The changing face of Mumbai’s chawls

Eighty-seven-year-old freelance writer Pandharinath Sawant came to live with his uncle at Digvijay Mills Patra Chawl in Lalbaug when he was about eight years old. Although he was new to the chawl – a cluster of 10×10 houses built by mill owners for their workers – he did not feel left out or alone. An hour after his father dropped him off at his uncle’s “to study and become Saheb”, the young Sawant had made his first friend.

Sawant’s chawl is surrounded by other chawls, each with a distinct character. Each of these chawls is over 100 years old. Their faded walls, their peeling paintwork, their rickety steps, a strange window hanging on broken hinges, all speak volumes about a present caught in a time warp of development. However, Sawant’s chawl is different. It’s the cleanest of all the low-roofed houses, with a uniformity of tiled walls (inside and out). Outside, the narrow tiled path winding through the chawl, the tulsi plants in every type of pot imaginable, the motorbikes parked in front of the houses, are all designed to entice the visitor to exercise. Although this chawl is also over 100 years old, the uniformity of its exterior belies its age.

The inhabitants of the chawl proudly say that if one has lived in a chawl, one will feel lonely everywhere else. The chawls are spread out in long, even rows, with chambers so small that two inhabitants can barely stand in them at a time. Half the family sleeps on the veranda outside or in other makeshift rooms in tiny lofts. Some even sleep on the paved paths that run along the chawls.

There is a communal tap and communal toilet located at the end of the chawl. While the majority of chawls were originally single-storey, they grew vertically as the city’s population grew. The doors of the chawls are never closed. Privacy is an unheard of thing here – closed doors during the day would attract a fair amount of snickering and gossip. Each inhabitant of the chawl is aware of what is happening in the house of all his neighbors. The details of every conversation, argument, laugh or tear are whispered into willing ears, liberally sprinkled with distortion.

Modernity entered chawls a few decades ago when women swapped their sarees for the more comfortable “babydoll” or “gown”. Dressed in these, they go to the vegetable markets, the kirana shops, the fish market – just about anywhere. There was a time when every family had clothes of a similar print – the father’s underwear, the mother’s blouse, the shirts, dresses and even the parrkar-blouse (long skirt and blouse) of the young girls.

Life in a chawl A woman hangs clothes to dry on a communal balcony

The textile mills of formerly Bombay are at the origin of the birth of the chawls in the city. These mills stretched from Girangaon in the Lalbaug-Parel area in central Mumbai to Girgaum in south Mumbai, and spanned huge tracts of land. The employment opportunities offered by these factories led to large-scale migration from rural Maharashtra to Bombay, which was then much more compact than what Mumbai is today. The mill owners had probably believed that if their workers had a place to stay, it would improve productivity and keep the mills going.

While the white-collar factory workers (managerial personnel) stayed in the Girgaum chawls, the blue-collar workers stayed in the Girangaon chawls. While managerial culture seeped into the Girgaum, it was trade unionism, workers’ rights and the struggle for survival that dominated conversations in the Girangaon chawls.

Mill sirens signaling the start and end of shifts (all mills worked in three shifts) could be heard across Bombay, which stretched no further than Zion, unlike Mumbai today, which extends beyond Virar in the north and Mulund in the east. Dressed in their white kurtas, pajamas and Gandhi topis, factory workers were commonplace throughout the city. No more.

After the great factory workers’ strike of 1982, called by trade unionist Dr Datta Samant, the factory economy collapsed. Today, silent chimneys and dilapidated closed mills dot both Girangaon and Girgaum. After the sirens died down, the chawls had a burgeoning population of unemployed youths, who became easy prey for underworld gangs led by Arun Gawli and the late Rama Naik. Faced with loss of income, thousands of families faced a bleak future. Their life of misery drove many young people into crime and fights became a daily occurrence at the chawls.

Recounting the incidents of the gang wars that followed in the 1980s, a resident of Sitabai Chawl in Lalbaug said: “We stood on our balconies and saw gangsters shooting at each other. We were scared and no one could control these capricious youngsters. Those were terrible days. Even now, there are young people who accept freelance missions from developers to evict the inhabitants of chawl.

