As Mumbai stares at a menacing Covid crisis in the eye and daily SOPs are issued by the government to arrest the alarming rise in the number of cases, it's the fringe nomadic communities that risk complete extinction, this time around.
“Mere teen ladke mar gaye ab tak. Meri aurat bohut beemar rehti hai. Aur gaya saal poora lockdown mein ghar pe baithke nikala...Khaneko milta tha idhar udhar se toh khaya par gai (cow) leke nikalna pada abhi. Aur phir ye musibat vapis aa gayi (I have lost three sons, and my wife is sick. Last year, owing to the lockdown, we had to stay at home. We used to get food from somewhere or the other. But, now we have to move out with the cow to earn keep. And, now the cases are rising again)," says a 45-year-old Shankar Gaikwad looking easily a decade older for his age. Belonging to the community of Gugububuwala, as they are popularly known, owing to the gugu bubu sound emanating from their special drums as their 'holy cows' shake their heads in acquiescence or denial, as the case may be.
The members of this tribe live in the interiors of Maharashtra and walk by foot all the way to Mumbai over a few days, making stops at regular spots. Back in Mumbai, they walk with their cows, part of their family and holy owing to the presence of an extra limb or hump and said to possess magical qualities to heal and prophesise about the future.
Over the last whole year, owing to the ban on public movement, the Gugububuwalas aka Nandi Bailwalas stayed back in their villages and didn't come to Mumbai to beg on the streets and at temples where they earn their daily alms and live on food donated by devotees.
Shankar has lost three sons to disease over the years and is left with just one last survivor and a wife who now simply stares on the ground speechless, unable to overcome the loss of her children. "Ab is baar toh hum gaon jake rahenge toh khane ke lale ho jayega," says a dejected Shankar, who has embarked on his journey back to his village, like the few hundreds of his lot who risk extinction.
And, then, there are the Chabukwalas, also known as the Potraj, who move about in two, entertaining the public. As the Chabukwala's wife plays a drum, usually holding an infant in a cloth sling by her side and an idol of 'Khada Laxmi' on her head, the Chabukwala swings a heavy whip made of rope around his torso and hits himself to the astonishment of onlookers while dancing throughout the act. In the other hand, he shakes a bell in sync with the sound of the ghungrus tied to his feet.
This community, also a denotified tribal lot, too has been prevented from free movement throughout last year and now, once again, with the city struggling with the meteoric rise of COVID cases. "Ab ye zyada badh jayega toh hum log kahin ja nahin sakenge. Ab public mein show nahin kar paate hai jiske vajah se kamai nahin hoti hai (If the cases keep rising, I won’t be able to go anywhere. As it is we can’t perform in public like before)," says Chabukwala Nagesh.
"They are associated with a past that's synonymous with Bombay and her streets," says 23-year-old fashion designer Nikhila Singh, who has moved to New Delhi for work. "It's so sad that, with time and now Covid, this community will almost disappear from the city just like the Bioscopewalas," she says.
Bioscopewalas, one may recall, were those who'd arrive with a 'bioscope' — a contraption with a round window, where children would kneel down and look through to view slides of images of the city, old films and Bollywood stars in 'action'; Remember 'Paisa phenko, tamasha dekho' of Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz-starrer Dushman that showcased a bioscope and its functioning. Now, it's impossible to find a Bioscopewala in the city even in collective memory of the present-day generation.
Among the tribes associated with Mumbai, and swiftly disappearing, are the Pardhi. The community known to perform petty jobs like tarring have anyway been phased out of the work owing to modern and effective water-proofing methods and the arrival of professional services for the same.
"In earlier times, whenever the monsoons would approach, we'd get our shop chappra (weather frames) treated with dambar (tar) swiftly to ensure there is no water leakage," says 72-year-old Bansi Jain, owner of a cloth shop at Bora Bazaar. "We would have to call a Pardhi to do it. Nobody else could bear to sit in the heat of the summer, boil the tar and apply it on the chappra," he says. "Now, newer water-proofing measures undertaken by professional services offering warranties for over years too have elbowed out the Pardhis," maintains Mr Jain.
The Pardhis are now restricted to begging or, for the industrious, selling wares like toys, flowers and gajras at tourist spots like the Gateway of India. But, with the lockdown having nipped tourism in public places, they are left with no option but to beg. And, beg till they are apprehended by the police. The Pardhis are also disappearing slowly yet surely from the streets of Mumbai.
If things don't change for the better, these forgotten communities will now be completely erased from the memories associated with India's financial capital and Maximum City.