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Disappearing Habitats

Kalpana Sharma

Edited by Neera Adarkar
Imprint One, New Delhi, India, 2011, pp. 161, Rs. 800.00


Like ‘cutting chai’, ‘chawls’ is a very Bombay/Mumbai term. Not many who live outside this megapolis will understand what it means. And if they do not, it is unlikely that they ever will because chawls are an endangered species, a built form that is disappearing even as Mumbai goes through changes that are inevitable for all big cities.   Why should one particular built form be so important to the history, culture and diversity of a city? Neera Adarkar in her edited volume on Mumbai’s chawls tells us precisely that. In 15 chapters, she takes you on a historical journey of Mumbai through the stories of chawls, Marathi, Gujarati, Muslim, mixed—middle class, working class, dalit. Each is different and yet together they speak of a Mumbai that is vanishing, some that has already disappeared, and some that might linger on a little while longer.   By following the thread of when chawls first appeared, why they were constructed, how they morphed from single men’s chummeries to homes for working class families, and how the politics of land and a changing economy have begun erasing these structures and with them a particular history and culture, we get another Bombay/Mumbai story. As architect Kaiwan Mehta writes, ‘the chawls’ aesthetics and architecture act as a funnel to produce the social worlds so characteristic of Mumbai’s intimate and intersecting worlds.’   The dilemma in the early 20th century under colonial rule, as indeed today, was how to house the working classes. Mumbai then was an industrial hub, with its 70 textile mills located in what has now become the heart of the city, and an important seaport. It was a magnet for workers from the interiors of Maharashtra and the Konkan coast and from elsewhere in India. Then, as today, the first ‘home’ of the workers who came in to work on the docks or in the mills was an informal settlement, a slum, built on vacant land. Many workers slept on the road or outside the gates of the mill. In 1890, according to the book, an estimated one lakh people slept in the open. Today that population of such people would be lower but if you count the people living in pavement huts that are constantly being demolished by the municipal corporation, the number would be more.   By 1911, according to the census, 80 per cent of Mumbai’s population lived in chawls. Institutions ...

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