Dharavi Koliwada: Interview with Vinayak Ignatious Koli
Director: Richa Hushing
Duration: 00:45:48; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 13.851; Saturation: 0.061; Lightness: 0.222; Volume: 0.145; Cuts per Minute: 2.292; Words per Minute: 83.130
Summary: Koliwadas in Mumbai are prominent features, both in terms of landscape and culture. These are fishing villages and the oldest settlements in the region. The Portuguese missionaries converted the Koli people into Christians in 16th century. Koli is a distinct community in terms of features, cultures, traditional occupation and dialect. Especially Koli women can be identified easily even in a crowd. As the land grew into a city and then into a metropolis, urban development and migrant influx have been sweeping the city in phases. With every such phase kolis have got more and more isolated and vulnerable. Dharavi Koliwada is particularly vulnerable as the water body in Dharavi, the creek, got completely dried up few decades ago. Though all other fishing villages in the city and in the surrounding region too have got affected to an extent by the onslaught of development, no other water body has dried up as irreparably as the one in Dharavi.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli is regarded as the local historian by the community. His classical Hindu first name (a nomenclature for Lord Ganesha), sacred Christian name as middle name and community name Koli as surname – is a microcosm of the post colonial, indigenous community. His second name must have been kept after the Jesuit priest St. Ignatious Loyola. In his interview Vinayak Ignatious Koli vividly describes the Christian missionaries as some Englishmen who used to lure them with chocolate to school and also used to beat them up for running away from studying. But in his imagination the colonial soldiers, the Queen of England and the missionaries have become one people. He believes that Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria lived in the city and often took a stroll in the vicinity of Dharavi. This popular imagination regarding the kings and queens resembles the narrative style of Indian folk tales. The foreignness of the Queens of England does not make them any less accessible than the rulers from the region. Infact he takes a great pleasure in claiming that his community was the favoured one with the colonial masters than any other community in the land. The claim of affinity with the colonial masters has become part of the memory of good old days of plenty. It is believed that Queen Elizabeth had once given the Koliwadas some sort of certificate of autonomy. Based on that the community hopes to counter the attack of urbanization and keep their traditional control over the land.
Vinayak (V) (the camera appears to have started in the middle of the conversation): …Queen Elizabeth came after King Douglas. We helped Elizabeth, in attacking surrounding areas. That is why we became the most prominent community then. There was a worker on a ship called Kiledar, when the Queen was leaving she gifted him the seven islands that comprise Bombay. Out of the seven one is; Dharavi, Mahim and Matunga all together. In the same way there are seven more islands. Like Bandra, Kurla, Santacruz. All these seven together make Bombay.
In our village there was a man named, Paschu Banduk Patil.
Rrivu: Where, in Bombay?
V: No here in Dharavi,
Patil (headman) had a fight with Khambrao, they developed rivalry over the creek. Both wanted it to be theirs. The governor used to sit at Haffkine Institute; he put a case on both of them so that none gets the creek. Then Patil send his goons to beat up Khambrao.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli is a living example of the post colonial narrative of indigenous history. The city of Bombay was originally 7 islands comprised of several fishing hamlets. There was another set of Islands called Salsette on the northern side which later became the main suburb. There were some natural ports which attracted traders from foreign land. By mid 16th century Portuguese pirates had already taken over some ports around the region – Goa, Daman and Diu. In 1534 they defeated the ruler of Mahim island, Sultan of Gajarath (Gujarat), and found their first colony in Bombay region. They eventually took over all of the seven islands. But they were mostly interested in keeping control over the sea shores and not in regulating or administrating the inner land settlements. Their activities were broadly limited to building forts at the sea shore, controlling the ports and converting the population along the sea shore into Christianity. Hence the population which got converted into Christianity by the Portuguese was the Kolis of the fishing hamlets and the people who worked in the salt pans next to the sea and creeks (later called East Indians). Both these communities today carry complex cultural signage of Portuguese/British colonization and indigenous practices.
