Street in Mumbai © Rana Bose


Background:
Sharad, a rookie reporter, forgets the fine distinction between journalism and voyeurism, in trying to uncover the hidden life of Sanjana Pardi, an activist fighting for the rights of Bombay’s destitute.

 

1987

I asked Sanjana why she used her father’s car when it was clear that he would not be supportive of her concerns. “Sharad, my purpose in life is to redistribute my father’s wealth equitably among the poor people of India,” she said. I didn’t detect any sarcasm in her voice. She looked at me to gauge my reaction. I didn’t react. Had I reacted she would have continued with her irritating bombast.

I was the only journalist she had called to cover her protest march against the city’s municipal administration for not supplying a water connection to the Bhima Nagar slum colony next to the Andheri flyover. Sanjana had formed the Bhima Nagar Slum People’s Association in 1982 to prevent the demolition of slums. Her struggle had ensured that the slum wasn’t demolished and now she was demanding piped water connection for the people of the slum.

Sanjana Pardi was charismatic and had an earthy appeal. In her early to mid-thirties, she was thin, short, sprightly. The most prominent part of her face was her wiry hair – dishevelled and tousled. Her hooded eyes were sparkly, with a hint of mischief in them. Her nose was straight and pointed as an arrow and gave her face a sharp profile. Her chin was prominent and jutted out.

Sanjana dressed as an archetype, almost a cliché of an activist. She usually wore khadi kurtas and jeans and carried a jhola. The only thing missing was a pair of Kolhapuri chappals… she preferred Bata sandals.

She grabbed my arm and led me through the gathering of people from the slums. “Look at these people, Sharad, they are human beings. You journalists call them slum dwellers. It is a description that makes them faceless and reduces them to a mere statistic,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the din of the restless crowd that surrounded us.

Sanjana climbed a makeshift platform that had been raised and began addressing the crowd in Hindi. She had a mesmerizing effect on the people. It was not what she said but the way she said it that had her audience enthralled. She became one with the people by speaking their language, Bombay’s street lingo: slangy, colloquial, and peppered with gaalis and jokes.

After the brief speech, she walked among the people, joining her hands in a Namaste, identifying most of them by their names, hugging women, kissing a child, warmly greeting men, but from a distance.

“You are building yourself to be a politician,” I said.

“You are too cynical. These are my people.”

I laughed, a tad sardonically. That annoyed her.

“Sharad, you should know the difference between politicians and activists. In the past they were the same. Gandhi and Ambedkar were both politicians and activists. But in our times, politicians are people who rise from the grassroots and reach an exalted position. They first make a lot of money and then occasionally think of solving people’s problems,” she said.

“And so, how are activists different?” I asked.

“Generally, activists are people who have no aspirations to become politicians; they are educated, from the middle class, and genuinely interested in people,” she said.

“You are wealthy,” I said.

“I would call it an accident of birth, but it isn’t,” she said, sounding enigmatic.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, that is a long story, Sharad. Let us keep that for some other day,” she said, as she asked her driver to take me to my tabloid’s office in Colaba.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Sanjana fascinated and intrigued me. I knew her professionally. It would have seemed that we were friends, but I was a journalist in need of stories, and she was an up-and-coming activist in need of media exposure. She was the rising star in Bombay, an articulate champion of the dispossessed, fighting for the right causes. I was a nobody, a newcomer reporter who had yet to make a mark in the field. She preferred to talk to me and not to other journalists, probably because I shared her ideals and believed in her. I was always in awe of her. I was eager to know more about her, without seeming inquisitive.

She was hotelier Dev Pardi’s daughter and would potentially inherit a hospitality empire that was growing exponentially. I also knew that Sanjana was living with Franklin Robinson, a civil liberties lawyer, who helped her in her human rights work. Many speculated (and a few knew) about the nature of their relationship, but Sanjana had told me that Franklin was her “partner in life and work.”

I wanted to know more about Sanjana, but it didn’t feel right to ask her. I knew I was being intrusive, but I justified my curiosity by telling myself that I was a journalist pursuing a story about the hidden life of a public figure. My chief reporter readily agreed when I suggested that I do a profile on Sanjana. She – my chief reporter – was a waste of a human being, clueless most of the time, but liked to call herself a feminist. She was delighted to have a profile of a young and upcoming firebrand woman leader.

