The Shadow of the Riots - Pathare Prabhus in a Muslim Mohalla

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published on: December 1, 1997

 
The demolition of a mosque in a small town in U.P., in December 1992, created such powerful shock waves that in its bloody aftermath, even distant Bombay, the
cosmopolitan capital of India, lost its innocence. Five years later, memories of what neighbour did to neighbour in that moment of trial by fire are fresh in most peoples minds. Memories of bonding, memories of betrayal. The recollections of a single Pathare Prabhu family of their own experience living in the lap of Baba Maqdoom Shahs durgah in Mahim through those troubled times give room for a lot of hope.but also some doubt.
 
Pathare Prabhus:
 
Their clan was one of the foremost entrants, community-wise to Mumbai. They came, history tells us, with Raja Bhimdev from Gujarat, a ruler of the 12th century A.D. who made Mahikkawati (today’s Mahim) his capital. Even today, Diwali is a unique celebration for the Pathare Prabhus, observed with the anointing the placation of Baliraja, an Asura Deva whose power, legend has it, posed a threat to Lord Indra.
 
So while in the proverbial Deva-Asura battle, Indra needed to prove supremacy, Baliraja for his inherent strength and power needs space and devotion too – home-made diyas carved out of the cactus plant greet him every Diwali. Only a fraction of the 8,000 or so Pathare Prabhus that today inhabit Mumbai still honour him.
 
One such family, the Dhairyavaans, has lived in a secluded, typically Maharashtrian Hindu waadi in the lap of the Baba Maqdoom Shah’s durgah in Mahim. This durgah, also intrinsically linked with Mahim and its ancient history, was built in the early 15th century and is deeply revered by them too. Many Pathare Prabhus who today have their homes in Thakurdwar and Nathardwara had, earlier, second homes in Mahim, a place for “thandi hawa” (cool breeze) which they visited especially in the month of December when the annual urs or procession honouring the Baba took and still takes place.
 
And the Dhairyavaans, who have an annual family re-union party during urs, to enable those branches of the family who have moved out of Mahim to pay their respects at the shrine, believe it is this Baba who gave them protection and succour during the searing violence that rocked Mumbai in December 1992-January 1993.
 
Before her marriage, the Dhairyavaan daughter sought blessings not from a Pathare Prabhu temple but from the durgah of Baba Maqdoom Shah. Seven other Maharshtrian Hindu families lived here throughout that period, safe from the frenzy of Mumbai’s violence. Seventy per cent of the devotees who visit Baba Maqdoom’s durgah every Guruvar or Jummeraat, even today, are Maharashtrian and non-Muslim.
 
Mother: What a long association my husband’s family has had, with this place. It is almost 60 years since they have lived here. My husband was born in this house. And we were right here during the riots. Nothing happened to us. The Muslims who live here, our neighbours, they were very good with us. Why should we speak lies of our neighbours?
 
We also go to the durgah. Babani buddhi dili asel, kaay sangava? Jari amhi nighoon gelo asto tar amchi gharachi haal jhali asti (May be the Baba gave them good sense, may be if we had abandoned our homes, things would have been ruined). All we know is they did not touch a hair on our foreheads. May be because we’ve been their neighbours for generations, the fact was that we trusted them and stayed on.
 
The only night that fear got the better of us was on January 10 (1993) when the Mahim timber mart was set aflame. Amhi Afzalche gharaat ek raat kadli hoti. Mussalmanacha gharaat amhi ek raat kadli hoti (That night we sought shelter in Afzal’s house, the house of a Muslim).
 
Son:    And the next morning (January 11) was the only time that we considered leaving the locality as some of them even advised us to leave for a few days, promising us safe escort. Why did we even think of leaving?
 
Mother: Because as all of us, them and us, watched with horror the sight of the flames engulfing the Mahim timber mart, some of them advised us, “God knows, after such a tragedy what thoughts and emotions may motivate some into undesirable acts. I then packed up a few things in readiness. But who feels like throwing away good food?
 
I had only called my neighbours and asked them, “What should I do with all this food?” That’s when 25 of their youngsters begged us with tears in their eyes not to leave. It made us feel very wanted in this neighbourhood; the feeling of how much these people love us. How can I forget the look in their eyes?
 
