The alarm rang at six-fifteen the next morning. Anita Dhanraj did not want to be late for her yoga session. Stifling a yawn, her manicured hand with mauve-coloured nails paused mid-air when she heard laughter and realised she was not alone. To her horror, she sat up to find people staring at her. They were squatting all over the Italian marble floor of her bedroom. There were so many of them: twenty or maybe even thirty. She covered her mouth to suppress a loud scream. How did they get into her home?
Most of them were women, and there were children too. Two suckled at their mothers’ breasts. A little boy made a peculiar noise as he rubbed glass marbles in his hands. A girl sniffled and the mucous went back up her nostrils, only to leak out again a moment later. Her big, unblinking eyes remained fixed on the fair woman on the bed, as did everyone else’s in the room. One of the women tittered and a few more joined in.
As Anita Dhanraj remained calm on the outside, a sense of panic rose within her. She fidgeted with her silky jet-black hair and hugged herself as she wore a silk gown over her skimpy nightie. Her eyes darted to the bedside table, seeking out the leather box that held her jewellery. Just then an old woman walked towards her, hand upheld to reveal three diamond rings on her fingers and a pair of diamond-drop earrings between her lips. Throwing the leather box at her, she pulled out the earrings from between her lips, held them against her cheeks and smiled. Anita Dhanraj let out a long scream. The women just sat and stared, as if nothing unusual was happening.
Where did all these people come from? Anita wondered if she should talk to them to find out. But what were they all doing in her bedroom early in the morning?
And where was her husband? What had happened to her retinue of servants? She did not know that most of them had been given a laddoo laced with powdered sleeping pills by the servant in charge. The security guards too had eaten the laddoos with much relish.
She looked for her cell phone, but a girl was playing a game on it while two little boys watched. She looked at the bedroom door. It was shut and two women sat leaning against it. She hugged herself tighter. She dreaded to think what might be on the other side: the husbands of these women? She shuddered at the thought of strange men huddled together outside her room.
As it turned out, she was right. Like the women and children gathered in her bedroom, there were men, women and children all over the city of Mumbai. Sitting and squatting on the streets and the maidans. Traffic throughout the city had come to a halt and the government machinery was busy communicating over telephones.
An idea struck her and she pulled out the drawer of the bedside table. Deep inside rested a small box of her favourite chocolates in golden wrappers. She held out one of them and beckoned the girl playing with her cell phone, “Chuchuch, chuchuch”.
The girl ran to her, holding her hand forward to pick up the chocolate. Anita closed her palm. The girl understood, returned the cell phone, unwrapped the golden foil of her reward and popped it into her mouth as she toddled away. The two little boys stretched out their hands and received a chocolate each.
Anita pushed the chocolate box back into the drawer and phoned her friend Sumati, the Chief Minister’s wife, but she could not get through. Next, she tried her husband Uday’s number. That, too, did not work. In a panic, she ran to the door of her bedroom and pushed aside the woman sitting against it. She opened the door and saw that the house was filled with men. All strangers. She closed the door and bolted it. The women in the room continued to stare at her. She switched on the television. When she flicked the remote to a news channel, she felt relieved to be safe in her room, at least for now.
The morning had brought the city of Mumbai, not to mention most of the country, to a standstill. People in their homes watched the news while events played out outside.
All along the streets, people were sitting on the roads and the footpaths. Men in white tunics and pyjamas or shirts and trousers stood or sat amongst the crowd. Some men were in dhotis and sported bright turbans or white topis. The women were in saris, their pallus covering their heads or only the shoulders. Many women were in salwar kameez. There were children too, girls in frocks and boys in oversized, soiled T-shirts and shorts, some sitting, many of them standing.
So it had happened. People from rural India had marched into the cities, claiming their rightful place in the nation’s prosperity. They wanted a share – a fair share in the better life that their urban countrymen had been enjoying every day of their lives. As the news spread during the course of the day, it became clear that others too had joined the farmers in their protest rally. Other people from the village community, cowherds and shepherds, weavers and blacksmiths, potters and cobblers, had all lent their support, standing rm alongside the farmers. The city folk were not far behind. Slumdwellers showed solidarity too. They only had to walk out of their homes and occupy the streets and maidans situated close to the slums. They entered building compounds and filled up the empty spaces they found. It was a peaceful protest. But as the sheer number of people blocking up the streets and empty grounds rose, fears and rumours of potential violence spread.