I checked our tabloid’s archives on Dev Pardi, but the clippings were mostly about corporate information. There was nothing substantial about his personal life. The only sliver of personal history was about his humble origins – before shifting his base to Dubai, he had lived in Alankar Apartments in Andheri, and according to a recent profile published in a business magazine, he still had an apartment in the building. I decided to follow that lead. I called Sanjana’s office to check her whereabouts and found that she was in Delhi for a meeting with the Labour Board. I thought that was good, seeing that she wouldn’t be around and wouldn’t realize – at least not immediately – that I was digging up her past.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Alankar Apartments in Andheri East was an old building across the Western Express Highway, next to Mohan Studio, which was being torn apart to make way for a housing complex. At the building’s gate, I saw an elderly man carrying a cloth bag stuffed with vegetables. He was wearing a transparent white linen shirt (called pehran) and a white pyjama – standard clothes a Gujarati man wore at home. I noticed that he had a traditional religious woven cord strung across his shoulder. He eyed me suspiciously.

“Who do you want to meet?” he asked, speaking to me in English.

“Dev Pardi,” I said.

The man looked at me sternly. “He hasn’t lived here in decades,” he said, in a diction that revealed both his education and prosperity. He looked at me uncertainly. After a moment’s hesitation, he said: “Come with me. I am Rajendra Vasavada.”

“Hello Mr. Vasavada. I am Sharad,” I said.

“Sharad what?”

“Just Sharad, sir. I don’t believe in using my surname because it reveals my caste and unfairly categorizes me.”

“You must be from the lower caste, then,” he said, looking at me in a manner I found judgemental.

“What if I am? Will that make a difference in your attitude toward me?”

“No. I am a proud follower of the Mahatma,” he said, offering his hand. We shook hands and smiled. He led me inside the building and we climbed up a flight of stairs. I followed him down a corridor and to his house.

“Let me apologize to you,” he said as we sat down. “People from my generation always give their full names – first and last names. But then, in those days, things were different,” he said.

“The situation is no different now, sir. It is just that I have never been comfortable with caste identities.”

“Yes, but let us not get sidetracked into that debate,” Mr. Vasavada said, sounding amiable. “Tell me, why do want to meet Dev Pardi? You seem sensibly well-informed to know that he wouldn’t be living here. He is one of the richest men in India. Why would he live amidst such squalor?”

(Old-world decency compelled Rajendra Vasavada to admit a mistake and carry on the conversation unfazed, with charming affability.)

“Mr. Vasavada, I am a journalist, and I am working on a news story about Dev Pardi’s life before he became who he became,” I said.

“Everyone calls me Rajendra Bhai.”

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

“He is a noble soul,” Rajendra Bhai said, becoming pensive. He looked at me intently and explained: “He saved the life of an infant by adopting her when her parents died.”

“You mean Sanjana Pardi?”

“Yes. It is not known to the public and I don’t think you should reveal it, either,” Rajendra Bhai replied, sounding anxious. I noticed that he was completely bald. His narrow eyes were sharp and hadn’t aged. He had a thin moustache that had turned white, and he had Mickey Mouse ears. His hands moved energetically as he spoke, and his voice was a deep baritone.

“I know Sanjana, and I came in search for her roots,” I said.

Rajendra Bhai was all perked up when he heard this and looked at me inquiringly.

“She hinted that Dev Pardi is not her father.”

Rajendra Bhai did not speak but his expression changed from being politely condescending to guardedly alert. His eyes, which periodically danced and darted around the room, now steadied, and he gazed at me intently. After a pause that didn’t seem to end and during which I cleared my throat many times, the last one loudly, Rajendra Bhai also cleared his throat.

“How long did Dev Pardi live here… in this building?” I asked.

“He was born here, and he left this building when he got a job in Umbergoan to manage a resort… That was about three decades ago,” Rajendra Bhai said.

“How long was he here?”

“Two decades, yes,” he said.

“Did you know him well?”

“Yes, we are friends. We went to the same school and played cricket in the railway yard behind our building.”

“How did he become so successful?” I asked.

“People say hard work makes fortunes – hard work and luck. In Dev’s case it was being at the right place at the right time,” he said. Then, having realized that he was being far too candid for his own good, he suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, “If you want to know more about this matter, go and talk to Datta Moray.”

“The politician? How is he connected to this?” I asked.

“Talk to him and you will find out. And don’t tell either him or Sanjana that I told you to do so.” He got up from the chair and signalled an end to the conversation.

I returned to the office and delved into Datta Moray’s clippings file. He was a legislator in the state assembly from Dombivili, then a distant suburb, now a part of Bombay, the bustling megapolis that begins on the edge of the Arabian Sea and never seems to end. Moray had been re-elected four times. I called his office and requested his assistant to schedule an appointment with him at his party office in Bombay. The legislator’s assistant was delighted that a journalist wanted to meet his boss and scheduled the meeting for the next afternoon. He gave me a lot of information about his boss, none of which was relevant to Sanjana or Dev Pardi. I was not interested in the achievements of Datta Moray as a “leader with a mass following.”

