Friday, September 02, 2005

Chawls of Mumbai

Maharastra Govt. order to evacuate and demolish dilapidated buildings and have brought chawls in the limelight once again.Chawls are unique for Mumbai and are responsible for cosmopolitan ,liberal ,tolerant culture of Mumbai.Most of them were built between two World Wars by people who had made money in 1st world war and the rooms were rented out to people moving in with families to Mumbai from interiors of Maharastra and Gujarat.They formed the famous 'Middle Class'.If you make money you move to flats of Colaba,Marine Drive,Walkeshwar,Hindu and Parsi Colony.The architecture was what they had in village they came from without the Angan in front and Court yard in rear.Typical tenement was common Gallery,large 12-18' x 10' room, followed by smaller Kitchen with Bathroom(Mori) at the end with Tap for water.Common Toilets were norm.There was no provision for underground water tank and Water supplied by BMC did not reach overhead tanks due to lack of pressure,so storing water in big drums was necessity.Que for the toilet in the morning,dirty ,stinking, poorly lit,chocked toilet was common and was ordeal most people dreaded.Many overcame the stink by smoking Bidis in toilets and got addicted to smoking.The Chawls had Wooden Beams and columns,Burma Teak meant good construction,Floor consisted of wooden rafters at the base,Brick coba, and china chips in nice designs,Kota or Shahbad stone or plain cement on the top.No tiles.I lived in small dead-end lane in Thakurdwar area.We had 3-4 stories chawls with 10-40 tenements.Residents of first two chawls were predominantly Gujarati and Marwadi,rest were inhabited by Maharastrians.Few of the ground floor rooms were dorms for those who had come to Mumbai for work leaving their families in village.They worked as Mathadi workers and others from Konkan area worked as plumbers,painters,peons in small offices. We had Chambhar(Mochi),Bhandari,Khatri,Kasar,Sonar,Brahmins, Desais and Low caste Patels from South Gujarat.There was no caste discrimination.Everyone took part in Festivals.Kamble who had shoe shop, was in charge of Sarvajanic Ganesh festival for many years.I dont remember being asked not to play or not to mix with low caste people.We were aware of the caste but it had no place in our day to day life.This has given Mumbai its unique character.
Tenement were small so there was no space for residents.You use home to bath,eat food and sleep.Rest of the time you have to be out of the house.So groups were formed according to age and each group had its meeting place.During holidays and vacation half the day was spent in company of friends. With plenty of time on hands you indulge in games-cricket being favorite,but we played Kabbadi,lagori and Marbles.Carrom was very popular,and Table Tennis on small wooden bench.There was no TV, so Radio Ceylon with Binaca Geetmala was hot favorite.We had timeon hand, so could take part in Election campaigns.I remember election meetings of George Fernandes for Lok Sabha.He defeated S.K.Patil of Congress and virtually put an end to Patil's political career in Mumbai.For decades Fernandes was called 'George the Giant Killer'.In seventy Marathi youth was attracted to Shiv Sena with its 'Son of soil' ideology.There was constant conflict between socialists and Shiv Sena.Most of us couldn't pursue studies after SSC due to financial constrains.Even passing SSC was tough as at home there was no space to study.We used to go to GMC Gymkhana bldg. on Marine Drive to study.Terrace was another good place.Most got job as clerk in BMC or in Govt. offices.Gujrati boys completed their college education and took jobs in Banks or offices.With hard work and diligence they progressed but couldn't reach very high posts.Very few could break through the Middle class bracket.
Festivals were the most enjoyable period. First festival of the year was Kite flying on 14 Jan.we would gather on terraces and it was funfilled day.Holi was no-no as there was no water to take bath in the afternoon.Monsoon session would start with Govinda.We had Handi which could be broken with 3-4 Thars.It was usually local affair but Govinda from Umerkhadi was famous then as well.Ganpati festival had Pride of Place.we had Sarvajanik Festival and most Marathi homes has Ganpati. for 1-7 days.Majority had Gauri as well.It was 10 days of fun,music,orchestra, 3 act Drama etc culminating in the Grand Visarjan which would start at 9 pm and end with immersion at Chawpatty beach at 1 am or so.For a quote a few years we had Pauranic themes played out by Moving figures.Entire set up and its perfect working for 10 hrs or so daily would take up quite a lot of time and effort, but there would be long queue to see the show which would make it worthwhile.In subsequent years focus moved to huge idols of Ganesh and for us there was nothing to do as cultural programme degenerated to 16 mm movie shows and an evening of orchestra.Most difficult part was Visarjan -to move and immerse 12'+ idol required great effort and to take it for immersion in deep sea, in darkness with full tide was scary as well.Navratri was celebrated by Gujarati residents with Garba and Dandia.We had Dholi and shehnai and dandia ras was more like "Dholi Maro... in DDCS than what we see these days at Falguni Pathak's show.Diwali was less noisy-most couldn't afford bursting crackers-and emphasis was on making Kandils, usually similar Kandils for entire chawl which gave beautiful look to entire lane. Very beautiful Rangoli was other special feature of Diwali-in fact we had Rangoli competition for few years.Entire night was spent in creating Rangoli,some with nationalist or Shivaji themes,other with intricate designs and few with nature as theme.Christmas and New year were not celebrated as we didn't have Christian families.
But most of all, it was feeling of being part of one BIG family.There was more togetherness, cooperation and help.If male member had to go out of Mumbai or a family member was admitted in hospital, one need not worry on home front.Neighbours would take care of children,and food was never a problem.Someone is available to attend hospital or be with you just to give company and courage.Somehow money needed for treatment was arranged.Almost everyone was invited to attend marriage.And attending funeral was almost mandatory.Everyone in your chawl knew almost everything about you, your extended family and sometimes about your guests as well.Many felt this lack of privacy stifling,but there was nothing one could do.Those bonds of friendship,togetherness are still there.Weakened,frayed but important part of my upbringing.It has helped me to be more understanding of other's problems,made me more tolerant of other's idiosyncrasies,liberal in outlook and to be practical and pragmatic in life.

