Busy streets, quiet insides: Peeking into chawl life in Parel, Mumbai
Obviously, I didn’t do much thinking about the architecture of Parel and other parts of central Bombay when I grew up there. Bombay of the ’80s had a distinct flavor about it. I remember it as very working class. The mills were still functional and I have memories of visiting people in the chawls that the mill workers lived in. Now, you drive through a city of dead, decaying mills and tall glitzy (mostly ugly too!) skyscrapers. But what I absolutely love about this part of the city is the street front mixed-use architecture. It epitomizes all the good stuff we keep elucidating about mixed-use. Because the ground floor has street-facing retail shops, pavements must be in good order and there are always people around and about.
Parel was one of the original islands of Mumbai and came up as a business and industrial district starting the late 18th century all the way upto the beginning of the 20th century. The mills prospered and chawls were built by both the government and the mill owners to accommodate the men and women who worked in these mills. The chawl typology meant sharing a common entry passage as well as street areas and life was lived as much on the street as inside the home, which was usually overcrowded and dingy.
To put some figures in, in 1865 there 10 mills in Mumbai employing 6500 workers. At the peak of the textile boom in 1980, the mills employed near on 300,000 workers. And then they shut down in 1982 after the Great Bombay Textile Strike.
The residential areas are entered through a street that branches off the main roads creating small self-contained residential enclaves. Similar to the katras of Delhi and the pols of Amdavad, you step inside a world of quaint silence and domesticity, a world in which people know each other and your foreign footsteps break the comfortable humdrum of lives.
I got curious stares when I entered Krishnanagar in Parel. It’s beautiful gates beckoned me in. At the entrance, I saw a group of men sitting and reading papers, their red tikas displayed proudly as caste marks, denoting that this as a Hindu neighborhood. There is a temple inside the enclosure, people seem to know each other. Old ladies sat out on the common verandah talking, stitching, some people were getting ready to go to work, a young man was brushing his teeth while staring down at me, a young housewife in her trademark cotton printed nightie was walking her dog…It was a bustling middle class neighborhood with homes that proudly displayed plants, pictures, ornamentation of all types.
One gentleman stopped me to ask why I was taking pictures. He was reassured by my reasonably fluent Marathi and accepted my explanation that I had lived nearby as a child and was revisiting the neighborhood out of sheer nostalgia. His attitude was not threatening, but clearly voyeurism wasn’t going to be tolerated here!
Uncharacteristically, I decided to enter the little temple and pay my respects to the Gods within. Perhaps that’s what helped me make it to my flight later that day, despite many obstacles, just in the nick of time!
Mixed classrooms are an opportunity to teach our children the values of inclusivity and tolerance- Sep 4, 2012
The social divide is, in my perception, the single largest obstacle between India and progress. The apalling manifestations of this divide strike me everyday. The insecurity of the privileged classes and the growing frustrations of the have-nots can explain many of the negatives we experience around us- all manner of crime, anger, safety of women, and so on. And what’s really scary is that our response is only to build more walls, shrink further into our cocoon. We imagine we are spreading our legs in plush comfort, but actually we are squeezing into a very small mental and cultural space. Already, life has lost much of the diversity and stimulus I remember from my childhood. Our social response to dealing with the social divide by sanitizing our surroundings, making everything in our lives as ordered and predictable and controlled as possible, will only mean more boredom, more and more of ‘sameness’…shudder!
Today’s observations are in the context of education and the outright rejection of the elite to the possibility of mixed classrooms as recommended by the Right to Education Act. A Hindustan Times-C Fore Survey, carried by the HT today, exposes the paranoia of urban middle class parents with school going children. 72% believed the quality of education would decline, but that doesn’t bother me so much. What really struck me were the responses to a question that asked parents if having classmates from a lower economic background would help your child become a less prejudiced person. 22% said yes, an astonishing 55% said no and a substantial 23% were non-committal. Now that tells me a lot and I’m not smiling! Being less prejudiced is not something we even consider a desirable attribute any more. It seems to me that we parents want our kids to be smart, intelligent, successful, have myriad skills that will help them land plum jobs in this competitive world. But we’re probably not too concerned about whether our child will grow up to be a sensitive, socially responsible individual. Nobody cares!
We’ve pushed the capitalistic thought so far into the social consciousness of this nation that social equity isn’t something most of us even consider a desirable. Those of us who are vocal about social equity are considered a bit strange, almost like we are disconnected with reality. But the reality is that masses in this nation face huge barriers to progress that they desperately need and crave for. It’s not just us: everyone aspires for upward mobility, even though that might mean different things for different people. And it’s not right for us to begrudge anyone that right.
We need to code an inclusive approach into our children. We need to get out of the ‘step over someone to get ahead’ mentality and believe that we can all progress together as partners and collaborators. Yes, resources are scarce but there are also many opportunities if we have the right attitude.
Mixed classrooms are a great opportunity to build an inclusive and tolerant mindset in our children. My daughter studies in a mixed classroom as Shikshantar has implemented the RTE this year. The kids seem scarcely aware of the differences and the bonding seems great. Of course, Shikshantar uses Hindi and English both as mediums for pre-primary education, so language in itself is not a barrier. But what I’m trying to say is that children aren’t judgemental at all, unless we teach them to be. And they stand to learn a lot from diversity.
I was heartened to read in the same HT spread on RTE that educationists are a lot more positive about mixed classrooms and despite obstacles, are admitting to this being a positive step forward. Its time we changed our mindsets to allow a new generation increased access to quality education. It could mean a bright new future for our nation, increased security and less strife for the world that our children will inhabit in their lifetime.