Return of the Son

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The commando who was reunited with his family 20 years after he was lost as a little boy, thanks to a tattoo
It was 4 October 2013 and Ganesh Dhangde was feeling more than a little nervous. He would end every other sentence with ‘na?’ Lean and boyish looking, the 25-year-old anti-terror commando with the Thane Police had a soft voice that hid his marathoner’s lung capacity.

Riding pillion on Constable Sumit Gandhwale’s black Honda Unicorn, he was in reliable company. The two had been through many a trial in the police together... who better to take along on this mission?

Ganesh kept looking about as they drove slowly around a shantytown at the foot of Thane’s Hanuman Tekdi hill that rises above Wagle Estate. A bustling shantytown it was, with alleys going every which way. Sumit stopped the motorcycle in a narrow alley for Ganesh to get directions from a passerby:

“Which way is the Mama Bhacha dargah?”

It’s the only landmark I know.

“It’s that way, up the hill.”

A little farther, Ganesh had his memory jogged by a building, then a municipal school... these were granulated images from his childhood.

“Sumit,” he said, his voice a notch louder, “the school seems familiar!”

When they came upon a mosque that went click in Ganesh’s head, he was convinced it was that neighbourhood.

The one thing of his long-lost family he was sure of was his mother’s name: Manda Raghunath Dhangde. It was tattooed across his right forearm in indelible Marathi. He’d had it for as long as he could remember.

“Aunty, sir, do you know Manda Raghunath Dhangde?”


Perhaps she’s left the area.

They saw an old man across the road and went to him.

“Manda? There are three women named Manda in this neighbourhood,” he said.

“Where do they live?”

The old man directed them farther up the hill.

Scars and tattoos, they last as long as your memories. Sometimes longer.

Like, say, the scarred memory of how you went missing. Say, you were six years old and mischievous, tramping off into the nearby Yeoor jungle for fun. Say, your father, Thane municipal gardener Raghunath, had just died after a month of fever. You lit the pyre. Lonely and forlorn, you acted up, opting to play marbles and fly kites instead of going to school. You stoned your neighbour’s chicken and were tied to a tree by your mother as punishment after her thrashings didn’t work. In reaction, you acted up even more, and on one forgotten date and unforgettable day, you left your reed-and-mud house on top of Hanuman Tekdi hill to visit school with a neighbour’s son your age and met an older friend of his who encouraged you to skip school and go for a walk. Why not, you thought, and another friend of the older boy joined you while he himself disappeared... and then the stranger took you and your friend to a railway station, and you all took a train for fun and got off at an unfamiliar station. You were asked to wait on a bench as the stranger and your friend walked off—never to return. It was minutes and then hours, who knows, before you were gripped by panic. You figured a train going in the other direction would take you home, but you landed up in a hopelessly unfamiliar place. In tears, you asked for Mama Bhacha and got no answer. You wandered around Mumbai, slept the night at a pandal and woke up to realise it wasn’t a nightmare. You broke down, found yourself on a beach... and then a woman took you in. She clothed, fed and turned you into a beggar on trains and a scavenger of metal. She took half your earnings. Six months of this, and you lost hope of ever returning home. It was a grim life.

And then a vehicle knocked you out.

When Ganesh came to, he was in a place that had men and women in white and smelt of blood and chemicals. His bandaged head hurt and he felt swoony—like, say, the sea. He spent months in that hospital bed. No one of his family turned up to see him, only the beggar woman and her son: what were their names? They’re lost to memory now. Had they admitted him to hospital or had some other kind soul?

I don’t remember.

After a while, the beggar woman and her son stopped coming. A doctor said he was okay. “We’re moving you to an orphanage,” he was told.

Home, train, beach, beggary, hospital— and now, orphanage. From the age of about seven to 12, Ganesh stayed at Thelma JRD Tata Trust Anand Kendra in Worli. It was run by a family he knew only as the Mehtas. They were strict. All the children had to rise early, brush their teeth and study hard. They were as scary as they were well-meaning. Ganesh couldn’t talk to them. But Shamshuddin, the cook at the orphanage, was friendly.

“Sit here,” he’d say, and the children would sit in rows as he and his helpers served them food.

