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!
Low-income informal communities offer a window into an astonishing array of home-based work- Sep 25, 2012
Yesterday, we revisited Sundernagari, the site of the project we did last year in which we experienced a fairly intense community involvement process to redesign a slum in-situ. One of the first questions we got asked was if we knew whether the scheme to redevelop the slum would take off. Kokila Ben, the member of the women’s cooperative run by SEWA Bharat and MHT, had been fending questions by community members asking if they should invest in adding floors to their homes. Already, we saw several homes had been added to or were in the process of doing so when we walked through the neighborhood.
The home is a matter of emotion, pride and sustenance for anyone, more so for the poor and especially for this community where most people practice home-based occupations. A mochi community, nearly every home has its male head sewing and repairing shoes, while women support the house by venturing out to sell shoes or, in some cases, working as domestic help in middle income homes nearby.
I was struck by how much lower the activity levels seemed as compared to last year. When I asked, a tale of woes and apathy spilled out. Apparently, the Lal Qila market where these people sold their finished products is being disbanded and moved to the defunct Power House near ITO, which will take a while to attract customers. As of now, the shoemakers are selling from their basti and constantly being hounded by the police for what they claim is illegal work. It is clearly hard to make ends meet, and with kerosene halved on their BPL ration cards plus hiked electricity rates, they were tightening the belts for tough times ahead. One mochi brazenly asked us for a loan to grow his business and claimed he could make chappals to our design specifications if we wanted to try him out.
Walking around the basti, we saw some other very interesting occupations. A wizened old lady was sticking pins into tiny pieces of plastic, apparently a component that goes inside a bicycle horn. Another woman was putting together two small bits of plastic to fashion a whistle. These little components would then be fitted by someone else into the colorful plastic cover that we associate with the whistle! Other home-based occupations we ave noticed in these slums are buffalo rearing, which makes for an interesting though messy situation, metal fabrication to make things like birdcages and rat traps, jewelry making out of beads and sequins, embroidery and needlework, stitching and carpentry. Quite an array, isn’t it?
Indian communities have such a strong traditional of skilled handwork and handmade items of all kinds. The level of finish may vary but these people take pride in what they do. Most of these are non polluting, take very little energy and gives livelihood to scores of people. Certainly the city would not be able to provide employment to all these people if they stopped doing what they do. Yet, we place such little economic value on these tasks, and our legal system declares many of these home-based activities to be illegal, subjecting these poor people to the misery of harassment and corruption. It sees to me rather unfair and I wish I knew how to help these communities with better linkages to the supply chain, some means to reduce exploitation and increase market value through design inputs, branding and skill enhancement.