Hi. My name is Abdul. Abdul Sheikh.

I work at a cyber café not very far from where I live.

But don’t bother. Not very important anyway- neither me nor my profession.  

I live in Mumbai. In Dharavi ‘the largest slum area in the world.’ Or was it Asia? Anyway, there are more important things to be said than the size of the place where I live.

But mind you, my home, Dharavi, isn’t always what it sounds like. I have seen people rise from the very gutters they were born in, to move on and become some of the biggest businessmen in the city. Some live in Lokhandwala, some in Bandra. And I have heard of people reaching Dubai, by way of underworld and some, the US by way of Upper-world. Upper-world? Just my way of saying they made it the good way. The normal way. How it’s supposed to be done. By putting in hours of hard work and a lot of influence, petty influence, ultimately helping them become drivers or waiters there. I know one such person; bugger became a waiter there. He’s earning well, much more than what he would have earned here. 

America. I have a soft corner for that place. I have spoken to so many people there. Mind you, I am not fooling around with you, like that Motu Dhondu would do. He has tall claims about everything. Not me. I have evidence to back it up.

I used to work at a call center for a year and a half. That’s where I honed my English (I like the word honed). It was tiring. Night shifts. It was good, quick money though. But I blew most of the money on fine clothes and nice restaurants. The remaining money (I got better sense in time) I saved in the bank for my future. Maybe when I marry, it might help. Or before that. I’m thinking of opening a small pav bhaji stall some day. Pav bhaji. It sells like crazy here. And I’ve always been good with food. With salt. With the masalas. It’s like my fingers know exactly how much salt to pick up. Somehow the bhajis, vegetables I mean, I have an instinct with them. Which would go with what. The smell, the texture, the taste, everything matters, you know. Man! It would be great if I could put up something like that. I don’t think I’ll sell non-veg. there. Ya, I know. It’s not something that would be expected of a Muslim guy. But you know it’s just too much maintenance. And too much competition. Too many Muslims in the business already. Maybe I would get into it someday. But not now. First pav bhaji. Then chaat, you know Mumbai street food. And then, if I have enough capital and more importantly, enough demand, I’ll get into the non-vegetarian business. 

Okay, I’m drifting now. This is someone else’s story. Not mine.

Now, the homes in Dharavi are mostly slums. While the better houses are made up of bricks, many are made of aluminum sheets. The brick houses, or pukka houses as we call them, have leaked electricity and cable. I live in one such two-story brick house. Some have washing machines and fridges in their houses. But mostly, the houses are continuous, with only a single wall separating one from the other. We don’t have toilets. We have to walk down to the government set up- Sulabh Sauchalaya. Most don’t go there. We have to pay two bucks to shit, which turns out to be quite expensive when it’s an everyday expense. So, most of us walk down to a little-known area around Dharavi to go and relieve ourselves. 

God! Why do I keep drifting away!

Anyway, as I was saying, this is the story of my neighbor Chandra. Chandu, as we called him. We had known each other since we were kids. He was three years younger than I am. He was always a nice guy. But most of us were never nice to him. That’s how it is in areas like ours. You need to be quick witted, have a sharp tongue, a hard heart, and an even harder fist. Or you’re a dead man. No, people are not out to kill you here! It’s quite subtle most of the times. Like while playing cricket you know. When someone is a bad player. It’s a characteristic you don’t want to have in places like ours in your early years. Good batsmen and bowlers are heroes here and the bad ones, targets for bullies. 

Chandu wasn’t good at any sport. He liked cycling. He was also the only person who owned a cycle but never got to ride it.The moment he was out with his bicycle, someone would ask him for it. He would, as expected, say ‘no’. ‘Cause maybe he was simply worried it would get wrecked or stolen. Whatever the reason. He would say ‘no.’ And someone would hold the seat of his bicycle, while he was still sitting on it. Someone would hold its handle and not let him move because he was the youngest in our group; and they would tilt the cycle. Laughing, the would kick they front tire. They would tell him, don’t be a wimp; one round wouldn’t spoil your cycle. They would do this until he let them have a small lap around the corner. They would’t let him go till then. And that’s how he ended up giving his cycle to everyone. 