10 comments:

sharad said...

Dear Dr Bhat,

Your article on the chawls of Mumbai is a very fine account of the life prevailing in Mumbai about 40 years ago. Having spent your childhood in such a place has made you a more alround INDIAN than any present day child who spends ihis life in a closed flat sysstem of Mumbai.
Pu La Deshpande's "BATATYA CHI CHAWL" IS A CLASSIC ON THE THE SAME THEME

Nirav said...

Amazing Article!!!
My mother and her family used to live in a similar Mumbai chawl during her childhood, and I have heard a lot of stories on this. Also, there have been quite a few movies made on this theme.. the ones that come to mind immediately are Katha (starring Nasseruddin Shah and Farooque Sheikh) and Mahesh Manjrekar's Pran Jaaye par Shaan na Jaaye... an amazing black comedy...

Sunil said...

This is a very nice article, and i could almost see the chawls taking life in front of my own eyes...

Andrew said...

I am a graduate student in urban planning in Paris and will be doing some research on the subject of chawls. Thank you for this post, which was very informative. If you or any other readers would be willing to help me with some desciptions or help me find some references (books, films, articles) it would be much appreciated. My email address is available on my blogger profile. Thanks, Andrew

Nageswara said...

A very nice and informative article.. thanks for sharing your experiences...

Mahafreed Irani said...

Hi,
Is there a number/email where I can get in touch with you?
Regards,
Mahafreed

vino said...

hi thank you for the information about chawls..in mumbai,im keen to know more about chawls.can i have ur contact no or address.please let me know.thank you very much

vino said...

this is my 09892543408,email:vinonathan@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

A very nice article about chawls in mumbai. Though I have not lived in one, I could picture it out in my mind. You not only explained thel imitations of this system, but also the plus points and how it affects a human mind. Thank you!

Siddhartha Joshi said...

Came across your blog, as I was researching for a story based in one.

Interesting read!