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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.

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Intricate details!

Intricate details!

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.

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

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!

Thinking urbanism: An evening at the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab

To be in this part of Mumbai, the part that I remember rather well from my childhood, is sheer pleasure. After many many years, I visited Rani Bagh. Queen’s Gardens, later named Jijamata Udyan, is where the Mumbai Zoo is housed and we used to be enormously excited to go there as children, especially when the cousins descended from Goa and we had a rollicking time!

On Monday evening, I had the occasion to visit Rani Bagh again because the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab is running at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum, which is located here. The Museum has been beautifully restored through a PPP between the municipal corporation, INTACH and the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation. It is a UNESCO heritage site as well, pretty impressive. Regular people like hotel receptionists and shop owners at the other end of the block have no idea though!

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is an attempt to understand urbanism and debate issues around it in a specific city. I walked into a well-designed, attractive temporary exhibition-cum-interaction space that housed some thought-provoking exhibits and also had a series of presentations being made.

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.

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A close up view of the model

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the mth that high rise is the best way to accomodate more people

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the myth that high rise is the best way to accommodate more people

True to the spirit of the initiative, the discussions touched on issues like open spaces, sanitation and water resources that impact the lives of people in a city. I was happy to hear that all the speakers, to lesser or greater degree, advocated community-based approaches to address urban issues and spoke about the immense knowledge that comes from non-experts.

This is reassuring for us at mHS at a time when we are piloting technical assistance kiosks in communities where self-construction is the way people build their homes and where professional assistance is considered not just a luxury, but frankly, unnecessary. Clearly, while safety must not be compromised, it is important to understand why professional assistance is redundant and learn from the positive innovations that self-built homes exhibit. For a city like Mumbai that has attracted migrants for centuries and is very diverse, bottom-up approached to urban design are imperative and could produce stunning results.

The BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab kick-started on the 4th and seems a great way to help people connect with their city and think about urban issues. However, it seemed to me that the exhibit was a bit tucked away from public view and was attracting a niche crowd. I sincerely hope they have walk-ins from a cross section of citizens so that the information gathered through it (done via simple questionnaires that people fill, public walks and talks) is rich and diverse.

At this point in time, when India is getting ready to riding a speedy wave of urbanization, such interactive processes that involve citizens with urban issues could be considered in many cities, as much to inform professionals and governments as to inculcate awareness and a sense of pride among citizens. Broad-based platforms of interaction, data gathering via crowdsourcing and public debate can be excellent tools by which the shape of the future could be molded to achieve inclusion and better quality of life.

As I walked out of the Lab, I spotted my friend Asim’s name on a placard, only to find myself staring at his gigantic work of art Punha through a glass door! Spent a few minutes walking around this installation, hearing it sounds, feelings its moans and groans. Icing on the cake!

Asim Waqif's work 'Punha' caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab

Asim Waqif’s work ‘Punha’ caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab

 

In Mumbai, awed once again by this graceful city

To all the Dilliwalas and Gurgaonwalas who I fraternize with back home, who constantly whine about Mumbai’s crowds and noises and smells, let me tell you this. I love this city. I love its business, its craziness and above all, I love its middle class areas. This trip, I’ve been lucky to stay in Byculla, visit Sion and do my work stuff in Parel. All lovely, densely packed, buzzing and lively places. So much mixed use. Safe.

I love the heritage in this part of the city and I wish more could be done to ensure it doesn’t all come crashing down some day. Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth to out up the pictures I have taken. Those will follow, but I had to write in to say that there are some superb examples of how a city can sustain itself in this city. We should learn and we should be proud and we should keep these parts of the city alive. Not be gentrifying it, but the way it is now, for the people who work and live here, who have contributed to make Mumbai what it is.

 

Street vendors add to the landscape of urban memories, identity- July 16, 2012

Street vendors, or hawkers as we also call them, are such an integral part of our lives in Indian cities. I just finished reading a book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a delicious little novella named ‘Between Clay and Dust’. The story revolves around a pahalwan and a tawaif who share a beautiful platonic relationship that eventually surpasses all others in their lives, even blood ties. Set immediately post Partition, I found it fascinating that Gohar Jan’s source of news about the city was mostly through peddlars of wares and services like the bangle seller, the trinket lady, etc.

I remember the iconic Farooq Sheikh, Deepti Naval starrer ‘Chashme Baddoor’ from my childhood. Naval sold Chamko detergent powder door-to-door. I associated the film with a few visits to Delhi during my childhood when residential areas in South Delhi had a certain quiet buzz about them and vendors of many daily necessities, including fruits and vegetables, peddled their wares from door to door on a rudimentary wooden pushcart (redi). Coming from Mumbai, which had already become a big city where you went to the commodity and it rarely came to you, all this seemed fascinating.

