The salty night breeze brazenly blew across the settlement of the Bombilwadi colony in a tiny by lane of the Mahim backwaters in Mumbai.
In a city perennially proliferating into the proverbial concrete jungle, Bombilwadi was one of the few remaining authentic Son koli settlements. It was reigned over by an iron-fisted Manda tai. Gondan tattoos adorning her sturdy hands reflected their eminent traditional culture despite commercialization and infiltration. Be it a religious function to pay homage to Khandoba or the suspected drug and arms cartel or managing their gang, she wielded her power.
The community’s criminal links were never proven and the nefarious affairs took place when the rest of the city fell into the sleep abyss.
Tonight, Manda tai’s only son Arun bhau, the sole heir to the ‘business’ stood at the far end of the quiet back-waters, away from prying eyes in knee deep murky waters.
Arun’s armed cronies, looked around for signs of trouble while they awaited the arrival of their material. Baban batlya, the jester with immutable grubby hands, was extremely short-statured granting him the nickname while Koustubh koltya was sly and a hard-core womanizer. The fact that he was a professional MMA fighter made him the honey attracting the fairer-skinned flies.
However, neither matched the charisma radiated by the prodigal Arun. Tall, dark, and handsome with a gift of the gab he was the wet dream of countless women.
They waited for the cargo ship, its lights nowhere in sight across the far-flung horizon, their vision tainted by the luminant rhapsody of the sea-link and the flickering hues of the amethyst Mumbai skyline.
It was faint but his sharp ears detected a whimper coming from the curved end of the slim beach.
He went closer a cautious hand on his cloak carrying the pistol. A frail young woman lay prone on the sand, soaked with grime, blood, and the mild drizzle that had just begun. Based on her gaudy outfits underneath the muck-laded veneer, he guessed her to be a commercial sex worker…
He turned her over and as the rainwater cleared her face, he was stunned by the bewitching beauty in the soft glow of his mobile light. Her hourglass figure lay sprawled as the waves hit her softly. She groaned clutching her turquoise fish pendant nestled in the hollow of her neck. The swollen eye didn’t make a dent in her allure. He looked away as the lascivious embers he didn’t know existed were stroked deep in his heart.
Within minutes the woman was in the wadi’s lone clinic, a one-room structure that had seen better days. Doctors never visited but Amar dada the oldest man in the wadi attended to any kind of medical issues, his only qualification being he was an ex-compounder in a private clinic.
Dada stared at the woman lying on the rickety bed donated by some MLA over a decade ago. His name imprinted with the date had been long erased and the rodents had nibbled through the tough rubber. The dim light provided by the bulb hanging from a strung shade didn’t help Amar dada’s drunk-to-oblivion sleep-laden eyes.
“Dada…?” Arun reminded the bald man ruminating on the tobacco-laced betel leaf. Although obnoxious the odor helped camouflage the other putrid ones currently in the room.
“Bhau, take her to the hospital… she is almost dead.” dada spoke muffled, the crimson spittle spraying out of his stuffed mouth.
“Dada we can’t take her anywhere else… she may be in danger.”
Amar dada raised his experienced eyes at the young blood before him, clearly not effectually hiding his attraction towards the woman.
“Bhau, the ship failed to arrive. If Manda tai gets wind of this one, she will banish me. We shouldn’t trust strangers…”
Ignoring him, Arun called Baban inside. “Batlya, tell your mai to get a bath ready. I will get in touch with Shobha sister.”
Baban and a morose Koustubh hauled the woman to Baban’s home. It was at the crack of the dawn that Arun returned with an elderly woman in a hospital uniform who kept grumbling about the sanitation issues around and scrunched her nose as she entered the tiny home.
“Arre Deva… poor child. Who could be so inhuman?” Shobha sister sighed her experienced eyes examining the woman.
Within the hour the IV was injected, wounds bandaged as the woman nonchalantly regained consciousness.
“Pori… naav kay tujha?” Baban’s anxious mother asked the stirring woman her name.
Arun watched in grave concern as Shobha helped the woman raise on the bed with the support of a humble pillow.
“I am… Ka… Kaveri…” The woman muttered softly while her almond eyes roamed around the room finally resting on Arun. Her hand instinctively grasped at the turquoise pendant.
