Lockdown in Knightsbridge

This post first appeared on the SOAS Anthropology Department’s Covid-19 blog ‘Love in the time of Corona’.

An odd set of life circumstances has led me to spending the lockdown alone in a house in Knightsbridge. Here I share some notes (abridged and lightly edited) I made during the first week, mostly while out walking.

Tuesday 24th March

First day of lockdown. My neighbourhood streets weren’t quite deserted but they were very empty, and their sun-baked state called up memories of siesta time in small Italian towns. People finally seem to be getting the hang of social distancing. As I performed my close-hugging of one side of the pavement, a masked lady with a small dog gallantly stepped into the street to maintain a two metre cordon sanitaire.

By the Serpentine in Hyde Park, I couldn’t decide whether or not the water looked clearer, and then wondered how much it would be affected in any case, not being suddenly relieved of a fleet of vaporetti like the canals of Venice. All this will do wonders for the air quality, though, won’t it?

Wednesday 25th March

Empty, shut up shops everywhere. Boots had an employee on guard to ensure compliance with its twenty people or less rule. The cloyingly Instagrammable café outside Knightsbridge Tube is now shut, window bereft of pink cakes. The little Italian deli on Walton Street is still open, one customer at a time per favore. Perhaps the strangest, saddest sight was a series of empty buses gliding along on the Brompton Road.

I am struck by two other things today: an irrepressible urge to scratch my nose, and a new way of engaging with space. I find myself actively seeking out empty roads, and feel a surge of joy when I see one stretching before me with nobody else in sight. I feel a strange fear when I look at a narrow passageway, or a pavement hemmed in by cars, and think nothing of stepping out into the street or crossing the road to avoid people, wryly hoping I won’t die a prosaic, non-viral death at the hands of an oncoming vehicle. I’ve tried to perfect a “social distancing half-smile” to direct at people while backing off, although this is a work in progress.

Thursday 26th March

Last night I distributed a couple of hundred leaflets in the neighbouring streets on behalf of the local chapter of Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK. The idea is that residents stuck in their houses can contact volunteers to help them with shopping, or collecting prescriptions or even just a friendly phonecall. This morning I had a call from David, who lives down the road with his partner Elaine, both in the age bracket that has been asked to stay at home altogether for 12 weeks. They are low on milk and potatoes and would appreciate my help in picking up these, and a few other items – “nothing exotic!” he reassures me – from Waitrose tomorrow. He also offers me some of his homemade isopropyl-based hand sanitiser but I decline for the time being. Later, I get a message from a 61-year-old man in the next road offering what help he can, although he makes a point of clarifying that he is “single” and “in good shape” and “available 24/7”. I wonder if he has misinterpreted the nature of the support on offer.

At 8pm, twenty or more households in the street congregate at their doors to clap and cheer for the NHS, part of a national flash movement. It is a magical moment and everybody seems buoyed by the temporary expression of community.

Friday 27th March

This afternoon I taught a UCL ethnography class over Blackboard Collaborate. After talking through the students’ forthcoming assignments, I asked them what observations they had made so far of the lockdown, wherever they might be. Two girls who had travelled back up north to be with their parents said that their friends from home were taking things much less seriously than people in London seemed to be and were still going out partying by the time the students had both been self-isolating for a week or more. Another girl said that she found it fascinating in parks watching people react to approaching dogs – the natural tendency to pet and stroke in obvious tension with the fear that a virus-carrying vector might be entering their personal space. We all wondered, with no obvious conclusion, about the shift of social life into the online. Was this simply recreating existing social interactions, or were new forms of sociality being created here?

I thought about this question again in the evening during a Zoom call with a bunch of friends. Whereas a one-to-one chat I might have with my partner or a friend is starting to feel, with practice, quite normal and almost relaxing, the big groups still faze me for several reasons. The way that you can’t make eye contact with individuals, for example, meaning that so much richness is lost from the interaction. Or the artificial way in which a large group conversation remains just that: a conversation between an entire group. Although Zoom does have a “breakout group” function, there doesn’t really seem to be a way of replicating the dynamics of a group of friends meeting in the pub, naturally splintering and coalescing over the course of an evening.

Monday 30th March

I’m feeling intense cabin fever today but it’s grey outside and the empty streets feel more like Pyongyang than Perugia. So much of what is comforting in walking the streets come from the signs of life: open shops, people sitting in cafes, sauntering groups of pedestrians. Undeniably, there is beauty in the ghost city. In fact, I think the neoclassical wonderland of Chelsea is at its most lovely when deserted and in sunshine, but on a day like today it is overshadowed by bleakness and acts as a constant reminder of the situation we’re in. And as for the many parts of London that I love much more – Peckham, Brixton, Whitechapel etc – these places compel me precisely because of the crowds and the activity. I imagine that they must feel forlorn at present, although of course right now they seem as far away as Auckland.

I took a brisk but half-hearted walk, feeling resentful of everyone I passed except the hospital workers outside the Royal Marsden who I grudgingly reminded myself that I admired. Approaching Kings Road from a side street and seeing a lady walking a buggy and several other people crossing in the other direction, I suddenly felt a lift of spirits. It could almost have been a normal Monday afternoon.

