting at home. They should do work. But they only say, ‘Give me the contract. Give me the contract for this, give me the contract for that’. We don’t get locals helping out. We’ve tried looking for people. But nobody comes. They say, ‘What will I do with 5000, what will I do with 6000? I’m getting offers of interest for 10000, 15000.’ And our work requires you to keep cool. Here there’s not one straight person. Anything happens, they start fighting.
“First they had nothing. I mean, they didn’t even have a bicycle. Now they have an Audi, a Fortuner. Now they don’t need to work. They had land, which they sold for one or two crores. They think this money is going to last. There must be about 20% of people who’ve made good use of the money. Everyone else has made big houses, bought big cars, and finished the money in other ways. Later there’s going to be problems for people. It’s begun to happen. People who sold their land are today watchmen on their own land. After the money gets over, they understand the value of money.”
A friend of his received seven lakhs for his land. The amount was incomprehensible to those who had nothing, and the family straightaway ran through it enthusiastically. “They started making a house. They spent too much money at the start, and now they’re stuck. The house is not complete. His father wasn’t educated. He signed on a paper, and took whatever was offered.” Looking around himself, he spoke in a low voice because his friend was nearby.
They can barely cover the repair work. He thinks the landlord decided to not maintain the house knowing that the road would come by. “He’ll get another place in exchange for this, which is why he didn’t do any renovations in the last year. He knows. He used to work in Anna Hazare’s trust. The MLAs know about these things first.” Everything leaks in the rain.
“There’s a station here,” Amit says, pointing to a spot on the road outside: “that’s what people say.” The residents don’t know about it, but Amit believes they’ll go wherever the home goes.
I ask Amit why he is in this line of work. The region is spellbound by land, but Amit and a friend who has just joined us, Rohit, are guided by a different compass. For months, my conversations have been about land and its uses. These two are cheerfully dismissive of extravagant displays of wealth by the newly moneyed, perhaps because they have no land to claim as their own. So what do they do? They build things.
Two years ago, after quietly raising about 30,000 rupees from friends, the boys found a turbine, rummaged through a junk scooter for its gears, and commissioned a sawmill to make long wooden fan blades. They constructed a wooden windmill on the terrace above. The blades rotated slowly in the gentle breeze. There was no doubt it was a prototype. But it worked. A bulb lit up. Two days later, a wind stronger than a breeze brought the windmill down, breaking it completely. Amit recalls the debt and begins to giggle and clap his hands.
“We didn’t weld it to the floor properly,” Rohit says. On the whole, though, the experience was positive. “We took the risk. We didn’t tell anyone. Had we told family, it would have been ‘where is the money coming from, why are you doing it, why this, why that’. We had it on paper. We made it work practically. Now we’ll keep trying.”
Now they produce air coolers for 7000 bucks as and when someone wants them. In the last year they’ve written to Narendra Modi a bunch of times. Both Rohit and Amit believe that a throwaway line in one of the PM’s addresses – about water diversion – was an acknowledgement of a suggestion they had made. “There’s no lack of ambition. But they’re not able to do it because there’s no funding. There’s nobody to back you up,” Rohit says. He starts dissecting the spending habits of locals, ruefully listing familiar categories: temples, lavish weddings, big cars.
The road that will come through feels inevitable. It winds this way and that, following an unexplained logic, leaving rumour in its wake. The boys think so too. “Of course it’s true,” one of them says. “Shouldn’t the road be straight?” If the plan holds, this home will likely be a casualty. It could take a while. The road begins at Navghar, to the north, and the engineer in charge of it says, “there’s zero land available for this project.”
They’ve begun to prepare for it by inquiring about a place for the home elsewhere. What they do needs no fixed location.
As for themselves, the boys don’t think they’ll ever leave this part of Maharashtra, even if there’s no financial support for their business ideas. “Why would we go elsewhere?” Amit says “This is where we need to do our work. This is where it is needed.”