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.”

But this is an easy, imported word. The Shiv Sena has its own Indian antecedents. In this part of India, in the early, pre-Gandhi days of the Independence movement, there was a cult of Shivaji. After Independence, among the untouchables, there were mass conversions to Buddhism. The assertion of pride, a contracting out, a regrouping: it is the pattern of such movements among the dispossessed or humiliated.

The Shiv Sena, as it is today, is of India, independent India, and it is of industrial Bombay. The Sena, like other recent movements in India, though more positive than most—infinitely more positive, for instance, than the Anand Marg, “The Way of Peace,” now banned, which preached caste, Hindu spirituality, and power through violence, all of this mingled with ritual murder and mutilation and with homosexuality (recruits desired by the leader were persuaded that they were girls in previous lives)—the Sena is a great contracting out, not from India, but from a Hindu system which, in the conditions of today, in the conditions of industrial Bombay, has at last been felt to be inadequate. It is in part a reworking of the Hindu system. Men do not accept chaos; they ceaselessly seek to remake their world; they reach out for such ideas as are accessible and fit their need.

We were going that Sunday morning to a squatters’ settlement in the chawl area. We got out of the car at a certain stage, and continued by bus. I was lucky in my guide. He was a rare man in India, much more than the engineer he was by profession. His technical skills went with the graces of an old civilization, with a philosophical turn of mind, a clear-sighted and never sentimental concern about the condition of his country, a wholehearted and un-Indian acceptance of men as men.

But he was an engineer, and practical: he offered no visions of Bombay remade, of the chawls and shanty towns pulled down and the workers acceptably rehoused. India simply didn’t have the resources. Its urban future had already arrived, and was there, in the shanty towns, in those spontaneous communities. All that authority could add were services, ameliorative regulation, security. The shanty towns might, in effect, be planned. It was only in this way that the urban poor could be accommodated. But the idea that the poor should be accommodated at all was not yet fully accepted in Bombay. A plan to give the poor thirty-square-yard building plots in the projected twin city had run into opposition from middle-class people who had objected on social grounds—they didn’t want the poor too near—and on moral grounds—the poor would sell the plots at a profit and, after this immorality of profit, live where they had always lived, in the streets.

The engineer was a Bombay man, but not a man of Maharashtra, and therefore hardly a supporter of the Shiv Sena. It was his interest in housing for the urban poor that had sent him to live for a week or so among the squatters of the mill area, queuing up with them every morning to get his water and to use the latrines. He had discovered a number of simple but important things. Communal washing areas were necessary: women spent a lot of time washing clothes (perhaps because they had so few). Private latrines were impossible; communal latrines (which might be provided by the municipality) would bring about an immediate improvement in sanitation; though children might always have to use the open.

But the most important discovery was the extent and nature of the Shiv Sena’s control. A squatters’ settlement, a low huddle of mud and tin and tile and old boards, might suggest a random drift of human debris in a vacant city space; but the chances now were that it would be tightly organized. The settlement in which the engineer had stayed, and where we were going that morning, was full of Sena “committees”; and these committees were dedicated as much to municipal self-regulation as to the Sena’s politics: industrial workers beginning to apply something of the discipline of the factory floor to the areas where they lived.

The middle-class leadership of the Sena might talk of martial glory and dream of political power. But at this lower and more desperate level the Sena had become something else: a yearning for community, an ideal of self-help, men rejecting rejection. “I love the municipal life.” Gandhi had said that in the early days; but municipal self-discipline was one of those Gandhian themes that India hadn’t been able to relate to religion or the Independence movement, and hadn’t therefore required. It was the Sena now that had, as it were, ritualized the municipal need, which Independence, the industrial revolution, and the pressures of population had made urgent.

