Kailas’ father, Dhamu, worked in Currimbhoy Textile Mill and even when very young, he knew his father’s place of work meant a lot.
Every holiday Dhamu would sneak Kailas into the mill, and while his father chatted with the oilers and loom cleaners, Kailas played around the dye-houses, engine houses, and workshops. He watched water flowing for the “scribbling”, “carding”, and “spinning” as his father slowly mouthed these words for him, with a gleam over his face. Kailas never forgot the hum of boilers, and the song of engines in the weaving shed, when he first heard them. He hoped his mother would work in the mills too, so she could leave him in the mill’s creche with other children. On an idle Sunday, the family visited Mazgaon docks, to watch raw cotton bales for the mill come in.
No wonder by the time he was 16, Kailas hung around the mill just to chat with his father’s friends, who had become his friends. He even befriended the supervisors and assistant spinning managers, as he slyly watched the production manager, admiring his gait and sense of dressing. Kailas was certain that one day he would be a production manager.
The mill was family. Its world, like a life put to good use.
At 18, when Kailas began working in the spinning department, it was like finally coming home. He let his senses fill with the smell of bales, watching cotton being strum from fibre to yarn, fabric to textile, strand upon slivering strand from clouds, teetering with fibrous dexterity into a rain of thread, plains of cloth.
Spindles ran at 16,000 ribbons per minute. The clickity-clackity of the ginning and weaving machines and powered looms echoed through, hitting the mill’s high ceiling, and wafting out its high windows. This rhythm interjected with sirens for shift changes, and lunch and tea breaks, settling into Kailas’ mind and daily impulse, like an echo of a heartbeat.
Coming back to work after every holiday, he felt his breath caught snug in the humid embrace of cotton dust, swimming in the air of good promises.
In six years, he progressed to assistant spinning manager, and there were rumours he would soon become spinning manager. That year, he married Sumathi through an arranged union. Kailas felt he was now capable of overseeing both the weaving units and the power loom sections. But how long was he to wait to become production manager?
He was more than ready. He had a long-earned master’s degree in Commerce, and was in touch with his accountancy, guess-estimating market requirements and practice-planning production, the purchase of raw materials, and tabulating costs. He always made sure to watch how the current production manager dealt with the mill’s suppliers. After his promotion, Kailas decided to sport a stern look with a new pair of spectacles, never shifting his eye from increasing spindle-capacity. His teal uniform with his initials over the lapel was getting to be ill-fitting and awkward. When would he don a crisp white shirt with bell-bottom pants?
Life was a wonderful blow room department. You opened hard-pressed bales of cotton and cleaned away its impurities of seed, mole, leaf skill, and husk, before sending it to better machines and finer processing.
Beyond the shop floor and factory, were the Currimbhoys’ warehouses, and beyond that the local office. Its head offices were in Worli and Colaba. The Currimbhoys also manufactured a shirt called ‘Casanova’, produced by the mill cloth, and sold in a sparkling posh showroom, beyond the warehouses.
One day, he would be able to afford a Casanova shirt, thought Kailas. Even now—over the counter, it would cost him two-months’ worth of salary; for an export-reject, a month’s worth of salary.
The top management was out of Kailas’ league. They visited the factory twice a year, briskly walking past the top corridors to their glass cabins. They never spoke to the workers, not even the production managers, only the general manager. So even the post of production manager wasn’t what he wanted to hold on for long. Sometimes Kailas dreamt of impressing the sahebs with his capabilities so much that they might even shift him to their Colaba offices. Who knew? Strange things could happen. No one knew the future. Then he would look smarter, in an office in a smart shirt.
In an old notebook, Kailas made a list of all the shirts he would eventually buy: Newman, Charag Din, DigJam, Bombay Dyeing, Benzer, Weekenders, Pierre Cardin, Carmel, Mafatlal, Warehouse, Binny’s, Oxemburg, Jainsons, Vansons, Mayur, OCM, Double Bull, Siyaram, Cambridge, Cliff, Stencil, Avis, Dunhill, Vivaldi, Vimal, SKumar, Gravier, and Grasim.
