Friday, April 15, 2011

On Neera Adarkar's anthology The Chawls of Mumbai

Mumbai would not be the city and the story that it is today without its chawls. These three- and four-storey blocks of one- and two-room tenements, built all across south and central Mumbai on a massive scale over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by both the colonial government and private landlords, stand at the centre of the city’s social history. Although each of the great chawl neighbourhoods of Mumbai – Girgaon, Girangaon, Kalbadevi, Worli, Byculla – has its own distinct history and religious and class composition, together they form an architectural and city-specific continuum through which many of the city's traits can be understood. The quiddity of chawls and their longstanding influence “as a historical actor” on Mumbai’s landscape are illuminated through a variety of academic and narrative perspectives in Neera Adarkar’s captivating new anthology The Chawls of Mumbai.

The word chawl is a slightly anglicised version of the Marathi chaal, which means “anklet” and by extension came to mean “corridor” or, to use the Mumbai word, “gallery”. The very etymology of this architectural form, then, reveals what kind of residential space it was meant to be – one in which the boundary between private and public space was blurred, and communal areas were as significant as private ones. “It is difficult to view a chawl as an empty built form in isolation, like a bungalow or an apartment building,” writes Adarkar in her excellent introductory essay, “because a chawl cannot be stripped bare of its occupants. Its existence in the cityscape can be seen as a theatre, imagined only with performers on a stage.”

It was this human crush, fending for itself as best as it could and devising a variety of creative solutions to problems of food, domesticity, and childcare, that turned Bombay, over the decades, into “the city of gold”. Chawls began to come up in great numbers in the “Indian quarter” of Mumbai, north of the spacious, landscaped European quarter in Fort, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards as the Indian cotton industry boomed, filling up the breach left by the Civil War in America. The colonial government and an emerging class of Indian capitalists needed labour; and migrant workers thronging the city from the Western Ghats and the Konkan coast needed cheap housing. As Bombay urbanised and industrialised, many chawls were built by private parties on what was formerly farmland.

But after an outbreak of plague in 1898, attributed to unsanitary conditions in the native neighbourhoods, the colonial government stepped in, in its own interest, to build chawls on a large scale. The massive Bombay Development Department (BDD) Chawl in Worli, for instance, a colony of over a hundred chawl buildings, were built by the government in what was then cheap uninhabited land in north Bombay, now turned by the advance of history into Mumbai’s centre (There is a marvellous joke about this phenomenon of moving centres in the recent Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory, in which the struggling Dadasaheb Phalke squanders so much money on his cinemania that his family have to sell their house. The Phalkes are seen receiving the sympathies of their neighbours as they move to some distant place "out in the wild", which turns out to be...Dadar.)

From the very beginning, then, the chawls were marked by human plenitude, by an enormously resourceful attitude towards space, and the assumption of openness to continuous negotiation and “adjustment”. Although (some would say “because”) chawls threw great numbers of people together, they tended to be socially homogenous, each chawl marked by the stamp of a particular religious or caste group and brought alive by the same festivals and mores. Though often remembered now with the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia, they were often fractious places, from quotidian squabbles over space, water, and access to the communal toilets to murderous communal disharmony during times of crisis, as evinced by some of the heartbreaking testimonies collected by Sameera Khan (co-author of the recent book Why Loiter?) in an essay called "How The Mumbai Riots [of 1992] Changed Life for Muslims in Chawls".

Elsewhere, Adarkar observes acutely that the chawl corridor, centre of its social life and the space that effectively turned the building into a kind of neighbourhood, “brought a spirit of buoyancy to the interface of the chawl and the city, and diffused the boundaries between them.” This “chawl spirit” has been extensively investigated and celebrated in the city’s literature, from the short stories of Sadat Hasan Manto and PL Deshpande’s famous Marathi work Batatyachi Chal (“The Potato Chawl”) to Kiran Nagarkar's Ravan and Eddie and Manu Joseph’s recent novel Serious Men.

