I’m running 15 minutes late for my appointment with Madhuri Kharat, trying to navigate through the cool, dark corridors of Lallubhai Compound. One of the biggest “SRA Colonies”—short for Slum Rehabilitation Authority—in Mumbai, this cluster of 65 yellowing buildings in Mankhurd houses some of the city’s poorest inhabitants.
Mankhurd’s residents were transplanted to the outlying suburb in 2005, brought from slums all over the city in a mass rehabilitation drive. Several generations of families live cramped in floors of 24 kholis, each one 225 square feet of living space. Many of their doors are marked with a small scribbled flower and a name. This is the symbol of Madhuri, a middle-aged hijra—the undisputed queen of Mankhurd—known by her regal moniker.
At first, Madhuri doesn’t want to meet me, but after some pleading on the phone, I finally get my darshan. She sweeps into the room preceded by the sound of bangles and anklets. “Ma ,” she admonishes me, “ main waqt ki deewani hoon. Waqt kisi ke liye nahi rukta, na main.” “I’m a slave to time. It stops for no one, and neither do I.”
Madhuri is dressed in a bright green sari, with a pink bindi on her forehead. As she takes me on a round of the Lallubhai Compound, I notice her manner alternating between coquettish and maternal depending on who she is speaking to. But everyone offers her a chair and a cup of tea. One matriarch tells me proudly, “Even the police offer Madhuri aunty a chair.”
Given its surroundings, one might expect Lallubhai to have more violent crime. Mankhurd is part of the M-East municipal ward, which has Mumbai’s highest crime rate, a 51.87 percent unemployment rate, and an abysmal human development index (a statistic that combines life expectancy, education and per capita income) of 0.05. Yet thousands live in Mumbai’s poorest area, with only 15 minutes of water daily, and long power outages.
Madhuri likes to take credit for the relative peace in Mankhurd’s central residential compound. Where civic authorities, lawmakers and law enforcement have largely abdicated their responsibility towards, Madhuri has stepped in, at least at Lallubhai, to fill the role of counsellor, peacekeeper, and advocate. She says a uniformed official hasn’t entered the compound for a long time.
“The police don’t want to waste their time on this brain-deadening work,” she says. Instead, when residents have trouble, they send for her “Police Panchayat”, a selection of seven women and three men who are the first respondents to any scene of conflict. The Panchayat grew out of an initiative by activist Jockin Arputham, who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2000. In the transit camps where the homeless sheltered for over a year before being assigned quarters in Lallubhai, Arputham organised an alliance of women called the Mahila Milan. Madhuri was among the first to volunteer, causing a minor controversy. Other women wondered whether she wasn’t just a man in a sari, and resented the intrusion.
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But with Arputham’s arbitration, Madhuri stayed, and flourished, becoming a leader in the chaos of the transit camps. “These are my people,” she says. “I understand them.” She also knows many of her neighbours from the cinderblock and aluminum sheet slums of Andheri, where she lived before being moved to Mankhurd.
Whenever there’s an issue, “they say go to the Panchayat,” Madhuri says, “And I fix the problem in five minutes.” Madhuri has performed miracles in Lallubhai: people tell me she has brought home missing children and errant husbands, brokered peace in households marred by domestic violence, forced alcoholics into rehabs, settled love affairs gone wrong, and squabbles over everything from water to property.
Once, a young woman who got married and moved to Pune returned after the police there ignored her complaint of domestic abuse. Madhuri told me she went to Pune with a group of Mahila Milan members to confront the husband. They drummed it into his family that violence against “one of us” wouldn’t be tolerated. The woman wanted to give the man a chance, so she stayed. Apparently Madhuri’s sermon worked, and the woman is now a happy mother.
After an hour, Madhuri cuts short her rounds. Her toli, or entourage, is waiting. Madhuri may be revered in the alleys of Lallubhai, but her livelihood still depends on badhai, the token sum paid to hijras by families to ward off bad luck on auspicious occasions. Diwali is just a few days away and Madhuri plans to make a trip to Andheri today, also collecting coins on the local train on the way there.
The members of Mahila Milan and the residents of Lallubhai have nothing but praise for Madhuri. But I wonder if the complex is really the big, happy family it seems, given that people were brought here from informal settlements previously divided by religion and caste. I notice, for example, that Building 19, populated by Muslims from Gazi Camp, doesn’t have Madhuri’s symbol outside.
My questions are put to rest in the canteen of Deonar Chowki, the closest police station. The canteen is run by Roshan Khan, a sweet-faced, hawk-eyed woman who not only feeds the uniformed police at this asbestos-topped shack, but is also a member of Madhuri’s Police Panchayat.
“A kinnar is marked by their gender, not religion or caste,” Khan says, between taking orders and handing out chikki. She adds, with a sly nod, that Madhuri is “a Buddhist”—a euphemism for “Dalit”.
While women are scared of entering police stations, a defiant man can face swift violence. When Madhuri first started walking into chowkis with her beleaguered neighbours in tow, she was met with puzzlement.
“She speaks to cops with authority,” says Khan. Madhuri also draws power from the stereotypes surrounding her community. “People worry about curses too,” Khan says. She explains that according to the Mahabharata, it was a hijra’s curse that brought down the mighty hero Bhishma.
Geeta Gouda, a woman who calls Madhuri “Mom” and who has worked by her side for 20 years, offers me a final insight. “First she speaks to people sympathetically, she calls them beta. Then she raises her voice. Everyone falls in line.”