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Bombay: The Skyscrapers and the Chawls

It is said that every day 1,500 more people, about 350 families, arrive in Bombay to live. They come mainly from the countryside and they have very little; and in Bombay there isn’t room for them. There is hardly room for the people already there. The older apartment blocks are full; the new skyscrapers are full; the small low huts of the squatters’ settlements on the airport road are packed tightly together. Bombay shows its overcrowding. It is built on an island, and its development has been haphazard. Outside the defense area at the southern tip of the island open spaces are few; cramped living quarters, and the heat, drive people out into such public areas as exist, usually the streets; so that to be in Bombay is always to be in a crowd. By day the streets are clogged; at night the pavements are full of sleepers.

From late afternoon until dinner time, on the ground floor of the Taj Mahal Hotel that now extends over a city block, the middle class and stylish (but hardly rich, and certainly not as rich as the foreign tourists) promenade past the hotel shops and restaurants in the mild, air-conditioned air: an elegant sheltered bustle, separated by the hotel carport, the fierce Sikh or Gurkha doormen, the road and the parked cars, from the denser swirl of the white-clad crowd around the Gateway of India, the air moist, the polluted Arabian Sea slapping against the stone steps, the rats below the Gateway not furtive, mingling easily with the crowd, and at nightfall as playful as baby rabbits.

Sometimes, on festive days, stripped divers, small and bony, sit or stand on the sea wall, waiting to be asked to dive into the oily water. Sometimes there is a little band—Indian drums, Western trumpets—attached to some private religious ceremony. Night deepens; the ships lights in the harbor grow brighter; the Taj Mahal lobby glitters behind its glass wall. The white crowd—with the occasional red or green or yellow of a sari—melts away; and then around the Gateway and the hotel only the sleepers and the beggars remain, enough at any time for a quick crowd, in this area where hotels and dimly lit apartment buildings and stores and offices and small factories press against one another, and where the warm air, despite the sea, always feels over-breathed.

The poor are needed as hands, as labor; but the city was not built to accommodate them. One report says that 100,000 people sleep on the pavements of Bombay; but this figure seems low. And the beggars: are there only 20,000 in Bombay, as one newspaper article says, or are there 70,000, the figure given on another day?

Whatever the number, it is now felt that there are too many. The very idea of beggary, precious to Hindus as religious theater, a demonstration of the workings of karma, a reminder of one’s duty to oneself and one’s future lives, has been devalued. And the Bombay beggar, displaying his unusual mutilations (inflicted in childhood by the beggar-master who had acquired him, as proof of the young beggar’s sins in a previous life), now finds, unfairly, that he provokes annoyance rather than awe. The beggars themselves, forgetting their Hindu function, also pester tourists; and the tourists misinterpret the whole business, seeing in the beggary of the few the beggary of all. The beggars have become a nuisance and a disgrace. By becoming too numerous they have lost their place in the Hindu system and have no claim on anyone.

The poet in Vijay Tendulkar’s 1972 play The Vultures rebukes his tenderhearted sister-in-law for bringing him tea “on the sly, like alms to a beggar.” And she replies, hurt, “There wasn’t any shortage of beggars at our door that I should bring it as alms to you.” But already that ritualistic attitude to beggary seems to belong to a calmer world. There is talk in Bombay of rounding up all the beggars, of impounding them, expelling them, dumping them out of sight somewhere, keeping them out. There is more: there is talk among high and low of declaring the city closed, of issuing work permits, of keeping out new arrivals. Bombay, like all the other big Indian cities, has at last begun to feel itself under siege.

The talk of work permits and barriers at the city boundaries is impractical and is known to be impractical. It is only an expression of frenzy and helplessness: the poor already possess, and corrupt, the city. The Indian-Victorian-Gothic city with its inherited British public buildings and institutions—the Gymkhana with its wide veranda and spacious cricket ground, the London-style leather-chaired Ripon Club for elderly Parsi gentlemen (a portrait of Queen Victoria as a youngish widow of Windsor still hanging in the secretary’s office)—the city was not built for the poor, the millions. But a glance at the city map shows that there was a time when they were invited in.

In the center of the island on which Bombay is built there is a large area marked MILLS MILLS MILLS and chawls chawls chawls. The mills needed, and need, workers; and the workers live or are accommodated in these chawls. These textile mills—many of them now with antiquated machinery—should have been moved long ago. Bombay might then have been allowed to breathe. But the readily available crowds of the mill area serve every kind of commercial and political interest; and the mills will stay.

