Busy streets, quiet insides: Peeking into chawl life in Parel, Mumbai

Obviously, I didn’t do much thinking about the architecture of Parel and other parts of central Bombay when I grew up there. Bombay of the ’80s had a distinct flavor about it. I remember it as very working class. The mills were still functional and I have memories of visiting people in the chawls that the mill workers lived in. Now, you drive through a city of dead, decaying mills and tall glitzy (mostly ugly too!) skyscrapers. But what I absolutely love about this part of the city is the street front mixed-use architecture. It epitomizes all the good stuff we keep elucidating about mixed-use. Because the ground floor has street-facing retail shops, pavements must be in good order and there are always people around and about.

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Intricate details!

Intricate details!

Parel was one of the original islands of Mumbai and came up as a business and industrial district starting the late 18th century all the way upto the beginning of the 20th century. The mills prospered and chawls were built by both the government and the mill owners to accommodate the men and women who worked in these mills. The chawl typology meant sharing a common entry passage as well as street areas and life was lived as much on the street as inside the home, which was usually overcrowded and dingy.

To put some figures in, in 1865 there 10 mills in Mumbai employing 6500 workers. At the peak of the textile boom in 1980, the mills employed near on 300,000 workers. And then they shut down in 1982 after the Great Bombay Textile Strike.

The residential areas are entered through a street that branches off the main roads creating small self-contained residential enclaves. Similar to the katras of Delhi and the pols of Amdavad, you step inside a world of quaint silence and domesticity, a world in which people know each other and your foreign footsteps break the comfortable humdrum of lives.

I got curious stares when I entered Krishnanagar in Parel. It’s beautiful gates beckoned me in. At the entrance, I saw a group of men sitting and reading papers, their red tikas displayed proudly as caste marks, denoting that this as a Hindu neighborhood. There is a temple inside the enclosure, people seem to know each other. Old ladies sat out on the common verandah talking, stitching, some people were getting ready to go to work, a young man was brushing his teeth while staring down at me, a young housewife in her trademark cotton printed nightie was walking her dog…It was a bustling middle class neighborhood with homes that proudly displayed plants, pictures, ornamentation of all types.

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

One gentleman stopped me to ask why I was taking pictures. He was reassured by my reasonably fluent Marathi and accepted my explanation that I had lived nearby as a child and was revisiting the neighborhood out of sheer nostalgia. His attitude was not threatening, but clearly voyeurism wasn’t going to be tolerated here!

Uncharacteristically, I decided to enter the little temple and pay my respects to the Gods within. Perhaps that’s what helped me make it to my flight later that day, despite many obstacles, just in the nick of time!

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About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on December 13, 2012, in Travel & Experiences, Urban Planning & Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I loved this post so much that I had to share it on twitter first, before I commented. 🙂

    Urban sprawls fascinate me—their sub-cultures, the multiple realities that co-exist, everything … But what interests me the most are those parts which stubbornly hold out against being subsumed by the “one size fits all” development sweeping through cities and metropolises that they are part of. I can see Parel being consumed bit by bit and it is heartening to see it hold on to its history. But I do wonder how long is going to hold out.

    • I agree, which is why I felt compelled to go in there and document what little I could of it. The type of new development in Mumbai (and elsewhere) is disturbing at many levels. Its important to remember that community buy-in is critical, but when the only people we perceive as citizens are the privileged, it’s a lopsided approach anyway! Let’s keep in touch…

  2. I’m very shamelessly saying this, but the whole of the article is now in my History project, on the Chawl life of Mumbai, (the pictures too..) Anything for marks.. Thankyou..:)

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