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Datta Moray had a thick black moustache and paan-stained lips. His white hair matched the linen kurta pyjama he wore. He was in his late 50s or early 60s. His eyes were lined with kohl. A thick gold chain hung around his neck. He wiped his face with a small white towel but continued to sweat profusely. He smiled as he took me into his opulent office. He sat on a plush chair upholstered in white faux leather. His table was made of wood and glass. It had no papers on it and the only prominent object was a green-coloured telephone. His assistant brought two cups of tea and a plate of biscuits. Datta immediately began to sip his tea, making a loud, slurping sound with every sip.

“My assistant told me that you wanted to talk to me for your newspaper,” he said.

“I want to know more about the relationship between Sanjana and Dev Pardi,” I said. His face instantaneously transformed from easy geniality to a menacing scowl. He dropped the half-eaten biscuit into the waste bin below his table.

“I don’t have time for all this,” he said, and got up.

“Datta Saab, please. I am not going to do any report on this subject. I just want to know what exactly their relationship is because Sanjana hinted that she is not Dev Pardi’s daughter,” I said, speaking rapidly.

I don’t know what made him stop in his tracks and he looked at me disdainfully.

“You journalists don’t have any respect for other people’s lives. Sanjana is not a film star that you should be snooping around to dig up dirt about that girl’s personal life,” Datta said.

“I am merely checking the veracity of what she hinted.”

“And who told you to talk to me?”

“Rajendra Vasavada from Alankar Apartments, but he told me not to tell you that he was the one who suggested it,” I said, trying to sound both earnest and abject.

Datta walked back and sat on the chair. His demeanour changed back to being amiable.

“That old man will always be a troublemaker,” he said. He looked at me intently and after a pause, added, “Sanjana is my niece. But before you put this or anything else in the newspaper, please check with her. She doesn’t want anyone to know that I am her uncle. She finds me embarrassing,” he said, and looked at me intently to gauge my reaction.

Stupefied, I gaped at him.

Speaking slowly, Datta said, “Dev Pardi is not Sanjana’s father. If you want to know more, bring Sanjana with you and come and meet me with her. Or talk to Dev Pardi.”

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

I had reached a dead end. The only way forward was to talk to Sanjana because it was impossible to establish contact with Dev Pardi. I couldn’t afford to make a long-distance call, or trunk call, as it was called back then; my tabloid wouldn’t pay for it. The only way I was ever going to find out more was to talk to Sanjana. I was certain she would be furious to find out that I was snooping around. Left without a choice, I called Sanjana the evening after I met Datta Moray.

“Sure, come over now if you want. I have just returned from Delhi, and I have a remarkable story for you,” she said.

“Sanjana, I don’t want a story right now, I want to talk about you,” I said. I heard her breathe heavily and then she asked, “What about me?”

“I have met Rajendra Vasavada and Datta Moray,” I said.

There was a brief silence on the other end and then Sanjana shrieked, “You bastard! You fucking jerk, what the fuck do you think you are doing? My personal life is none of your goddamn business, you demented freak.” She hung up before I could say anything.

Her reaction frightened me. I sat numbly by the phone for some time, not sure what to do, and then went home feeling morose and guilty. I began writing a letter to Dev Pardi, explaining to him my desire to know the truth. I made a carbon copy of it. It was a short letter, where I introduced myself and briefly explained my quest to know the truth about his relationship with Sanjana. I said that I didn’t plan to use the information in any news report. The next morning, I dropped the letter at Dev Pardi’s corporate headquarters and mailed the carbon copy to Sanjana.

I began working on other assignments, trying to forget my pursuit of Sanjana’s personal life. I met Franklin at the labour court a couple of days later, and he gave me a knowing sort of a smile. I didn’t dare to ask him anything and waved at him half-heartedly. He waved back, didn’t seem eager to talk, and walked away into the lawyers’ room.

A couple of days later, my colleague told me that Sanjana had called and left a message for me to call her back. I did so immediately.

“Come over this evening if you are free. I am having a get-together of friends,” she said, sounding amiable.

When I reached her place in Santacruz, Sanjana and Franklin were waiting for me in the living room. They took me to the terrace where a group of people sat stiffly. I saw Rajendra Bhai, Datta Moray, and another elderly couple. It took me some time to figure out that the man was Dev Pardi. He looked smaller and paler than his photographs. I presumed that the woman was Dev Pardi’s wife. I looked at them hesitantly.

“Come on in,” Sanjana said, her voice betraying her unease. Pointing at Dev Pardi and the woman with him, she said, “My dad and mom.”

I greeted them with a Namaste, and sat down on a chair. Dev Pardi and Sanjana’s mother were sitting on a large couch; Rajendra Bhai and Datta Moray were seated on another smaller couch. Sanjana handed me a glass of orange juice and returned to a small stool. From the fourth-floor terrace, I could see the slow-moving traffic.