WHAT I could not help thinking of was that there were hundreds and thousands of them (Muslims) who had been coming here since December 10 from other areas like Mian Maqdoom Nagar (where their houses were burnt down), having suffered greatly. Me ani majhe mister aat jaaoon tyana pahoon allele ahet. (My husband and I even visited those who had sought refuge inside the durgah because their homes were burnt). Actually, 25 people had sought shelter even in our waadi.
 
As I was saying, as soon news of our decision spread, a group of 25 came to our doorstep and promised us protection with tears in their eyes. “Tumhi jaycha nahin, (You must not go), not a hair on your body will be touched.” Why did they say this that day? What was in their mind? I don’t know. “We will be right in front if you face any danger?” they had sworn. Why did they say that? I don’t know. But they did.
 
At that time, too, I remember thanking God that they did not have vile thoughts of revenge, of getting back at us here. We and our family were safe and secure while such horrid things had happened to them and their people. That’s a little bit of God’s grace, that He did not give them these bad thoughts. They did not think to themselves, “Look these Hindus in our midst are safe, nothing has happened to them”, and react in anger.
 
They went all out of protect us. So we stayed on. We were never afraid of our immediate neighbours. The Mahim Mussalman we knew and felt safe with, but what of the Mussalmaans from outside who came here having experienced deep suffering? Would they harbour thoughts of revenge? But we remained safe.
 
And what was the reaction when we narrated this whole experience to our people outside Mahim? “They cleverly held you hostage,” they would say. Maybe! Maybe, not! If their lives were safer because we were here as hostage, then what was the harm, there was only advantage in our staying here!
 
We were fifty, they were 500. What were their motives? Were they noble? Who knows? Let it be. They requested us to stay, with tears in their eyes and we did. That’s all that matters.
 
That was a terrible period. We know many from both communities did protect each other. But we also know that in many parts of Mumbai, these riots made many more friends and neighbours stab each other in the back and turn enemies. Amcha kade amahala tasa anubhav ala nahin (Here, we did not have such a terrible experience). So how can we speak but the truth?
 
Our relations have been and still are good. We share our phone with them. We have never refused anyone entry into our home. How many Muslim children have played within the four walls of this house and within the courtyard of our waadi. Even my mother-in-law, a woman of the older generation, has never differentiated between people, between children.
 
Since the time that I came as a young bride to this home in 1969, I have observed this. I’m sure that they must also be thinking that since these people have never bothered or hurt us, why should we hurt them?
 
Son:    My Aaji, (grand-mother), who is very old now, knows when the first sandal for the urs is about to be offered and the procession is ready to start. They have never regarded us as “other”. So, naturally we have the same feeling about them; we don’t feel that they are different or separate. But many people from outside Mahim taunt us, “Why do you stay on there?” or, “How can you stay on there?”
 
Mother: Many of our people, Hindus, from neighbouring Shivaji Park area, Parel, Dadar etc. go even further and ask, “Have you become Muslims or what?”
 
Daughter (Married outside Mahim to a Pathare Prabhu): The understanding between the older generation of both communities has been good. This does not mean that my brother’s generation will have the same understanding, trust or mutual goodwill.
 
Son: But how can we forget that though we are in the minority here, they protected us. How can there be no goodwill therefore in our minds about this?

We also go to the durgah. Babani buddhi dili asel, kaay sangava? Jari amhi nighoon gelo asto tar amchi gharachi haal jhali asti (May be the Baba gave them good sense, may be if we had abandoned our homes, things would have been ruined). All we know is they did not touch a hair on our foreheads. May be because we’ve been their neighbours for generations, the fact was that we trusted them and stayed on.”
 
Mother: Not only were we safe, our neighbours were, too. On December 10, there was a wedding in our neighbour’s family. Here, in a violence-rocked, Muslim-majority mohallas called Mahim all the celebrations could take place without a hitch. But, ironically, at a hall in Dadar, the place booked for the actual ceremony the wedding party was not considered safe. There was curfew so the wedding party came into this Muslim mohallas by evening, for safety. It was really a unique situation.
 
Once they reached here, Hindu women wearing nine yard sarees-could their identity have been in doubt—and decked up in jewellery. They all had safe passage. What should we say to that?
 
Mother: I feel very strongly about something else. Much of the treatment that we receive from people here is dependent upon our relations with them, the sort of feelings of neighbourliness that we offer.
 