For now, he gave up on visiting Vasu’s Tailoring & Sons. They were his father’s tailors. During his growing years, Dhamu would take Kailas to the Dadar market or ‘Khadi Bandhaar’ to buy checked or striped cloth and then to Vasu’s to select shirt patterns from a dog-eared magazine. Dhamu could afford one shirt for Kailas, but he would bargain for two by using the hard-sell of emotional blackmail—just sulking and not speaking.
Now was the time for at least Kachins, thought Kailas, a tailoring shop that men from the Hindi film industry went to. He could afford one shirt from his whole year’s savings. He would look fetching, even with dark skin and a lean demeanour. Kailas saw how men bought shirts. Sometimes to cover the body, sometimes to celebrate an occasion, sometimes as a gift, paying attention to print and colour, but mostly for the price, then the feel and thickness, then the prints. The brands really didn’t matter. Vasu’s put a small patch on the inside of every shirt collar; that seemed tacky now when compared to Kachins’ calligraphic satin tag. All the shops in Dadar market were intriguing. Some days, Kailas roamed between Dadar and Crawford, circuiting in and out of buses to window-shop. He needed a change, an upgrade in his life. His eye also began flitting over Kusum – a young girl who often came to visit her married sister in the next galli.
The great Bombay textile strike was a spirit-douser. An insipid accompaniment to Kailas’ thali of delicious possibilities. Clashes between the Bombay Mill Owners Association and the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh(RMMS) had, in no time, reached a boiling point.
Kailas should have seen it coming with the thinning of salaries, no raises or bonuses, and the hiccups of frequent strikes. But he had dismissed this for transience. His dreams were far too large and looming, overriding every concern that others harboured, minute by minute. He also believed in the dynamism of the union leader, Datta Samant. What confidence and conviction that man possessed. What charisma! With Samant bhau (bhai/polite form of addressing a man) at the helm, Kailas could take it easy. His father, Dhamu too had been resolute, in their squeezed home by consuming only one meal a day. There was enough of stubbornness and spine for the cause everywhere.
Kailas listened to Samant bhau’s speeches, noting points in his notebook: “Brothers and sisters, along with wage hikes and better working conditions, we demand that the government scrap the Bombay Industrial Act of 1947 and the RMMS no longer be our official union. We at Bombay Mill Owners Association can better represent ourselves.”
Given the adamant nature of the strike, Kailas was certain their problems would end. There were spokes in every wheel, knots in every fabric.
He was out of work like the other 250,000 workers in Mumbai. A complete lockout in many mills—the buoyancy of righteousness in the initial months was infectious.
Such a lockout in Tardeo, Mazgaon, Reay Road, Lalbaug, Parel, Naigaum, Sewri, Worli, Prabhadevi and his own locality Byculla was bound to create fervour and uproar, an avalanche of public attention, putting pressure on the mill owners and government. Soon, newspapers would fill their pages. The TV would show their plight. Their pay would increase.
So instead of being sad, Kailas focused on improving himself. He redrew mock-balance sheets of mills taking hints from his old Kirti College accountancy textbooks, and penning notes in the margins with specific details pertaining to the Currimbhoy mill. His impatience was growing.
Impatience was growing everywhere. In the initial months, a lot of talk and speeches were heard in every chawl and galli of Girgaon, repeated in every home. But after three months, restlessness was setting in. By the sixth month, trepidation filled the air.
The mill owners hadn’t budged. They were rich, but the mill workers lived close to the edge, worrying about their next meal. They sloganeered along with Samant bhau despite their asthma and breathlessness. Even grocers began refusing to give essential items on credit. The bills were rising. Only medicine and basic food could be arranged for. No holidays, trips, or celebrations could be afforded. No marriages or festivities took place. His uncle expired because of an untreated lung ailment.
Kailas awoke from his dreams. He felt the rumble of his belly, a headache-hunger. Even with the noise from the city, it felt too quiet. Or perhaps he had gone half deaf. Who knew? He had to find work.
Others had started working as coolies at railway stations, hauling luggage, or selling drinks at bars, or returning to their villages to farm their land. But they were not as educated as him. His BCom degree sat in a scratched folder. Where had he not tried for interviews? But there were always boys more qualified, smarter, quicker than him. His savings had been wiped clean in buying food for the family. So with the last of the notes, Kailas started by selling vegetables on a pushcart outside Dadar station. Dadar was seven kilometres away from Byculla. He took a bus, which got there in 30 minutes, hoping no one from home would recognise him.
