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Posts Tagged ‘Bombay/Mumbai’

House, home …

July 9th, 2009

House, in a city where this possession is prized, valued and loved

House – personal or matter of policy?

Home – personal or matter of policy?

The next time around, I am taken to Rehnuma’s ghar, her home. But this is not Rehnuma’s house. It is rented. Her brothers and father are building a house next to the rented jhonpada/hutment. I ask Rehnuma – when did you start the construction.

Yesterday, she says.

When will the house be completed?

Tomorrow, she answers.

So soon? I ask astonished.

Yes, no brick and cement to be used. This land is disputed. Demolitions have happened here. So, we are afraid to build something pucca/concrete.  When the house is done tomorrow, we will take our belongings and go there.

Meanwhile, her mother complains that the road outside the house is a mess – hamaare neta ko bol dege ki us mein mitti daal dein.

I ask Rehnuma where the toilets are.

Jungle mein jaate hai. Yeh badi mushkil hai. We have to go to the jungles – that is a big problem.

We move on. I am told that most people build their homes with bamboo poles and tin sheets – easy to build and dismantle. Most  people have a little stilt outside their houses to prevent the rain water from coming inside.

And then we were passing Wadala yesterday, in the BEST bus. At one point, we came across a stretch which was a deep pool of water. The driver stopped the bus. A minute later, the passengers stood up to see what is going on. Then, one of them shouted – drive on! The driver pressed the accelerator and strode ahead. As we moved on, we splashed all the water into the houses which were built on the pavements. Some had water inside their homes. We added more. Residents of the houses came out on the street and yelled abuses at the bus driver. But we had crossed the stretch …

Each day, I move across the city and watch how people have built their houses – someone else’s doors and windows help in making privacy for someone else. Door numbers and house numbers. Some poster of a Congress Neta or a MNS flag adorning some balconies. A ladder connecting the top and bottom floors. The top floor like a bunk – you squeeze to get inside. Some houses on footpaths. Some on hills. Some along railway tracks. And the concrete houses that have been built in the suburbs and edges of the city – some people doubling their homes as shops and trading spaces. Some running beauty parlours inside. Some have reorganized the space and adorned it with beautiful things. And it amazes me to no end how each house is a reflection of the family’s dreams and aspirations, is a source of their politics and consciousness, is their place in the city. And I wonder …

House – personal or matter of policy?

Home – personal or matter of policy?

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City, Nights and Fear

June 30th, 2009

9 o’clock

10 o’clock

11 o’clock

Night,

dark,

inside their homes – the peoples

but, this is Mumbai, does not sleep – the city that does not sleep.

Someone asked me the other day – but you said that people do not sleep here in Mumbai. Look around, everyone seems to be asleep – and he smiled. I thought to myself, maybe it is the weekend and so everyone is sitting tight in their homes.

Then, returning back home at 11:15 PM at night, sitting in the cab, I looked around. A sense of fear had also gripped me – how will I return home? When will I return home? When will I snuggle up in my bed and feel safe. How can this happen to me in Mumbai – the city whose prodigy I am. Fear, that feeling of lack of safety, was creeping up my neck.

Sitting in the taxi, I asked the driver – no public on the streets?

He said – Sunday nah? Little public out at night.

But, I prodded further, even the bus services into the city have reduced at night. What is th deal?

The buses kya? They run empty at nights and so, the BEST has decided to reduce them. But yes, the streets are empty at nights these days, after the bamb-kaand.

Bamb-kaand? You mean 26/11?

Yes. After that, people have reduced going out at nights. A sense of fear has gripped people. We taxi drivers, our income was mainly from the fares we got at night. Now, that has reduced drastically. All the shareef, good character people don’t come out at nights. It is only the badmaash, the bad characters, that come out at night. Plus, so much naaka-bandi, police watch. Who will come out? Which shareef person will come out?

Just a while before the driver was drawing a distinction between the shareef and the badmaash, I had watched a bunch of well-dressed prostitutes and one of their clients in the classic white kurta and pyjama, laughing and making jokes around the corner of a hotel at Grant Road. And I had thought about respectability. Now, I think of the shareef, the badmaash, and the night and the city – transformation, perhaps it is happening at these subtle levels.