The bus stopped, and we were just outside the settlement. It was built on a small rocky hill above a cemetery, which was green with the monsoon; in the distance were the white skyscrapers of southern Bombay. The narrow entrance lane was flanked by latrine blocks and washing sheds. The latrine blocks were doorless, with a central white-tiled runnel on the concrete floor. They were new, the engineer said: the local Shiv Sena municipal councilor had clearly been getting things done. In one of the washing sheds children were bathing; in the other women and girls were washing clothes.

The entrance lane was deliberately narrow, to keep out carts and cars.

And, within, space was suddenly scarce. The structures were low, very low, little doors opening into tiny, dark, single rooms, every other structure apparently a shop, sometimes a glimpse of someone on a string bed on the earth floor. Men and their needs had shrunken. But the lane was paved, with concrete gutters on either side; without that paving—which was also new—the lane, twisting down the hillside, would have remained an excremental ravine. And the lane and the gutters this Sunday morning looked clean. Much depended, the engineer said, on the “zeal” of the municipal sweeper. Caste here! The pariahs of the pariahs: yet another, lower human level, hidden away somewhere!

There were eight Shiv Sena committee rooms in the settlement. The one we went to was on the main lane. It was a stuffy little shed with a corrugated-iron roof; but the floor, which the engineer remembered as being of earth, was now of concrete; and the walls, formerly of plain brick, had been plastered and whitewashed. There was one portrait. And, interestingly, it was not of the leader of the Shiv Sena or of Shivaji, the Sena’s warrior-god, but of the long dead Dr. Ambedkar, the Maharashtrian untouchable leader, law minister in the first government of independent India, the framer of India’s now suspended constitution. Popular—and near-ecstatic—movements like the Shiv Sena ritualize many different needs. The Sena here, honoring an angry and (for all his eminence) defeated man, seemed quite different from the Sena the newspapers wrote about.

The members of the committee were all young, in their twenties. The older people, they said, were not interested, and had to be forgotten. But more noticeable, and more moving, than the youth of the committee members was their physical size. They were all so small; their average height was about five feet. Generations of undernourishment had whittled away bodies and muscle (though one man, perhaps from the nature of his manual work, had fairly well developed arm and back muscles).

The leader was coarse-featured and dark, almost black. He worked in Air India as a technician, and he was in his Sunday clothes. His gray trousers were nicely creased, and a white shirt in a synthetic material shone over the beginnings of a little paunch of respectability. After greeting us he immediately in the Indian way offered hospitality, whispering to an aide about “cola.” And presently—no doubt from one of the little shops—two warm bottles of the cola came. There was more whispering, and a little later two tumblers decorated with red arabesques appeared, snatched perhaps from somebody’s room.

It was a chemically treated substance, the cola, calling for analysis rather than consumption. But consumption was not required. The first sip had completed the formalities; and soon we were out, walking up the lanes, understanding the Lilliputian completeness of the settlement (even a hand-operated printing machine in one of the shacks, turning out cinema handbills), every now and then coming out into the open, at the edge of the hillside, looking down at the roofs of rusting tin or red Mangalore clay tiles we had left below, beside the graveyard, and looking across to the remote skyscrapers, getting paler in the increasing heat.

The technician, the committee leader, had been living in Bombay for fifteen years and in the squatters’ settlement for twelve. He had come as a boy from the countryside and had at first stayed with someone whom he knew; and that only meant, though he didn’t say, that he might have had floor space in somebody’s room. He had found a small job somewhere and had gone to night school and “matriculated.” Getting into Air India afterward as an office boy had been his big break. That airline is the least bureaucratized of Indian organizations: the ambitious office boy had been encouraged to become a technical apprentice.

This almost Victorian tale of self-help and success unfolded as we walked. But self-help of this sort was possible only in the industrial city, whatever its horrors. The technician, if he had stayed behind in his village, might have been nothing, without caste or skill or land, an occasional day laborer, perhaps bound to a master. Now, Air India and the Shiv Sena between them gave him energy and purpose. He said he had no personal ambitions; he wasn’t planning to move out of the settlement. And he added, with the first touch of rhetoric, but perhaps also with truth, that he wanted to “serve the people.” Look, here was something we should notice: the committees had placed dustbins in the lanes. And he lifted a lid or two to show that the dustbins were being used.