Some time ago there was talk of a “twin city” on the mainland, to draw industry and people out of Bombay. The plan fell through. Instead, at the southern tip of the island, on expensively reclaimed land, there sprang up a monstrous development of residential skyscrapers: unimaginative walls of concrete in an unlandscaped desert with, already, on the unmade roads, the huts and stalls of the poor, sucked in by the new development. “Here you are…QUEEN FOR YOUR STAY,” says the most recent Bombay Handbook, published by the American Women’s Association. “Your dream of having servants is about to come true.” There isn’t accommodation for the poor; but they are always needed, and forever called in, even now.

So, though every day more corrupted by its poor, Bombay, with the metropolitan glamour of its skyscrapers, appears to boom, and at night especially, from the sea road, is dramatic: towers of light around the central nightmare of the mill area.

The main roads there are wide, wet-black, and clean in the middle from traffic, earth-colored at the edges where pavement life flows over on to the road, as it does even on a relaxed Sunday morning, before the true heat and glare, and before the traffic builds up and the hot air turns gritty from the brown smoke of the double-decker buses: already a feeling of the crowd, of busy slender legs, of an immense human stirring behind the tattered commercial façades one sees and in the back streets one doesn’t see, people coming out into the open, seeking space.

The area seems at first to be one that has gone down in the world. The commercial buildings are large and have style; but for all the Indian ornamentation of their façades—the rising sun, the Indo-Aryan swastika for good luck, the Sanskrit character Om for holiness—these buildings were built to be what they are, to serve the population they serve. Like the chawls themselves, which in some streets can look like the solid town mansions of a less nervous time, but are newer than they look, many built in the 1930s and 1940s, and built even at that late date as chawls, substandard accommodation for factory labor, one room per family, the urban equivalent of plantation barracks or “ranges,” the equivalent, in twentieth-century Bombay, of early industrial England’s back-to-back workers’ terraces.

The chawl blocks are four or five stories high, and the plan is the same on each floor: single rooms opening on to a central corridor, at the back end of which are lavatories and “facilities.” Indian families ramify, and there might be eight people in a room; and “corners” might be rented out, as in Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, or floor space; or people might sleep in shifts. A chawl room is only a base; chawl life is lived in the open, in the areas between chawls, on the pavements, in the streets. An equivalent crowd in a colder climate might be less oppressive, might be more dispersed and shut away. But this Bombay crowd never quite disperses.

The chawls, however, are provided with facilities. To be an inhabitant of a chawl is to be established. But in the nooks and crannies of this area there is—as always in India—yet another, lower human level, where the people for whom there is no room have made room for themselves. They have founded squatters’ settlements, colonies of the dispossessed. And, like the chawl dwellers, they have done more: within the last ten years, out of bits and pieces of a past simplified to legend, and out of the crumbling Hindu system, they have evolved what is in effect a new religion, and they have declared themselves affiliated to an “army,” the Shiv Sena, the army of Shiva. Not Shiva the god, but Shivaji the seventeenth-century Maratha guerrilla leader, who challenged the Mughal empire and made the Marathas, the people of the Bombay region, a power in India for a century.

The power of the Marathas was mainly destructive, part of the eighteenth-century Indian chaos that gave Britain an easy empire. But in Bombay the matter is beyond discussion. Shivaji is now deified; he is the unlikely warrior-god of the chawls. His cult, as expressed in the Shiv Sena, transmutes a dream of martial glory into a feeling of belonging, gives the unaccommodated some idea of human possibility. And, through the Shiv Sena, it has brought a kind of power. The newly erected equestrian statue that stands outside the Taj Mahal Hotel and looks past the Gateway of India to the sea is of Shivaji. It is an emblem of the power of the Sena, the power of the chawls and pavements and squatters’ colonies, the inhabitants of the streets who—until the declaration of the Emergency—had begun to rule the streets. All shop signs in Bombay, if not in two languages now, carry transliterations in the Indian nagari script of their English names or styles. That happened overnight, when the Sena gave the word; and the Sena’s word was more effective than any government decree.

The Sena “army” is xenophobic. It says that Maharashtra, the land of the Marathas, is for the Maharashtrians. It has won a concession from the government that 80 percent of jobs shall be held by Maharashtrians. The government feels that anyone who has lived in Bombay or Maharashtra for fifteen years ought to be considered a Maharashtrian. But the Sena says no: a Maharashtrian is someone born of Maharashtrian parents. Because of its xenophobia, its persecution in its early days of South Indian settlers in Bombay, and because of the theatricality of its leader, a failed cartoonist, who is said to admire Hitler, the Sena is often described as “fascist.”

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