In 1662, the 7 islands were gifted to the British as dowry on the marriage of Portuguese princess Catherine Braganza and English king Charles II. But initially the local Portuguese authority refused hand over the Islands to the British. Vinayak Ignatious Koli talks about helping queen Elizabeth in acquiring control over the surrounding areas. Most probably, this is connected to the dispute that British had with the Portuguese in 1660s over the control over the Bombay islands. The British took far more proactive role in their newly acquired colony and built the city of Bombay as a prime centre of their ruling in India. The name of Bombay is supposedly derived from the Portuguese word 'Bom Bahia' means the land of plenty. Another belief is that the name Mumbai comes from the Koli deity Mumba Devi.
In the mind of this old Koli man, this piece of big history gets mixed with the small history of his village and develops an autonomous oral narrative.
V: That creek was named after Khambrao. The creek came to our koli village. We started fishing in that creek. Then Khambrao died. Rajan Raut… there is a theater in Matunga called Anjani that also belonged to Rajan. He gave 22,000 rupees to villagers for fighting Khambrao's case. And in return took over our village, the Dharavi Koliwada. Then all the villagers, our forefathers, got together and took back the control of the village again. We gave the open spaces on rent to people, and with the money that we got from rent, we celebrated Chera devi, Khambdev utsav, gaon pujan, holi mahotsav…
This creek first belonged to King Duglas, Queen Elizabeth, and then Khambrao and then it came to us. And now it is under collector's control, all the rent money also goes to the collector now. Even we have to pay tax to the collector in 6 years. Assessment tax to municipality and to collector, both these taxes we pay.
Everyone says that our village will go away in redevelopment, but when will it happen only people in authority would know. Now this creek is in collector's control, earlier we had a wooden bridge in Kurla and a railway line between Bandra and Kurla. Later they removed the railway track and then they made an open air (drive-in theatre in Bandra east) theater and other constructions around. The railway track was there in 17th -18th century (the first train ran in Bombay between Byculla and Thane was in 1853), that time the rail used to run on coal. Now there is a track between Thana to VT. That time train used to run on coal.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli is regarded as the local historian by the Kolis. In this clip he talks about the early struggles over the control of the village and the creek. Since early 16th century control over land and water body has remained the pivotal issue in this region. As the city grew over the marsh land, land made by filling up the sea and by joining the islands, control over the land has always been controversial and contested. Much of Bombay's political formation and under world crimes is mainly related over the control on land. Presently the common land in Koliwada is administered by the powerful community association called Jamaat. Even for hawking and vending in Koliwada, the people from outside the community need to pay fees to the Jamaat. He also talks about the railway line. The first line opened in the city was between Byculla and Thane in 1853. This line runs very close to Dharavi settlement. The railway line is the life line of Bombay. Hence in any popular history of the city the railway line features prominently.
open air theatre
Richa (R): Did anyone help in laying these railway tracks?
V: Yes old people from that time helped. They also helped in making Mahim church. It was earlier made of red stone.
V: People had helped in making the track. Earlier the track was only between Bandra and VT, and then later it extended to Andheri, Borivali, Virar. They were not there from the beginning. The Church Gate line was also only till Grant Road and later it extended to Church Gate then it also extended to Thana. Earlier it used to run between VT and Thana. Queen Victoria had made VT. After Queen Elizabeth came Victoria. She used to live in near old Byculla hospital. There is a garden there and she used to sit there… it is called Rani ka Baug, she used to sit there. It was quite open then and she could also see animals.
R: From where did you get all these information?
V: I know all this. Earlier we had a tram between Sion and Haji Ali. I have sat in that too. That time the ticket fare was 1 ana.
The tram used to cross from Sion, Matunga and then Parel, then it used to go around Byculla. That Byculla bridge was not there then, so it used to go under that. The Parsi statue that is there in Byculla, it is called Khada Parsi, the tram used to cross that too. The tram used to go till old woman's shoe garden (presently called hanging garden), near Malabar hill, it was called boot house. There is a well in Grant road, Malabar hill, the bodies of dead Parsis were thrown in that, and it is still there (tower of silence). It is in the graveyard there. Parsi must be still living there; I don't go there anymore so I don't know. This is the history of that place.
