Heritage in the pandemic

Published December 6, 2020
TWO centuries of glory later, a stairway to tragedy. — Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
TWO centuries of glory later, a stairway to tragedy. — Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

WE were in a rough neighbourhood. An ancient composition had been beaten down with fear. And it assumed concrete form in a lane with welders, mechanics and bystanders on one side and lost heritage on the other.

Entirely carved out of rock, an over 500-year-old Hanuman Mandir — a megalith that stood in the shade of neem and peepal trees at the end of a long walkway — was hacked to near oblivion in the dark of a lockdown night. The demolition, perpetrated with hammers and grinders, also ripped through life in the ancient temple compounds. Homes, small businesses, garages and parking areas that spread over around 3,000 square yards are rubble with a fallen tree.

The gates are sealed; an unsteady, steep staircase of cracked, almost powdery wood — a feature that saw glory for two centuries — led to the view and the tragedy.

“Four generations have lived here with love, revelled in festivities, played in its grounds. The crushing went on all night and in the day. They began with the stupa, removed the rock deities with a grinder as they are worth a fortune, and then wrecked the rest. Scared, we could only watch and inform our Hindu friends,” says a resident.

Mohan Lal, a well-known activist in Lyari, travels into the past. “This land belonged to Lalwani who returned to India in 1947. It then went to Shabbir Bohri who wanted to sell it to the Hindu community for Rs3.6 million, which we could not afford. Four years ago, Bohri’s sons sold it for Rs1.5m to Muqaddar Khan, a builder allegedly connected to a political party.” Lal and others were silent in the street; fear as solid as the fallen bricks inside the temple’s gates.

A happy shift from here is the nearby Imli Compound, Bhimpura, Salaar Compound, where a pale blue gate sets the rules. “No entry without permission, no advertisements, fireworks and aerial firing is forbidden in personal and religious celebrations.”

Inside, a seminary and a temple have stood together for decades. Open, breezy paths widen into a central ground, surrounded by stacks of tiny flats and many goats. The past is present in elegant balconies of worn white stone.

A beaming Ramba is a portly older lady in saffron. She swaps her evening chatter with us. “Our ancestors lived here and now our children will. It’s sad about Hanuman Mandir but there are others. We have a small one here and our worship corners in homes but there is no gas that’s the only problem.” Clearly, there is little that unsettles her free spirit and her home is a declaration of it. Dark, grimy and soiled with soot, it is a tight fit for two miniscule rooms with another on the roof, the size of a water tank.

“Every room is rented from our neighbour, Yashoda and three families live here, one in each room. We will educate our children now so we can own our homes but we need gas.” Ramba is a delightful case study of life lived firmly in the moment. But the compound is worried about its 15 families presently stranded in Mumbai. “They went for pilgrimage in January and are uncertain about when they can return because of lockdowns,” says Ram Chander.

Bhimpura has over 300 homes split in colonies of disparities that plague humans. Further on from Imli Compound, is Sital Das Compound, an Evacuee Trust property. A limitless maze of over 300 Maheshwari quarters. One is hit by gusts of stench at its doorway. A labyrinth of garbage strewn tangled lanes, none wider than four feet, lined with damp, squalid huts of varying proportions, its sole redeeming asset are healthy, congenial stray dogs. Sital Das’ air is hostile; it’s territorial and orthodox, alienated from its own community. “We are Maheshwari, others are separate. Holi is observed by newlyweds and new parents, not by the rest and we don’t worship idols,” explains Murli, 30, a daily wage earner at a printing press, as Shiv, Ganesh and Hanuman statues stand in a large, grille enclosure.

Deepak Keshavji Bhagwant, a selection officer in a cotton factory, also speaks with disdain for the city’s Hindu populace. “We are all from Kutchh and our pilgrimage site is in Mithopir, Thar. There is no Diwali or cremation. We bury our dead.”

Activists are weary of venturing into Sital Das compound. “They are hand in glove with land mafia and enjoy political protection. And any resistance can result in false charges of the most dreaded laws,” bemoans one. A claim supported by their apathy towards the temple tragedy.

Even so, trepidation about a spell of assaults in the time of coronavirus runs high as does economic anxiety. And the battle between memory and money creeps into Karachi after a long time in the opaque veil of the pandemic.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2020

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