Mumbai: In a tiny room of a ramshackle building with old stone staircases and corroded tin roofs, three men and a woman are poring over scribbles on loose sheets of paper, and typing furiously.
They are laying out one of India’s oldest community newspapers, the Khabar Patrika—one that has no editor—for yet another day at the printing press. As they type, black ribbons appear on the computer screen next to the picture of a bespectacled boy, who looks a bit bemused. It isn’t a happy story they are telling, though.
Fraternal bond: Members of Kutchi community in the cooperative colony in Nalasopara. The community housing project began in 2006. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Readers are being told of a tragedy: 14-year-old Yash Anil Chandurva, son of Smita and Anil Chandurva from Bagda village in Kutch, had died. The statement does not say how he died, but it does list his entire family tree and phone numbers to reach the grieving family.
“Tomorrow, about 44,000 Kutchi families will read this and know what the Chandurva family has lost,” says Jyoti Shah, who has been running this desktop publishing unit in the overcrowded by-lanes of Bhatbazar (the first home of Kutchis in the city) in Mumbai with her husband for the last five years. Some will mourn silently, others will offer condolences, and still others will attend the service (it, too, is listed in a column on the right). And some women will gossip in corridors outside their homes and wonder what happened to the boy. But every Kutchi home will know that Yash Anil Chandurva is dead, Shah adds.
“This newspaper is a legacy of the community. We are so proud to be a part of it.”
News of passings was the main reason why Khabar Patrika, also known simply as the Patrika, was established, says Pannalal Chedda, one of the key community members overseeing the management of the newspaper. “About 150 years ago, our forefathers began to move from Kutch to Mumbai. They settled at first in the Bhatbazar area of the city. They were close-knit. When someone died, the entire village and community would be there to offer support.”
Today, the newspaper, now 68 years old, marks not just the passing of Kutchi people, but their lives and aspirations, their failures and successes, their tragedies and triumphs. In this close-knit community that communicates through this newspaper, nothing is hidden. The newspaper has become the lifeline that keeps the community alive and has created a social security net for those who fall on hard times, says Manesh Karani, founder of Asanjo Kutch, a website launched to connect Kutchis globally. “If our children do well, we put announcements here. If they marry, we announce it here. If we are blessed with grandchildren, we write about it here. If we start a business, we write it here. If we need help at a hospital, we write it here. If someone is collecting or giving donations for books, blood, time, money, we write it here. This is the newspaper that Kutchis, no matter how highly educated, pick up before The Times of India, The Economic Times or Hindustan Times,” says Karani.
Community lifeline:The Khabar Patrika. Shared roots and memories are important.
Karani’s website publishes a PDF version of the Patrika every day, “for Kutchis who do not receive the printed version and want to keep in touch with their families in India”.
While the Khabar Patrika has made many things possible, its role in helping poor Kutchis with housing is truly spectacular, says Vasant Galia, founder of the Kutchi Jain Foundation that has raised around Rs100 crore in the last two years to build 3,500 homes for those Kutchi families that live below the poverty line in Mumbai. The activist says that hard times can visit anyone, “but when they come, we want to try and help as much as we can”.
The housing project began in 2006, when the foundation bought 300 flats in an apartment complex in Nalasopara, a suburb at the fringes of Mumbai. Families that have moved here from the city’s slums and run-down rooms say they are eternally indebted to the rest of their community that has donated time, money and resources to help provide them with livable homes.
“It changed my entire life,” says Ramesh Lalji Vohra, 50, a former shop owner who now makes a living by vending the sherbet he makes in his new home. He speaks of a time when life was better.
“I used (to) own a shop and house in Golibar area in Santacruz. It was small but we managed…ten years ago, we lost it to road cutting. Around the same time, a long spell of illness began in my home. My father was sick and he died. My mother was comatose for months. I found a job somewhere, but had to leave it because of a spinal cord injury. I sold everything I owned and moved into a rented room with my wife and children. That’s when I began making sherbet. My wife would go door-to-door and sell what I made.”
“I still cannot work. We thought we would spend our lives in that small, cramped room in the Charkop slums. Until we heard about this scheme,” he adds.
In the paper, he read about the community initiative to provide better housing for Kutchis in his situation, and wasted no time in applying. “I could not travel. But my wife went to meet them,” he says, pointing to the tired-looking woman sitting next to him.
