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.

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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.

Jewish Bombay (1): Baghdadi Jews and the Sassoon Family

A little down the road from my field site there is a cemetery with an entrance plaque that reads: “Set apart for ever by Elias David Sassoon Esq in January 1878 as a Jewish burial ground in memory of his beloved son Joseph, who died at Shanghai in China”.

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Plaque outside Jewish Cemetary on Delisle Road (N M Joshi Marg)

So who was Elias David Sassoon, and what was his son doing in Shanghai? Both questions cut deep into the heart of Bombay history in a surprising way.

The Sassoons were a family of Middle Eastern Jewish bankers, often called the “Rothschilds of the East”, who initially rose to prominence in Baghdad. Following a change in political climate, patriarch David Sassoon fled to Bombay in the 1830s and rapidly established a business empire, based partly on the textile trade. He lived in a handsome residence in Byculla, now reincarnated as the Masina Hospital (named after Parsi philanthropist Jerbai Masina), and the family have left a visible legacy across Bombay’s built environment.

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Masina Hospital, formerly the private residence of David Sassoon

This includes two beautiful synagogues: the Magen David synagogue in Byculla, built by David Sassoon himself, and the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue in Kala Ghoda built by his grandson Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon. They are a testament to the growing “Baghdadi” Jewish community in 19th Century Mumbai, drawn from Middle Eastern centres of Jewry such as Baghdad, Basra and Aleppo. Both are still operational today, although the Baghdadi community has dwindled to microscopic levels following emigration to Israel and the West.

Better known is the David Sassoon Library, initially a Mechanics’ Institute which was funded by David Sassoon and completed in 1870. Still functioning as a popular library, its garden provides a magical setting for panel discussions during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in February. Further south, off Cuffe Parade, are the Sassoon Docks, established by David’s son Albert Sassoon. Although now a fish market, it was initially Bombay’s first “wet” dock, which facilitated the loading of cotton, thus playing a vital part in the cotton trade which dominated Bombay’s economy from the late 19th century until the mill strikes of 1982-3. Indeed, the Sassoons were heavily involved in Bombay’s cotton industry, opening several mills under the auspices of “E D Sassoon and Company” (named after Elias David who we met at the entrance to the cemetery) which were later nationalised under Indira Gandhi as the India United Mills 1-6. One of these has been razed to make way for an Ambedkar Memorial while another is slated for a textile museum.

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Inside Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue

Like many of Bombay’s heavyweight cotton merchants, the Sassoon family had originally plied another trade, which brings us back the Shanghai question. It is an uncomfortable fact that many of Bombay’s philanthropists, such as Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a venerable Parsi who established the Sir J J School of Art and Sir J J Hospital, made much of their money through trading opium in China. Sir David Sassoon was no exception, and in the 1840s branches of David Sassoon and Co were established in Hong Kong and Shanghai primarily to expand the family narcosphere. The human cost of this trade, and the far-reaching effects of the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars, are important topics that I’m simply not able to do justice to here, except to reiterate that Bombay’s grand tradition of public philanthropy was not without a serious dark side. Likewise, I will leave it to the interested reader to do further research on the close relationship between the Sassoon family and the city of Shanghai.

It would be doing the Baghdadi community a disservice to focus only on the Sassoons, although I will note in passing that the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon was a great-grandson of David Sassoon; that the hair stylist Vidal Sassoon was not; and that another iconic Mumbai landmark, the Gateway of India, was in part financed by Sassoon Jacob Hai David, the son-in-law of Elias David Sassoon.

A rather surprising arena in which Baghdadi Jewish talent flourished was that of film, and some of the earliest Indian film heroines came from Baghdadi families at a time when acting was mostly taboo for women in other communities. These include many from the silent era who could not transition to the age of sound due to lack of spoken Hindi, as Baghdadi families tended to speak Judeo-Arabic, or later English, at home. However, renowned Jewish Hindi film actresses include Sulochana (the stage name for Ruby Myers) and Baghdad-born Nadira (Florence Ezekiel) – both of whom can be seen playing Anglo-Indian women in the 1975 Bollywood hit Julie. Meanwhile Pramila, born Esther Victoria Abraham to a Baghdadi family in Kolkata, became the first Miss India.

