Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: Amid this Diwali's dimmer lights, a story of bright enterprise
Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis
Read more columns in this series here.
My Neighbour the Kandeel-maker
Soon after one of Mumbai’s most successful heart surgeons moved from his downmarket Parel flat to a 3,000 sq ft seafront sprawl at Breach Candy, he complained that he missed his former locality. “I don’t get a sense of Diwali. Yes, the crackers are there, but where are the beautiful kandeels lighting up the night?” What a loser, I’d thought to myself, he deserved his crummy old digs.
Now that I’ve come to live in ‘Lowest Parel’, I see his point. SoBo simply doesn’t have the festive mojo imparted mainly by those huge orange paper lanterns, their long streamers quivering happily in the November breeze. Swanky localities have no use for their transformative magic, but the scabrous chawls of the inner city need this cover-up as much as their beleaguered residents need the safety valve of celebrations. Mumbai, as distinct from Bombay, gets converted into a carnival by the wand of the swaying Diwali kandeel.
It also bonds our TJ Road’s manicured communities with the untidy one beyond their Lakshman Rekha. Kandeels light up our private balconies just like the chawls’ common verandah; and most of them have been bought from the temporary stalls that spring up on the main Acharya Dhonde Marg. COVID has depleted their number from legion to handful, this too making it feel less like Diwali.
Sidhu sits like an expectant groom in a ‘mandap’ festooned by garlands of nylon marigold, plastic tuberoses, polymer roses. These will last beyond the festival so they are selling a little less slowly than the kandeels dangling from a makeshift frame. Behind him are stacked hedgehog balls of fairy lights. He has a part-time job at Film City, now increasingly more part than time. So he’s standing in for the pal who ‘owns’ this space, but has been laid lower by an accident. “What can we do?” says Sidhu. “We have to fill our bellies, so we are obliged to work for these few weeks on the pavement. Din-raat because it’s too much trouble taking down and hanging it all back.” The Beatles didn’t have Covidepression on their mind, but today everyone’s getting by ‘with a little help from my friends’.
Sidhu &Co have strung their garlands with mass-produced flowers and baubles bought wholesale from Crawford Market. He may emphasise that it is all ‘apun ka desi’, no ‘China-maal’, but he is only an assembler. For the increasingly rare start-to-finish, hand-made atmanirbhar, I go past five small jewelry shops to meet soft-voiced Kasturi Mosamkar, 19, standing under her shimmering canopy.
With desultory interruptions of passer-bais asking ‘Hyaalaa kitti?’, she says, “Our kandeels are all traditional paper and cardboard, no plastic-polyester.” It turns out that a whole year’s worth of labour goes into this short season of sales. Echoing the despair of the street (and beyond), she shrugs resignedly, “How many people will buy? Jobs have gone. My cousin-brother used to work as an accountant; now he’s selling vada pav.”
It is all hands on deck for Kasturi’s handmade kandeels. “This is our family business,” she announces proudly. “Started by my grandfather, Dattaram, and now we all pitch in.” Grandmother Vasanti, parents Veena and Virendra, twin sister Kalyani and two younger brothers, also twins, Mandar and Swaroop, who materialise, and saunter into our conversation.
The family divvies up the designing, drawing, cut-outs, including the intricate filigree of the lantern hanging above us. The Mosamkars produce about 500 small kandeels and 60-odd, large-larger-largest ones, as well as bright, little earthen diyas, complete with packets of wicks. Also pouches of rainbow rangoli powders for thresholds more fervently enticing Lakshmi this glum Diwali.
Only the actual assembly of the delicate (and bulky) kandeels is left for the month before the festival. Not surprising. All the work is done at their one-room-kitchen home. They also have their separate lives. Papa is a graphic designer, whose ‘employers even sent him on a job for L’Oreal’. ‘Aai’ works in a beauty parlour ‘up there’ said Kasturi glancing at the building alongside. The twin girls passed out from Auxilium convent in Wadala, which explains why my new friend insists on replying in English to my stupidly presumptive Hindi; the boys go to Don Bosco. Kasturi is now in her second year BCom at Tolani College. And while I’m still recovering from all this enterprise emanating from a one-room chawl and a pavement stall, she adds that she’s also doing a company secretary’s course.
Is there a less trite way of saying ‘I’m humbled.’?
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