I wouldn’t call him a wimp or a chutiya as people here would – now that I’m older. He had integrity, that boy. Real balls. He wasn’t meant to be in Dharavi. He used to go to college. Was quite an average student. He would have probably done a B. Com or maybe an MBA or something. He was meant for those kinds of things. 

This is a story of when he was older, about a year back. When I was at the call center, speaking to Americans, and when he was in Junior college, 12th standard I think.

There were a group of three boys from the other mohalla– the next society. Useless nineteen-year-olds. They played cricket all day, were damn good at it. Won money by way of bets in petty street cricket matches; they worked short terms with small canteens here and there but never lasted long. They went to school. Never did well. They repeated many years before they finally cleared their first major milestone, the tenth standard board exams. They never went to college after that. They even got arrested a few times for petty thievery.

Their parents, most of them, were labourers at the leather tanning factories there which Dharavi is quite famous for. It also gives Dharavi its characteristic smell, that of the leather tanning chemicals along with sewage, sweat, and the gutters. 

The boys’ parents had given up on them. They never reigned them in. They were hustling, playing cricket, winning money, doing odd jobs here and there. But they always met up in the evenings around seven p.m. at some less known corner of Dharavi, there were many such places, to share a cigarette and to talk about probably Bipasha’s bust or the latest porn flick they had seen. 

I heard later from a repentant Jhaatu in jail, and the police report, which I obtained by bribing the constable at the police station, how the whole thing had transpired. It was in one of these evening meetings that day which had drifted into a more serious talk. The three boys were Raghu, Abbas and Jhaatu (Hindi for pubic hair, that’s what ‘jhaat’ meant. He got the name because his surname was Jat.)

Raghu was the eldest of the lot. He was tough, street smart, knew how life was in the dirty by-lanes of Bombay. He worked in a country liquor bar. He never drank there, of course, because he knew the shit that went into making the liquor.Abbas was quieter of the lot. More focused. He worked as a clerk or an attendant or something in some big coaching class tutoring students for their twelfth standard university examinations.Jhaatu picked up the first job he could get. He worked as a waiter in a small canteen that sold infected tandoori chicken.

Now, their idea that landed everyone associated with it into deep trouble later, came over a discussion regarding USA I think. How everyone would get benefits there. How there were no poor firangs and how everyone there dressed well, spoke good English and lived well.

Raghu lead the conversation, “They have stuff in other countries man, like America and all. The government takes care of all of them. What about us? Our country? Nothing! Fucking chuts.”

“Dude, I’m telling you, we need to get some serious money. I don’t think I can live my entire life this way,” Jhaatu said. Raghu was the unofficial boss with them. Amongst them, he always seemed to know what had to be done.

They were all quiet in agreement. No one spoke, because no one had anything to speak. Until Raghu spoke up. 

“I have a plan in mind. It’s a little crazy and you need to have real balls to do it. But it’s good money. Real good.” 

“Go on,” Abbas said. It was over this stupid line of conversation, over a shared, cheap, knockoff Marlboro cigarette, that they conspired to loot Dubeyji, the Bihari mithaiwala, of his money that he earned by selling the mouth-watering Indian sweets- kaju barfis and rasgullas. Dubeyji’s store was probably the most successful sweet-store in Dharavi.  They didn’t speak those exact words of course. This is the closest English translation I could do while preserving the meaning and tone of what they said. However, the ‘fucking chuts’ part. They had used the words. That’s what Jhaatu had said.  

They had thought of themselves to be smart. They had seen enough of the cops and robbers’ movies for that. So, they knew the first thing they had to do was to know Dubeyji’s every move. More importantly, how his money moved.