Other famous Baghdadi Jews (not all of whose families came through Bombay) include David Marshall, first Chief Minister of Singapore; J F R Jacob, who led the Indian Army in the 1971 Bangladesh War; and, through his mother’s side, sculptor Anish Kapoor. Another talented figure in Bombay’s creative landscape, the poet Nissim Ezekiel, was also Jewish, but belonged to the city’s other sizeable Jewish community, the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel…

At this point I’m going to leave the story, but I very much hope to pick it up in a Part 2 at a later date!

Zoroastrian relics: Bombay’s Irani Cafés

You will notice that in this piece I use “Bombay” rather than “Mumbai”. Somehow it seems more appropriate to the subject matter.

The Zoroastrian community is one of the things that makes Bombay special. The fact that the dominant religion of the ancient Persian empire should now survive in a handful of tiny communities, mostly in India, is bizarre in itself. But that the biggest of these communities, in Bombay, has acquired a legendary status for its levels of education, wealth and philanthropic contribution to the public good is truly remarkable.

Those wanting an introduction to the Parsi community should look elsewhere (this documentary, for example [start at 2:20] or Tanya Lurhmann’s ethnography The Good Parsi). As a barebones summary, Parsi is the name given to the descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Islamic persecution in Persia between the 8th and 10th centuries. They initially settled in Gujarat but many later shifted to Bombay, partly at the behest of the British East India Company which regarded them as skilled and reliable allies. Parsis who thrived in Bombay included noted industrialists and philanthropists such as the Tata family and political heavyweights like Dadabhai Naoroji who co-founded the Indian National Congress and also became Britain’s first Asian MP.

But what does any of this have to do with cafés? Well, my first sentence, where I talk about the Zoroastrian “community”, is a little misleading. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a second wave of Zoroastrians left Iran, notably Yazd and Kerman province, for India (whether this was a response to persecution or famine is a debate I won’t enter into). While this community, referred to as Irani, boasts its fair share of actors, journalists and even a famous mystic (Meher Baba), the most visible contribution it has made to Indian life, especially in Bombay, is the Irani café.

Cashing in on an apparent reluctance of Hindus to open businesses on corners (at least this is what I’ve been told, although I suspect this is a slightly simplistic reading of the vastu shastra, or ancient Hindu science of architecture) enterprising Iranis began to set up little corner cafes in the early 20th century. These joints became a staple of street life in cities like Pune, Hyderabad, Karachi and, above all, South Bombay.

I first became aware of Iranis in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, where he describes them as places with “the simplest of menus” that “serve time and shade”. Since reading that in 2005, I have made a point of seeking Iranis whenever I am in Bombay and making tentative forays into their “simple” menus. In fact I rarely get beyond the delicious bun maska, a soft bun generously slathered with butter and sliced, which I prefer to the harder “brun” variant. The best example I’ve so far found is at the Yazdani Restaurant and Bakery, an unassuming place dating from the 1950s in the Fort area. I must admit, however, that I haven’t really developed a taste for Irani chai, which is even sweeter than its Indian counterpart and has, for me, an overpowering cardamom flavour.

Kyani and co

Bentwood chairs and chequered tablecoths at Kyani & Co (credit: localpress.co.in)

Another Irani staple is that highly flavoursome family of rice dishes, pulao (see my post on rice for an etymological diversion). I recently sampled a delicious, saffron-laced kheema pulao, made with minced mutton, at one of the oldest surviving Iranis, Kyani & Co (since 1904), in Kalbadevi. With glass-topped chequered tablecloths, bentwood chairs, mirrored columns and ancient ceiling fans, Kyani & Co fulfils most Irani stereotypes. More of these include large jars of biscuits, trays of eggs, old adverts for multigrain biscuits, a beautiful tiled floor, and some discrete Zoroastrian iconography on the walls.

About 30 minutes walk up the same road, passing a magnificent agiary (Parsi fire temple), is the smaller, shabbier Café de la Paix (named after its Paris counterpart). This one has the feel of a tiny refuge for its elderly Parsi and Irani clientele. One of these, a magnificent eccentric, talked to me for nearly an hour in delightfully eloquent English in which he referred to trains “disgorging” passengers, quoted Larkin’s “This be the Verse” and treated me to all manner of largely unrepeatable quips, such as “The two problems with this country are elections and erections”. He zigzagged between Richard Burton and Richard Dawkins, Tennyson and Trump, and told me that he grew up speaking Gujarati but also Dari, the distinctive form of Farsi spoken by the Zoroastrians of Yazd.

