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Through the Prism of a Structure


Kalpana Sharma

THE CHAWLS OF MUMBAI: GALLERIES OF LIFE
Edited by Neera Adarkar
Imprint One, New Delhi, India, 2011, pp. 161, Rs. 1200.00

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 8-9 August-September 2011

The Gateway of India and the beautiful Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) are the popular symbols of Mumbai. But both are structures that remind us of the city's colonial past. If there is one architectural form that is special to Mumbai, one that has featured in old Hindi films like Piya ka ghar and in books like Kiran Nagarkar's Ravan and Eddie, it is the 'chawl'. This typical ground plus one or two-storey structure is 'a building and a neighbourhood at the same time' (Kaiwan Mehta). It is a symbol of a culture of sharing, of mutual support and respect and of openness that prevailed in the heterogeneous culture that was once Mumbai. Today, the chawls are disappearing under the onslaught of 'redevelopment' and the culture they exemplified is vanishing as identity politics establishes ever deeper routes. Nowhere does this changed landscape strike you with greater force than in the locality of Girangaon, once home to the city's flourishing textile industry, now a perplexing mix of plate glass fronted high-rises sitting uncomfortably close to dilapidated workers' chawls, with the odd chimney raised like a finger that is a reminder of the past. The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life edited by Neera Adarkar gazes at the city of Mumbai through the prism of this specific structure—the chawl. The result is an interesting and rather different view of a city that has gathered global notoriety through some recent popular books about it. The Mumbai in this book is not the city of the underworld dons, slumlords or bar girls. It captures the strong working class centre of Mumbai, it documents the ability of people without basic civic facilities, living in impossibly crowded homes, to maintain a civility that has now vanished and a creativity that lives on through the poems and books of the authors it nourished. "The Mumbai in this book is not the city of the underworld dons, slumlords or bar girls. It captures the strong working class centre of Mumbai, it documents the ability of people without basic civic facilities, living in impossibly crowded homes, to maintain a civility that has now vanished ..." The majority of the chawls or 'chaali' were built in the early 20th century to house male workers, most of whom left their families behind in the villages. The typical chawl consisted of rows of single rooms with toilets at either end of a floor ...


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