There is a collector's office in Kurla. The one that is in VT was not there before. Earlier it was only in Kurla and Thana. We go to Kurla to submit our fees.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli is an epitome of popular history. Certain facts and faded memory get entangled with popular perceptions and fertile imaginations to produce urban lore. In this clip first he talks about the railway lines. Transportation is the most important feature to the construction of urbanity. It not only facilitates people's movement but also exposes them to other cultures and develops a sense of public space and cosmopolitanism. Bombay's first railway line was along the eastern border and thus called Central line. Its head office is in Victoria terminus (named after Queen Victoria and opened in 1887). In 1996, as a sign of post colonial identity assertion, the station was renamed CST, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (after the 17th century Maratha king). The parochial politics of the city has renamed most public installations such as train terminus, bus terminus, airport and such others after the iconic king. The second line, popularly called western line, operates from the Churchgate station. The name Churchgate came in relation to the gate to St. Thomas Cathedral. The third line is called Harbour line as it was built mainly to facilitate the movements of goods in the docks and the ports.
But what is most interesting in his memoir is that he believes that the colonial master, namely Queen Victoria, actually resided in Bombay. Byculla is one of the earliest urban settlements in Bombay. In the early 20th century it could boast of a mixed population of affluent Iraqi Jews, Parsees, Bohri Muslims, Jains and their respective places of worship and entertainment. There were also some early administrative buildings. The indigenous population of Kolis must have regarded the newly developed urban place as a kind of dream land. The zoo in the area was called Rani Baug (garden of the queen). The name must have created the fantasy that Queen Victoria used to sit there for her public appearance. The sprawling bungalows of the affluent residents have fanned the imagination that this is the area for the queen to reside.
post colonial narrative
tower of silence
In the mindless of the crusade of constructing a metropolis Bombay has played havoc with the nature. The sea has been filled up (that exercise is called Reclamation), marshland has been concretized, mangroves are destroyed and rivers are killed. Among the two rivers that Vinayak Ignatious Koli talks about one is Dharawati which has completely disappeared. The other is Mahikawati river. This river still exists though have shrunk to the size of a drain. On the original route of the river the airport has been built and on its both sides stands numerous industrial workshops. On 26th July 2005, after an unusually heavy monsoon rain, the river woke up and flooded the city causing high causality on lives and property.
Dharavi creek dried up slowly through the series of economic and urban development programme. The popular belief is that the leather tanneries released the wastes and polluted water into the creek and that affected the marine lives in the creek. But more important issue is the unplanned construction in and all around Dharavi. In the '80s the Govt. built offices for ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Commission), India Oil and others in the marshland in the vicinity of Dharavi. The oil rigging wells of ONGC too has affected the water body. The present artery road of Dharavi stands on the land where the shore line used to exist till 1950. Even in Bombay there is no other water body which has got extinct as completely as the one in Dharavi has.
R: What is the total area of Dharavi, what was the boundary before and what is it now?
V: If you speak about Dharavi- Koliwada area, it is from Sion station, which was called Kala kila, to Mahim station, the area which is called jari-mari, balika nagar, this is the area of Dharavi… of Dharavi Koliwada, it was one single belt. Dharavi was one island. Dharavi was named after two rivers, one was Mahikawati and Dharawati. They flow from Trombay MHADA, and used to go till…where they had filled the creek with sand and increased the land, the area which was flooded with water.
R: Where, in Bandra?
V: Yes, the same area, where water was filled. There was a huge sewage. That is where that river used to come from.
Now government has dug that place, has spent so much of money. The river that used to come was called Dharawati and that is why this place was called Dharavi.
Mahikawati used to go from Mahim. The new bridge that is made in Matunga, and near the railway workshop, Seetladevi temple, the river used to go near that. Thus Mahim was named after Mahikawati and Dharavi got its name from Dharavati.
R: How do you know all this?
V: I have read this in a book.
R: How did Mahim creek reduce?
V: Mahim was fine at that time. We used to go fishing there; we used to go to Dharavi too. But now Dharavi creek has no fish.
The Dharavi creek was till Kurla, we used to go to Kurla bridge to catch crab. Now in Dharavi, everyone has built godowns. Whoever got space has built a godown there. It was easy earlier, we used to give money to collector and he would give us permission. People gave money to municipality and constructed their chawls. There were no goons then, so it was easy, now they are everywhere.
As the indigenous community looses its traditional livelihood due to urbanization, it is also forced to abandon the community based social structure and enter the world of state institutions and regulations.
V: Now, we Koliwadas have total area of 22 yards, it belongs to the Kolis. It was a huge area, from Kala kila to Sion station. But who knows how much the government has recorded in the document. Some people have constructed chawls and then converted them in their names. That is the reality of our area. This is how it happened. Earlier queen Elizabeth had given us this area as a gift...