Ganesh learnt that not all his fellow inmates were orphans. Some had been given up because their father had died and mother could not afford to bring them up. Before anti-child labour laws came into being, the Kendra had yarn-spinning machines for the children to work on. For their labour, they earned a few rupees that would be kept safe for them till adulthood.

The school Ganesh attended was called Love Grove Municipal School—located near a sewage treatment complex. He had to start from class one all over again. He was disconcertingly taller than his classmates, but took it in his stride. He was good at athletics and his teachers egged him on to participate in inter-school tournaments. He would often win. At some point, he decided he’d be a sportsman.

He spent his after-school hours running in a maidan behind the orphanage.

In a few years, he’d forgotten about Mama Bhacha. He had lost his family and found a childhood. With other children, he would climb an almond tree in the Kendra’s courtyard; he liked to sit on its highest branch, even above the first-floor terrace. They would walk on the boundary wall. Once, he recalls, a kid fell off and his front teeth fell out.

This was not Ganesh’s lot in life. He rose. He did so well as an athlete that he got admission to the Maharashtra government’s Krida Prabodhini sports academy.

At the age of 12, Ganesh bade goodbye to the orphanage; admitted to another school, he got a free hostel room in Thane, a suburb of Mumbai. As a hostel resident, he learnt to look after himself, washing his own clothes, cooking his food and watching out for trouble.

His family was a distant memory. He didn’t miss them—or so he told himself. When the families of other kids at Krida Prabodhini came visiting, he’d retreat to a shaded spot under a tree in the compound to be with himself awhile.

Ganesh found a father figure in his athletics coach, Surendra Modi. He was strict, but cared for the earnest boy who had no one at all. Modi Sir offered him a bit of advice: “Forget about your family. It’s no use pining for them. Look ahead—to the future. Focus on your work.”

Under the coach’s care, Ganesh practised several sports at Krida Prabodhini: 800 m, 5 km running, the long jump, and sometimes even the pole vault. Growing up to be a deceptively small but strong teenager, he won several amateur medals, including a track-and-field gold at the Gujarat amateur tourneys in 2005.

Ganesh applied for a police job, and graduated in 2010 as a constable from the state’s police training academy in Pune. (It was only later, after he found his mother, that he lerant he’d been fascinated by the force in khaki even as a child; he’d once cried and cried until they got him a play police uniform). On his first posting, he would spend three years at the Thane Police HQ, where he represented the force at amateur sporting events.

He had seen several Hindi movies featuring commandos and their derring-do. In 2012, he caught sight of some anti-terror commandos strutting about. Impressed by their bearing, he applied for commando training. As an athlete, he was fit for the job. The selection trials put him through a 2.5 km run, 100 m sprint, sit-ups, dips, pull-ups, push-ups and other tests of strength and stamina. He was chosen.

In July 2013, Ganesh was among a batch of commandos inducted by the anti-terror cell of the Thane Police. Inspector Shrikant Sonde, the cell’s head, was impressed with the humble youngster’s running times and was pleased to have him join the Quick Response Force. This elite unit, raised after Mumbai’s 26/11 terror attacks, was to be equipped with INSAS assault rifles and imported sub-machine guns. Also, its training module was extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. And that is why Sonde made a point of keeping men of unhappy—or no—families under close watch.

Soon after the recruitment, Sonde sat the greenhorns down and grilled them on their loved ones.

“Dhangde, where are you from?”

“Don’t know, sir.”

“Where is your family?”

“I don’t have one, sir, I was lost to them as a child. All I know is my mother’s name, from this tattoo on my right arm.” Ganesh displayed the green ink on his arm.

Ganesh was put into a routine of 6 am physical training, weapons practice and day-and-night shifts. He gave away no sign of any inner turmoil that might shake his nerve—make him trigger-happy, for instance—as a Quick Response commando.

Yet, Sonde was unable to restrain his worry—and sympathy. After a few days of training, he called Ganesh into his cabin and said, “We’re going to try and find your family.” And then he added, “The tattoo on your arm, it’s the poor who do that sort of stuff. If you find your folks, don’t be surprised if their circumstances are slight.”

Sonde urged Ganesh to retrace the steps in his life. It was in September 2013 that Ganesh revisited his old orphanage in Mumbai. Shamshuddin the cook, who was about to retire a month from then, reminded him how he’d talked about Mama-Bhacha as home, whatever that was.