Many of our people from outside Mahim taunt us, “How do you know how they will behave?” How can we explain? Even in 1947, during the Partition riots, my father-in-law stayed on here, he did not budge from his home. Muslims would escort him to the station to work every single day.My husband has grown up knowing that this is how this neighbourhood has treated his father, and his family. And even today, the entire Mahim mohalla gives so much respect to my husband.
 
Mother : What else did we see those days? That these people, our Muslim neighbours, were not the rioters. And, in turn, what did they see? That we were not fomenter of trouble. Those who indulged in violence were others. They wanted peace, so did we. Their children were as vulnerable as ours were. Who protected whom, te tar to jaane! (she points in the direction of the Baba’s dargah).
 
Do you know, on one of those nights the police came? It was about 10.30 p.m. My husband was deep asleep. Te tar bindaas zopayche (He would sleep every night without a worry in the world). Tyanche manat kahich kalji nasaychi (He had no anxiety in his mind). He would simply refuse to stay awake with us. Tumhi basa, majhe Baba ahait na? Me zhopnar (You stay awake, my Baba is there, isn’t he? So, I will sleep). He was not scared of anything.
 
So that night when the police came and we woke up my husband. The police asked, “Do you want protection?” Without a moment’s thought or hesitation, my husband said, “Kasa protection? (What protection?). I don’t want any protection. Te ahe, (Baba is there). I have full faith in him, he will protect me.
 
And that saved us. If the police had come, the mistrust would have crept in. And my husband said this to the police without a moment’s hesitation.
 
One day there was a rumour that the milk in Mahim was being poisoned. Who came to caution us? Our neighbour, Najma, a Muslim woman.
 
Son: Every single night Baba (father) and I would stand and wait around at the Afzal Sweet Mart on the main road. I cannot forget one day when things seemed very tense. Twenty of us were huddled for a while, in our neighbour, Najma’s house before we went to the shop where we gathered every night.
 
Can you believe it? Not a single policeman in the area and Hindus and Muslims sitting together at a shop, a Muslim’s shop? Without any policeman in sight, we were the only Hindus with all Muslims on the street. That night’s experience was a unique one for me. After the experience of that night nobody can ever say to me, “He is a Muslim. Let’s kill him.” It won’t work. Why should we harm anyone when they have done nothing to harm us?
 
Do you know what many of my friends (Hindus) from the neighbouring locality used to say to me? You see, my father has a beard, whitened with years, that he dyes with mehendi. “Kaay, tu kaal ratri laandya barobar phirat hota kaay?” (Hey, were you moving around with a Muslim last night or what?)
 
Mother: I’m telling you, during January 1993, when curfew was lifted for a half-an-hour in Mahim, this son of mine and my mister stepped out one night for medicines. My husband returned a while later without my son. Naturally we got worried. It was Najma who helped us again.
 
Coming out of her home she asked, “What happened? Where’s your son?” My son had gone off to the Makrand Housing Society nearby and stood there talking to his friends! Najma along with other Muslim women came out of their homes, refusing to allow either me or my mister to step out of ours. They went right up to Makarand, a Hindu building, hunted out my son and brought him home to me.
 
Son: Then there was this other incident, the day it all started in December.
 
Mother: These two girls (my nieces) studying in Bombay Scottish school were stranded there. We panicked. How would they get home? Other people had rescued their children in ambulances etc. Again it was Najma’s son who helped.
           
“What is it?” he asked my son. “How do I go and get these girls?” my son told him. “Arre, come on. Sit on my scooter.” Another Muslim boy took out a second scooter and they went with me to fetch our girls to safety. “Why should you?”, my son had demurred then, “you must have your own family to look after. “Come on, it doesn’t matter”, they had replied, ignoring him and went off, driving without a thought through a Hindu locality right up to the school and rescued our girls. And, God, did we breathe a sigh of relief once they were brought home safely!
 
Garajache velli amhi haak konali maarli? (When it came to the crunch, in time of real need, whom did we beckon? Whose help did we seek? Muslims.
 
Do you know how much faith my husband and his whole family has in the Baba? The baang (azaan) is so much part of our lives now. We awaken to the sound of the baang. Kahi lokaanna baang mhatla tar trass hoto, amhala nahin, (For some people the sound of the muezzin’s call is a problem, not so for us). If for some reason the baang is not heard first thing in the morning, my in-laws feel restless and disoriented.
 