Arun felt he was struck by a thunderbolt as his abdomen did multiple somersaults. The woman had the most beautiful brown eyes and a shapely nose. The lip was split and a little swollen but he swore they resembled rose petals. Khandoba help him… the hardcore gangster was a goner.
Arun begged Manda tai to let Kaveri stay in their huge mansion. Kaveri revealed about her foray into the flesh trade when she was barely twenty to make ends meet. Unable to bear the agony she had tried to escape only to be caught and left for dead.
Manda tai was skeptical about the rebellious streak in the young woman and Arun’s puppy besotted eyes didn’t fail to escape her attention. She eventually relented not before imposing a no-mobile-phone condition.
Kaveri began to work at the main house as soon as she got a little better and her assigned duties ranged from cooking and cleaning to gardening. After a month she was also given the special task of packing stuffed fish.
Kaveri had been astounded to see the tiny packets that Arun had described as white gold. She had listened to his stories wide-eyed clutching her pendant.
Days passed and Kaveri became an inseparable element of the community. She picked up some of their customs, made friends with the womenfolk, acquired a tattoo, and even learned the choicest of vulgar epithets.
Arun took good care of her bringing the delicacies of her choice and also taking her out once in a while. Baban cracked jokes all the time while Koustubh regaled her with their stories. Kaveri found out they all had tough childhoods and had grown up learning to wield knives and pistols in addition to the fishing nets, in their quest to survive.
Their latest haul involving the desi katta, brought in huge profits for the community. Manda tai celebrated the occasion with a grand party overflowing with booze and fish fry.
As Kaveri stood in the corner overlooking the fun-filled cacophony, she was suddenly dragged into the gap between two houses a rough hand clamping her mouth.
Arun stared into her alarmed eyes and sighed. “I am sorry Kaveri but I didn’t have a choice. I had to speak with you… alone.”
“What… what is it Arun?” She was the only one who addressed him by his name thrilling him no end.
“Kaveri…” He spoke softly the tiny glow of the floodlight seeping into the dark gap just enough to light up the sparkle in his lovelorn eyes, as he rubbed a calloused thumb on her cheek. “…I love you. Ever since I first laid my eyes on you that night… I wanted no one else. Will you be mine?”
Kaveri blushed and as Arun enveloped her soft body into his arms she nosed her way into his neck, kissing the bobbing apple as he swallowed. Holding her hair at her neck he stared into her beautiful browns overflowing with raw passion waiting to be claimed. That night as the other community members bellowed their way to oblivion Arun and Kaveri gave in to the coital pleasures.
A couple of days later disaster struck. There was a daylight gang war and Baban shot at a constable trying to save Arun. Constable Kedarnath had succumbed in the hospital and Arun knew there would be retaliation.
The next day, there was a narcotics raid in their storage establishment, secluded away from the prying curious eyes of the public. In the eventual frenzy, Baban was entrusted to be in the warehouse for safe-keeping while Arun handled the in-charge officers.
Baban waited throughout the uneventful day with his selectmen. Eventually, he sent the boys ahead and began winding up when suddenly he was pushed inside the place. Before he could recover from the shock trying to find his foothold in the pitch-dark area, he was hit forcefully on the head knocking him out.
When he came to, the place was dimly lit and all he could see was the silhouette of a man seated right ahead.
“Who are you and what do you want?” he asked harshly.
The man chuckled and pointed towards a paper kept before him.
‘Admit everything and you will be promised immunity from prosecution. Else be prepared to die’
Baban’s booming laughter reverberated through the confines of the huge cul de sac. “Go to hell. I am not going to reveal anything to you scums…”
The man stood up and walked towards him holding a silencer attached pistol. As Baban squinted at the face unveiling in the light above him, his eyes widened frit in recognition. But he had no time to react …
Bombilwadi mourned Baban’s untimely death and confiscation of the moolah. Arun was inconsolable and during their rendezvous that night, Kaveri held on to his body wracked with sobs.
The business deals now lay postponed given the ongoing scrutiny and the heightened patrolling. Koustubh’s upcoming MMA bout brought in some cheer in gloomy Bombilwadi, the stakes riding high on the outcome.
On the D-day, Arun and Kaveri anxiously awaited the duel amidst the roaring crowd around the arena. But Koustubh didn’t turn up. A moment later there was a commotion near the dressing room and Kaveri and Arun hurried to the locus only to see Koustubh’s lifeless body on his chair frothing at the mouth.
