Sunday, March 16, 2008


I have been living in Mumbai for almost three years, yet I never cease to be amazed by the architectural and anthropological marvel called the chawl. Films like KATHA (by Sai Paranjpe) familiarised us with the multi-storeyed, one- room-per-family, two-bathrooms-for-n-number-of-families chawls where life is lived as an extended family. I don't live in a chawl. But I am surrounded by two sprawling chawls (Kajupada and Devipada); and when I go to work, I have to walk across Ambewadi chawl.

Whenever I do so, I unashamedly peep and listen into the lives of the people who have sacrificed all hopes of any 'private space'. The chawls are teeming with people from various communities - Maharashtrians (but of course), some Gujaratis and Marwaris, Bengalis, UP-ites, Biharis, some people from the southern states. Each room houses a family of 4 to 10 people, along with a floating population of visiting relations and friends. The rooms are small (around 12 ft x 8 ft) and they are set cheek by jowl.

As far as my visits tell me, each room is partitioned into two sections. The front section has a narrow bed, table, storage for clothes, the ubiquitous TV set and the other almost equally must-have : a fish tank. Behind the partition, there is the kitchen (with a huge number of shining stainless steel utensils hanging from all available headspace) and, cordoned off by large steel/plastic jars (for storing water), a tiny space where people take their baths. All available floor space is used for sleeping. Many room-owners have vertically partitioned the rooms to create further sleeping space above ground. The whole dimensions (space used per person per room) is a miracle which has to be seen to be believed!

The rooms are usually quite spick and span. Most are whitewashed annually. The ladies of the house (sorry, room) decorate the walls with a variety of calendar art (gods and filmstars being especially popular). Little wooden shelves carry plastic vases with flowers and the latest made-in-China novelties. There is a corner dedicated to worship (Ganpati usually being the chosen one, along with Lakshmi, goddess of wealth). All rooms have televisions and mobile phones, many have refrigerators and washing machines, some have computers. Each time a new possession arrives (be it a new gadget or some old- juna - furniture), the people stoically, and proudly, rearrange the available space and carry on with their lives.

Each family contributes to saving the environment by keeping potted plants outside their rooms. Not all the plants are potted; many are set in plastic jars or bags. Money plant is the most common, followed by aloe vera (regarded as a panacea by many). Clothes are dried on lines set along the walls and on the tiled/asbestos roofs. Since garments are mostly of polyester, drying them indoors during the four-month-long monsoon is not too difficult. But in the dry months, my daily trip across the chawls is enlivened by guessing the age and gender of the inhabitants by looking at the not-so-dirty linen hanging in public!

There are small (really small - as in 4' x 6') shops selling everything from groceries, vegetables, milk and mobile recharge cards. There are PCOs where, if you stand for half an hour, you will be able to hear at least six different Indian languages.

The chawls are crawling with people. There is always a queue (and a smell) in front of the toilets. The space between two rows of rooms is sometimes wide enough to let two bikes pass side-by-side, sometimes so narrow that two people have to jostle each other.

Nobody cribs. Everybody is too busy to do so. Many of my students say that they come to college early and go home late after work so as to have more space to themselves. The spatial dynamics (or rather, the very lack of space for much movement) forces people to be occupied elsewhere for the major part of the day. When they come back to the chawl, they usually spend time in the common spaces like the temples and clubs which celebrate different religious festivals all year round (having a variety of communities help - hardly a week passes without the blaring of microphones). Weddings and other social occasions are celebrated with gusto and involve everybody coming out of their own rooms. Home (whatever little there is of it) is for eating(not always), sleep (almost always) and sex (definitely always, unless you want to risk the ire of the moral police).

My definition of 'home' is so very different from this claustrophobic-yet-peculiarly-fascinating chawl life. I find people either calmly accepting chawl-life (those who are living it now) or being nostalgic about the camaraderie and sharing-caring-warmth (usually those who have moved up in life and into highrises) (For eg. you may see the post CHAWLS OF MUMBAI in ). I feel bad about the push-shove-dhakka maar, but I also feel that this extreme proximity gives chawl-residents a survival-support-network not available in more spacious but lonelier surroundings.

1 comment:

Piscean Angel said...

The chawls in Mumbai are truly amazing & not very unlike what they show in films, isn't it ?