See how my (one year old) grand-daughter says “Allah O akbar” so well. She even calls her cousin sister, Aapa.
 
Mother: What are our reasons for staying on in Mahim? Govind Dhairyavaan, my mister (husband). His faith in the durgah is so deep, we all believe that we live in its and His protection. There is also another reason. He says to me, “Here I have recognition, every family knows me. When I walk down the street, I am Govind Dhairyavaan not a non-entity.”
 
Though I am his wife, sometimes the thought of leaving does enter my head. Especially after the division of our home into two sections, our living area has become small. But he (my husband) is not willing to budge from here.
 
“If we shift anywhere who will know and recognise me?” he asks.
 
When my daughter got married, everybody from Afzal to so many others came to ask, “Govindbhai kuch help chaiye?” (Do you need some assistance?) And who put up the mandap for the wedding? Rashidbhai. His mandap was there for a whole week, from February 26 to March 3, when the wedding took place. But he refused to say a word about the hire despite being pressed by us, “Hamaari ladki hai, paise kaise lenge?” (It is our daughters wedding, how can we talk of money?). We then donated some money to the durgah as compensation!
 
Take the case of Dr. Adam Memon. His father was with my husband in the BEST (Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking). They also had a bag shop, Apsara Bags.
 
One day, my mister asked him, “What is your son doing now?”
 
“Nothing, “Adam Memon replied. “He has passed with a first class in Inter Science and is now sitting at the shop.” And there went my mister marching to the shop.
 
“What’s wrong with you, passing first class and wasting yourself? Get into medical college.” “How can he? Who will get him admission?” said Babubhai, the father. My husband and another old gentleman who is no more helped this young man get his admission.
 
To this day, his grand-mother and even his wife remember. And they keep on saying, “If this boy is a doctor today, it is because of Dhairyavaan.”
 
“I did not study, the hard work was his own” my mister demurs.
 
“But you were the one who lifted him out of the shop that day,” they reply. His wife, now with sons of her own, who have also become doctors – my mister got them admitted to King George’s an English medium school, too – adds, “Dhairyavaan made my husband a doctor, got my sons admission, now my grandchildren will also get admission through Dhairyavaan.” “Tujha tondat ghee-shakkar (May it be so)”, I reply, “You have given my husband such a long life!”

The only night that fear got the better of us was on January 10 (1993) when the Mahim timber mart was set aflame. Amhi Afzalche gharaat ek raat kadli hoti. (That night we sought shelter in Afzal’s house, the house of a Muslim), the Mahim Mussalman we knew and felt safe with, but what of the Mussalmans from outside who came here having experienced deep suffering? Would they harbour thoughts of revenge? But we remained safe
 
You see, its because of these experiences that we believe and say what we do. But when I tell these stories to Hindus living in an all-Hindu area, do you know what their reaction is?
 
“This woman is mad,” they say, and ask, “what kind of a woman is she? Why does she value them so much? When they stab them in the back she’ll know!”
 
When we hear such comments, we shut up. “Pathi-maagani war karanri log ahe (They are a community of back-stabbers), never trust them”, they advise. But we know the truth out of our own experience. That will forever stay with us.
 
Finally, our advisors scoff, “Are you Hindus at all? Hey Mussalmaan tar jhale nahin (Have they become Muslims or what?)”
 
This makes me angry. Come here and see how I live, I feel like telling them. The way Diwali is celebrated in my Pathare Prabhu home and waadi, none of you can even begin to celebrate it. All our Hindu festivals, Holi, Navratra, Diwali, are observed here in our small waadi in the lap of Baba Maqdoom’s durgah with such dhoom-dhaam.
 
Out courtyard is the venue for all our celebrations and the neighbouring Muslim boys come and watch. Te amche daara paryant yetat, amhi tyanche daarat jaato… (They come to our doorstep, we go to theirs).
 
But beyond this who can say? We may have to move out of Mahim for other reasons, when my son gets married. Young couples these days need the privacy of a separate room.
 
Also, another thought occurs to us and doubts creep in sometimes: What of the next generation? Will the same sentiment and closeness and understanding prevail? So far it has. But with my son’s generation? Who knows?
 