R: What taxes do you pay now?
V: We pay collector's tax and assessment tax. We do not pay anything else. Only these two. Collector tax in 5-6 years and assessment in 6 months.
R: How much is that?
V: It is different for every household. Some pay 10 rupees, some 15. Now it has increased. Collector tax is only once in a year, in 5 years or in two or three years.
There is one Lease tax which is different. There are two taxes, but collector tax depends on the collector but municipality tax is calculated on the area that one posses.
V: There used to be different kinds of fishing net that you must have not heard about. During the high tide the fishes come with the water. And then when water recedes, the fishes get caught in that. This is how we used to do fishing.
The sewage water got mixed with creek water and the Air India also disposed their waste water in the creek, so it was difficult to get fishes in the creek. So then our people started with country liquor business. That also closed in some time. Fishing is the history of the creek.
The creek was divided into three parts; one was Khamra creek, Kilekar creek and Bhatitaka creek.
These are the names. The one near Mahim station is Khamra creek, beyond that is Kilekar creek and beyond that is Bhatitaka creek. Thus there were three creeks of three people. You will not understand much since you are not koli. There was Wanikar who had three wanis, they built boundaries to catch fish. They used to catch crabs, their net was very different. You will not find them anymore. It used to resemble sieve and it was used to catch crab.
There used to be a market here, there was one at Matunga near the labour camp. One was near city light cinema and other was in Dadar.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli remembers the good old days of a robust water body with lot of fish and fishing related activities. He has an interesting style of speaking which remains the same irrespective of whether he talks about Queen Victoria or about the loss of livelihood for his people. This impartiality towards the facts and emotion, most probably, has earned him the stature of the local historian.
R: After all this, what is the condition of Dharavi?
V: Wagahri community has started living here. They did not have money but, they are still surviving. Some people have rented out their house to Madrasis, Kamathi and some to Wagahris. Many people survive on the rent money. Now, there is no fish, no one goes fishing in the creek anymore.
Lots of rich people have captured some area in the creek and they have their own fish business. There were black fishes in the creek, they catch them. Earlier there were only 3 of these spots with boundaries, now there are many. There are many small ones about the size of this house. There are about 15-20 such business in the creek. There are legal cases on them. Government has started these cases.
R: Against whom?
V: Against these rich people who have business in the creek. Now if you look at the other side of the open air theater, there was nothing there earlier. We used to go fishing there. My father used to also fish there, now all this has stopped. Now they have an open air theater, MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) and MHADA (Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority). Lots of development has happened in that area, there is a market building also. Fishing has stopped here too.
Now the creek has become very marshy, lot of people have dug huge holes in the marshy land and when water comes, the fishes too come floating with the water. Fishes grow in the holes. Now this is all that is left. Lots of young people from Kolis are studying and looking for working outside.
R: Earlier people used to come and take everyone for work…
V: Once I was sitting at home and this man came and told me to come and work in Matunga, there was work available. There was work of unloading the coal from the wagons. And I became in-charge there before retiring.
Now there is lot of changes in the Matunga work shop (in the Railway) due to development. Earlier train engine used to run on coal, later diesel came.
The creek which has dried up now exists as a kind of marsh land. Some people have cordoned off smaller spaces and trying to promote fisheries to culture fish. Generally in such fisheries fish roes or smaller fishes are brought from outside and nurtured in the controlled water. But in the case of Dharavi creek it is a combination of closed water fishery and fishing in the sea. In this case big holes are dug up in the mud. During the high tide when the sea water enters the dry creek, some smaller fish, specially certain kinds of shell fish, float in too. Because of the holes they cannot escape with the receding sea water during the low tide. These catches are then cultured in these fisheries. It is a far cry from the robust activity of fishing in the sea water and obviously Vinayak Ignatious Koli has only contempt for them. The other problem with this activity is that it brings in a concept of private property in the practice of community based occupation. In the sea people catch fish according to their capacity and maybe also by the license and permit issued by the govt. in terms of jurisdiction. But still the sea remains a great leveler and livelihood becomes an adventure. But in the practice of fisheries to culture fish, it becomes a closed, gated and entirely private ownership based endevour.