Bombilwadi once again plunged into the throes of the double whammy and Arun was shattered.
A week later Manda tai declared Arun’s betrothal to Jagruti, daughter of an ex-corporator. Arun’s protests went unheard as the marriage deal was integral for the monetary and political influx into the community.
A distraught Kaveri avoided Arun for the next couple of days.
Finally, on the third day, he dragged her unwilling self to their secret clove. “Kaveri, don’t do this… I need you the most right now.” Arun’s flustered, a far cry from his flamboyantly confident self.
“Arun, it’s too late…” Kaveri wailed gripping her pendant.
“Kaveri, I have two major commissions, a sneak-in tomorrow and a quick fix next week… little before the marriage. There’s good money. I can convince mai…”
The landing next night was successful, rejuvenating the community from the brink of depression. Arun and Kaveri met every following night under the twinkling night sky as their passion raced across different pinnacles uncaring about what lay in store.
A week later, after the traditional haldi ceremony, a glowing Arun held Kaveri in his arms while they lay on the soft sand impervious to the wetness seeping through their clothes.
“Arun, let’s run away…” Kaveri declared abruptly.
“What? I promise to talk to mai.”
“It’s impossible Arun. Jagruti’s father is a politician. But…you have enough to start fresh. A new life away from crime.”
Arun peered into her orbs, ruminating for what seemed like an eternity, and finally nodded.
There was a landing next afternoon close to Sassoon docks and albeit risky Arun was confident of pulling it off. The package was small but the shekels it brought in were enough to suffice for a lifetime.
Arun waited at the pier while Kaveri dawdled anxiously in the cab outside as per their plot machination. Their bags were stealthily packed and stored away in the cab early in the morning.
Arun walked towards the flashing signal and collected the package, surreptitiously moving out of the docks. Just then there was uproar around and he was surrounded by the police. Not just the local uniforms but commandos too.
A well-built man walked towards him. “Hand it over Arun Patil… it’s over now. You are under arrest for the possession of banned narcotics, smuggling, and murder of constable Kedarnath among others.”
“This is non-sense Inspector. I was told these contained medicines for my mother… I am not at fault” Arun lied defiantly.
“Your ‘sick’ mother and many others are being arrested now as we talk and we have all the proof, accounted for the last six months. It’s game over.”
“What proof? You want to pin the blame on me for your shortcomings?”
“Well, here’s evidence personified. Sub-inspector Kaveri, please come in.”
A stunned Arun watched as Kaveri strode in, her face devoid of emotions, and handed over the turquoise pendent to the Inspector in charge.
“This…” the inspector said holding the pendant “…was a recorder. An unmediated first-hand collection of your misdemeanors. You are in for long-term Arun…”
Arun wasn’t paying attention, his eyes with unshed tears spotlighted on Kaveri.
“You bitch… you killed Baban and Koustubh, didn’t you? I shouldn’t have trusted you. Just answer one question… was there an iota of truth in anything that we shared?”
“That’s enough. Arrest him.” The inspector declared and as the men advanced towards Arun, he instantly pulled the gun from his waistband and grabbed Kaveri placing the barrel on her head.
“Any of you makes a move and she is dead…” He growled with a finger on the trigger and began to cagily secede towards the exit.
The inspector aimed at them. “Let her go Arun, it’s done. You can’t escape this time…”
“…NO Rahul…” Kaveri yelled frantically. “…don’t shoot. He won’t harm me…”
But it fell on deaf ears as the shot rang aloud and the hold on her neck released instantly.
Months later, Kaveri was awarded the ‘best agent on-field,’ award by the Narcotics wing of Crime Branch where she had been working as an undercover agent for the last five years.
A year after the encounter, Bombilwadi no longer existed. Kaveri had resigned from her job and was now attached to an NGO teaching underprivileged child.
Strutting into the lone bedroom of her modest home Kaveri stared at Arun’s sleeping form. The bullet hadn’t killed him but had rendered him vegetative.
After checking his vitals, she held his limp shriveling hand.
Tears meandering their way down her sunken cheeks she wailed. “Arun, please wake up dear… let’s run away…”
For over 500 years the Koli fishing communities have been living and working along the coastal waters of the seven islands that made up the present-day city of Mumbai. Some of Mumbai’s well-known locality names today originate from the Koli community, such as Worli and Dongri.
Dada: older brother
Nav kay tujha?: What is your name?
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