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,…

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