Arguably two of the most well-known Iranis have strayed furthest from their roots. No discussion of the topic would be complete without a reference to the world-famous Britannia, popular with Bollywood stars and British Royals. I have no doubt that the food deserves every bit of the praise lavished on it, but I’m afraid my only visit lasted about two minutes until I discovered they served neither chai nor bun maska (which was all I was looking for at the time). Equally famous Leopold Cafe, on Colaba Causeway, has long since become a bar, hugely popular with tourists and office workers but with very few obvious Irani resonances. I can recommend the chicken wings, but there are cheaper and more interesting places to drink in the vicinity.

Not all Irani restaurants, I understand, are run by Zoroastrians. I’ve been reliably informed that some are run by Iranian Muslims, which is also the case for the famous Irani cafes of Hyderabad. I’ve even heard tantalising rumours of some Baha’i-run cafes, both in Mumbai and Karachi, but haven’t yet had a chance to investigate this intriguing possibility further (more, perhaps, to follow).

Bastani and coThe much lamented Bastani & Co

Sadly, the Irani restaurants are a dying breed. Many have already closed down, like Bastani and Co, pictured above, whose infamous list of prohibitions, such as “No talking to cashier”, “No sitting long”, “No match sticks” and “No leg on chair” inspired a verse from Bombay poet Nissim Ezekiel. Others have been turned into bars, or have lost out to competition from chains such as Café Coffee Day and Barista, or simply suffered from the next generation’s lack of interest. An unlikely reincarnation exists in the UK chain Dishoom, that has managed to create an intoxicatingly glamorous approximation of an Irani restaurant at each of its outlets. Academic and blogger Simin Patel (see Bombaywalla), who acts as a historical consultant for Dishoom, is also working with Hashim Badani on a book about Irani Cafes which promises to be a worthy tribute to a glorious and zany tradition. For now, if you’re in Bombay and you haven’t been to an Irani, please get a move on!

Delisle Road BDD Chawls

This is the first in an occasional series on Bombay/Mumbai, where I am spending 2017 conducting fieldwork as part of a PhD in linguistic anthropology. I am specifically interested in language, identity and urban change in the former cotton mill districts of the city. However, I reserve the right to write whatever and whenever I damn well please!

I first heard of the BDD chawls from an architect friend. If you’re interested in Mumbai’s changing neighbourhoods, he said, you should visit the BDD chawls. His description of the long drawn out wrangling over their proposed re-development reminded me a little of Battersea Power Station and, intrigued, I headed over to middle-class Worli neighbourhood to find them.

The chawl is a Mumbai housing archetype. The canonical chawl is a densely-packed block of tiny tenements or kholis (literally: room) accessed from external corridors. The Bombay Development Division (BDD) chawls, constructed in the 1920s to house mill workers, policemen and, for a few years at least, prisoners, deviate from this pattern with a wide internal corridor, open at both ends. The buildings immediately impress you with their heavy-set construction, a fact celebrated by their residents.

It was only after visiting the BDD chawls in Worli that I realised that there were three other BDD chawl sites in Mumbai. One of these, in Delisle Road (now N M Joshi Marg), is in Lower Parel, the heart of Mumbai’s former cotton mill district. As it happens, I had already visited this site on a previous visit last June, unaware of its history, and spent a happy hour trying to converse in Marathi with (among others) a journalist, a social worker and a kabaddi player.

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“Among others, a journalist, a social worker and a kabaddi player”

Since returning to Mumbai I have been visiting the Delisle Road chawls on a regular basis. The 32 chawls are situated within a small grid of streets off Delisle Rd, directly next to Mumbai’s second biggest mosque, the Bawla Masjid and close to the former Mafatlal Mills site, now the glassy blue Marathon Futurex office complex. Within the grid of streets itself, there are various temples, shops and a police station in addition to the chawl buildings and a newer, six-storey residential compound called Shivaji Nagar.