Voter apathy in Mumbai? Not in the BDD Chawls

This article first appeared on the SOAS South Asia Institute blog on April 30th 2019 as part of a series of reflections on the Indian general elections

Mumbai is often derided as a city uninterested in politics. “Maximum City, Minimum Voting” sneers a recent Economic Times analysis, pointing out that even Mumbai’s uncharacteristically high voter turnout in 2014 lagged behind Delhi’s by nearly 15%. Hard statistics notwithstanding, voter apathy is scarcely in evidence in Mumbai’s chawls, cramped tenement blocks constructed to house the city’s army of migrant labourers from the late 19th century onwards. Once bastions of communism with an active trade union movement, these chawl neighbourhoods have more recently proved a fertile ground for the spread of the Shiv Sena, a prominent regional party promoting the combined interests of Hindu nationalism, global capital and the so-called “Marathi manoos”, or ordinary Marathi speaker.

In the BDD Chawls of Lower Parel, for example, the Shiv Sena enjoys strong support among the Marathas, a Hindu caste cluster that constitutes the neighbourhood’s most socially dominant community. Indeed, the Shiv Sena has penetrated deep into public life, notably providing patronage to the neighbourhood associations that organise religious festivals, sports competitions and welfare activities. The current Corporator (municipal representative) and MLA (state representative) both belong to the Shiv Sena, as does the sitting MP for Mumbai-South, Arvind Sawant. He is running for re-election this year as part of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance that is a dominant force in Maharashtra politics today. An early fillip for this alliance came from BJP Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ November 2018 announcement of a 16% quota for Marathas in education and public sector jobs, although delays in passing the bill may actually have the opposite effect.

Next to the Marathas, the Dalit Buddhist community is the other major social grouping in the BDD Chawls. Formerly members of the untouchable Mahar caste, the community converted to Buddhism en masse in 1956 following the lead of Mahar-born social reformer and law-maker Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The community’s political profile is distinctly different to that of the Marathas. Where local politics is concerned, the BDD Chawls Buddhists have typically thrown their weight behind the RPI(A), a faction of Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India, now led by Ramdas Athawale. Among the Buddhist community, the RPI(A) has a role in organising local functions and charitable activities comparable to the Shiv Sena’s role among the Hindus.

Chawl 10

BDD Chawls, N. M. Joshi Marg, Lower Parel

Recently, however, there has been an increasing scepticism in the community towards the figure of Athawale himself, not least due to the alliances he has struck with the BJP in previous municipal elections. Since the RPI(A) is not, in any case, fielding a candidate for the Lok Sabha elections, large numbers of the Buddhist community have turned their attention to another alliance called the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) or “Deprived Majority Front”. Touted as a possible third front  between the BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP coalitions that dominate Maharashtrian politics, this coalition is a joint venture between Prakash Ambedkar (grandson of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar) and Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM).

Prakash Ambedkar’s leadership during the anti-Dalit violence that engulfed Maharashtra in January 2018, and the credible inclusion of Muslims into the Bahujan fold through partnering with AIMIM, have boosted the VBA’s profile, although some sceptics argue that to vote for the VBA is simply to splinter the opposition to the BJP-Shiv Sena.

Dr Anil Kumar, the VBA candidate for Mumbai-South is a cardiologist, contesting the election on a platform promising healthcare, educational opportunities and hygienic living conditions. Prominent RPI(A) activists from the BDD Chawls have indicated their support for Kumar while publicly protesting Arvind Sawant’s bid on the basis of what they view as a dishonestly managed neighbourhood redevelopment project which has BJP-Shiv Sena backing. As Marathas fixate on getting the reservations they feel entitled to and Dalit Buddhists mobilise in favour of a newly energised political movement, it seems that in the BDD Chawls, at least, there is no room for voter apathy.

Musings on Multilingualism in London and Mumbai

Shortly after I posted this, a slightly earlier version of the article was (finally!) published by the online magazine Scroll here.

“When we want to be dramatic or romantic,” Sangeeta informed me, “we speak Hindi. When we want to be formal, we speak English. But when we want to respect our family culture, we speak Marathi.”

I nod, enviously conscious of the fact that for me and many of my fellow Brits, conversation, whether formal or romantic, is mostly restricted to English. Yet the everyday multilingualism described by Sangeeta, a young graduate from a Mumbai suburb, is familiar to the point of cliché across India. Take my friend Murtaza, an architect based in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. I’ve heard him conduct business calls in Gujarati, then speak to his girlfriend in Hindi before Skyping his family in Mewari, all the while maintaining an English conversation with me.