They observed him for a month, from a distance. One outside his store- writing down the time he closed the shop and left for home. The others would be at a certain distance from the store, on the path of his road home, looking out for anything else he usually did before he reached home.  

They realised that he closed his store at around eight p.m., but a couple of salesmen slept inside the store. They were the ones who opened the store in the morning and started cooking the sweets in huge pans of oil, a sickening sight early in the morning. These guys had the keys to the store.  

The boys worked in shifts every day, early morning and late evening, to know what was happening inside Dubeyji’s store and outside of it too.But there was something peculiar Raghu observed when Dubeyji would leave for home. He never seemed to be carrying any money with him. He would carry a cloth bag every day, neatly folded, but it looked empty.  Some days he didn’t carry anything. That concerned Raghu. Surely, he wouldn’t keep the money in the shop with those workers sleeping in there. He earned too much in a day for that. He had to be carrying the money out sometime.

Raghu decided to keep a watch on his shop the entire day. He sat there from the time the shop opened. Waiting. Getting bored. He didn’t know what would happen but he knew this was the only way. And he couldn’t let Jhaatu or Abbas do this. He knew they were too amateur for this. There would be mistakes.After a day-long wait, he finally saw Dubeyji moving out of his shop at four p.m. Jhaatu missed this on his afternoon shift. The fool! 

Dubeyji left his store with the same cloth bag. Rolled neatly, tucked under his armpit. But it looked bigger. Like it contained something.

He followed him. Cautiously. There were enough ways to become invisible in Dharavi. There were so many people and so many things – no one would notice. Raghu followed him right up to a small outlet of Dena bank where he saw Dubeyji enter. 

Smart Bastard!

Dubeyji obviously knew, living in Dharavi for so long, that it was never a safe place after sunset, especially if you are carrying bundles of one thousand, and hundred-rupee notes.

He would deposit the money he earned that day, all the money he earned till four p.m. in the afternoon. The remaining cash, earned after four, he left in the shop. He counted it though, before closing the store. The two workers knew he counted the cash. Also, the cash would never be enough for both the workers. And it was certainly not worth risking a steady job for a few hundred-rupee notes. The evening collections would be added to his account the next day, when he would visit the bank again in the afternoon. Raghu couldn’t wait to tell others this news over their next shared cigarette. The others were thrilled and impressed by Raghu.

So, they started planning. They knew every movement of his now. And knew precisely where and when he carried his money. According to the plan, they would require cell phones. Not a problem. Small sack. No problem. Good heavy sticks. Not very easy to acquire, but possible. Kitchen knife. Easy. 

They decided to rob him on a Wednesday. Why Wednesday? Because it was a week day. The crowd would be less at four p.m. just before the peak hour began. On a Wednesday morning, they readied themselves.They had everything they needed. 

Dubeyji moved out of the shop at precisely 4 p.m. with the rolled bag of cash under his armpit. After he had walked some distance, Raghu came from behind him, slowly. It was still daylight. There were still many people around. He had to be careful. Be confident. He had to play on Dubeyji’s fear.Raghu came closer, his knife concealed inside his T-shirt. Dubeyji was shorter than he was and to his luck, a timid man. He turned his head around to see who it was. He was startled by the feel of the sharp edge of the knife against his back, the pointed edge, almost ready to penetrate his back. 

“Dubeyji, please move where I am telling you to or you’re a dead man. And quiet! Not a word from you, don’t you dare turn around. Just keep walking and everything will be alright.” 

Raghu took him inside a lane where the other three boys were waiting. With the sticks and the sack.

Dubeyji was so surprised by this sudden change in daily routine that he was unable to speak, think or act. He simply did what he was told to. Because he had no clue what else to do. To Raghu’s misfortune however, Dubeyji had seen his face from the side, the first time he had turned around. He had gotten a good look at Raghu’s side profile then. Raghu did not have that in mind.  