So much about the area appeals to the aspiring linguistic anthropologist in me. The streets resound with Marathi, the state language of Maharashtra. In fact I am constantly overwhelmed by the extent to which I hear Marathi across the whole of this part of the city. This is at odds with the somewhat sneering comments made by friends of mine from the “metropolitan elite” – many who speak no Marathi at all – that Mumbai’s public life functions entirely in Hindi and English and (according to one Delhiite who, on moving here 13 years ago, toyed with a Marathi grammar book before mislaying it and abandoning the language acquisition project entirely) that “even Maharashtrians don’t like speaking Marathi outside the home.”

Despite the predominantly Maharashtrian demographic, these chawls are no monoculture. Various people have told me that the families living in Shivaji Nagar are mostly Gujarati and Marwari, and writer G K Ainapure (in Neera Adarkar’s superb edited volume The Chawls of Mumbai) reminisces about the Christian couples he used to gawp at making out on the building’s balconies. Given the proximity to the Bawla Masjid, one might expect a large Muslim community, but I have only encountered a handful of individuals. This includes a barber’s assistant from Uttar Pradesh who speaks only Hindi. I have watched his boss switch from Marathi, the language in which he banters with his customers, to Hindi, when he wants to instruct the assistant or include him in gossip in which case the entire group switches over.

Most of the Maharashtrians here are Hindu, and Electoral Ward 198 (within which the Delisle Road chawls fall) is regarded in the press as a sure-fire win for the Shiv Sena candidate in the recent municipal elections. Having emerged in the 1960s on a “Mumbai for the Maharashtrians” manifesto, the Shiv Sena has since embraced the broader Hindu nationalist agenda and their flag is an uncompromising splash of saffron. The “Shiv” in their name refers not to the Hindu deity, but to the 17th century Maratha warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji. In homage to Shivaji’s birthday a few days back, a friend showed me a clip on YouTube from a series celebrating the Chhatrapati’s life. I couldn’t help wondering why the specific episode he chose was that in which Shivaji (who spoke in Marathi in the clip) killed the Muslim overlord Afzal Khan (who only spoke in Hindi). My friend told me it was a “very historical moment for Maharashtra”, and that Shivaji was his “ideal person”, but I also couldn’t help remembering how emphatically he had told me the day before that there were no Muslims living in his chawl…

Most of my time, however, has been spent with another community, the Dalit [“untouchable”] Buddhist followers of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, anti-caste ideologue and chief architect of India’s constitution. A chance re-encounter with my friends from the June visit, led to me being invited to join their Republic Day celebrations on January 26th. Any hope of being a wallflower on this occasion was quickly banished when I was invited to help hoist the Indian flag, to fumblingly garland a photograph of Ambedkar and to say “don shabda” (two words) in Marathi to the assembled company. Being an attention seeking show-off I was (fairly) happy to oblige, telling myself that from a methodological viewpoint this was a great way to make inroads into my research site.

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“Fumblingly garlanding a photograph of Dr Ambedkar”

Since then I have spent many happy hours sitting and chatting in the seating area outside the two Dalit-dominated chawls. I have met with incredible generosity and warmth and have been invited into various homes and have even attended a condolence ceremony for a new friend’s grandmother. Conscious of wanting to give as well as take (the problematic relationship of the researcher and the researched Continue reading

Urban Upliftment: Big Changes Ahead for Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar

This piece was written in April for the Huffington Post India. As they have not (yet?) published it I am posting it here instead (strictly in keeping with HP’s guidelines). Since I wrote the below, the SBUP has been selected by the Government of India as one of the county’s best “Smart City” projects.

I am naturally drawn to cities. Especially ones with crowded, chaotic quarters where labyrinthine alleys squeeze between crumbling old buildings. Bhendi Bazaar, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai, fits the bill perfectly. Its streets teem with life. While men in prayer caps hurry past stalls piled with mangoes, washing billows overhead from antique balconies. Add an edgy reputation and a characteristically Indian sense of theatre and the place becomes irresistible.

When I first came across plans to redevelop the area I was horrified. The newspaper article I read gave the impression that everything would be razed to the ground and replaced with a mall. “This is outrageous” I fumed. “They’re going to rip the heart and soul out of the place and turn it into a mini-Dubai!”

A little awareness of the area’s history might have given me pause for thought. An integral part of the East India Company’s construction plan for the city, Bhendi Bazaar drew in migrants from all over India during the 19th century. Gradually the neighbourhood filled up with families, predominantly from the Memon and Bohra Muslim communities, crammed into rooms built for single migrant workers. Even today, common toilets are the norm.

