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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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.

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