V. Sanjay Kumar runs an art gallery and writes about art for magazines. His most recent novel, The Third Squad, takes place in a Bombay overrun by gangsters, and his protagonist Karan is an expert sharpshooter with the Bombay Police who never misses his mark. He belongs to a police hit squad formed to only commit encounter killings. But gradually he begins to crack. Here, Sanjay writes about the city of Bombay, and how it lost its conscience when it became Mumbai:
I was twenty-two years old, on my first job, and I walked to work from my paying guest digs. The day began at Churchgate station or the Victoria Terminus, where I boarded local trains to the suburbs of Bombay. I was selling an expensive financial product to companies under the guise of tax breaks. Bombay of the time impressed me, its people taught me that a large diverse city could have a collective consciousness. My book, The Third Squad, attempts to capture this consciousness. It also bemoans what the city lacks. As Bombay morphed into Mumbai in the 80s and 90s, it lost its collective conscience.
At a time when the country was throwing its doors open to foreign investment, the financial capital was suffering from religious riots. The city was on the brink in the year 1992-93, when more than 900 people died in the riots, and 300 more in the serial bomb blasts that followed. I stood in lines for daily bread. I saw people flee their homes.
The brink is where Mumbai found itself, often. Every year the monsoons brought us to our knees. Stations would be flooded, tracks submerged, houses leaked, some buildings collapsed, and traffic came to a standstill. I left Mumbai at the turn of the century. Five years later, in 2005, a dormant rivulet surfaced in the northern reaches of the city. The Mithi river overflowed and flooded the city. Mumbaikars were stranded, some inside their vehicles, and boats plied the submerged roads to rescue them. Citizens rallied around heroically and reported to work in the days that followed, defying inhuman conditions.
All this has perpetuated a myth of a city that can endure anything.
The citizens takes pride in showing up for work braving immense odds, fighting nature and its fury. Mumbai is an expensive city; travel to work in its trains is often inhuman; daily life is ruthless; and every now and then flash points occur, as if to test collective resolve. There is plenty of resolve in Mumbai. Unfortunately those who endure have forgotten what it is to overcome.
Newspaper headlines alerted me to the changing pulse of the city in the 80s and 90s. Extortion was rife, kidnappings were frequent and sometimes fatal, and gangs were assuming a filmy aura and fancy titles like D Company. The high-profile film industry came under the gang scanner, as did the real estate barons. Threats of extortion were sufficient to strike fear because they were punctuated by show killings that were brutal and executed with impunity in broad daylight.
The city’s brutal response to this was matched only by its subsequent amnesia.
Under a super cop, the police was given licence to deal with the gangs. What was sanctioned was a programme of extra-judicial killings. Over 600 so-called gang members were killed. Bombay changed, for me, in those years, more so than others. The city that took pride in professionalism, meritocracy and an honest work ethic, that had the best lawyers, good judges, and a tough police force, took a turn for the worse when it set up encounter teams and staffed them with sharpshooters. And once the gangs were seriously dented and ‘normalcy’ returned, everyone went about their lives as if nothing untoward had happened.
The Third Squad describes a lone wolf’s uncertain journey in this context. The city comes under the spotlight. Bombay, in many ways the city of dreams, morphs into a lesser metropolis.
Today, Mumbai’s hordes continue to struggle, and when challenged they rally under the slogan: ‘We shall endure’. To them I say, ‘Don’t. Sometimes, to endure is to die.’
This essay originally appeared in Prose ‘n Cons. Reprinted with permission.