Father: There are these Dharmagurus, ours and theirs, the thekedars of religion who vitiate things and incite people. Netas (politicians) too.
 
But sometimes, there are other things too that rankle. During Mohurram, the kind of taqreers (exhortations) that take place near the durgah these days. They are in Urdu so we don’t understand them but they sound as if they are trying to incite their community, “Ae Mussalmanon (O ye Muslims)…
 
Daughter: Also, when an India Pakistan cricket matches take place and firecrackers go off in support of Pakistan, what are we supposed to think? Living off this soil and still they are not loyal to this country.
 
Father: They can have two passports, not we, but they can. Until now things are okay but who can say of the future?
 
There’s another thing. We visit their durgahs or even Mount Mary because we have faith in them. But will a Muslim ever visit a Church or a temple? Church, maybe, but a temple, never. I don’t know of a single case.
 
Mother: Just the other day, I noticed this other thing. Our prasad after a pooja was being distributed. Their children were present. One of the young kids of our Muslim neighbours was given a laddoo as prasad. I noticed the child’s mother signalling to the child who had taken the laddoo, telling her not to eat it. What are we supposed to make of that? We eat their Prasad, why do they not eat ours?
 
 
 
MAHIM. A part of Bombay, smarting even today by the particular brutality of the violence unleashed in 1992-93 here. On December 10, 1992 thousands of refugees from nearby Mian Maqdoomnagar had to seek shelter within the precincts of the durgah. A simple but very effective rumour spread like wild-fire through a Bombay still reeling under the brutal police firings post December 6 – that Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, had been arrested.
 
That this particular rumour was both well co-ordinated as it was efficacious bears mention since high-flying corporate offices and police stations were both flooded with calls.
 
The result: In protest against the arrest that had never taken place, the Mahim Mian Maqdoon Nagar slum adjacent to Mahim’s Macchimaar (Fishermen’s) colony and the Mahim police residential quarters was gutted in broad daylight. Thousands were not only rendered homeless but women and children were subjected to brutal violence from their erstwhile neighbours.
 
There was more. Mahim’s timber mart was deliberately targeted. On the night of January 9 and 10 Bombay city was a mute spectator to this wall of flame on the city’s shore. Many Muslim establishments in parts of “Hindu” Mahim were also set to torch that same night. Fran-tic calls for assistance to the local police station received no response.
 
December 1992 was possibly the only time when the centuries’ old tradition of the Mahim police station offering a chaddar at Baba Maqdoom’s durgah was refused. The anger and anguish of the suffering victims of the December 1992 – January 1993 violence found this unique expression only in Mahim.
 
THEN, there was more. The bomb blasts that rocked Bombay on March 12, 1993, were and are seen as Muslim, if not Islam’s, revenge for the pre-meditated and brutal nature of the December 1992 and January 1993 killings. Tiger Memon, one of the prime accused, was a Mahim resident, living cheek by jowl with the Mahim police station and the durgah.
 
As a result of the serial bomb blasts, the Bombay police, accused of blatant and vicious anti-Muslim bias in December and January – instances of blatant communal complicity and partnership, included blatantly incendiary remarks on the police wireless system tapped by this writer – went several steps further. This time they had the shelter of investigating “a crime against the nation”.
 
The Mahim police station and the crime branch office located at the head quarters of the city police at Crawford market were converted into venues for the mental and physical humiliation of women, mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, of the “absconding accused,” criminals responsible for the conspiracy that led to the serial bomb blasts.
 
The schisms were, by the month of March 1993, near complete. Efforts to initiate, let alone sustain, any communication between Hindu and Muslim Mahim in the five years that have passed have so far come to nought. Hindu Mahim is adjacent to Shivaji Park area, the traditional hot-bed of RSS-Shiv Sena anti-Muslim propaganda.
 
For these Hindus, Muslim Mahim is a “chotta Pakistan”, its treacherous character proved beyond doubt after the bomb blasts. Muslim Mahim is a microcosm of the worst and the worst of 1992-1993: it housed innocent targets of police callousness and complicity aided ably by Shiv Sena sponsored venom during the anti-Muslim pogrom. It was then brutalized further as family after family faced suspicion and humiliation, mental and physical, post-March 1993.
 
Living under the shadow of Baba Maqdoom Shah’s durgah, Mahim even today is reeling under the burden of those tortuous months in 1992-93.