Recently, I have found myself drawing comparisons between the linguistic life of my adopted home city, London, and the city that forms the basis of my academic research, Mumbai. London is frequently claimed as one of the world’s most multilingual cities, with 300 or more languages in regular use. Even on a short stroll through the city I wouldn’t be surprised to hear snippets of conversation in English, French, Urdu, Polish and Somali alongside numerous languages I cannot identify. For some this is a sign of cosmopolitanism to be celebrated, while for others, like comedian John Cleese, it makes for a London that is “no longer English”. A similar phenomenon was described by one Captain Hall who roamed the bazaars of Bombay (as Mumbai then was) in 1812 and heard “the sounds of every language” he had ever heard elsewhere. A century later, Joseph Gerson da Cunha described the city as a “real Babel of tongues”.

London Diversity

London diversity (credit: http://www.cityam.com)

Clearly there are some similarities between the two cities, but I can’t help wondering whether sheer number of languages spoken is an appropriate yardstick to measure the multilingualism of a place. In London, according to the 2011 UK Census, nearly four fifths of the city’s residents speak English as their main language, while the next five most widely spoken languages (Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu and Punjabi) only account for 1-2% each of the population. In Mumbai, by contrast, no one language is the mother tongue of more than half the city’s population. The frontrunner, at around 45%, is Marathi, while slightly under 20% each speak Gujarati and Hindi as a first language. Other languages spoken include Tamil, Sindhi, Kannada and Konkani.

Furthermore, the British, unlike Indians, are hardly noted for their polyglot tendencies, and nearly two thirds of the country speak only English. Of course, in multicultural London there is a higher prevalence of bilingualism, but even so, the dominance of English in public life is overwhelming. With a few exceptions, such as the use of French at St Pancras International Station and Bengali street signs around Brick Lane, public signs and announcements tend to be English only. Likewise, the vast majority of London’s schools teach in English medium.

In Mumbai, conversely, the trappings of official polyglossia are everywhere. Street signs are bilingual in English and Marathi at the very least, while trilingual station signs and railway announcements include Hindi too. Schools, meanwhile, operate in each of these language media, or in others such as Gujarati, Urdu and Tamil. Does this make Mumbai the more multilingual of the two cities? My own feeling is that treating multilingualism as a scale is meaningless in this context, and that it makes more sense to think of the two cities as multilingual in very different ways.

Bandra_platform_board

Trilingual station sign in Marathi (top), Hindi (middle) and English (credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Superfast1111)

In London, you can get by your entire life speaking only English, and would live a restricted life without it. Indeed, despite the populist perception that the British metropolis is overrun with foreigners who don’t speak a word of English, Census data indicate that only around 3% of Londoners can’t speak English even to a basic level. In Mumbai too, many regard English as the passport to commercial success, and the furious uptake of English-medium education has been likened to an “English storm”. I have met several Mumbaikars who went to a Marathi medium school themselves but are determined that their children be schooled in English.

Simultaneously, however, a regionalist orientation in local government has pushed the Marathi agenda into prominence in recent decades. Directives have been issued for all state schools to teach Marathi, for buildings to display nameplates in Marathi and even for multiplex cinemas to allocate a certain number of screenings each year to Marathi films. This also appears to extend to law enforcement. “All the cops here speak Marathi,” Murtaza once told me, “so if you get into trouble it pays to know some of the language.” Others have gone further, hinting at darker consequences for failure to speak Marathi. More constructive, however, are private initiatives such as Mumbai resident Kaushik Lele’s excellent Learn Marathi blog which has been a lifeline for many students of the language (including me).

Despite these moves, the language most commonly heard in public (at least outside the Marathi-dominated former cotton mill belt) is, arguably, Hindi. While the city has a sizeable population with roots in Hindi-speaking North India, the use of Hindi extends well beyond this community. Indeed, Mumbai is famous for its “Bambaiya” variety which has been celebrated as a “mongrel language” by historian Gyan Prakash and functions as a lingua franca across the city. More than one North Indian acquaintance has admitted to me that mastering the nuances of Bambaiya felt more of a priority than learning Marathi when they settled in Mumbai.

Again, speaking as a monolingually-raised Brit, the idea of London or any other British city functioning in a language other than English is hard to imagine. Equally hard to imagine is London as the centre of a world-famous French or German film industry. I therefore forgive my 18-year old self, arriving in Mumbai for the first time in 2003, for assuming that Bollywood produced Marathi films. Actually, the most accurate label for the language of Bollywood films is a matter of ongoing debate. Hindi? Hindustani? Some even suggest Urdu, and arguably the fact that Bollywood gets dragged into cross-border politics with Pakistan is an indirect consequence of the linguistic (if not cultural) unity of Hindi and Urdu.

Anarkali

Poster for Anarkali with Hindi, English and Urdu text (credit: media.vam.ac.uk)

Meanwhile, the more explicitly linguistic brand of identity politics that Mumbai continues to experience has faint parallels in London. Ethnolinguistic identity is increasingly coming under the spotlight in the wake of the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. Successive British governments have demonised those immigrants not yet able to speak English, while in 2016 PM Theresa May damned cosmopolitanism everywhere by proclaiming that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.”