Then, I watched the city last night as we rode past one end to the other. Are the streets really silent? Is this what the bamb-kaand has done? Penetrated into the fabric of the city and spread fear …

We halted at a signal around the corner of one of the posh Western suburbs. There she was – no fear – just dexteriously weaving the flowers through the thread and making garlands, perhaps readying herself for the clientele in the morning who may want to offer the flowers to their gods and goddesses, allaying a fear of a different kind (that between the devotee and the devout). She weaved away quickly, without care. Is she afraid, I thought to myself?

Then we passed the roads. There they were, those people, those people we call slum dwellers. Three hutments jutting out from the walls, just onto to the streets. They had also called it a night, lying down in their beds, drawing their sheets onto themselves. There they were, stepping into the world of dreams and nightmares and desires and hopes and aspirations – some had their TV sets on, some just oblivious of the roadside traffic and preparing to go off to sleep. Are they afraid?

Then, we went pass the highway, those big roads that have been created to facilitate the movement of cars (and traffic). On the highway, covered under blue plastic sheets, supported by a few poles, they were also going off to sleep. Perhaps they were construction workers who had settled into a little space on the footpath and called it a night. Perhaps they were contract sweepers, spending their last few days in the city before the rain lashes vehemently. They were almost calling it a night, drifting off (or just about to …) … Are they afraid?

And then, just a little ahead, three-four men and women, playing hide-and-seek in the bushes by the side of the highway, perhaps some kind of a foreplay. They seemed happy, playful. Are they afraid?

Fear – what of?

Fear – of what?

Fear … and the city sleeps at night …

Fear … and we sleep to prepare for another day to come …

Fear …

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Global City, or the City an Enigma?

June 26th, 2009

I stepped out of Lokmanya Tilak terminus this afternoon, expecting to hail a cab from the taxi stand, get into one and start the ride to my destination. It was raining. Cab drivers were at the platform, asking passengers if they wanted taxis. I refused to pay heed to any of them, knowing that they would ask for the sun and the moon as fares. I stepped out of the platform and the station. In the face of the rain, I walked here and there, asking for taxis to take me where I wanted to go. Around, I heard cabbies charging passengers Rs. 500 for rides to Borivali and passengers agreeing to the fares. So, what’s going on? No cabbie at the taxi stand is willing to come along with me to my destination. Is it because it is relatively less far as compared with other fares? I then caught hold of the havaldaar mama (the famous lower level cop) and told him that I was unable to find a cab and I did not know where to go. He asssured me that he will get me one in a minute or two. I was not sure whether to believe him or not. Choosing the latter option, I continued with my search. Eventually, one cabbie came forth and asked me where I wanted to go. He agreed to ferry me to my destination on the condition that I pay him a flat rate and not go by the meter.

Why? If not by meter how else do you expect me to come with you?

Madam, it has been raining since morning. I am afraid that there will be water clog in the direction where you want to go. There is a lot of traffic. If you agree to pay me Rs. —, I take you where you want to go.

I agreed, despite my reservations, because it was not worth standing in the face of the rains with luggage and parcels. We began our journey, and as it often happens to me in Mumbai, I started talking to the cabbie. He wasn’t the chattering types. So I had to think of questions or topics for a conversation.It was not easy, but some things he said were very insightful.

What is this bridge they are making here, I asked, pointing to an under construction structure outside the Lokmanya Tilak terminus?

That? That is the new link road connecting Kurla East and West sides with Santacruz and Chembur.

So, I heard that they are revamping the Lokmanya Tilak terminus station?

Yes, they are expanding.

How? By adding more railway lines?

No. They are going to demolish the ticket counters where they are now and shift them to the rear side. Some work has been done and it is looking very posh.

Yes, they were clearing out some of the slums and extending the station.

Slums? Clearing? No. That does not happen.

A little while later:

How is the traffic in the city?

It has increased.

Increased? But they are making all these flyovers and expanding the roads?

That only increases the traffic.

So, has your business been affected because of the new private taxi services?

No, it is still the same. Local person will travel by local taxis. Moreover, these private taxis are expensive. They have to pay the driver and they get very little in their hands at the end of the day.

A more little while later:

Bombay has changed a lot.

Changed? Hahaha! No, it is still the same.

But all the development is now happening around Malad side.

That is true, but South Mumbai still remains South Mumbai.

Some more while later:

Do you have to pay to stand for fares at the newly developed Santacruz domestic airport?

Yes, but we had to do that earlier too. Even at Lokmanya Tilak terminus, we have to pay 10 rupees to park.