Once inside the small by-lane, everything happened quickly, smoothly. In one refined movement. In Raghu’s own words from the statement, they were like professionals on the job. I guess it was beginner’s luck.

Jhaatu covered Dubeyji’s face with a small sack while Abbas gave him a heavy blow on the top of his head. Dubeyji had, in the next instant, dropped to the ground. Dubeyji had no clue that the concussion saved his life. He was out for the horror that was to follow.

It had been easier than they had thought. They had this cash they needed. And they go! Free! 

As I have learnt from knowing this incident in close detail, that the action of committing a crime successfully is only the first step. Getting away from it is the real deal. This was where Chandu came into the scene. 

He was there that day in the crowd. Walking behind Dubeyji or maybe on his side, wherever. But he could see Dubeyji. And his eyes had seen something others hadn’t.

Maybe he saw the unnaturally sharp shape of Raghu’s T-shirt jutting out and poking Dubeyji in the back. Even their body language might have helped. Raghu’s angry face, Dubeyji’s petrified expression, him leading Dubeyji into the secluded by-lane. All that would have told him that something was wrong. He was an intelligent boy. Haven’t I mentioned that before? 

He followed them. The idiot. He could have run away. Why hadn’t he? Didn’t he know that was easier? The more intelligent thing to do? Maybe he did know that. He wasn’t as innocent as we thought him to be.But he had integrity. And courage and conscience he had on his side too. And when you have courage, integrity and conscience on one side, and logical reasoning on the other, you don’t compare. It is always an individual decision. Whether to run or stay. That is what makes us individuals. That’s what makes us different. These open-ended, debatable matters, for which there are no correct answers. I reckon both are right in their own ways. Some people save themselves. Some save others. Chandu wanted to save others.

He followed them into the by-lane and saw the entire thing. The refined pro-like fluid smooth motion with which they stole Dubeyji’s money. Their smiles. They were proudly smiling at their victory when Abbas saw Chandu watching them. 

The fool! Chandu! Idiot! Why couldn’t he run and call the police?

Courage with logic- superb solution. But the idiot. The man of conscience that he was, he stayed there, probably thinking of ways he could help the man himself. Or maybe he was just shocked by what he saw. We can never say for sure what was going on in Chandu’s mind at that moment. 

It was too late when Chandu noticed Abbas walking toward him. Abbas held him by the collar and landed a heavy hand square on his ears.Chandu’s mouth let out a continuous, loud squeal. Abbas dragged him to the other three.  

“What about this guy? Motherfucker saw it all.” 

Jhaatu was there. Trembling in fear. They were doomed, he thought. Jhaatu said that Raghu was angry. Tense too. But angrier. And you don’t want to see his face when he is angry. It’s scary.

“We kill him.” Raghu said.  

Now I don’t understand how small-time criminals would think of killing. The scene didn’t quite fit in my mind. I mean killing a man is a big thing. But that’s what Jhaatu also thought at that moment. It is why he confessed later, giving the police every detail of the incident. Maybe in the thick of the moment, one thing leads to another. To cover up one thing, you do something bigger and the chain goes on and on until you realise all hell has broken loose. And by the time you realise the reality and the magnitude of the entire situation, it’s too late.I guess that was what happened.

Raghu moved towards Chandu with the knife in hand. Chandu yelled in fear. He was petrified. Jhaatu stopped Raghu.

“You want to kill a person for cash?” 

“Not for cash. To save my fucking ass. We go to jail if we let this guy go. You understand?” 

“And you think we’ll be free as birds if we kill him, eh?” Abbas intervened. 

“We kill him. We dump him. No one would know. No one should know who did it and who died.” 

“In that case,” Abbas said, “burn him. No one would be able to recognize his body. No fingerprints. None of that shit.” 

Everyone went quiet. That was bloody perfect. No fingerprints. No face. None of that shit. Raghu almost smiled at the suggestion.