So far, neither city seems to be losing linguistic richness as a result. London retains the edge in terms of number and diversity of languages spoken, although in practical terms it is dominated by English. In Mumbai linguistic capital is more evenly distributed. English may be essential for getting ahead, but Marathi remains the most widely spoken mother tongue, and its importance in greasing the wheels of diplomacy is perhaps growing. And regarding Hindi, I’ll let Sangeeta have the (almost) last word: “in times of crisis and riots, Bollywood binds Mumbai together. Everybody speaks Hindi. Everybody understands Hindi songs.” Not, I suspect, entirely accurate, but nevertheless profoundly sincere.

 

 

Delisle Road BDD Chawls – Part 2

Now I’m well into the second half of my fieldwork year, I feel it’s time to look back at my field site, the Bombay Development Department (BDD) Chawls on N M Joshi Marg (Delisle Road). I came here with the intention of studying everyday language use and linguistic identity, but ended up getting seduced by something broader than this that I still find it hard to put a name to. Social interaction? Social identity? Social organisation? How society works in the chawls? I still fidget nervously when somebody asks me what my research is about, or worse, what my research question is. What follows isn’t exactly an answer, but I hope it will shed a bit of light on the subject.

As noted in my earlier post there are 32 Chawl buildings organised around a grid of streets. Each chawl has a number, and, if not quite a personality, a distinctiveness. Chawls 1 and 2, opposite the quaint N M Joshi Marg police station, are earmarked for police officers. Chawl 7 is known as the “Muslim chawl”, although in reality many Muslim families left after the 1992-3 Hindu-Muslim riots that scarred the city. Chawl 15, meanwhile, is noted for its Goan Catholic community, although I happen to know that the murals of Father Christmas at the front entrance were painted by the family of a Buddhist photographer who lives on the ground floor.

Road west from Bawla Masjid

Part of the “grid of streets”

Chawl 10

BDD Chawl 10

The majority of BDD Chawls residents are Maharashtrian Hindus, however, and many of these describe themselves as pure or “96” Maratha, referring to the somewhat mythical list of 96 upper caste Maharashtrian clans. Some Maratha-dominated chawls are particularly picky about who is allowed to buy or rent property. While I won’t name numbers here, I can say that I have encountered a striking level of agreement among chawl residents about which chawls are most caste conscious. I have often been told about the chawls that are “only for higher caste” or “don’t accept lower caste people”. Even some residents of these chawls, when asked, have told me that their building is “only for Hindu Marathas”.

Other buildings, as I remarked in my earlier post, are dominated by or have a substantial minority of Buddhists. These are mostly converts from the previously “untouchable” (or dalit) Mahar caste who follow the teachings of social reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar and joined him in leaving Hinduism in 1956. Another important dalit community is the Chamar (known in Maharashtra as the Chambar or Charmakar), whose traditional caste occupation was leather work.

Unlike the Mahars, the Chamars did not convert to Buddhism en masse, and the majority remain Hindu. However, at a certain level there seems to be a broad pan-­dalit alliance in the chawls, particularly evident in the run up to Ambedkar’s birthday celebrations (Ambedkar Jayanti) that are a key feature in the neo-Buddhist calendar. Although numerous Ambedkar Jayanti committees operate in individual chawls, at a BDD Chawl-wide level the celebrations (which include a sort of hybrid between a rally and an open air disco which wends its way round the streets of the chawls) are organised by members of the Republican Party of India which is based around Ambedkar’s teachings. One of my friends, a highly active RPI member, was responsible for collecting contributions, and told me that he would be visiting all the chawls that had Buddhist or Chamar communities within them.

Occasional hostilities flare up between some members of the various communities. One example occurred earlier in the year in the form of a dispute over the use of space outside a Buddhist temple. This happens to be next to one of the most famously high caste chawls whose Maratha Hindu residents wanted the space to practice kabaddi. In the end, the police were involved and an uneasy peace between the Buddhists and Marathas was brokered. Naturally, though, there are many individual friendships that flourish across the communities and I know one young man from a Maratha Hindu family who spends all his time hanging out with his Buddhist friends. More intriguingly, several of my Buddhist friends who vocally denounce Hinduism as a false religion and hold Brahmins responsible for most of India’s social ills, are married to Hindu women and join their fathers-in-law in celebrating key Hindu festivals. Meanwhile, several Buddhists I know play an active and respected role in the kabaddi team of Hindu-dominated Chawl 13.

This team is known as the Jay Bharat Krida Mandal (“Victory to India Sports Committee”), which is also used as a proxy name for Chawl 13 as a whole. Mandals, or committees, can be found all over the chawls. Most buildings, indeed, have their own mandal which may fulfil a diverse set of responsibilities from organising festivals, facilitating blood donation programmes to fielding cricket teams in chawl-wide competitions. While some chawls have their individual mandals, others are shared between two such as the Bandya Maruti Seva Mandal in Chawl 16 and 17. According to one of its members, this mandal came about as a protest in the 1920s against a British injunction against processions of Hindu idols outside the nearby mosque, the Bawla Masjid. A group from Chawls 16 and 17 decided that simply parading with their idol of Hanuman, also known as Maruti, would in no way hurt Muslim sentiments, and henceforth went on guerrilla processions up and down Delisle Road. “Bandya” in this context, apparently refers to the civil disobedience while the “seva” (service) refers to the fact that the mandal was focussed on social work rather than “krida”, or sport. Ironically, others have told me that Bandya was actually the name of one of the mandal’s best kabaddi players!

