January 22, 2005

Ambujwadi 1: I've seen this before

So I'm sitting in a vast area filled with rubble and burned patches and sticks and dogs running around and smoke ... and people all over. Here a clump of boys playing cards; there an old man ("our Mahatma Gandhi", says my companion, companionably also named Dilip) beckoning me over; there two women cooking; on that pile of bricks, a woman breastfeeding her daughter.

And I think, I've seen this before. I've been here before. It looks so damned familiar. Am I in Tamil Nadu again, woken up this morning to find myself unwittingly transported back to where a giant wave raged destruction and belched misery? No, it was not unwittingly and I remember clearly how I got here. Train to Malad station, bus to Malvani, rickshaw the final 1.5 km and here I am. Still in Bombay, but my senses telling me I'm in tsunami-zone again, but I'm really just where the bulldozers came through.

And if I stopped at cybercafes in Tamil Nadu to file immediate reports about that destruction, I can stop at one in Malad to file this one about this destruction.

This is Ambujwadi, an enormous area that used to be swampland and then was a slum for many years, and over the last month has been utterly -- I don't know how else to convey this to you, but "utterly" will have to suffice -- razed to the ground. Not by a tsunami, not by a quake, not by a cyclone, but by my Municipality's own men and their equipment. Man made destruction, right here 45 minutes from my home. In some ways, the destruction is actually worse than the tsunami managed: that's what I meant by that word "utterly."

This was my home, says Dilip. I remember Palani on the Bommaiyarpalayam beach three weeks ago; in Tamil, he said the same thing. But I don't remember him because of his words, but because of the feeling of wonder I had, then and now. Because where he pointed to, and where Dilip points to now, I can't even imagine there being a home. There's just a patch -- sand there, sand here -- that each outlines with a pointing finger, and I'm supposed to reach into their memories and construct for myself what they once called homes. Imagine some kind of structure standing on this bare square of land.

You expect too much of me, Dilip. I can see that your home is destroyed, that your entire neighbourhood is gone, I know that it was your own fellow citizens who did this, who support it happening and say it was the right thing to do. All that, yes. But don't expect me to imagine your home as you once knew it.

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