Jhaatu told me how Chandu screamed when Raghu decided to burn him. He lost his voice and still continued to scream. Abbas dragged him, his mouth, hands and legs tied with pieces of cloth.The bastards dragged him to another secluded area, not very far from the by-lane. It was one of those pockets you find in the thick of civilization where no one goes, except room-less couples for sex and dopers to trade heroin or whatever shit they are hooked on. 

They took him there. And kicked him in the stomach. They forced him to the ground. Abbas took out his lighter. Never had he thought that he would be using it for something like this, he told the police. Never. But it had to be done. It just had to be done. 

“Jhaatu, run and get some kerosene quickly. Or any oil. Whatever you can get your hands on. But quick!” Raghu said. 

“Where? From where?” 

“From the fucking ration store you fool! Now run!” 

Jhaatu returned after ten minutes, which seemed like an eternity to all waiting.

They poured kerosene over him as his muffled screams went on uninterrupted. Abbas burnt him without a second thought. Jhaatu told me how he smelled his hair first. Frozen in shock, he watched as Chandu rolled on the ground in pain. Jhaatu looked at Abbas and could not tell whether he saw shame or disgust on his face. Raghu’s face had broken into a sweat. They watched from a distance until finally, he lay motionless. They waited for two more minutes. He didn’t move.

“Is that it?” Jhaatu asked.

“Yeah! that’s it. Go home now. Everyone,” Raghu told them.

They turned and walked back. Each to his own home. The whole fiasco had ended around seven p.m. or at least that’s what Raghu and his gang thought.  

Then something happened. He crawled. Yes. Chandu woke up. Crawled. He fucking crawled man! All the way home. He had crawled a kilometer before I saw him!

I was aghast. Mortified. First of all, I didn’t know who this guy was. I didn’t recognize Chandu initially. I ran inside and called the ambulance. By then, a huge crowd had gathered. Chandu was the center of attention. I saw his parents come running out of their house. They hadn’t seen Chandu since afternoon. And they had asked me about him too. It then occurred to me. I looked at his face closely. Through the mud and ash on his face, I could see. It was him.

Chandu. He was a mess. His body burnt. Black. With peels of skin coming out. The white flesh. The bright red blood. His contracted fingers. His stiff movements. The low groans. He was in so much pain. I still remember that. Vividly. In every detail. 

The ambulance came in another ten minutes. We had given him water by then. We didn’t know what else to do. Whether to touch him or not. Whether to take him inside the house or let him stay outside. Nobody knew. It’s not every day that we see a burnt man at our doorstep.

They took him to the hospital in the ambulance. The doctors told us there was very little chance of him surviving. He had suffered severe third-degree burns.The police arrived shortly after we reached the hospital. The doctor explained to us that it was necessary. The police went in to meet Chandu. We protested. The man was burnt. And all these guys cared about was the statement. But the police wouldn’t listen to us. They barged in, but were surprisingly nice to Chandu. They were humans after all.

They asked him what happened. And he named the three bastards. He had heard them call out to each other. That’s how he knew their names. I still remember that scene. When he told them the names. The police diligently took the names down. Dubeyji’s statement helped too. He also confirmed the identities of Raghu. I met with Dubeyji later and got his version of the story too. He doesn’t remember anything that happened to Chandu. By the time he woke up, the money and the boys were gone.

Chandu died about a few days after the police left the hospital. God, I still have a tear in my eye when I talk about him. I should’ve treated him better. He deserved it, you know. Just that no one understood him. I met his parents and promised to help them out in whatever way I could. I don’t want him forgotten, which is why I write this story.

It didn’t take long for the police to fish out the bastards. They were screwed. And that was it. The bastards were punished, as they deserved it. But the price- what a price to pay! What a price to pay! 


Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Varun U. Shetty

Varun U. Shetty is a critical care physician based in Pittsburgh. He grew up in Mumbai, which inspires much of his writing. His short stories “Strange Justice” and “From Flora Fountain to Andheri” have been published in Goa Today magazine.