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.
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!
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.
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.
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.