What Mumbai Stands to Lose When Chawls Turn to Skyscrapers


What Mumbai Stands to Lose When Chawls Turn to Skyscrapers

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

If you’ve taken your eyes off your mobile phone recently, you’d have noticed that the city you live in, is changing. Our sprawling city of sewers, slums, and housing societies, is getting a facelift. That exercise comes with clean beaches, sleek flyovers, promenades, and walkable sidewalks where until a few years ago only gutters overflowed. It’s like a city-sized Brazilian wax has been undertaken to complement the steel and glass towers that are now taking over the Mumbai skyline.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to live in a city where a block of chawls with a common toilet located next to a garbage dump is giving way to hygienic, livable, and safe homes, but Mumbai seems to have gone straight from slumdog to millionaire with no pit stop in between. The buildings that are taking the place of chawls are straight out of Manhattan with noiseless chrome elevators and French names that make actual French people cringe. What was once a small Christian colony with old bakeries from where Church-going aunties picked up fresh laadi paav, will soon be replaced by the new Kanakia Miami with a Starbucks that serves a juicy couture hottie.

For the older generation – my parents, these aunties, redevelopment is a strange time in their lives. The homes that they’ve grown up in are soon to be demolished, and if all goes well, they will live in apartments where the living room won’t double up as a bedroom. The thrill of moving into a new home, is accompanied by the exhilaration of no longer being embarrassed by your address, the fear of being shafted by the builder-BMC mafia and having your home classified as a slum. It is an exciting, yet confusing and scary time.

For the recently gentrified people like my grand-aunt, top on the list of amenities, is a self-contained home, where you can empty your bowels without having to smell what has become of your neighbour’s dinner. For days after her kholi transformed into a flat, my grand-aunt would make it a point to stand at the window of her new one-BHK flat and watch people in the neighbouring row of chawls go about their ablutions, with buckets in their hands, Paragon chappals on their feet, and dreams of a working flush in their eyes. She’d hoot and holler every time she saw someone walk 100 metres to take a dump, teasing them and forgetting the fact that she too once trudged the mile, just like the rest of us.

These are the masses playing the hand fate dealt them, waiting for their turn to fold or go all in.

Like my grand-aunt, there are countless others who can’t wait to get the fuck out of the dodge, awaiting their economic and social salvation, that will come riding on a bulldozer. With it will come glad tidings of an extra room for the family, taking away the stigma of living in a chawl, a space which has now become synonymous with peons, maids, and other ignorables who exist to make your rotis and drive your Bugattis. These are the masses playing the hand fate dealt them, waiting for their turn to fold or go all in.

Redevelopment means a flight up the social ladder, without the added indignity of going back to a pigeonhole to stare at their families and their life choices in the face. Now, they’ve got an iota of space for themselves. A kitchen, a toilet, a bedroom, a fucking elevator, where they can be alone with their thoughts or the plotline of their favourite TV soap.

Our neighbour, Bharati maushi, maid and nanny to an affluent south Mumbai family, can’t wait for our chawl to be demolished. Her nightly bitching sessions with my mum have now turned into conversations of interior decoration and making her new home look somewhat like the home she cleans on a daily basis. There might be no home theatre system but at least there will be some room for a 43-inch flat TV; there might be no chandeliers but she can get a remote-controlled ceiling fan. That way it’ll probably be less degrading when people ask her where she stays.

But some of us absolutely dread moving out of the 10X10 cubbyhole where we – and before us, our ancestors – have eaten, fought, fucked, and slept. People like my next-door neighbour, Chetan kaka.

In the future, when Mumbai will be all skyscrapers and vertical slums, Chetan will probably be part of a museum exhibit displaying the ancient Marathi male. This half-chaddied, bare-chested kaka from another shakha clings to the home he and his family of eight inhabit with absolute pride. He’d rather die than leave his kholi and move into a poorly ventilated box where you don’t know who lives in the next flat but have a view of a distant garden.  

For him, moving away is giving up the bonhomie, security, and freedom that living in a chawl affords. It means he can no longer sleep semi-naked in the shared veranda outside his home when it gets too hot. He can no longer walk into our house when he falls short of cigarettes or when the aroma of chicken curry is irresistible. And it means saying goodbye to his carom and daaru sessions at the naka. The free bird called Chetan kaka will morph into a tame parrot, imprisoned with his katkati baiko (cribby wife), suffering in silence, till he dies. And when he does, his neighbours won’t come and mourn.

I have mixed feelings about this whole redevelopment shebang. I’m not embarrassed about my pincode or the toilet on the outside. But it’d be nice to enjoy some personal space, where I don’t have to share the bedroom with my folks. What I’m worried about though is when I am at work and my mama needs help to push my dad’s wheelchair, in that fancy high-rise which will soon become our home, whom will she call out to? There may be no Chetan kaka or Bharati maushi for help.

Gentrification and redevelopment are like a circus, where the rest of my ilk and I have ringside seats to a whole lot of drama and action. But when the curtains finally draw, I’m not sure all of us will be laughing.