But the shanty town was a shanty town. Dustbins were only dustbins; the latrine blocks and the washing sheds were now not near. The twisting lanes continued, shutting out air, concentrating heat, and the small hillside, its Lilliputian novelty vanished, began to feel like a vast wasp’s nest of little dark rooms, often no more than boxes, often just with a bed on the earth floor, sometimes with little black runnels of filth between the rooms, occasional enfeebled rats struggling up the gutters, slimy where steep, scum quickly forming around impediments of garbage.

It was Sunday, the technician said: the municipal sweepers hadn’t been. Again! Sweepers, the lowest of the low: their very existence, and their acceptance of their function, the especial curse of India, reinforcing the Indian conviction, even here, and in spite of the portrait of Dr. Ambedkar in the committee room now far below, that it was unclean to clean, and leading to the horrors we were about to come upon.

There were eight committees, and it had at first seemed too many for that small settlement. But eight were apparently not enough. There were some sections of the settlement where for various reasons—perhaps internal political reasons, perhaps a clash of personalities, or perhaps simply an absence of concerned young men—there were as yet no committees. Through these sections we walked without speaking, picking our way between squirts and butts and twists of human excrement. It was unclean to clean; it was unclean even to notice. It was the business of the sweepers to remove excrement, and until the sweepers came, people were content to live in the midst of their own excrement.

Every open space was a latrine; and in one such space we came, suddenly, upon a hellish vision. Two starved Bombay street cows had been tethered there, churning up human excrement with their own; and now, out of this bog, they were being pulled away by two starved women, to neighborhood shouts, the encouraging shouts of a crowd gathering around this scene of isolated, feeble frenzy, theater in the round on an excremental stage, the frightened cows and frantic starveling women (naked skin and bone below their disordered, tainted saris), sinking with every step and tug. The keeping of cows was illegal here, and an inspector of some sort was reported to be coming. A recurring drama: the cows—illegal, but the only livelihood of the women who kept them—had often to be hidden; and they were going to be hidden now, if they could be got away in time, in the rooms where the women lived.

The lane twisted; the scene was left behind. We were going down the other side of the hill now, and were soon in an area where a committee ruled. We passed through an open space, a little square. The committees were determined to keep these open areas, the technician said; but that required vigilance. A squatter’s hut could go up overnight, and it was hard then—since all the huts were illegal—to have just that one pulled down. Once, when the technician was out of the settlement for only three days, a small open area had been built over. They had petitioned to have the new structure pulled down; but the offender had pleaded with the committees, and in the end for compassionate reasons they had allowed the structure to stand.

We were now back where we had started, at the foot of the hill, at the entrance, with the washing sheds full of women and girls, and the latrine blocks full of children: slum life from the outside, from the wide main road, but, approached from the other side, like a scene of pastoral, and evidence of what was possible.

The Sena men walked with us to the bus stop. From there the hill, variously roofed, and seemingly roofed all the way down, looked small again. The settlement was full, the technician said. They admitted no newcomers now. Sometimes, but rarely, someone left, and his hut could then be sold to an outsider. The current price would be about 4,000 rupees, $400. That was high, but the area was central, and the settlement was provided with services.

The noon sun hurt; the empty Sunday road shimmered. The bus seemed a long time; but at last, trailing a hot brown fog, it came, a red Bombay double-decker, the lower part of its metal sides oily and dustblown, with deep horizontal scratches, and oddly battered, like foil that had been crumpled and smoothed out.