From the two years I spent as an infant, I have very vague memories of the guys who walked through the streets with the bear (bhaloo) and the monkeys (madari with his bandars) to entertain us kids. We discussed this  at lunch on Sunday and between mum, Rahul and me, we added more variety to that list- the knife sharpening guy, the utensil repairing guy, in an earlier time there were people who would come and coat brass vessels with aluminum so they could be used for cooking purposes.

It pains me to see this breed disappear. Not just because they imbued a certain flavor to our cities, but because it signals the arrival of a use-and-throw culture in which we have no place for repair re-use. I feel this is criminal. While the world is waking up to the benefits if re-use, we Indians who had a natural talent for this are giving away the advantage by blindly adopting a consumerist culture that exhibits no conscience at all. Also, the trend signifies our paranoia of letting unknown persons enter our homes. With gated living becoming popular, the breed will disappear entirely.

And yet, street vendors continue to thrive in certain situations because of their flexibility in adapting to demand and the meager resources they need. And nowhere is this more evident than in the omnipresence of street food! What would our public places be without the bhuttawala (guy selling corn cobs roasted right in front of you on hot coals), the chaat wala, the aloo bonda wala, the lassi stalls, the chana kulcha and chowmein stalls, the burger wala, the momo-guy (a relatively new addition)..the list is endless! Outside the posh Galleria market in Gurgaon, where the well heeled shop and splurge, the anda bread guy does brisk business. Outside Gurgaon’s call centers, the paratha stalls mint money and provide excellent service even in the middle of the night, with piping hot tea or cold drinks, whichever you prefer! Outside every glass and steel office building, there are clusters of food vendors, selling hot and freshly cooked meals. This is the real India, never mind the people inside the glass boxes pecking on their grilled sandwiches and pasta, or alternatively gingerly opening a home cooked tiffin while yearning for takeaway Chinese!

It alarms me that municipalities like Delhi and Mumbai have taken a hostile stance towards street vendors. There are plenty of ways they can ensure hygiene without taking these people off the streets. A couple of evocative articles by Prof. Sharit Bhowmik from Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai,  tell a compelling tale of the relationship hawkers have to the city’s economy and make a case for nurturing street vending and providing it a conducive ecosystem.

Evictions and cleansing the streets reek of narrow-mindedness, complete apathy for the urban poor who make a living out of as well as subsist on buying from street vendors as well as a lack of sense of place, to which street vendors contribute in an immeasurable but significant manner. To me, it is critical that professionals and citizens alike talk about the kind of urbanism we aspire to. Without this sort of debate, we will continue to lose our identity to idiotic regulations, till we are left with a bland existence and even the memories of a fuller, finer life are erased.

 

 

Power of nostalgia: Two cities that have shaped me- March 3, 2012

I met with a schoolfriend last night after a decade. Nothing much had changed, yet we had all grown up. The things in common remained and time seemed to have passed by as if water through a sieve.

What stood out in our conversations was the power of nostalgia. Memories of the past, especially fond memories of places and people, hugely influence our lives in the present. I have seen with many people that their memories of their growing years continue to be the yardstick for how they judge the rest of their lives. For those of us who had reasonably happy childhoods, childhood memories define our tastes for food, music, books and even friends!

Growing up in Parel, Mumbai in the ’80s has left deep impressions on me. It taught me to value freedom, of which I got plenty in a city that was big, yet safe, with excellent public transport. Life was simple and very middle class and the highlights were small, wonderful things like crates of alphonso mangoes in summer, mutton on Sunday, bi-annual picnics to places like Elephanta caves and the Goregaon national park; and Chowpatty visits full of the sounds of the sea intermingled with the smells emitted my a mass of people. This was the time of the mill strikes and I remember vaguely catching the mood in the chawls (via the relatives of Manda, who was my constant companion and caretaker back then), of livelihoods lost and futures in jeopardy; a sense of struggle, sweat and hope intertwined. The buoyancy of Mumbai has remained with me as my strongest memory of the city.

Lucknow, which plays the other major role in my formative years, is like a delicate, beautiful but slowly withering flower. I associate it with the gentleness of its people, the hot, sleepy afternoons spent curling up with a favorite book in cool nooks and crannies of our sprawling home on the SGPGI campus, innocent friendships, the discovery of love and longing, growing up, riksha rides with friends through the city’s winding alleys. If Mumbai taugt me about freedom, Lucknow taught me about bonds and being bound, by convention, by social expectations, by limits that I was expected to respect because I was a girl.

My fondest memories of Lucknow are numerous visits to its many memorable historic buildings, and the fact that old world charm was imbued in its every pore. Even Lucknow’s newer developments exude a languid, laid back air; people never look rushed. Whenever I feel like life is threatening to overtake me, I think of Lucknow and can feel my heartbeat slow down, my breathe come in easier.

Nostalgia is, to me, a great antidote when life goes through its unbearable moments. Mumbai and Lucknow, experienced at two distinct stages of my growing years, have created a checkerboard of contrasting and intermingling memories that have guided my opinions and tastes.

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