Jay Bharat Krida Mandal (Chawl 13) - Vishal Govilkar and Sunny

Friendship across communities: A Hindu and a Buddhist, both wearing Jay Bharat Krida Mandal t-shirts

Bandya Maruti Seva Mandal (Chawl 16 and 17) - Dahi Handi Pyramid (2)

The Bandya Maruti Seva Mandal celebrating Dahi Handi festival outside Chawl 16

Chawl pairings seem to run deep. 19 and 20, both with strong Buddhist communities and active RPI members, are referred to in the same breath and are at the forefront of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations and various social upliftment works. Staunchly Hindu Chawls 11 and 12 also operate together and share a Satyam Krida Mandal which manages a joint temple to Sai Baba, the revered spiritual leader who has a cult following in Mumbai. Other chawls operate individually, and this is most obvious during BDD Chawl-wide cricket matches where a Chawl 19 and 20 team might play a Chawl 13 team, while the Chawl 3 team takes on the Chawl 1 and 2 team.

Jay Bhim Katta (close up)

The Jay Bhim Katta – public seating area opposite Chawls 19 and 20, mostly (but not exclusively) frequented by Buddhists from these, and other chawls. Imagery includes Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji, Lord Buddha, Dr Ambedkar and Rohidas, a Chamar saint.

Another kind of mandal operating in the chawls is the Gramastha Mandal, or village committee. Many of these were founded in the 1970s, when millworkers from a particular village (mostly from the Kolhapur district of western Maharashtra) would buy up one or several chawl rooms, and rent them out to groups of bachelors from their village coming to Mumbai to work or study. In Chawl 17 for example, there are several rooms belonging to the Pedrewadi Gramastha Mandal, and each room houses around fifteen young men from Pedrewadi who pay a nominal rent for a place to store a trunk and roll out a bedsheet at night. Most residents of these rooms come from the same few families, and their fathers and even grandfathers occupied the rooms before them, before retiring to Pedrewadi for a life of cashew farming.

While I know several Gramastha Mandal residents who send money back to their parents in the village, fulfilling the core stereotype of rural-urban migration, I know at least one boy who depends on subsidies from his father to afford the college course he is studying. Almost all maintain an active relationship with their village, returning numerous times a year for festivals, weddings, elections, and in some cases when convalescing from illness. Sometimes, village festivals are imported wholesale into the chawls. Pedrewadi Gramastha Mandal, for example, venerates local deity, Masoba, with a pooja and a goat sacrifice that many ex-chawl residents (who have now moved to family houses in Mumbai’s suburbs) return to attend.

Chawl 11-34 Batakanangle Gramastha Mandal

Community living: soap dishes in a Gramastha Mandal room

Tejas - Chawl 17 ground floor corridor

Flooding in Chawl 17 (credit: Tejas Katkar)

Despite the tensions and hardships associated with chawl life, one thing that residents unanimously seem to agree on is the chawls’ legendary community spirit. I have been privileged to witness this in any number of daily kindnesses, but the point was forcibly struck home during the extreme rains of August 29th. I spent the day sheltering in my miraculously unscathed ground floor flat in Worli, but received photo updates from chawl friends, like the one above. When I reached the chawls the next morning hoping to help out, all the water had already been bailed out of the buildings. Fridges and other bulky electronic goods from ground floor rooms were stored on first floor corridors, and many ground floor residents had spent the night with friends or family or in common spaces in the upper storeys.

Indeed, one the of the greatest fears around the proposed redevelopment of the chawl buildings into blocks of flats (more on which, perhaps, another time) is that the area will go from being an “open door” culture to a closed one. Maybe I’m naïve, but I can’t helping thinking in spite of elevators, security guards and flushing toilets, at least something of this neighbourliness will persist, at least for a while.

Dive Bars of Bombay

Drinking in Mumbai runs the gamut from swigging cheap whisky in a dimly lit park to sipping champagne in a five star hotel. Climbing a few rungs down from the latter might land you in some trendy microbrewery in a redeveloped Lower Parel mill site, while climbing up a few steps from rock bottom takes you to my favourite sort of establishment: the dive bar.

This in itself seems to be a rather broad category. There are studenty haunts like Sunlight, in Dhobi Talao, which has been described to me as the “unofficial college bar” for St Xavier’s, one of Mumbai’s most prestigious academic institutions. Former Xavierites (their word) get a faraway look in their eyes when describing Sunlight: “Oh my God, that’s so edgy, yaar… I spent sooooo much time in that place…” and, invariably, “it’s such a dive!”. Certainly its name is far from apt – it would be hard to imagine a more dingy space – but in my own limited experience it seems to be crammed with bright young things, enjoying the juke box and munching on rather nice popcorn as waistcoated waiters top up their Tuborg.