For last few decades as the doom started looming large the Koli community has been making effort to enter the mainstream. Their dream is to enter the public sector. But with the sharp decline in the jobs in public sector, their desperation and the sense of urgency have deepened even more.
Makadwali is a Kannada speaking low caste community. Their traditional occupation is to make cane baskets. By Madrasis he meant Tamil people who started the tanneries in Dharavi in 1950s. The word Madrasi is a generic term for people who come from the region of erstwhile Madras presidency. The phases of large scale migration into Dharavi are broadly this: In early 20th century came the Kumbhar community (potters) from Saurshtra, after the independence around 1950s had the influx of the Tamil migrants who started the tanneries and export business in leather and Kannada speaking Makadwali community; since '70s started coming the migrants from UP and Bihar – some of them started Zardosi (zari and embroidery work) units, embroidery works and tailoring and the rest have become wage labourers in the business of leather and pottery. There are also newer occupations such as making Chikki (a kind of sweet snack) practiced mainly by Tamilians, selling flowers and recycling rubbish. But these activities are not necessarily community based practices. The popular belief is that there is no consumers' goods in the use in Dharavi that is not produced there itself, including the branded mineral water.
R: What is the condition of Dharavi now?
V: The situation is such that even after studying people have no work to do.
R: How did all changes happen? Koliwada was a village, how did it turned into a slum. Why was it named after a river?
V: It was open space around Khamdeva. People started erecting shanties there. There was no one to regulate them and that's how people kept coming. We were not in majority and so we could not stop it. Then people from U.P came, Makadwali, Madrasis and Muslims came.
R: How did they come here?
V: See first one person came and made a small hut, then he called his relatives, he called another one and so on… they all made their homes here. There was no one to regulate this.
There was only collector and municipality. Municipality would give permission to anyone, whether they paid rent or not. There was no one to control. There were goons around. Koli people also made chawl and gave it out on rent. They came with their families and build their community here. Makadwali also did the same.
R: Who Makadwale?
V: Those who live next to Kumbharwale, Madrasis and Makanwale live there.
Then Muslims. It grew because one person came and then called all their relatives. They called more people, so they grew. No one is original here, we Kolis are origins here. We traditionally belong to this place.
R: You had all the power then?
V: Yes, we were in power then, we had the strength. But we never used get into fights. If I want others to come with me to fight, I'll have to pay them. Otherwise I'll have to go alone to face it.
Dharavi is a dreaded name in the popular imagination. Most of the gentrified citizens of the country have seen the settlement or even heard any reference about it only in Bollywood flicks of the '70s. Till the '60s the outskirts of the city and its water bodies in Sion, Dharavi, Mahim and Versova were mainly unregulated settlements and fishing hamlets. These places then became a natural refuge for water borne crimes, mainly smuggling. Due to strict govt. regulations on licensing for import export, smuggling was a rampant activity in those days. Dharavi also had a special distinction of the dark corners, both literally and figuratively, of the tanneries. (for more information on this please see 'Dharavi Leather industry' files on this site) Some Tamil tannery owners grew to be influential mafia lords in the '60s and '70s. But in post '70s as the real estate business in the city became much more lucrative than other irregular activities like smuggling, many of the mafia dons shifted to construction activities and also eventually have earned respectability and political stature.
It is interesting to note Vinayak Ignatious Koli's concept of valid identity. He considers the Muslims from the Southern or Northern parts of India who came earlier to the city as real Muslims and feels much less hostility towards them. The newly migrant Bihari Muslims, whom he calls fake Muslims, are targets of his contempt. These could be due to two reasons. The recent influx of poor and reckless Biharis in the city has become a political issue in the hand of right wing political power. They have been trying to build a militant xenophobic movement among the Kolis against these migrants. The precarious economic and social position of the Koli community makes them particularly vulnerable to xenophobia. The second reason could be that when the first batch of Muslim migrants came the resources were still not so scarce. Thus it was easier to accept them. Also the long time co-habitation has erased the initial resentment. But in the case of newly migrants the resentment is sky high.
R: With time, who had the most power in Dharavi?
V: The power went to Madrasis, then Makadwali also became powerful and then Muslims too. Now the Muslims that you see are not real Muslims, they are from Bihar. Now as we are real Kolis, there were real Muslims earlier. These fake Bihari Muslims came later, and expanded till the crossing.