As the factory workers’ strike continued, women in the chawls began pawning their meager jewelry to make ends meet. This saw the birth of many small-scale jewelry stores that operated clandestinely as pawnbrokers. Later they started lending money at high interest rates. A percentage of their income was given to the gangs as protection money.

While Dagdi Chawl in Byculla became a gated community for those who owed allegiance to the Gawli gang, 144 Tenements (a group of chawls) barely a kilometer away, became the headquarters and residence of the Rama Naik gang.

A skyscraper seen against the backdrop of a chawl.

Be it the southern or central Mumbai chawls, the famous kinship is on display every day, in every way. They share their homes, their food, their worries, their tears, their happiness and their festivities. Everyone opens their hearts, purses, and homes for engagements, weddings, children’s birthdays, funeral rituals, and more. During the Covid-19 lockdown, when skyscraper dwellers were sequestered in their homes, the doors were left open in the chawls. “We were scared. We followed all the Covid protocols, but we helped each other. When someone got sick, the neighbors went with them to the hospital and supported them with money, help and support. workforce,” Sawant said.

According to Sawant, pandemic or not, a chawl is an extended and cohesive family unit. Meenakshi Supe, a resident of a Parel chawl, spoke of the common practice of “katori sharing”. “When we don’t have a particular item, we just take a katori and go to the neighbor and borrow it. We return it after we buy it. During Covid we all had less food to eat but no one was hungry. We shared everything we had,” Supe said.

Naresh Shinde was born and raised in a chawl in Parel. He married a girl from a neighboring chawl. While he worked with the media, his wife Supriya worked for a marketing company. Their two children, aged 5 and 10, spend the day with a neighbor while the parents are at work. “We leave the children with our neighbour, which is about 2 km away. They offered to take care of the children at no cost. It is as if our children were with their grandparents. That is the link here,” Supriya said.

As the chawls grew, a new culture and social life developed around them. Thus, theater and the culture of plays emerged in the chawls of Girangaon and Girgaum. The playwrights were born in the chawls of Girgaum and their plays about the problems faced by factory workers found resonance with those who lived in the chawls of Girangaon. Many theatres, including Bharat Mata and Hind Mata, where plays were performed, became popular with factory workers. the Tamasha the culture also became popular during this time. Today, chawls have become a victim of redevelopment. The exodus of the Marathi population from the heart of Mumbai – from its chawls to the city’s outlying northern suburbs – began a few years ago. As the Marathi population began to relocate, so did their culture. The transition from Bombay to Mumbai marked the chawls. As Bombay, the chawls have witnessed the Quit India movement, the independence movement, women’s and workers’ rights movements, and much more. The renaming has prompted neoliberal redevelopment – high-rise corporations on land where chawls and mills once stood.

Today, girls living in chawls don’t want to marry boys from chawls, while girls who grew up outside don’t want to marry and live in chawls. Joint families have become nuclear; educated and hard-working children of chawl residents prefer to live in closed societies. Since affordability is a major issue given the exorbitant real estate prices in Mumbai, a majority of young people from the chawls have moved to remote suburbs, while the elderly have returned to their villages, breaking the age-old system. of the common family.

Today, the real estate boom has transformed the landscape of Lalbaug, Parel and Girgaum, and the life of the inhabitants of chawl. After the Haji Kasam chawl, the first to be demolished and replaced by a chic 23-storey skyscraper, there has been no turning back. About 1000 families have been rehabilitated from Haji Kasam chawl to this skyscraper, changing their life and way of life forever.

Redevelopment is a strange feeling for those who expect it. They are excited about the idea of ​​moving into new homes where the bedrooms won’t turn into living rooms and kitchens. A large number of kholis (rooms) have been transformed into independent apartments; others are on the way. Redevelopment also means many rungs in the economic and social ladder and in houses whose doors remain closed. In their new homes, they don’t have access to their neighbour’s house, but closed doors mean safety and security.

Towers built to replace chawls feature state-of-the-art elevators, wide porches, and hard-to-pronounce names. From being slumdogs, Mumbai chawls become millionaires, with no pit stops in between.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Slumdogs to Millionaires”)

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