Monday, January 24, 2011

Chawls of Mumbai.

Every time I think of a chawl in Mumbai, I’m reminded of a couple of lines from Phoebe’s Smelly Cat:

“Smelly Cat, Smelly Cat what are they feeding you?”

And, no offense, but:

“And you're no friend to those with noses.”

I also think of Patrick Geddes’s apt description, c. 1930, of the primarily industrial workers’ overcrowded living spaces as being not for housing but for “warehousing people”.

My first visit to a chawl was at age 8 or 9. A classmate in my first school − Sirdar High School – took me to his home in a chawl within walking distance of the school as well as 233 Khetwadi Main Road This chawl − it still stands in the 3rd Khetwadi Lane, close to Wilson High School which I attended later on − housed families of betel leaf sellers and a few white collar workers. On every floor, there were several single rooms along a common balcony at the end of which were a shared toilet and a bathroom for all those living on that floor. On an average, 5 – 10 people lived in each room measuring probably six square metres or less and having a little mori (enclosed washing space) inside it with a faucet connected to the municipal water supply. The presiding smell here was overwhelmingly verdant leafy.

The other two chawls I was familiar with in my childhood had mostly white collar workers and were near Prathana Samaj in Kandewadi close to Khotachi Wadi respectively. The all-pervading musty smell in both was of stale daal (lentil) stuck to the bottom of a cooking vessel.

In Tales from the chawl Neha Thirani calls PL Deshpande’s Batatyachi Chaal a romanticised view of the Mumbai chawl. To me, it has always been a satirical, nearly Orwellian but wittier depiction of the plight of the white collar lower middle class family trying to eke out a bare existence in heartless Mumbai. The “musty smell … of stale daal (lentil) stuck to the bottom of a cooking vessel” is very much there.

My friend Rajan describes his recent visit to the chawl near the Matunga Road Station where he had spent 26 out of his 29 years in Mumbai. He found the building dilapidated and mostly deserted but did talk to an old couple of his acquaintance there who had nowhere better to move. The experience was overall “depressing”.

There are many more chawls in Mumbai that I’ve been to other than the three I described here. Maybe, I’ll talk about them sometime later.