R: The Madrasis were very powerful, have you heard any stories about that?
V: If you ask for stories… there was a man called Ram Swami, he was contesting for the elections and another man Gorai Swami he was also campaigning.
R: Which year?
V: Around 1959…or 1969, I am not sure… Probably 1959. They were campaigning for elections, Gorai Swami, his son Ram Swami. There was another Ram Swami from Mahim, people used to call him bhai. Ramkrishna Keni was also contesting. The Marathi contestant was Ramchandra Anna Ji Khede. There was one from congress.
R: The rowdiness increase in Dharavi, due to Wardharaj and others?
V: No not Wardharaj, Ram Swami and Gorai Swami were from here. Wardharaj was from Sion Koliwada. That time some people used to do smuggling, Haji Mastan and Karim Lala. They used to do smuggling behind Mahim Dargah. There was one named Hafia. We used to go fishing in Mahim, we saw them getting gold. We never used to go near them. They would also chase us away. If we would go near and disturb them, they could have shot us. They had revolver then, AK 56 was not there. They had 10 pauli (country made guns), 12 pauli and 16 pauli. I was earlier in military, so I know.
V: In 1974 I joined railway. Before that I was in military. The 1962 India had a war with China, in the war after that with Pakistan… I was part of that. Then my mother took me out of military, that time you could get out by paying 5000-10000 rupees. But now rules have changed, now they have agreement for 5, 10, 15 years. I was in military for 5 years. I might have the photograph of that time, I'll have to see.
R: Don't you have any old photograph of Dharavi?
V: No I don't have, there might be some in the community house (jamaat). Earlier no one used to take photos, that time big cameras were so big. Now they have small cameras. Some people in the village might have. Earlier there were only black and white photos, now we have colour photographs. You might find some in community hall, I shall check.
R: Dharavi was earlier called Koli village?
V: Yes, it was called Koli village.
R: So they started calling it Dharavi only recently?
V: No it was called Dharavi from the time Dharawati river used to flow from here.
R: Earlier people had fear that in Dharavi- Koliwada people made country liquor and lot of goons live here.
V: There were country liquor businesses.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli is one of the rare Koli men who opted for outside jobs as early as in 1970s. His house indicates that he does not come from an affluent family. It could be assumed that his family did not posses fishing boats or land to survive on. Hence he had to go to the world beyond Koliwada and the sea to earn his livelihood. This exposure has made him a more cosmopolitan person. His small house is full of Marathi books on various subjects – biographies, history of India's independence, fictions etc. He is also considered a local historian with published book to his credit. It is very different from the insular life style of average Koli men.
black and white
V: There was F M Pinto… Sanyukta Maharashtra movement had to happen. When the Sanyukta Maharashtra movement started… then… the English were about to leave. They used to be give us chocolate, we were children… they used ask-what is happening in this lane, in that neighbourhood etc. Morarji Desai was heading the Sanyukta Maharashtra movement, 108 people had been killed at Hutatma Chowk. You know Hutatma chowk (Martyrs' Junction, a prominent landmark)… 108 people were killed there.
After that elections started, first the municipality one and then the collector's election. Then there was Sachivalay (assembly) election – which is on now. Then there was Nagar Palika's election in the beginning. Then the areas were not divided in small parts, the areas were big - like Mahim, Matunga, Dharavi was one, and Dadar and Parel was one. They were bigger areas. It was like that.
Dharavi was named after Dharawati and Mahim was called after Mahikawati. It used to run through Mahim till Dadar. Thar devi's temple was there…
R: You were saying that oil had come in the creek and all the fishes had died. And then people started alcohol business, talk about that.
V: Yes, there was country liquor business.
R: How was that period? How did they start with alcohol business, and how did they work?
V: You started, he started, and then many people started making country liquor. Many of them have been died by now. Who all can I name? There are lots of names that one can take… but what is the point? Now nobody does, nobody makes country liquors, neither in the creek nor here. Now it is all Govt… now there are bars. No country liquor business… Now even the police do not visit this place. We have one police station here, one at the 90 feet road and another at the corner of Dharavi.
R: Earlier lot of police used to come?