“Let me not beat around the bush,” she said. “After I got your letter that you wrote to my dad, I thought long and hard about the nature of my relationship with my dad and mom. I spoke to Franklin and Rajendra Chachu. Datta Mamu also called me,” Sanjana added, but then didn’t seem to know what to say and looked at Franklin and Dev for support. Franklin held her in his arms.

“I told Sanjana to tell you everything,” Dev Pardi said.

“He was probably scared of a scandal,” Rajendra Bhai said, and guffawed.

“I wasn’t going to write about it,” I said, softly.

“Yes, Sanjana said so, but I don’t trust the media,” Dev Pardi said with effortless candour. “I don’t want people to jump to any conclusions, especially the wrong ones,” he added.

“Sanjana is Dev’s and Urmi’s adopted daughter,” Rajendra Bhai said, interrupting Dev Pardi, who was getting agitated.

“I gathered that much after I spoke to Datta Moray and you,” I said.

“You journalists should learn to mind your own business,” Datta Moray said, his voice rising slightly, unable to conceal his anger. Dev nodded vigorously in agreement. Datta wasn’t quite finished yet and added, “And this is a personal matter and has nothing to do with what Dev, Sanjana or I do in our public life.”

“OK, let us not turn this into a media ethics debate. We have all gathered here to present Sharad with the facts, so let us just do that,” Franklin said calmly and looked at Sanjana. She had recovered her poise.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

“Sharad, my biological parents Ghanshyam and Manjula were star-crossed lovers. They were neighbours in Alankar Apartments, where my real parents Dev and Urmi also lived, as did Rajendra Chachu and, of course, Datta Mamu, who is my biological mother Manjula’s brother,” Sanjana said, all in one breath, and then heaved a huge, almost interminable sigh, as if she had gotten something heavy off her mind.

“Please remember, I said my biological parents and my real parents. For some children, the real parents are not their biological parents,” she said, looking intensely at me. Then she held Franklin’s hand, again seeking his support.

Datta took over the narrative and came straight to the point: “Manjula and Ghanshyam fell in love, but their parents wouldn’t agree to their plan to get married because Ghanshyam was a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh, and Manjula was a Kunbi from Maharashtra. So, with Rajendra’s help, they eloped and got married. They lived with Rajendra’s aunt in Pune for a year or so. Manjula died because of some complications during Sanjana’s birth.”

“Ghanshyam was distraught, and the next day walked in front of a train,” Rajendra Bhai said.

“He blamed me for my mother’s death,” Sanjana said, in a low, soft voice.

“No, he didn’t,” Rajendra Bhai said.

“In any case, Rajendra Chachu spoke to Dev and Urmi about adopting me, and they were delighted to do so,” Sanjana said.

“But we made the mistake of not telling her that she had been adopted,” Urmi said, speaking for the first time.

“Because we wanted her to be our daughter, not an adopted one, but she discovered it accidentally a few years ago when she met Datta at a public event,” Dev said.

“I was only trying to make her realize that she was my blood,” Datta said, sounding apologetic.

“That was a fine way to do so,” Sanjana retorted at a high pitch. “You blackmailed me into submission. I couldn’t fight you publicly after you told me you were my uncle – my mother’s brother,” Sanjana said.

I was in the thick of a full-blown family drama, and not following everything that was being said.

Franklin sensed my confusion and helpfully intervened. He said, “Sanjana was fighting the Maharashtra government on the Adivasi people’s right to their land and opposing a highway construction near Dahanu. Datta was supporting the highway as it would connect the vegetable market to the farmers. And just when it seemed that the government would agree to Sanjana’s demand and realign the highway, Datta came to meet us. He told Sanjana about Manjula and Ghanshya, then asked her to pull back from the agitation and help her uncle.”

“That hit me hard, and I withdrew from the agitation,” Sanjana said, softly.

“I was merely trying to explain to her the benefits of the highway,” Datta said, again sounding apologetic, but his deceit wasn’t lost on anyone.

“Ha!” Dev exclaimed, and Urmi put her hand on his to restrain him.

“I confronted my dad and mom, and they were forced to admit the truth. I dropped everything that I was doing to learn about my truth,” Sanjana said. “I went to Alankar Apartments, only to learn from Rajendra Chachu that Ghanshyam’s parents had left the building almost at once after my father ended his life, and they probably returned to Allahabad. Datta Mamu took me to meet his and my mother’s mother – Aaji  – who was overjoyed to see me and wouldn’t let me go from her bear hug,” Sanjana said, tears streaming down her face as she held on tightly to Franklin.

I was with the family for a couple of hours before Sanjana and Franklin dropped me home in her car. We didn’t speak during the ride. I sent her flowers and a thank-you note a day later.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Note: “Activist” is part of a collection of linked stories entitled Faith, which Mayank Bhatt is preparing for publication.