During off-days, he skipped the selling and went for interviews, circling jobs from newspapers. He finally got work in a bank. But in two months, tearing folios and running with files dulled him so much that he was back on the streets. The next job was of an attendant in a textile shop. A much better job on any given day, but it turned out to be an instant shock—that bales and bales of synthetics and polyester were selling more than cotton, much faster. They were smooth to the touch, silkier under fingertips, lighter in weight and did not crease. That was a shocking discovery.
Kailas worried about the strike. When would it end? 1982 had been the longest year, stretching like stubborn yarn that wouldn’t yield.
During spare moments, the old and young mill workers played card games, teen patti. And during one such huddling, Kailas heard Kaka bhau saying, “Remember how Gandhi went on with the Swadeshi movement in a non-violent manner? It led to the collapse of the Lancashire mills during our independence struggle. We simply stopped importing cotton from there, spinning our own khadi. We were one of the largest buyers of cloth from there for our dhotis and saris. In four years, those mills went crashing down. So you see conviction can make anything collapse. Watch what our Datta bhau will do next!”
But by October, no one cared about the strike. No key wound into the large locks hanging on the mill gates. No kacha-kach-kach-kach from the spinning machines. No newspaper or TV carried news. This silence frightened Kailas. In an ocean of suffocation, it drowned out the progressing city’s noise, whose wheels in the bazaars outside Girgaon’s gallis were turning with motor cars, and buses, and Sensex, and new films every Friday.
Kailas continued as a shop attendant with a smile pasted on his face. During these in-between jobs, Kusum was his only respite. Still young and single, she had accepted his friendship. Whenever she sensed his unrest, she hummed Marathi abhangs—devotional poetry—for him.
Twelve years later, Kailas was a security guard at Currimbhoy’s Cupola. That year, he took Kusum into his house. It was late 1997. Datta Samant bhau had been murdered outside his house by four gunmen on his way to work—17 bullets to his head, chest, stomach by kingpins of an underworld don, Chotta Rajan.
The festive season was kicking in with Dussehra and Dhanteras, and Kailas waved frantically now, blowing his whistle at the fancy cars lining up the gates of the mall. His main task was to direct vehicles into the basement of Currimbhoy’s Cupola, which was built on the same land where the mill had earlier stood. A large part of the mill land had been sold and converted into a shopping arcade, razed in parts to host a manicured lawn with a stone-mermaid in a water fountain. The only thing that remained was the chimney. It jutted out of the plaza’s roof in bright red, matching the orange paint of the arcade. The chimney looked like an angry mill-worker’s hand, cuffs folded in mid-air, on a forever strike…
Currimbhoy’s Cupola was the third mall in Bombay, better than Andheri’s Shopper’s Stop and Worli’s Crossroads.
Kailas had sobered with the fact that he was, at least, still on the same land. There were things one could be happy about, he thought.
Once in a blue moon, he strode into the mall. The floors echoed off his footsteps as if he were a horse. He peered into glass doors and mirrors to check his reflection in the security guard’s uniform—baggy purple shirt, with a badge of Elite Security Co. Ltd and his name in white lettering. He couldn’t recognise himself—his hair had thinned, a belly protruded from under the tightest button, his back hunched, his arms were flabby.
He would peer into cubicles that were shops stuck together with a division of glass. Sometimes, even if for an instant, he thought he was under a saw-roofed shed, his eyes searching for a north light.
This was like in an aquarium. You could see people walking across the overhead bridge that arched inside the mall, travelling up elevators, coming down escalators, and entering shops. Only the trial rooms and lavatories had doors. Even the restaurants had glass walls, where people ate unrecognisable food.
“There are so many things that go into making fabric,” Kailas remembered Kaka bhau’s words, “not just toil, but the price of cotton, cost of raw materials, electricity, transport, labour…and the land price on which the mill stands. All threads going to shreds.”
He remembered how Chairman Khatau was gunned down in his Mercedes, when he wanted to sell his 40-acre Khatau Mill land. Kailas had never imagined Arun from his own chawl turning gangster, rivalling another in a gang war, for land.