V: Yes, there was Balsada, Shobraj. Lots of big goons were caught. Shobraj used to come to my house, and he used to take me to Matunga for drinks. Shobraj… he was… what is his name arrested by Madhukar Zende. He was a big criminal…... Madhukar Zende and Shir Saheb had caught him. They used to come here for enquiry. They used to take me. Those days I was good natured… not into betraying people. Police knew that I was working near Khambdev shrine and I was not into all this. I work for the koli community and now I have completed 62 years in that mission.
When the creek started drying and become a marshland, many Koli households got into the business of selling country liquor. It is home made alcohol brewed from palm juggery. This is illegal and also considered a major health hazard and cause of social violence. But the issue of legalization is also governed by the industrial liquor lobby which is very strong in Maharashtra. If the popular and cheap products of home based country liquor gets legalized then that lobby stands to loose revenues. On the other hand the illegal status has made the culture of country liquor even more risky. In order to dodge the law keepers this activity always takes place in clandestine in much more degenerated condition.
Many marsh land and creek areas are ill famed for making country liquors. These units are called hath bhattis – the name most probably comes from the bhatti – oven which is small and controlled by hand. The marsh land is conducive for making liquors as the pots of liquid can be easily buried underground to avoid police raid. Besides, the marsh lands are inaccessible for people who have not grown in that area and thus have the status of 'no man's land'. These units are generally traced by the police by following the smoke from the bhattis. It seems smoke has lot to do with the aura of Dharavi. The smoke from the Kumbharwada clins (bhattis), smoke from the tanneries (boiling the hides), smoke from the county liquor dens in Koliwada… have made it a mythical place in the imagination of the rest of the city.
Vinayak again comes up with his on version of popular history. The Sanyukta Maharashtra
Movement in 1950s, was the most important
Post-independence political movement in Bombay. Popularly it is referred as a
movement for assertion of the rights of
majority language group – Marathi, and thus
the inclusion of Bombay in the Maharashtra state in 1960, is considered as the victory of
the movement. But actually the historical period at which the movement picked up momentum was a junction between the existing vibrant trade union movement in
the city and the beginning of parochial identity politics in the region.
(for more information please see files titled
'Majlis Talk Show on Sanyukta Maharashtra
Movement 1-2-3-4', on this site).
Morarji Desai was the Chief Minister and his government brutally opposed the movement.
f m pinto
no man's land
samyukta maharshtra movement
trade union movement
united maharashtra movement
V: She (Queen Elizabeth) used to get all her horses here to Rasbili chawl, there was jungle behind that. She used to leave horses there for eating. She used to go back in an old style car, the one which is open and has one horn. She used to live in Byculla hospital. She used to sit in Rajwadia and look at queen's garden. And in front was her house, which has become Byculla hospital now. Elizabeth used to come in her four wheeled car and used to roam around here, with lot of soldiers and she used to give chocolate to children. During that time, in school, you would not know; your father might know… Chikki, banana, orange, Sweet lime used to come for free. We used to drink 1-2 bottles. That time we did not value education. Those people used to come and take us to school. That is how I studied till 10th standard. They used to beat us.
The time was different then, 1944-47. During the partition lot of people were killed. Muslims, Madrasis, Marathis were also killed. They were killed in the open on the road; our Koli people were also killed. I have seen it one Madrasi had killed a Muslim in Sonia Hotel. There is a cross here, people were killed there too, that cross was not there before. There was vegetation there. The Madrasis killed with Koyta and the Muslims killed with knife. I remember only these two incidents. There was bus here which used to run between Sahunagar to Mahim, number 166. Now it takes a longer route.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli is a post colonial oral story teller. In his imagination the Queen of England is shaped by the image of a flamboyant bandit matriarch who would be horse riding in public and roam around the street with armed entourage in order to invoke awe. Any white woman who might have had an encounter, of whatever scale, with the community had been turned into queen of England. Most probably, the people who dragged the children to school were the missionaries. Kolis were the earliest converts to Christianity in this land.
V: I am a Christian, but we believe in all Gods, see. Saibaba, Jejuri ka Khanderaya, Malengdevi, Ekveradevi, Yellama. This is our tradition. We are Christians, we go to church, but we pray to them also. Our main god is Khandoba and Ekvera. But since we ate bread here, we became Christians. Should I tell you the story of how we became Christians?
R: Yes please.
R: Tell us how you became Christian?
