In the nearly three decades that Sadashiv Chandrakant Kolake has spent in Mumbai, the only occasion when he returned home to Thanewadi village in Kolhapur district, over 400 km from the city, for a period longer than a couple of days was in the aftermath of the 26/11 attack. He had been advised complete rest by doctors who conducted multiple surgeries to extract shrapnel from his body.
Employed as a waiter in a restaurant near Crawford Market, Kolake was seeing off a colleague at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus that night when the attack began. For all practical purposes, Mumbai had been his home since he was 13 years old, his visits to his village never lasting more than a couple of days.
And yet, lying prone in the busy railway terminus, bleeding, he had neither a home in the city nor money to bring his family to the city.
“I was taken care of by my colleagues. I would speak with my family over the phone,” says Kolake, 41. But when he was advised bed rest for six months, he returned to his village. “It was only when I narrated to my family what had happened that I understood the emotional toll the attack had taken on me. My eyes go moist thinking about it. My two children were very young, my family depended on me. And I had almost died,” he recalls.
The only earning member for a landless family, including his disabled father, the six-month sabbatical from work was difficult. Visitors streamed in constantly through his stay at home, some coming from nearby villages, everybody curious to know how he had survived.
“We were waiting at the station… We heard some commotion and sounds of firing. Even before we could make sense of it, I was hit on my neck. I tried to escape but collapsed,” Kolake recalls. He was rushed to GT Hospital and from there to state-run JJ Hospital where he underwent multiple surgeries over a month.
Kolake concedes that the attack also brought new beginnings. A few years before that, he had made a poor investment that led to a large debt. The state compensation after the attack was used to settle those debts. But when he returned to Mumbai six months later, he found he had been replaced at the restaurant. “The manager said he would have to fire someone to take me back. I did not want to be the reason for someone to lose his job, so I left,” he says.
For a few months, Kolake did odd jobs, working with a tea vendor and at food stalls. Eventually, in late 2009, he struck a deal with a man who runs a food stall on a pavement in Worli, where Kolake now works and lives. He opened his own bhurjee-pav stall, having learnt the ropes of the trade from his odd jobs over the years.
Now, Kolake’s day begins at 6 am, when he goes to buy supplies, including vegetables, eggs and bread, for his stall from a nearby market. He returns, completes his chores and sets up the stall for breakfast customers who arrive by 10 am. Kolake single-handedly runs his stall, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner till about 11 pm. In the monsoon and in the winter, he sleeps in a tempo parked near his stall. In the summer months, his stall — where he also stores all his belongings, including a bedspread, clothes and utensils — becomes his resting place for the night.
The pavement where Kolake operates his trade is right across Century Mills, a former textile unit that has made way for a high-rise commercial complex. Over the years, Kolake has watched the buildings around him transform, brick by brick, matched evenly by his dreams for his children’s future. “When I was returning to Mumbai for the first time after the attack, my family was afraid. They said I should stay in the village and work on someone’s farm. I came back for the sake of my children,” says Kolake.
He had dropped out of school after Class II, but Kolake has ensured his two children, Omkar and Jyoti, study in an English medium school back home. His son is in Class VII and studies in a residential school 25 km from the village. His daughter is in Class V and attends a school located 10 km from home. “I never want them to feel I cannot do enough for them. My son called me a few days ago and said he wants to learn skating. I took a loan and sent home extra money for him,” he says.
Another unfulfilled task is to build a home in his village. “The house my family lives in is a temporary structure. I want to build a home there,” Kolake says. In Mumbai, Kolake has a dog and a cat as family. The two rest around his stall and are fed at regular intervals by him.
As for other hawkers, the cycle of being hauled up by municipal and police authorities is a part of his life, often wearing him down. “Sometimes, I feel like leaving the city and going back to my family. There is fear of another terror attack. Even after all these years, each time I am returning to Mumbai, my family is apprehensive. But before I return, I want to first ensure my children do not have to struggle as much as I have,” he says.