The city father

Berjis Desai

Amidst the cacophony of begging children, he steered his scooter through the busy mid-morning traffic. It was a sultry June day heralding the monsoon. The youngest of his three sons sat on the pillion. Near a traffic signal, two men emerged from nowhere. They pumped six bullets into the rider and escaped in the melee. The 72-year-old Parsi corporator of India’s premier municipal corporation had been shot dead in broad daylight. For 19 years, he had continuously represented a ward, as a municipal electoral constituency is termed, frequented by the most exploited. Handcart pullers, street vendors, coolies, waiters and commercial sex workers soliciting passing men for as low as five rupees. Their savior had been felled.
The state of Maharashtra prosecuted a notorious bootlegger and the killers he had hired, charging them with premeditated murder. The bootlegger had publicly threatened the corporator not to interfere with his illicit distilling business and, possibly, drug trafficking. In his long public career, the Parsi had successfully dealt with many a thug and criminal. In a predominantly Muslim constituency, the Parsi never lost a single election. His opponents from the then powerful Muslim League often lost so badly as to forfeit their election deposit.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


A few months before his assassination, the police had warned of an attempt on his life. In an unrelated case, some hired killer in police custody had confessed having received a supari (Bombay street lingo for a contract killing) on the bawaji corporator. Characteristically, he had refused police protection. His youngest son insisted on accompanying him, carrying a licensed revolver. However, on the fateful day, before he could pull out the weapon, his beloved father was lying in a pool of blood.
At Doongerwadi, they thronged to see their hero’s face for the last time. The evening funeral was considerably delayed, as his body was brought on a handcart, outside the Hodiwalla Bungli, for non-Parsis to view his face. Only thereafter, was the sachkaar hastily done in order to consign the body just before sunset. Blood-curdling cries of ‘Zindabad’ and ‘Amar raho’ (long live) reverberated, as never before, in the otherwise quiet Towers of Silence. All his three sons were inconsolable, particularly the youngest, who wrongly blamed himself for not having been able to safeguard their father.
Red-necked, robust and fighting fit till his last breath, he served his constituents every moment of his waking life. Dilapidated buildings collapsing during the monsoon, raging fires from short circuits in hanging wires, orphan children of sex workers dying of sexually transmitted diseases, including the just arrived AIDS, residents without water supply, wage earners perishing by consuming illicit liquor; all these and more were his parish. He knew firsthand the pain of poverty.
As a child, he rarely had more than a meal a day. A dropout from school in the fourth grade, he joked about his educational qualification — "FSMUG [fourth standard maathi uthi gayelo (left school during fourth standard)].” He did odd jobs to survive — a millhand, usher in a decrepit Grant Road cinema theater, a BEST bus conductor, operator of a flour grinding mill, taxi driver. His native intelligence and street smartness fanned his entrepreneurial instincts. Successfully buying and selling property, he became landlord of many tenements, mostly occupied by downtrodden people. He never recovered rent from those who failed to pay. He kept his buildings in good repair. He was the optimal, benevolent landlord.
Brown and earthy, his emotional life was equally rich. He sired five healthy children – three sons and two girls – from his two Parsi wives (not simultaneous) who were sisters, and for both, he cared as passionately. Two of his children successfully served as corporators of the same municipal constituency, until it became a reserved or restricted constituency under the law.
He saved many a damsel in distress who then fell hopelessly in love with him. Legend has it that once he wrestled a chain snatcher on Kennedy Bridge and restored the golden chain to its delighted owner, a Parsi classical singer of yesteryears, who then hummed many a love song into his large ears. One of his sons would proudly say, with a twinkle in his eye, that "Bawa, aay ummaré bhi golaat marvanoo chuké nai (even at an advanced age, father never misses an opportunity for a roll in the hay).”
A street fighter, he had zero patience for the suited, booted, with a necktie; the namby pamby dandies and dilettantes. He seldom gave speeches on the floor of the house or participated in the acrimonious debates of the municipal body. However, he was tough as nails and ward officers trembled in trepidation before him. He dismissed summarily any point of law or procedure. For him, justice had to be done. If that meant bending the law, and a few broken bones, so be it. He would have thrived in Sicily as a good natured don.
An illustrious municipal commissioner invited our hero’s ire. A man of impeccable integrity, the commissioner was a stickler for the rules and often missed the wood for the trees. Once, the corporator had a public skirmish with the commissioner who was disgusted with the former’s crude and boorish behavior. He steadfastly refused reasonable requests of the corporator for help. Suddenly, one afternoon, our hero drove a truck full of transgenders to the commissioner’s office. The stunned commissioner looked on in disbelief at the boisterous protest dance and songs of the transgenders, with the corporator giving cat calls. The pre-alerted media lapped it up. The hapless commissioner suffered a near nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized.
In the murder trial of his killers, the family engaged the services of a then leading criminal lawyer to assist the public prosecutor. Despite overwhelming evidence, all the accused managed to get acquitted. Pending appeal, they were released on bail. However, nemesis caught up with them rather quickly. The hired hitmen were gunned down. The old bootlegger who had ordered the corporator’s killing was paralysed by a stroke. One sultry June afternoon, someone pumped six bullets into him. The curse of the poor and downtrodden had perhaps avenged the death of the city father.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.