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Stories Within Stories: Malavika Sangghvi on Zoru Bhathena

In this city, every story has at least one, if not a hundred more behind it.

If things had gone as planned, yesterday Mumbai would have woken up to two very different stories about the same individual, perhaps symptomatic of the fractured times we live in and a reminder, that in this city, every story has at least one, if not a hundred more behind it — and it us up to us to dig deeper and bear witness to as many of them as we can.

Article by Malavika Sangghvi | Hindustan Times

One story begins with two runaway minor brothers, aged 13 and 10, who, having walked out of their parental home in Ulhasnagar had boarded a train to Mumbai and were found hungry and scared, huddled together, at 2am on Juhu beach, this Tuesday night.

“They said they had not planned where to go, hence, came to Juhu beach. I gave them some milk and biscuits. Young kids running away from home is always so much stress. For the family and for the kids too…” environmental activist Zoru Bhathena had posted on social media, on Wednesday morning, adding: “I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I tweeted to the Mumbai Police. Within 15 minutes, the Juhu beach patrol came and met the boys. I understand they’ve been reunited with their family today!”

_71c161d8-179e-11ea-8601-f2d8bfbcf79cSomething about this simple story had made us want to write about it. After all, in a city of unseen multitudes and widespread apathy, it spoke of everyday kindness and a happy ending. In the accompanying pictures, the boys had looked like two sheepish lads who were only just beginning to realise the enormity of their errant action and the pain and anxiety it must be causing their families. How fortunate that they’d met a Good Samaritan in Bhathena, rather than someone who might have taken advantage of their situation.

Besides, it was a beach we knew well, having spent our own childhood on it. We could imagine how cold and desolate it must have seemed for the boys at that hour: The restless roaring ocean and the tall dark buildings and bungalows around, holding sleeping strangers.

We had texted Bhathena, for more information. Though we’d never met him, we had reported on his environmental activism previously.

Had the beach look sinister or hostile at 2am? Had the boys looked scared? Had he encountered many such runaway stories in Mumbai? Why had he been on the beach at that hour?

“I could tell they were just putting on a brave face,” Bhathena had replied. “I asked them to imagine how their mum must be feeling. They nodded and said they will return home in the morning. No, I’ve never encountered a runaway before. I live in Khar, but my mum stays at Juhu, overlooking the beach and as she’s not keeping well, I was babysitting her, so I saw this from her house. But please don’t mention this in your story.”

And just like that, as it often happens, a gentle, meandering SMS conversation between two Mumbai strangers, had ensued during the course of Wednesday evening.

“Bless you for taking care of your Mum,” we’d responded. “Prayers for her recovery.” But that was not all; having got the attention of one of Mumbai’s leading environmentalists, we were curious to know what he thought the new government’s priorities ought to be.

Bhathena was forthcoming, but characteristically high-minded. “I wish our govt would do more honest work for more honest reasons. Not for fake PR; nor to make truckloads of money. Of course, our city needs to develop, but, in a more humane way. Personally, my fight is to save Mumbai’s tree cover. But, why should there be a fight? Why can’t we have development and green cover?” went one of his responses.

But even while dwelling on the big picture and the greater good, Bhathena had not forgotten the case of the runaway brothers. “I felt bad calling the cops,” he confessed. “Felt I was squealing on them, after they confided so much info in me. It (also) occurred to me that maybe I am been gypped, but so what if I was? You can’t stop trusting people just because some others are rogues. Plus, they were really small school-going boys. They even spelt their village name for me in English. May they be happy to be back home!”

So gentle reader, this was the story of the runaway brothers and their rescue by Bhathena, which the city never woke up to yesterday, due to the exigencies of our deadlines.

What it did wake up to was another one, also concerning Bhathena. A report of a personal family mess with accusations of physical assault and violence and non-cognisable complaints filed and counter, filed between a father and son on Tuesday afternoon; the everyday unnecessary quotidian cruelties, so common in families these days.

As we said, in the beginning, if not for the exigencies of deadlines, yesterday, Mumbai would have arisen to two very different stories about the same individual. One, a common-place one of accusations and counter accusations and the other, of two little runaway boys who were saved in the nick of time by a kind and alert stranger.

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The first will take its own course, perhaps in court or out of it, most likely with further public controversies and headlines. But the other, will remain on our cell phone forever, as text evidence in the court of conscience, that even during our most difficult times, we can still continue to be kind, thoughtful, and decent human beings who care.

“All Mumbaikars need to do is remove their blinkers and act on the pain they see around them and the city would be such a wonderful place,” Bhathena had texted us, even while he was in the midst of one of his most challenging days and perhaps not knowing that he would be the subject of a completely different story, in the next morning’s papers; a reminder that in this city, every story has at least one, if not a hundred more behind it and it is up to those of us who love it, to dig deeper and bear witness to as many of them as we can.