Kailas entered a shop selling saris and salwar suits just to touch their fabric. Once in a garments shop, he watched bales stacked in a blue-grey ocean. How stylish and thick the shirts of rich men had become now. Their back pleats, side pleats, darts, seams, sleeve plackets, collars, and yokes had changed. Even in plain white or blue colours.
Currimbhoy’s wasn’t interested in extending its production to hosiery and synthetic fibres, nor in increasing their export business. They simply had loved the land on which the mills had stood. Zameen.
The Park Avenue shirt was still beyond his reach, like many others. Foreign shirts had flooded the shops: Reid and Taylor, Arrow, and names he couldn’t pronounce: Van Heusen, Provogue, John Miller, Louis Phillipe, Allen Solly, Blackberrys, Parx, John Players, and Peter England.
Kailas wondered if these were names of men given to shirts. His could have one too then: Kailas Ranade blue & white shirts.
His favourite pastime was to watch men alighting from expensive cars in well-ironed shirts that never creased. Soon, he could read a man just by his shirt. Every man had to take care of the shirt on his back. Every time Kailas mustered enough courage, he would go up to a well-dressed man and begin chatting to get clues about what he did for a living. Some of them gave him answers easily, and Kailas would quickly make mental notes: company marketing executive, call centre HR manager, Mafatlal COO, ministry joint secretary, Bombay Club member, retired army officer, Premsons shop owner, St Xavier’s College’s student of arts, Jaslok Hospital Head of department, Jacksons law firm senior lawyer, CA, KEM Hospital brain surgeon, SBI investment manager, GAIL electrical engineer, Air India pilot.
But searching for the joy he had felt when he was twenty was difficult.
It is now—when the sameness of his days got to him, making him think of a life that was meant to happen but did not—that he pieced together the whole occurrence.
Samant bhau’s following had made him a political threat to the Congress and Indira Gandhi. Even the port and dock workers wanted him to be their union leader. That’s why the Government rejected his demands, despite losses to the city and the textile industry. As the strike progressed, Samant bhau’s militancy matched the Government’s obstinacy leading to no room for negotiations. Many mill owners moved their operations outside Bombay, and the strike collapsed with the closure of the mills, leaving thousands jobless.
In another 20 years, Kailas retired in the same role of a security guard from Currimbhoy’s Cupola.
He had a major heart attack five days after that and died at 61.
Even in 2017, Byculla’s Dagdi Chawl looked the same. On either side, houses like frozen palms, stirred as if to clap Sumathi Kailas Ranade between them. Her legs slowed, as her mind galloped. She felt fear, her heart beating faster. Music blared from every window. Jeans and T-shirts wrung out to dry. New cars with Ola and Uber stickers stood in neat rows. The chawls were inhabited by young people. The toddlers had, of course, grown up. The smell of food amidst damp clothes drying on tin drums and cycle bars, and the guttural flow of gutters made her stop to take in its familiarity.
Sumathi had moved out from here 20 years ago, and now as she looked at the horizon, the chawls shrunk against the robust glass-tinted buildings, irregular in height, that had grown like adolescents out to eat the sky.
She wound her way over the muddy lanes.
There was a different smell around—a gust of impatience and hurry. Or maybe it had to do with her. At 60, she had slowed down. Sumathi stumbled over a flattened mound and stopped in front of a blue door. The door still had the nameplate of Kailas Ranade. Her heart hammered loud enough as she struck the doorbell and missed hearing the opening of the door.
A woman she had hated for twenty years stood in front of her. Kusum Ranade. Sumathi found Kusum thin and frail, but still holding the beauty Kailas might have first found in her. Sumathi took Kusum in, in hard gulps.
“Oh, I thought it was the astronaut-people,” said Kusum to Sumathi. “They’re knocking on our doors to check how we live—to copy our designs for space rockets, it seems. I was going to say no. What weird nonsense is this, but…” Kusum moved aside, “Come in…” Her stride was a bit weary.
Dressed in a brown chiffon sari, Kusum’s mangalsutra hung between the folds of her sari pallu, and Sumathi’s heart burned. No, she should have never stepped into this house, but she couldn’t lose sight of her purpose.
