The city that does not sleep they call it. But on a balmy Sunday Mumbai does like to take a short siesta post lunch, as I learned while taking a slow, meandering walk through Dadar after a heavy three-course lunch. Stroll down Mancherji Joshi Parsi Colony, fondly known as Dadar Parsi Colony, and you will find the streets empty, curtains billowing from open balconies and if you listen very carefully, even some light snoring coming from the ground floor apartments of one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city.
But head past the three-storeyed buildings to the iconic Five Gardens and you will find a strange bustle that is uncanny for a sleepy weekend. It’s 10 minutes past five and the park is filled with clusters of men in groups of 20 each seated in circles having separate meetings. I meander through the groups, bemused. Fifteen groups, all engrossed in rapt conversation are spread out, mutually aware of the other’s presence but functioning individually as an entity.
Each group, made up of only men, has an obvious leader who addresses the others, occasionally pausing mid-sentence to jot down notes in a long register that reminds us of that neat attendance sheet we’re all too familiar with from our school days. While the speaker talks passionately to the group, some seem to contest his argument and occasionally it spurs a discussion. Others nod along and still others stare away into the distance, perhaps distracted by a patch of grass that they prefer to pluck blades off.
Occasionally, I catch a bit of the chatter but somewhere between the wind and the sounds of giggling toddlers playing on the see-saw in the adjoining park, we lose the plot. An ill cousin, a struggling neighbour, an upcoming examination and a plea for a loan don’t add up to garden gossip and anyway babble was never this organised. Mumbai city can never have any secrets because there are too many people for anyone to say anything that can’t be overheard, a wise aunt once told me. Unable to contain my curiosity, I decided to approach a disbanding team and politely poke my nose into what was obviously none of my business. Luckily I’m greeted with smiles, and introductions are made all around. I meet Prakash Jogale, Satish Jogale, Namdev Jogale, Mahindra Jogale and slowly, I seem to see the pattern. Feeling like I’ve just crashed an intimate family lunch, I manage an awkward nod.
But Prakash is quick to explain, “We’re all from the same village — Gangari, near Chiplun and this is our meeting spot.” To his right, Satish, a tall man in worn-out trousers, adds, “All of us come from the same village but now live scattered across the city. Since we hail from the same native place, we formed a mandal — Sri Vithal Rakhumai Mandir Seva Mandal — which meets once a month at this ground since it’s centrally located for everyone.” Santacruz-based Prakash, who later tells me that he is working in the ‘service’ sector, organises the meet-up on the second Sunday of every month from 3 to 5 pm for the 30-member group. Each member represents his family, and while they may have found their way to the city for different reasons like work and education, they always remember to save the date for their next mandal meeting.
The meeting usually starts off with updating each other on news back home and life in general. A small kitty is also maintained to fund events that are being planned. The register, Prakash explains, is to keep a tab of the contributions that are often as humble as Rs 10 and also record the minutes of the meeting. The meeting also plays the role of a support group at times, where members help each other with contacts that might help find a job, advice about how to find affordable accommodation or even monetary aid to help an ailing relative. “Many people come to the city without knowing anyone. We have to help each other. If we don’t help one another then who will?” asks a greasy-haired youth in the circle standing behind.
The group has also been regularly organising a play back home every February during the mandir feast when everyone takes a short trip to the village. “We also use the garden to practice the play at that time. It’s a good place because no one will disturb you and you can do your own thing,” offers Satish. In the crowded streets of Mumbai, its groups like these that offer a familiar face and a helping hand to the multitude of citizens that make the city their home away from home.