V: When the English came to Bombay, there were many Hindus here. There were a lot of wells, and English wanted to convert Hindus into Christians.
Then Dutch, French, Britishers all were here at that time. They thought about conversion and what they did was where ever the Brahmins resided… they were looked as supreme by other Hindus and they were spread all over…
We believed in Khandoba and Ekvera… where most the Bramhins were residing in those places they dropped bread in these wells, and only they used to eat bread at that time. Whoever had water from that well, were outcasted by Brahmin community and they were forced to accept Christianity.
Some were Christians, Madrasis and some Muslim. Some Muslims also converted to Christianity. Brahmin used to outcaste and would not even touch us… they thought they would also turn into Christians. Some of the Hindu shops would sell only to Hindus and the Christian shop would sell only to Christians.
R: They had put bread in the well?
V: Yes, they had put bread to make us Christians. And we were forced to become Christians and had to be baptized. Hindus started outcasting us, so we had to do all these.
This all had happened because of Bhatts and Brahmin, they were very orthodox then. Now things are different. They used to keep a shendy (thin hair piece as mark of Bramhin identity) then.
Vinayak Ignatious Koli points at the wallful of religious icons depicting a syncretic cultural/religious practice. Saibaba is a Muslim saint who propagated secularism and later got appropriated by the hegemonic Hindus. Khanderya or Khandwa is the deity of the Warkari movement, an anti-institutional bhakti icon. Ekveradevi is the deity of the lower castes Hindus and Dalits. Yellamma is mainly worshipped by the Hijras, Devdasis and other sexual minorities.
Though the primary conversion of the Koli community happened during the regime of Portuguese in the 17th century, Vinayak does not distinguish between the British and the Portuguese. He uses English as the generic name for the foreign power. The story of throwing bread in the wells to pollute the water as a strategy for force conversion is a common one across the sub-continent. Even earlier Muslim invaders did the same thing. But the point is that it was not a crusade against any consolidated identity called Hindus. Hindu as a generic religious identity got consolidated only in the context of nationalism in early 20th century. Till then the communities were autonomous and attached to their localized religions and cultures. Only the elites or the educated class of Brahmins were consciously and religiously following the scriptures known to be the base of Hinduism. Hence the people, who got converted into Islam or Christianity, are the first one to be part of a monolithic belief system. But as the localized culture turn out to be much stronger than the institutionalized religions, the Kolis along with many other communities, have evolved their own syncretic belief mixing different sources and systems.
But recently the Hindu right wing outfits have begun xenophobic mobilization in the country. One of the main campaigns is evoked around the concept of forced conversion. It is used to isolate and attack Christian establishments. Shivsena, the militant regional party, has been exploiting the economic and cultural crisis among the Kolis and using them as foot soldiers in riots against religious and lingual minorities. In this context Vinayak Ignatious Koli is made to feel that the mention of forced conversion is mandatory. Though his other accounts of the foreign rulers are of complete owe and high regards.
26th july 2005
Along with the practice of fishing another livelihood practice that has got extinct is salt making. There were many salt pans along the numerous creeks in the seven islands of Bombay city and the Salsette islands which now make the western suburbs. The salt pans were owned by the community called East Indians. (For more about the East Indians please see 'Migrant, settlers and originals_East Indian Priest' on this site). The name Salsette too is derived from the word Salt. The name of the river Mithi, also is believed to be from the Marathi word for salt – Meeth. It stands for salt water. The river in Goregaon that he is talking about, most probably is Poisar river. The abused and shrunk Mithi river took its revenge on 26th July 2005, when it swelled up to bring the city under a deadly deluge.
V: There is a fort in Sion, Kala kila… they were all near by. Dharavati and Mahikawati have merged in the ocean now.
Rrivu: When did Dharawati vanish?
V: It has been really long now. Now that you can see all the new construction and the river was cleaned. What is it called?
R: Mithi river?
V: Yes Mithi river. That is Dharawati. Now it is called Mithi, because they used to make salt. Now where the open air theater is, they used to make salt there. We have only named it Mithi, it is the same which goes till Goregaon. There was a river in Goregaon. Now, it has became gutter, it goes below the bridge. Mithi river also used go from there.
I had written all this in the book, but I do not remember now. If I find it I'll give it to you. Now I am writing a new book, I'll start it after the Khambdev's festival.