I would say something along the same lines for Gokul, on Tullock Road opposite legendary meat-grilling joints Bademiya and Baghdadi.  This part of town, Colaba, always feels a little louche despite (or perhaps because of?) the nearby Taj Mahal hotel and the high concentration of tourists from the Gulf as well as international backpackers. Gokul (“bro, you gotta go there, it’s a complete dive”), as dark as Sunlight and like most such bars with an Air Conditioned upstairs section, fits into this environment perfectly, and serves cheapish beer and surprisingly good dal fry.

For me, though, these excellent institutions only qualify for the upper fringes of dive-dom, pulling in a young, mixed sex crowd as they do. If you want a true dive bar, I suggest taking a train out of SoBo (as south Bombay/Mumbai is known) to one of the former mill districts. A word of caution here, though: there’s no point getting out at Lower Parel and heading straight towards one of the redeveloped mill complexes like Todi or Kamala. All you’ll find there are joints like Café Zoe and The Barking Deer. While these offer a fine line in craft beer and imaginative bar snacks, they are far from dive-inity.

A better bet, in my opinion, would be to pop into any of the bars near Cotton Green station. Quaint as its name sounds, Cotton Green is regarded by many of my better-heeled friends as outside their comfort zone. A fiercely independent journalist of my acquaintance, who thinks nothing of battling with her car through the maelstrom of Mumbai’s rush hour traffic, once told me that her mother had forbidden her from visiting the place. Certainly you’d be hard pressed to find branches of Café Coffee Day or Chaayos in the area and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no “Cotton Green Social”. What there is, however, is a good clutch of murky drinking dens, where an entirely male clientele washes down plates of chickpeas or chakli (a deep-fried wheat flour snack eaten with garlicky Szechuan sauce) with a bottle of domestic whisky such as Royal Stag or Blender’s Pride.

Here you’ll meet electricians from Bihar and gold merchants from the deserts of Rajasthan. An argument in Marathi, Marwari or Maithili might be breaking out in the corner, and it’s quite likely that an old man, unmoored by too many pegs of the cheap stuff, will be being roughly helped to his feet by a soberer acquaintance. Others drink alone, with Whatsapp or YouTube for company. Amid all this, quaintly dressed waiters from Jharkand or Karnataka will be on hand to refill your beer glass to the brim the minute you reach the bottom. At these sorts of places, one of the ultimate treats is a plate of Chicken Lollipop, for me the apogee of Indo-Chinese food: a plate of grilled drumsticks, bony ends wrapped in foil, arranged around a central plate of Szechuan sauce. Naturally this begs to be washed down with a bottle of ice-cold Kingfisher Ultra.

A few months back, an artist friend introduced me to his local, a fine establishment called Trilok near King’s Circle, just north of Girangaon, the erstwhile “village of mills”. The chief draw here, in my opinion, is outdoor seating that still manages to retain a distinct dinginess. I was cautioned against making eye contact with the local bore, who was having a belligerent conversation with himself at the next table, and instead listened to my friend, clad in traditional Mangalorean dress, regale me with tales of his latest Grindr conquests. Suffice to say that the next day was one of the few times in Mumbai that I’ve craved a Full English Breakfast.

Dive Bars are to be found in the suburbs, too, of course, although I haven’t made much of a study of these.  One such is Janata Bar in Bandra, a far cry from the trendy nightspots that the Queen of the Suburbs is justly famous for. On my only visit this proved an excellent follow-up to a delicious shark thali in Highway Gomantak, a low-key Bandra East eatery that is far too focussed on delivering  superlative seafood to bother with things like beer. However, the popularity of Bandra with visiting Europeans and North Americans is obvious even at Janata, which to my mind knocks off a few marks on the dive-ometer. The aggressive party of Punjabis who shared our table restored the balance to an extent.

As so often happens in Mumbai, I recognise in these bars that my outsider status insulates me from the unease I might feel visiting equivalent watering holes in the UK (I’m thinking of unapologetic Old Man Pubs in Walworth and Bermondsey, or certain hostelries in Exeter before they all started serving Chorizo Burgers with triple-cooked chips). In particular, as a white male I actually receive far less attention than would an obviously upper-middle class Indian female. Nevertheless, I remember once having a drink in a bar in Dadar (middle class ex-mill territory), on the ground floor of a cheapish hotel, and in the upper reaches of dive-itude. I was with a student friend who had moved a year or so back from Delhi. What, I asked him, is biggest difference between Delhi and Bombay? He gestured to the room at large. “This,” he said. “In Delhi you either get dodgy drinking dens or super Hi-Fi places like in five star hotels. Here you get places like this where everyone can drink – rich, poor, old, young, even girls in many places. Basically, according to me, Mumbai is the capital of democratic drinking.”

