The two of them were waiting for her in Ghatge’s office. It was cool inside; Neera barely heard the hum of the new air-conditioner. The refrigerated breeze on her bare arms felt blissful. It reminded her of long-ago walks on the Marine Drive, or along the Gateway and the Taj Hotel. She had been with someone then; someone always at the edge of her memory, who slipped in at moments like this. The memory came back to her with a sweet pang.

“It’s nice of you to meet us.” Raina was in jeans and kurti, her hair was tied back firmly, and her features appeared sharp and clear. She pointed to the young man with her and introduced him as Jeet. He lifted his camera to his forehead, in a gesture both obsequious and cheeky.

Raina smiled, almost as if to reassure her about what lay ahead and Neera did too, allowing herself to relax, swivelling a little on the leather chair. From the windows, she saw life unfolding by habit all around her in the chawls of the millworkers.

A new high-rise called the Marathon now rose just where the chawl building gave way. Neera could see the taller, more imposing gate of the new building and the driveway that ran for almost a mile before ending at an impressive lobby complete with a Roman fountain. When construction had begun, the Marathon, at twenty-five floors, was one of the tallest in the city but, three years later, it was already a dwarf, adding to the ugly acne on the city’s face.

Everywhere she saw the aggressive new jostling out the old. At the other end of the crossing, where the old mill showroom had once been, was the new pub. The tea stall where the workers and union members had gathered still stood. The old storehouse where the old union office had its records was now marked with a brown nondescript door, with the heavy lock on it. Scooters and bikes were parked haphazardly around but even two decades ago, it had been a plain ordinary building, just as overgrown with weeds as now.

Jeet, training his camera on Neera, had her do several things. He made her face the window, walk to the door, stand against the shelves with all the recent files, then asked her to sit at the table. He was polite though, even when he asked Raina to help Neera arrange her sari a bit differently around herself. Raina’s fingers were cool around her neck as she rearranged the pleats on Neera’s sari.

“Too many photos,” Neera finally murmured. Raina smiled in her languid friendly way, saying photos spoke more than words did these days. “It will make the readers read you. Seeing is believing, right?”

Raina nodded at the photo when Jeet held out his camera toward her, and then began, in an offhand way. “All this needs explaining.” Raina’s hands waved, indicating the office and the world outside.

“What happened and how? And for a long while you were involved with the union politics and leading the workers’ struggle, weren’t you, Neeraji?”

“Yes, a long time ago.” Neera’s words came slow. She pointed to the old shed across the road, with its metal door and the chain lock. “That was the old office; this is a far plusher place.” She wondered if this was what she really wanted to say. Her eyes met Raina’s briefly before she went on. “The union leaders are different now. Maybe you need someone who can better manage things…or to talk to the people above, the politicians. The workers, the people, don’t figure anywhere.”

She rose to look out of the window. Neera knew now why she had agreed to meet the journalists. There was something in the girl’s voice, something precise and to the point. She wasn’t one for playing around with emotions. Haltingly, Neera told them then, bits that came to her easily, about the story of the union in the city, the twists and turns the struggle had taken. The movement the workers had led, that had fought for a new state more than four decades ago, had been disbanded soon after the state had come into being.

That, Neera still believed, was a mistake by the left parties, for then the Native People’s Party had simply swamped everything, taken all credit for itself. The workers had lost their identity, their sense of pride and now all they had left was a narrower and more constricted sense of themselves. It left nothing but hatred for those who were different.

Raina went on to ask her about present-day issues, things at least some journalists were still familiar with: the issue with the mill land, the workers’ compensation and if they were being given a fair share in the planned new housing constructions. Neera shrugged, then took a chance. She asked Raina if she would like to go around the chawls, see things for herself. The girl readily agreed, ignoring the silent message in Jeet’s eyes.

“Some of this ought to be preserved,” Neera was pointing to the greying four-storey buildings on the other side of the road that abutted the wall.

Almost every window was differently coloured, with a creeper clinging to the wall, drooping over the ledges. The red tiles on the roof were now blackened in places. No matter what the season, pigeons and gulls clustered on the tiles.

They walked out in that late afternoon, crossing the road to where the chawl was. The ground floor stood a foot higher from the ground, lined with columns and a verandah that led to the rooms inside. The rooms on every floor were alike in every way, but every occupant, no matter how temporary, took care to do things just that bit differently. Doors were painted in various colours, some floors had a flower pattern in front, drawn in coloured powder, and water vessels and buckets stood outside every room. They walked up the short flight of steps, ducked under the cloth awning, the clotheslines and felt the touch of the creepers on their faces.

As they neared, someone came rushing down the staircase, and because her smile was directed at both of them, Neera guessed Pooja knew the other girl. “Nice to see you here, Tai,” she said to Neera while Raina murmured, somewhat distractedly, “Always so busy.” Pooja tossed a smile back in acknowledgement, “Just like you, Raina didi.” They looked at Pooja walking quickly away, then at each other. Pooja had that effect and Neera wondered if Raina had seen what she had. The quiet darkness on Pooja’s face, dismissed by the quick smile. “She does a lot of work. The women always do.” Neera’s voice trailed off.

“It’d be a pity…” she sighed again. “A pity if they didn’t get the compensation they truly deserve if the builders have their way and this land all goes…”

The women were beginning to understand, Neera thought. They knew things happened one at a time. But the men wanted too much at once: a good apartment, preferably with a sea view, a job and then not just a job, but a proper government one. For the men still liked doing nothing much and ordering everyone around. Hadn’t they learnt by now – too much radical change was just impossible? So much blood had already been shed in the name of revolution. You took it little by little and that was enough.

Coming Back to the City

Excerpted with permission from “Neera Joshi’s Unfinished Book”, from Coming Back to the City: Mumbai Stories, Anu Kumar, Speaking Tiger.