Startled at being asked to tell the rest of story, she shuffles uncomfortably on a small plastic chair that groans under her weight. “Well, Vasantbhai (Vasant Galia) came to see my house on Friday evening. In just two-three days, we got a call back saying we have been selected for the apartment. I could not believe our luck,” she finally says, as she continues staring vacantly at an empty wall. But a shadow of a smile passes over her face.
“When you see such hard times, you think nothing good can happen…but it did. I will not forget seeing that advertisement in the paper. I will not forget the kindness we were shown.”
The scheme is a very simple one, says Galia. The foundation buys the land, or it is donated to it. It gets builders to build houses on the land for a nominal payment or nothing at all. And once the houses are ready, it runs ads in the paper, asking people to apply for them.
“The beneficiaries are asked to pay only a third of the price of the apartments. If they cannot pay even that, we find someone from their village who has done well, and ask him to donate (the money). Some may say. ‘I will give Rs10,000’; another may say, ‘I will pay the entire deficit’. But somehow or the other, we make sure the beneficiaries can raise the required amount,” he adds.
“We make sure that they get that apartment.”
Deepak Bheda, one of the co-founders of the foundation, says that the newspaper has made it possible to not just connect Kutchis, but also helped create a sort of social security network.
“Every Kutchi wants the others to do well. We want to help, because we have all seen very difficult days. When I was growing up, we lived in a slum in Mumbai. My father ran a grain and vegetable shop from the house itself. Sometimes, the rats would come and nibble at potatoes in sacks. We could not throw those potatoes away. We could not sell them either. So we cut off the parts that the rats had eaten and cooked the rest for our dinner,” says Bheda. “So when Vasantbhai asked me if I wanted to get involved in the project to create better housing options for Kutchis, I knew I had to do it. I had seen too many hard days to ignore it.”
That sentiment—of having seen hard days and wanting to help others in theirs—runs through the community.
When the foundation began to advertise the housing initiative in the Khabar Patrika, asking poor Kutchis to apply for housing, applications poured in. “In 2006, when we began this project, we had a target of only 300 apartments. Today, there are 1,000 houses being constructed in Virar, Nalasopara and Dombivli (all suburbs at the outer reaches of Mumbai) and we hope to provide houses to 3,000 families within two years,” says Galia.
“It’s a need-based decision making process (based on) whose need is greater,” says Naveen Shah, treasurer of the foundation. “We look at factors such as financial condition, of course. But we also see if the family has young daughters; if they live in an area where there (are) butcher shops (the Kutchis are mostly staunch vegetarians); if the place is very dirty —then we put them on a priority.”
People, not places, make a home
This is just one of many things that the community newspaper has made possible, says Chedda. “It is the place where people go to look for jobs, for homes, for business, for help, for charity, for exploring roots, and now, even marriage. The story of the newspaper is also the story of the Kutchis in Mumbai.” The paper has a simple and economically sensible business model.
Rajesh Shah, a chartered accountant who is also involved in running the newspaper, explains it: “If you have an announcement or an advertisement to make, you write it and send it to the collection centre in Bhatbazar. Only announcements about deaths run for free. Everything else is considered an advertisement and has to be paid for. Those proceeds are used to defray printing and distribution costs.”
Once the paper is printed, around 600 men distribute it to 44,000 families across the city. “The paper is distributed by nightfall to most homes. And every family receives its copy by 11am the next morning,” says Chedda. He explains that “we run news of deaths for free because that was the reason the newspaper was founded. It was meant to make sure that people did not miss the funeral services of a relative.”
Since Kutchis were concentrated in a small area of south Mumbai when they arrived here in ships, it wasn’t difficult to stay in touch. But over time, as more and more Kutchis abandoned the hard life of rain-starved villages and moved to the city, they drifted deeper and deeper into Mumbai’s suburbs. “That is when communication became a problem. People of the same village could not be there for each other when relatives, parents and friends died. And so, in 1941, the newspaper was born,” says Gulab Dedhia, a history teacher in Mumbai, who is compiling the history of the community.
Chedda says that since then, the newspaper has been the lifeline of the community.
“It is always been there... Our children don’t feel as strongly about their roots as we used to and sometimes I get worried about it…because communities are important. Shared roots and memories are important,” he adds. “In this world, where everything and everyone is so transient, this connection to others gives you a place where you belong, no questions asked.”