 

 

 

Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai

Rio and Venice have their carnivals, Kolkata has Durga Puja and Mumbai has Ganesh Chaturthi. The city’s best-known Hindu festival honours the birthday of Lord Ganesh, the pot-bellied, elephant-headed remover of obstacles. Chaturthi is the Sanskrit word for fourth, and the 11-day festival begins on the fourth day of the Hindu month Bhadrapada. Throughout Mumbai clay idols of Ganesh are installed in private homes, community spaces and grand public temporary structures called pandals. Family members and friends visit each other, recite devotional prayers and chow down on diabetes-inducing quantities of modak, a dim-sum like sweetmeat filled with coconut, jaggery and cardamom. On the final day, the idols are paraded down to the sea for a ritual immersion or visarjan.

My own experience of the festival was slightly haphazard. Walking to my field site on the morning of the first day I visited a small pandal on a whim, only to discover that one of the old men sitting inside knew exactly who I was (a general murmur ensued in which I detected the words “PhD” and “Marathi”). With amazing good luck, one of the men visiting the pandal was a member of Lalbaug Sarvajanik Utsav Mandal (i.e. Lalbaug Public Festival Committee), the committee that manages “Mumbaicha Raja” (the king of Mumbai) one of the most famous pandals in the city. He kindly offered to take me to see both Mumbaicha Raja and its even more famous cousin Lalbaugcha Raja, sidestepping the hours-long queues I would have otherwise had to brave.

Lalbagcha Raja

Lalbaugcha Raja, the most famous murti in Mumbai

At Lalbaugcha Raja, in particular, I felt immensely privileged to witness proceedings at 2am from a makeshift balcony above a row of shops, which off-duty policemen and women were using as a place to doss down. From here I could observe three separate queues, and jotted down the following:

“The immensely long rank and file mostly sheltering under umbrellas for most of the way; then as they approach getting their phones out to photograph and video; endless chants of ‘Ganapati Bappa – Morya!’ They are only allowed to go as far as a barrier about 10 metres away from the murti [idol]. One guy briefly sits on his friend’s shoulders as he deploys his telephoto lens. At the exit point a husband and wife hurl abuse at the heavy-handed attendants moving them along….

“…Then a number of gradations of VIP who actually get to touch Ganesh. At the lower end it still looks like a bumpy, jostling ride, although the members’ line looks quite civilised until they reach the feet of Ganesh, which prove to be the great levellers, as black clad female attendants yank each devotee away after slightly less than a second and shove them towards the exit…

“…And of course as they approach the murti many of the devotees sneak in a quick selfie.”

Lalbagcha Raja - crowds (1)

The “immensely long rank and file” at Lalbaugcha Raja

Away from this grand public spectacle, I felt no less privileged to witness the minutiae of Ganesh Chaturthi as a family celebration in the BDD Chawls, my field site. Right from the beginning the contrast to a British Christmas was stark. For example, buying and taking home the household Christmas tree has tended to be a fairly functional business in my experience (although I remember a memorable walk up the Old Kent Road some years back). Bringing home the family Ganesh murti, on the other hand, is a joyous occasion, in most cases replete with a crack team of drummers hired for the journey and good deal of chanting and dancing in the streets.

Household Ganeshes are installed in lovingly decorated shrines and generously supplied with bananas, apples, coconuts and, naturally, modak. I’ve lost count of the number of processions I followed, and private shrines I visited, usually to join in the evening aarti (prayer) and invariably to fend off or succumb to offers of modak.

HOusehold ganesh 2

Ganesh murti in a family home in Delisle Road, BDD Chawl 20

HOusehold ganesh 1

Another Ganesh in another BDD Chawl room

Between these two poles – the mêlée of the top tier public pandals and the intimacy of a family recitation of Sukhkarta Dukhharta (the most famous aarti which celebrates Ganesh as bringer of joyer and remover of sadness) – are any number of smaller public pandals organised by community mandals (committees). One of my favourites, on Delisle Road opposite the BDD Chawls, was at the Panchganga Housing Society, where an eco-friendly central murti is surrounded by a spectacularly creative troupe of smaller idols, each with a specific environmental message.

Unfortunately, an untimely bout of Dengue Fever prevented me from enjoying the immersions on the final day. However, many don’t wait until the last day to do visarjan, and I was able to witness a number of idols from BDD Chawl 12 being paraded out of the building and into a waiting truck, amid much drumming and dancing, in readiness for a late-night jaunt to the seaside.

Perhaps the most striking memory of the whole festival was a conversation with some of my Ambedkarite Buddhist friends in the BDD Chawls. I am used, by now, to the derision with which some of this community regard Hindu beliefs and practices. “Fake Gods” and “Fake history” are phrases often thrown about, and I have frequently been told that “Hindu” means slave, and was an epithet applied to India’s indigenous population by waves of invading Brahmins from Central Asia or (depending on my informant), Portugal. While I cannot agree with every nuance of this view of history, I can understand how a community that changed their religion to escape being at the receiving end of the worst excesses of the caste system would take a dim view of religious ideology that drove these excesses. However, I was shocked not only to be given the well-established argument that Ganesh Chaturthi had only been popularised little over a century ago by freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak (partly as a way of getting around a colonial injunction against large social and political gatherings other than Islamic Friday Prayers), but also to be informed that Tilak had in fact invented Ganesh as a deity!