A unique culture has grown out of these congested streets. Mutton Street (or “Chor Bazaar”) is famous for its antique shops while, elsewhere, cheap eateries, textiles, perfumes and religious items can be found. There is even Bhendi Bazaar gharana (musical tradition). Meanwhile, the Raudat Tahera, a mausoleum for the 51st and 52nd Bohra spiritual leaders, became India’s first structure in the Fatimid style, an architectural oeuvre more commonly encountered in Cairo.

Of course, a casual visitor like me can revel in all this, happily unaware that 80% of Bhendi Bazaar’s buildings have been declared unfit by MHADA, the state housing authority. What appear to my eyes as charming old buildings are actually death traps for those living in them. And those endearingly chaotic streets? Claustrophobic health hazards that parents are too frightened to let their children play in.

So disheartened was the late Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, previous spiritual leader of the Bohra community, by these living conditions that he dreamed up one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in Asia today: the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Project (SBUP). The name is carefully chosen. “Upliftment” suggests a much broader scope than simple redevelopment. What it aims to deliver is no less than comprehensive physical, social and spiritual renewal.

Despite all this, my natural scepticism is running high when I meet Murtaza Sadriwala, Corporate Communications Manager of the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT). He has kindly agreed to talk me through the project and we meet in Mufaddal Shopping Arcade that will temporarily house Bhendi Bazaar’s displaced businesses. He delivers a polished and informative pitch and it is hard not be swept up his enthusiasm.

The scale of the project is grandiose. 20,000 people will be shifted from 3,200 homes and 1,250 businesses, and temporarily rehoused while demolition and rebuilding takes place. All residents, whether tenants or owners, will be given ownership of the new apartments. These will all exceed minimum space standards and will be provided with two bathrooms.

Even the temporary accommodation which, unusually, is within walking distance rather than in some far-flung suburb, is similarly high-spec. Meanwhile, shopkeepers’ requests for street-facing premises have been factored into the master plan, and a mall layout will be avoided. Indeed, the plans, comprising graceful towers and arcades set among wide roads and plentiful green spaces, are nothing short of transformative.

As Murtaza’s spiel gathers momentum I find myself waiting for a catch that never seems to come. What about community tensions, I wonder? Surely the project is just a giant bonus for the Bohra community while everybody else looks on with envy? This concern has often been aired by sections of the media, but the SBUT line is clear: the project is intended to benefit all tenants, regardless of religious or community background.

What about the environment, then? Can a development of this scale be delivered sustainably? A close look at the site’s layout reveals a focus on maximising natural light, managing the flow of traffic and providing safe, shaded walkways. This holistic approach is complemented at the building level with a mix of solar panels, rainwater harvesting technology and energy efficient air-to-water heat pumps. A pre-construction “Gold” rating from the Indian Green Buildings Council endorses the development’s predicted performance as outstanding, if not quite in the “Platinum” league achieved by the nearby ITC Grand Central hotel.

I finally pluck up the courage to ask about funding. I am told that the trust is currently drawing on loans and charitable donations from the wider Bohra community. Additional revenue will come sales, as twenty per cent of the land has been allocated to residential towers that will be sold at market rates. Murtaza dismisses my suggestion that any tension will arise between long-standing community members who get their new homes for free and those presumably wealthy outsiders paying for a slice of Mumbai’s juiciest real estate. I want to believe him, so decide to wait and see what happens.

A few days after the meeting I take a nostalgic walk round Bhendi Bazaar, conscious that it might be the last time I see it in its current state. A chunk has already been demolished and the sublime Raudat Tahera mausoleum is currently hidden under a protective white sheet. A few stallholders tell me they would be leaving the area as there would be no place for them following upliftment. Otherwise, shopkeepers I speak to seem upbeat about the impending changes despite some media scaremongering.

My only lingering concern is a thoroughly selfish one. Having visited Bhendi Bazaar many times over the years, I cannot quite shake off that initial horror of change. Will it really be possible to retain the essence of a place when it is going to be so utterly transformed? I suspect the answer is “not entirely”, and fear the wider implications this will have if the SBUP model catches on. Realistically, though, a city’s soul is probably better served by ensuring its material well-being than by letting it rot in unsanitary neglect. If I remain unapologetic in mourning the old, at least my eyes are now wide open to the need for the new.