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.”