Kusum admired Sumathi’s nylon sari, flowers embroidered at its hem, as she sat down on the iron cot.
Sumathi looked around with the eyes of a visitor. It had been 10 days since Kailas’ death; his security-guard uniform hung on a nail near the TV. This wasn’t her home anymore. Everything had changed. The walls were bare, which earlier had held clocks and posters of gods, paintings of waterfalls. It was as barren now, as living with Kailas had been. She felt a certain relief.
“What will you have?” asked Kusum. She had a mellifluous voice.
In Sumathi’s life, there should have been no place for a dialogue with Kusum, even though in imaginary conversations the younger woman had appeared several times. Now face-to-face, Sumathi’s mouth was dry. There was a galaxy of too much between them.
“Water?” Kusum said, offering her a steel tumbler on a floral tray. The pressure cooker’s whistle went off. Lentils cooked in the kitchen. Its smell made Sumathi nauseous; she couldn’t wait to get out.
“Why have you come?” Kusum wanted to say, but shifted her seated weight over the wooden stool, inquiring instead how long it took for Sumathi to get here from Nashik and if it was a tiring journey.
Nashik was where Kusum and Kailas sneaked away to on many weekends when they were new, when Sumathi was still his wife.
Kusum let the silence be, but let out a noisy yawn.
“I just had to make this journey,” said Sumathi fumbling with her handbag straps.
In the initial years, she had pursued ignorance about Kusum, matching it with an equal vengeful thirst in the later years of knowing everything about her. She had ‘hired’ a neighbour—to watch over Kusum and give her reports. She learnt Kusum was a marvellous cook, she taught dance at home to little kids; giving tuitions in the afternoons, when Kailas was away. Sumathi found that Kusum couldn’t have children. But did Kailas understand that now—that it was his fault and not the women’s? She had already suffered for it. It had been difficult living as an independent woman, keeping her job, shooing away wolves who picked up scents of the lonesome woman. Thankfully Sumathi’s brother lived in Bombay and she cared for his children when he and his wife went to work. They had become her family. Her niece and nephew were her children now.
Sumathi learnt Kailas hadn’t made a will. In fact, he had been stupid not to remove her name from their bank accounts. He had forgotten about the house too, never legally divorcing her. Now was her chance.
“I’ve come for this house,” said Sumathi.
“What?” Kusum snapped out of her reverie. Her shoulders instantly stooped.
Sumathi’s throat was dry, but she was to give this conversation 15 minutes, and then threaten Kusum with a legal battle.
“All through I knew I would meet you someday,” said Kusum, “I knew you existed…even though I was so taken by him.”
“Yet you didn’t think of stopping?” asked Sumathi, her breath rising with her voice, her blood boiling in spite of every self-admonition. Her face was scorching, threatening to burst forth lava from its surface.
“I couldn’t. I was…in love,” said Kusum.
At least someone could love him, thought Sumathi. “So, you think you did right?” Sumathi surprised herself by asking. Her blood crawled under her cold skin. She felt unknotted and out-of-control. This conversation wasn’t going as planned. “So, all good things came to you, all the bad left for me, haan?”
Kusum bent her head low, and sniffed, “He told me how incompetent you were as a wife. How insufficient, inadequate. He told me everything about you, even about the beatings…he gave you.”
Sumathi wanted to leave, but it was better to hear all this today, so she could bury everything once and for all, before taking the papers of this house in compensation.
Kusum said, “First I’d be happy I was different from you—better—that’s why he came to me, but then…”
“Then what?” asked Sumathi, biting her lip, holding up her posture to avoid herself from crumbling.
“He said the same things to me, five years after our marriage. He was unhappy with me, because I couldn’t give him children. My cooking wasn’t good. For this and for that. Always writing something in his notebook and getting angry. Then he began beating me. The cursing started too, growing worse and…I thought a lot about you. We fought every day—yelling and shouting. Sometimes, I wondered if he could even hear our hollering or had turned deaf and just needed that as some sort of weird solace.”
“Why did you stick with him then?” asked Sumathi, swinging her leg to hold back her emotions.
“Because I believed him.”