How did this come about? Why now? What triggered it?
In a year when the country was facing drought, a group of farmers in Maharashtra, who could not remember when they had had their last good meal, were closely watching the news in the only village home that had a television. They were tired not from working in the fields but from waiting for the rains. They were aware that at this late juncture, even if it rained, the crop yield would only be a fraction of what they’d hoped for, or none at all. Four farmers from the village had killed themselves in the last few weeks. The others watched the television with eyes as dry and parched as the land, feeling as powerless as the emaciated children on the screen. Silently they watched their own story being told to them by a man in a suit and tie. A woman broke into quiet sobs. But soon there was a commercial break, with advertisements for shampoo, cars and pizza oozing with cheese. This was followed by the next big news item – a wedding reception held in Mumbai. The bride was the daughter of a government minister, the groom the son of an industrialist with a business empire in petrochemicals, infrastructure and mining. The opulence of the wedding was on full display. The woman who had been sobbing quietly stood up.
She picked up a small earthen pot nearby and hurled it at the television screen. Others in the room stood up and watched her in silence as someone switched off the television. They all returned to their own houses, but no one slept that night.
In the morning, one of the men from the village, who happened to be a part of Vikram’s network, told him it was time to act on their plan. Vikram spread the word and sent messages to the set of contacts who were the principal nodes in his database. They in turn sent messages to people in their own list and so on, until all the people in villages, towns and cities received the message. They also informed the police and permission was sought for a peaceful march and assembly in the Azad maidan in Mumbai, and several parks and maidans in all the towns and cities across the country. Nobody had envisaged the scale of the march. Nobody had expected that everything would come to a complete halt.
Within six days, the villagers started to walk or take bus rides to the nearest railway station and board trains to Mumbai. Word got around to other villages, districts, and across states. It is time, six days from now. That was the message. They had often talked about doing this and had been eagerly anticipating it. All over the country, the poor left their villages and started moving towards the cities, to all the state capitals. Vikram informed Trevor and Mallika, his principal contacts in Mumbai that they will be at the Azad maidan. Trevor and Mallika contacted many others within the city who had joined the network, many of whom were students, social workers and young professionals. Trevor also contacted people who formed a hidden majority of the network – the men and women who lived in Mumbai’s innumerable slums and shanties. People who earned their living as workers in small factories, mills, meat shops, metal works, car repair, those selling goods in small matchbox-sized shops, domestic helps, nurses, autorickshaw and taxi drivers.
And that is how Mumbai stopped as the trains, buses, and every available space on the roads were occupied by people. Those people in the city who had not yet left their homes for work stayed put. But those who were on their way to work or school or the market, were left stranded wherever they happened to be and stood bewildered, unable to fully fathom the implications of this new development. The city had come to a halt many a times owing to rains flooding the roads and railway tracks, riots, or strikes like the one organised three weeks ago.
But this was different. This was unusual. These people were on a silent march. A long march. There were so many of them that the authorities could take no action.
Invisible to this world when tucked away in their villages, these people and their silent distress had now come into the midst of city life, its streets, restaurants and coffee-shops, the drawing rooms of the middle-classes and the rich. They slept there through the night as groups reached the city until the morning. A majority of the people spent the few hours of the night in parks, playgrounds and maidans until day-break.
There was no question of dispersing such a massive gathering with a lathi-charge or shelling tear gas, for they were simply occupying the spaces; there had been no violence. It did not seem like they would return to their towns and villages unless the government spoke to their leaders and convinced them that something would be done to address their grievances. There was no time to form committees, delay decisions, or resort to any of the usual ploys to deal with such critical situations. It was an administrative and logistical nightmare that couldn’t be solved with political manoeuvring. What were they to do?
Excerpted with permission from The Long March, Namita Waikar, Speaking Tiger.