“What about ancient carvings of Ganesh at caves like Ellora and Ajanta?” I asked. “How do you explain those?”. All recent modifications, according to one Republic Party of India stalwart who happens to have a Hindu wife. All these carvings would have originally been elephant figures, part of a wider Buddhist cosmology, and it was only in the 19th century that they were converted by unscrupulous craftsmen to represent the newly-created Lord Ganesh. Flabbergasted out of my usual anthropologist’s practice of biting my tongue I put up an impassioned argument in shaky Hindi on behalf of Ganesh and his venerable old age, but quickly realised I was getting nowhere. “Oh well,” I excused myself, “Time to go and worship fake Gods”. I decided my approach for the rest of the festival would be to steer clear of theology and “Keep Calm and Eat Modak”. Dengue aside, it served me well.

Hirsch’s column: must Nelson fall?

I suppose one of the less obvious perks of white, male privilege is the unlikelihood of feeling personally threatened by a statue. Hard as I try, I can’t imagine a plausible scenario in today’s UK where a statue would make me question whether I am welcome there. It is precisely because I lack that particular lived experience that at a certain visceral level I can never fully appreciate the psychology behind campaigns like “Rhodes Must Fall”.

This is probably also why my first reaction to the headline of Afua Hirsch’s 22/8/17 article in The Guardian,Toppling statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next”, was to roll my eyes. Surely this is parody, I thought. Surely anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that this is taking the decolonisation agenda too far?

Part of me still thinks that way, but reading the article did two things for me: it opened my eyes to the less savoury aspects of Nelson’s career, and it prompted me to think harder. Starting with Nelson, I realise that I’ve never really spent much time on him. I have a sketchy mental outline of the Battle of Trafalgar and a passing awareness of Lady Emma Hamilton, and I once sang in a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass. I never grew up thinking of him as a personal hero, or part of what made me proud to be British (if indeed I am, but that’s a not a minefield I plan to stray into right now). Far less was I aware that he could be described (in Hirsh’ words) as a “white supremacist” who “vigorously” defended slavery – see, for example, his 1805 letter to Simon Taylor.

Without further research, I don’t feel qualified to make any pronouncement on Nelson other than to hide behind platitudes along the lines that he was clearly a “complex” figure. Yes, he was war hero to whom the British nation remains hugely indebted, but given he was a contemporary of William Wilberforce, it seems insufficient to excuse his views on slavery as simply “of their time”.

But what about Nelson’s column? Well let’s first go back to Cecil Rhodes. I am grateful to the Rhodes Must Fall movement for educating me as to the extent of the man’s brutality, and clarifying that the use of his wealth to fund the education of students from (among others) Britain’s former colonial possessions, doesn’t absolve him from manner in which said wealth was accumulated. Despite this, I find it difficult to make up my mind about the Oriel College statue, which has been the focus of the movement in the UK (although as an important side note, Rhodes Must Fall has always been about much more than pulling down statues, as Amit Chaudhuri’s thoughtful piece makes clear).

I have a strong instinct that toppling statues is an enterprise that shouldn’t be undertaken without thorough consideration and, even then, only in extreme circumstances. I don’t agree with those who equate the reasoned demands of activists to remove statues of objectionable figures to the blanket cultural barbarism of ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra, but I do think there is a scale here. At one end I can appreciate the catharsis that a society might feel by demolishing the statue of a recently ousted dictator. Further along the scale, while I can understand the demands to remove Rhodes from his pedestal, the connection between the Rhodes and the Rhodes Must Fall activists is not as simple or urgent as that between dictator and those he (yes, almost always he) directly oppressed.

Much further along we come to Nelson’s column. I might be wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine that anybody could seriously claim to feel traumatised by the presence of Nelson towering over Trafalgar Square. Moreover, Nelson’s column is far more integral to Britain’s landscape than is the Rhodes statue in Oriel College. It has immense value as a historic national symbol, a tourist attraction and a work of monumental architecture. I feel that some kind of formula might be put to work here: that the greater the intrinsic value (be that historical, societal, artistic etc.) of a monument, the more compelling the case for demolition needs to be. Needless to say, none of that would work if “intrinsic value” is only judged from a white, patriarchal viewpoint.

In most cases, I think a preferable option to demolishing a statue would be to “reframe” it. Oriel College, for example, could work with Rhodes Must Fall activists to produce a signboard explaining Rhodes’ problematic legacy and perhaps even agree on an appropriate counter-monument to erect on college grounds. In Trafalgar Square, why not repurpose the fourth plinth as a home for art that specifically explores the more difficult aspects of Britain’s past, or, borrowing Hirsh’s words, that celebrates the  “the enormous contribution of black people at the time [of Nelson and Wilberforce]”?

So to answer the title question, no, I don’t think Nelson should fall. Actually, I’m not convinced Afua Hirsch really does either. But rather than fulminating at the folly of snowflake left, as so many commentators seem to be doing, let’s thank her for provoking debate and reminding us that no history is sacred, and that no hero should be above thoughtful re-examination.