“Yes,” said Kusum, wiping her face.
“At least you were spared of this!” Sumathi said, lifting her arms to show purple scars that looked like old tattoos. She sighed, “He was very happy the year we got married. In fact, that year—a month after that—he got a promotion as assistant spinning manager. He considered me lucky. That year had been the best! After that it was a nightmare…”
Kusum studied Sumathi.
“No, he didn’t beat me like that. He knew I would leave. He worried he would come home and find me gone.”
Sumathi laughed, her tears rolling off her face, “Nice. He was frightened of your desertion, that’s why he didn’t beat you up badly? If only I had the courage to walk out, he wouldn’t have done that to me either.”
“No…I was grateful you were there…somewhere,” said Kusum.
“Why? To take all the beating, the poison, while he gave you all the love—his good side?”
“In all these years, I had lost my confidence,” said Kusum. “I couldn’t go back to my family. I couldn’t move to another man or think of another marriage. I felt so useless and worthless… I left my teaching job. Kailas showed me how imperfect I was—unfit, ugly, good-for-nothing. I stopped teaching, singing, and dancing too. Every day he told me how hopeless, clumsy, and incompetent I was.”
“So why were you happy that I existed?” asked Sumathi.
“Because you knew this misery and had survived it, still living successfully somewhere in the city…”
“Yeah! The brave one. Once when I was beaten, I nearly lost my eye. So heavy was the bleeding.”
Kusum studied Sumathi’s left eye, smaller that her right one.
“Why did you not do anything?”
“I’m not educated. What job was I to get? I started getting an education only after I left him through a correspondence course. At least you had something in hand. You could have done better! You should have left him.”
“After years of feeling stupid, foolish, idiotic, I couldn’t. I had lost all my confidence.”
They looked at the floor tiles.
“I couldn’t keep quiet. I would make the situation unbearable. I just couldn’t tolerate things until he would beat me up,” said Sumathi.
“I would stay quiet and drink in each word. He was very particular about the house,” said Kusum, getting into mood, “…not a curtain out of place, the bedsheet had to be taut, the towels folded, even kerchiefs ironed. He would buy from the mill shop, never the open market. And his shirt—he never let me touch. He would wash and iron his own clothes. He had a special detergent, bleach and starch. I don’t know what lay in those clothes. He would wear only cotton. Never synthetic,” said Kusum.
“Accha?” said Sumathi, “He wasn’t like this when I was here. He worked in the mill. In fact, he didn’t care about his shirt much. Of course, we wore only cotton.”
“He was stern and strict like this all through as a security guard,” said Kusum. “Very particular how I dressed. Had to wear dark cotton saris with full-sleeved blouses. No salwar kameez with side cuts. No synthetics.”
“He wasn’t like this with me. You know when my parents were searching for boys, Kailas was the most educated. Graduate and all,” said Sumathi, “What will you do now?”
“I will teach in classes or school—what I used to do twenty years ago,” said Kusum. “Meeting you, I feel like I have met myself again. That girl who knew what she was, who was confident and assured of life.”
“Hm…but the teaching syllabus would have changed?”
“How much, even then? I was a language teacher,” Kusum smiled, going over to lift one side of the cot’s mattress. She fished out a noisy packet. “Here! This is the house agreement.”
Sumathi watched Kusum.
The cooker’s whistle went off again and Kusum went into the kitchen. “Have some lunch?” she shouted from inside, “A simple dal and rice.” She came out wiping her hands on a towel.
Sumathi watched Kusum’s sleeveless deep-cut blouse, beneath her chiffon sari. Her thinness would fill out soon. She had a long way to go. She would be fine.
“Okay,” said Sumathi, “But just one katori of rice okay, no more. I have sugar problems.”
They sat on the floor to eat, lotus-style, and Sumathi said, “He never spoke of what happened in the mill.”
“He never spoke of what happened in the mall either,” said Kusum, looking out the window at the papaya tree leaves that looked so suddenly green and alluring.
“You can stay with me until you find your feet…on proper ground,” said Sumathi.
Kusum nodded, smiling for the first time at Sumathi, a cluster of dimples appearing above her chin.
This story is from the upcoming story collection ‘Hangovers from a Bombay Debacle’.