There was a clue. “Mama Bhacha?” asked Sonde, “You’d been saying it ever since you reached the orphanage?” “That is what they said, sir.”

“I’ll tell you what. You go make enquiries.

Your colleagues will help you.”

With that, Sonde put Ganesh on his own case. He and a few fellow commandos began searching for a dargah by that name. By coincidence, it was right under their nose.

Mama Bhacha: Uncle-nephew. A strange name for a burial complex, but it was known among locals of Thane, for it was named after an uncle-nephew duo of Sufi savants who’d lived four centuries ago. Their mazaar (graves) were atop that hill, and a shrine had come up alongside for urs gatherings (to celebrate their ‘union with divinity’ upon death).

And that is how Ganesh and Sumit picked up the trail again. The old man in the alley told them there were three Manda Raghunath Dhangdes living in these parts. They had driven all the way up Hanuman Tekdi. Near the top, there was a small plateau with a Hindu temple, a Buddha vihar and a large water tank.

Ganesh turned to a girl of six or seven who was playing with other children, to ask: “Where does Manda Raghunath Dhangde live?”

“That’s me!” she exclaimed, and led him home.

The girl would turn out to be his half-sister. A two-minute walk later, after weaving through tenements, Ganesh Dhangde saw a reed-and-mud shanty that brought back memory flashes of a long time ago. Three or four old women sat outside the house, close to the hilltop overlooking Wagle Estate.

“We’re from the police,” Ganesh said politely. “We’re looking for Manda Raghunath Dhangde.”

He was ushered into the dark shanty. It had a tumbledown cupboard, a TV and a cot. He laid eyes on a thin woman of dark complexion, slightly over five feet, who seemed middle-aged.

“Have you lost a son, years ago?”

Yes, she said.

What was his name, he asked.

Ganesh Raghunath Dhangde.

He showed her the tattoo. She grew agitated, losing control of her emotions. Five women of around his mother’s age entered the shanty. They were his aunts, including his mother’s closest relative, Savitri Bhokre, who’d been his father’s uncle’s daughter. They were all there to observe the shraadh of his father. It was a solemn occasion.

And now, this. Manda’s lost son.

He’d returned.

Overwhelmed, everyone broke down.

Ganesh was finally home.

Ganesh had left a truant child and returned a polite police- and sportsman. A few weeks after the reunion, he moved in with them. It has all worked out well. “Get married soon,” Ganesh’s mother has told him.

First, he plans to get a BA degree from YB Chavan Open University and take an exam for the job of a police inspector. Then he will have his younger siblings married, before finding a girl for himself. His mother still works as a housemaid. He wants her to retire once he becomes an inspector. The two siblings he left behind are now grown up. His brother Ramesh is around 19, his sister Vanita, 17.

He did ask his mother whether she searched for him. Yes, she said, they registered a complaint at the Wagle Estate police station, searched at the local morgue, went to Vashi and Bhiwandi; Wadala, too, where gangs would draft missing children for begging. When that didn’t work, she had been to the local temple for mannat.

After his father’s death, his mother was unable to fend for herself and her children. She married a man who lived nearby, Rampujan Yadav. With him, she has had two children: Hritik, 12, and Vandana, 10.

Ganesh is still adjusting to this reality. Getting used to family life has not been easy. When he came to live with them, he would wash his own clothes and his mother would yell at him. That has changed since. He has learnt since to rely on others in his family.

For this festival season, he bought a silver paayal for Vanita, a dress for Vandana and saris for his mother. They plan to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of a local goddess, for the first time, as a family.

In this reunion with his family, Ganesh has also learnt that he is probably older than the 25 years he has counted. At the orphanage, he had to repeat four or five years of school. That would place him close to 30.

On a recent evening, Ganesh and Sunil drove to Mumbai from Thane after their shift ended. They visited Anand Kendra, where Ganesh was felicitated by the management and he addressed the children. He spoke about goals, dedication and determination. A boy who was soon to leave the orphanage asked him how to join the police force. “Be good in your studies and in sports,” Ganesh advised him.

Ganesh was in the presence of 30 children, some of whom were orphaned and others whom their parents couldn’t support. Many seemed cheerful, but one or two were sullen and quick to take offence. None had gone missing. By an estimate of the NGO Childline, almost 45,000 children go missing every year in India. Few of them ever get back home. Ganesh had defied the odds.