The newsroom was already buzzing with news of a gangrape near the Mahalaxmi area in S Mumbai, on Thursday night. After the news came in, I went to the spot to take pictures. It was approximately 3am, and the city that never sleeps may not have been fully silent but that usually busy road was naturally less crowded at that time of the night.
Even as I was pondering just how I would take pictures of the abandoned, derelict Shakti Mills in the dark of the night, I knew I had to be on the spot anyway and try to capture at least some visuals.
That is part of our job as newspaper photographers. With more than 10 years of news photography experience, one can say that waiting for the right picture, the correct light so that we can shoot pictures is part of the territory, so to speak.
As I approached the mill, I saw a posse of policemen and police vans outside. A uniformed officer, told me and a couple of other media photographers that they were outside too, it was so dark that taking pictures would be out of the question. I saw this made sense and left.
I returned at 6am, to the same spot. This time, again, there were police, but I and at least two other photographers managed to get inside. There was no gate, but a gap in the wall. I was struck at once by the scene. A great hull of a chimney, looming against the sky, a silent sentinel I thought, to the abhorrent crime the city was witness to.
Even as I entered I was shocked that such a place actually existed in S Mumbai, tucked away in an area where offices are replacing defunct mills. The entry was shrouded with foliage and the grass inside was knee-high. Even early in the morning, the structure, broken in many places, silhouetted against the sun was one of stark and savage beauty. What struck me was the irony -- just outside, the city would soon rise to life, traffic would roar, office-goers would start making their way to work and all the noise of daily life would inundate the streets, while this part would still remain desolate and eerily silent as if oblivious to everything.
I started taking pictures quickly, the rising sun helping me, but I was still clicking at slow shutter speed because of the weak light. Ruins and green grass, trees, broken columns, some of which reminded me of old movies, and little pools of stagnant water greeted me. I had to be careful where I stepped. There was something so intimidating about the entire scene, and the place seemed entirely deserted. At one spot, I saw a lot of paper plates thrown to one side; some people had obviously had a meal and discarded the plates there.
Soon, the place was crawling with khaki as police teams started combing the area. A police (sniffer) dog entered and I saw him along with officials going from one spot to the other. We were told by the police to leave the place, and it was nearly 9.30am when I left the area. I started walking near the Mahalaxmi tracks and saw there were a couple of other ways to enter the place. Along with other photographers, I re-entered just for a last chance to take pictures. By now, curious onlookers on the main road outside were looking at all the police activity at the spot. One lady asked me if there was a shooting taking place.
Finally, I took my pictures and exited the mill at around 10.30am, immensely weary because the huge place had demanded so much walking, and thirsty, as the sun was beating down on me. I left, taking a last look at this mill, now part of Mumbai’s Hall of Shame, a place where criminals, anti-social elements can find refuge because of its general inaccessibility and the dense foliage inside. I left with a last thought, that when I first entered, I had heard what one does not hear too often in a cacophonic city -- birds singing. But maybe I was wrong. That Friday morning, it was not birdsong but a dirge. A dirge for a city which has witnessed the death of its reputation as being one of the safest for women in this country.
As told to Hemal Ashar