Back through the chawls then, our red bus mingling with more and more of its fuming fellows, the main roads black and the pavements alive, the cinema posters offering fantasies of plump women and showy Himalayan peaks, the cluttered sunlit facades of commercial buildings hung with many brilliant signboards, past the mills and the chimneys, along the fast city highways with the more metropolitan advertisements (“butter at its buttermost”) to the skyscrapers and the sea: the Bombay of the white towers, seen from that hillside, which already seemed far away.

At dinner that evening—high up in one of those towers—a journalist, speaking frenetically of many things (he was unwilling to write while the censorship lasted, and it all came out in talk), touched the subject of identity. “Indian” was a word that was now without a meaning, he said. He himself—he was in his thirties, of the post-Independence generation—no longer knew what he was; he no longer knew the Hindu gods. His grandmother, visiting Khajuraho or some other famous temple, would immediately be in tune with what she saw; she wouldn’t need to be told about the significance of the carvings. He was like a tourist; he saw only an architectural monument. He had lost the key to a whole world of belief and feeling, and was cut off from his past.

At first, and especially after my excursion of the morning, this talk of identity seemed fanciful and narcissistic. Bombay, after all, was Bombay; every man knew how and why he had got there and where he had come from. But then I felt I had misjudged the journalist. He was not speaking fancifully; his passion was real.

Once upon a time, the journalist said, cutting through the dinner-table cross-talk—one woman, apropos of nothing, mentioning Flaubert only to dismiss him as a writer of no importance, a dazed advertising man, young but nicely bellied, coming to life to wonder, also apropos of nothing, whether the temperate delights of Kashmir couldn’t be “sold” to the sun-parched Arabs of the Persian Gulf—once upon a time, the journalist said, the Indian village was self-sufficient and well ordered. The bull drew the plough and the cow gave milk and the manure of these animals enriched the fields, and the stalks of the abundant harvest fed the animals and thatched the village huts. That was the good time. But self-sufficiency hadn’t lasted, because after a while there were too many people. “It isn’t an easy thing to say,” the journalist said, “but this is where kindness to the individual can be cruelty to the race.”

It explained his frenzy. His idea of India was one in which India couldn’t be accommodated. It was an idea of India which, for all its seeming largeness, only answered a personal need: the need, in spite of the mess of India, to be Indian, to belong to an established country with an established past. And the journalist was insecure. As an Indian he was not yet secure enough to think of Indian identity as something dynamic, something that could incorporate the millions on the move, the corrupters of the cities.

For the journalist—though he was an economist and had traveled, and was professionally concerned with development and change—Indian identity was not something developing or changing but something fixed, an idealization of his own background, the past he felt he had just lost. Identity was related to a set of beliefs and rituals, a knowledge of the gods, a code, an entire civilization. The loss of the past meant the loss of that civilization, the loss of a fundamental idea of India, and the loss therefore, to a nationalistminded man, of a motive for action. It was part of the feeling of purposelessness of which many Indians spoke, part of the longing for Gandhian days, when the idea of India was real and seemed full of promise, and the “moral issues” clear.

But it was a middle-class burden, the burden of those whose nationalism—after the years of subjection—required them to have an idea of India. Lower down, in the chawls and the squatters’ settlements of the city, among the dispossessed, needs were more elemental: food, shelter, water, a latrine. Identity there was no problem; it was a discovery. Identity was what the young men of the Sena were reaching out to, with the simplicities of their politics and their hero-figures (the seventeenth-century Shivaji, warrior chieftain turned to war god, the twentieth-century Dr. Ambedkar, untouchable now only in his sanctity). For the Sena men, and the people they led, the world was new; they saw themselves at the beginning of things: unaccommodated men making a claim on their land for the first time, and out of chaos evolving their own philosophy of community and self-help. For them the past was dead; they had left it behind in the villages.

And every day, in the city, their numbers grew. Every day they came from the villages, this unknown, unacknowledged India, though Bombay was full, and many squatters’ settlements, like the one on the hill above the graveyard, had been declared closed.

This Issue

June 10, 1976