Among the pleasures of Adarkar's book is its exceptionally attentive historicization of the changing status of chawls over time in terms of their religious and gender composition, relative position in the various classes of property available in Bombay, and self-image. After the passing of the Rent Control Act of 1947, which froze existing rents and granted many more rights to tenants than previously, the  humble chawl-room suddenly acquired a great cachet as “property”. Many renters chose to evict other men whom they entertained as sub-tenants and bring in instead their families from the villages, completely altering the social character of the chawls and throwing up a fresh set of problems of adjustment to the needs of women.

The Rent Control Act also spawned the city’s indigenous pagdi system of property sale, whereby longtime tenants who could not be shaken by landlords could sell their tenancy rights to a third party as long as they passed on a third of the sale price to the landlord. The tenancy structures of chawls eventually became so complex that often developers seeking to buy up the entire property so as to build it anew threw up their hands in despair. This was because, as Prasad Shetty explains in his essay, of the number of ownership claims registered for every square foot of the chawl, from "subtenants who had forcibly taken over from original tenants, multiple children of deceased tenants wanting different houses, a divorced wife occpuying a room that was in the ex-husband's name, loft occupiers, staircase occupiers, shops within homes, homes inside shops, etc."

With the closure of the textile mills in the eighties, Bombay became a postindustrial city, and in succeeding decades home to the new wealth of a post-liberalization “new economy”. Defenceless against the march of history, the chawls became the site first of the despair of joblessness, and then the object of the profit-seeking eyes of developers. Many chawls today stand uncomfortably in the shadow of tall apartment buildings that were only recently themselves chawls. Creaky with decay and disrepair, sometimes crashing down completely in the gusts of monsoon, they still comprise a large portion of the available housing stock in the island city.

From Shetty in his superb essay “Ganga Building Chronicles”, a history of the fortunes of a chawl building over several generations, to the Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal in “My Old Neighbourhoods”, a memoir of his childhood across several chawls in Bombay, the contributors to Adarkar’s book do an excellent job of characterising not just how the chawls made up the motley social fabric of the city and were home to many of its root energies, but also what they have contributed to the city’s vocabulary, from the word “gala”, or dormitory, to the concept of the “gallery gaz”, or a measure as wide as a chawl corridor. Somewhere in the story of almost every migrant family in Mumbai – and most people in the city are migrants – lies a chawl. The place of this architectural form in Mumbai’s history is extensively mapped in this chawl-like concert of energies, one of the most warming books ever produced about the city.

Some links: the photographer Atul Loke remembers his childhood in a Mumbai chawl and gives us some pictures here, and the film director Mahesh Manjrekar supplies his own memories of chawl life here.

And here are some older essays about books on Bombay: "The film writing of Sadat Hasan Manto", "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games", "On Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables", and "Rage and Love in Manu Joseph's Serious Men".

[A shorter version of this essay appeared recently in Mint Lounge, with the most pointed byline I've ever received: "Chapter Six of Chandrahas Choudhury's novel Arzee the Dwarf is called 'The Old Wadia Chawl'"]


absorbing normalcy said...

i have been living in "quaters"for five decades in government and DDA localities of delhi.there is a camaraderie and community feel.chawls are grounds for sports,cultural and religious activities.every chawl has a hero with a story of "survivor to thriver"jai ho!-the great indian middle class!

H R Venkatesh said...

Several passages of the first part of Naipaul's A Million Mutinies too are centred around the chawls of Bombay. But your write-up did tell me the difference between a chawl and a slum - or are the lines between chawls and slums blurred?
I'd think there are more slums in Mumbai that chawls no? And therefore many more people in the slums than in chawls? Or perhaps I'm getting it all wrong? Whether I am or not, it would be nice if you could point out to some writing on the Mumbai's slums...

Chandrahas said...

Venkatesh - No, the lines between chawls and slums are not blurred, although what is common to them is the concentration and proximity of human beings within small spaces. Chawls are pucca constructions, and multi-storeyed; slums often not. And porperty rights are often ambiguous in slums, but usually not in chawl buildings.

I think the book to go to on Mumbai's slums might be Kalpana Sharma's book on Dharavi, unless of course you want to take the well-trodden path and read Shantaram .

Paroma said...

Thanks so much for this Chandrahas. Brilliant review indeed- and greatly helpful at a time when I'm writing an essay on buildings and society.