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!
Strange love for cookie cutter living: My frustrating story of a frame replacement- June 13, 2012
After the past week’s hectic write-ups on Istanbul, I seem to be running out of steam now. It’s one of those days you realize life isn’t a dream run and all sorts of irritating nitty gritty problems are constantly in your way. A project that has run aground, a phone call that didn’t go through, errands yet to be run, etc.
The most irritating of all has been the run in with the management office in our apartment complex regarding a window frame we want to replace in the front elevation of my mother’s new apartment in Gurgaon’s Vipul Greens. I have very strong reasons for wanting to replace this large frame. Safety is a big concern for a ground floor home and the current frames are poor in quality. Dust proofing our homes is a dire necessity in Gurgaon, since our summers involve withstanding dust storms with terrifying wind speeds. Noise reduction is needed on a ground floor apartment, especially since it is near the generator set for the complex.
I have taken care to ensure I match the design and color of the existing frame as far as possible. However, a change in material from aluminum to UPVC necessarily entails a change in the shade of brown and a different thickness of frame.
The facility management office has given us hell over this issue. We’ve written applications, met someone higher up at the builder’s corporate office, done all the processes that make sense. But its a stand off now, involving immeasurable judgements about right and wring, appropriateness and deviation.
Meanwhile, many other apartment owners have gone ahead and changed frames all over their homes, using UPVC in white and even blue tinted reflective glass. Am I to assume they were harassed in the same way and eventually permitted to do this? Or did they just go ahead and get really aggressive? Is there bribery involved here? I don’t know, but I cannot figure out why a builder would have a negative attitude towards a home owner who is actually improving her own home at her own cost, without significantly messing the look of the building in any way.
I also wonder how long the current frames will last. The bolting and latching mechanisms are so poor, they are failing across the complex. The facility management office charges residents Rs 300-350 to replace a single latch! I call that looting, considering they put up these ridiculously inadequate doors themselves. So when these poor quality frames live out their lives, how will they stop residents from replacing them with whatever they like?
The larger question to me, though, is this idea of restriction. As long as no one is violating rules related to safety (covering fire escape areas, cantilevering a room out), why should apartment owners not be permitted customization? Customizing a home is intrinsic to human nature. It denotes a feeling of ownership and builds a stronger community, in my opinion, and is strongly linked with identity and pride. People use grills in different designs and that is considered fine in most places. Similarly, people use interesting garden furniture, hang wind chimes, etc. Door frames are a minor extension of this urge to improve and personalize our space. Within a broad and clear framework of rules, all these modifications should be permitted. When did we evolve this strange aesthetic idea that uniformity is pretty? And why has real estate targeted to high-income groups made such an enormous virtue of this concept? Uniform, cookie cutter boredom is desirable, while customization is for the riffraff living in the slums (or the DDA flats, which is what this guy here at the office spewed out to us so insultingly, while citing his reasons for not letting us make this change!). In Nirvana Country, close to where I live, many expensive villas are being broken down and reconstructed. A high-end villa development not a decade old is seeing significant redevelopment. Because people want to live their own special way, not the way someone else decides they must!