For a moment, I was a bit puzzled when I heard this piece of information. Are the parking rates still the same at the domestic airport and the revamped train terminus?  When you hail a cab from the domestic airport and even from some of the train junctions, the fares are twice/thrice the usual rates. Earlier, cab drivers used to levy these fares on the grounds that they have to pay halting charges to the airport authorities (or perhaps the cops and security guards) and hence, the fares had jumped up. I tried to connect the bits of information that had come through in the conversation – the belief about the posh-ness of the upcoming railway station and the levying of the higher fares. It struck me then that people at all levels are participating in the imagination of the global city which is materializing through infrastructure improvements. Perhaps the posh-ness of the revamped airport and railway stations had caused the cabbies to believe that they could levy higher fares, thus cashing in on the infrastructure improvements in their own ways. That the aspiration of the global city or the Shanghai/Singapore etc imagination prevails at all levels is not a new insight. Even my Arjun bhai, the hawker who I used to talk to outside the VT Railway station four years ago, would tell me how computerized railway passes were now a sign of modernity. In my last visit to Mumbai, my TC was complaining how issuing of tickets has become slow and cumbersome because the old punch-and-pop system has been replaced by a dot matrix printing machine which slowly spews out a card like ticket – the card ticket now being a sign of the revamped city!

Why this change at the cost of efficiency? I asked my TC.

Because we want to build a Shanghai or whatever international city out of our Mumbai, he said.

It is amazing how the aspiration is shared among people at all levels even when the global city is materialized at costs which might seem/are unjust and unfair. Yet, the imagination and aspiration prevails. People participate in it when it happens and label it in their own ways.

As I once again step into the city, trying to unravel it, to understand it and therefore myself (who has been lost), I tell myself,

… the city will be an enigma. Our every attempt to know and control it makes it known and yet,  unknown in other ways and facets.

The city, an enigma …

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The Idea and the Practice of a Slum

June 30th, 2008

“Right there, right there!”
“Where? I can’t see the damn station. Where is it?”
“Right there, you walk past that little lane, you will hit the station.”
Grudgingly, I walked through the lane and lo and behold! I was at the platform of Govandi railway station. It just took me a little row of settlements and some open drains running by them to get to that wretched Govandi station (not to forget to mention, passing by some of the children playing around and that sole bhaiyya woman sitting idly).
Did I say wretched? Yes, wretched is the feeling I get when I am at Govandi station. Perhaps in my life, I must have been to Govandi station exactly six times. Of the four of those six times, I have traveled in the east of Govandi, towards the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). But the last two times, I have actually experienced the wretchedness of Govandi station, when I have had to get off platform number 1 and then go past all the squatter settlements, till I eventually get to the infamously famous Lallubhai Compound.

Wretched, Unpleasant …
Wretched, that wretched Govandi area! Yes, I can feel the skin on me … I can feel the anger and irritation rising in me, a feeling that I have rarely gotten as I have traveled the insides of some of the squatter settlements in Mumbai. It is not the squalor that produces that feeling of unpleasantness in me. Yes, there is squalor and squalor of the worst form that can be seen and experienced. The proximity of the squatter settlements to the city’s only functional garbage dump and to the city’s only abattoir makes the open drains and sewage in these slums the worst of their kind and nothing compared with the reasonably better off sewage facilities in most of the other slums in the city.
Squalor, yes! Squalor! But that is not the cause of the unpleasantness within me. Then, what is it?

Cut to Lallubhai Compound, between Govandi and Mankhurd:
Lallubhai Compound, here it is, or should I say there it is. Yeah, there it is, so much of what I was trying to imagine it to be and so much of the reality that I could see and tried to fathom. I was not sure what I should feel when I see the rows of cement buildings that make up this Compound. Housed in these rows of buildings are slum dwellers from various parts of Mumbai City – those whole lived near the railway stations of Kurla terminus, Chembur and Matunga; those who once had dwellings along the pavements of the famous P. D’Mello road near VT station; people from Byculla, Dadar, Parel, you name it – they are all housed here.

“That minister Nawab Malik got us to come here. He said that if we did not move here, we would even lose this house. Hence we came here.”
“We were living near the railway lines. Government decided to expand the railway lines and so, we moved here.”
“It was crazy when we first moved here. Felt like we had come to a village. My family was shunted out of Matunga and then we were made to live in the transit camps in Mankhurd for five long years till we eventually came here. There was initially a hill here. People went up on the hill and jumped off. They could not tolerate the loneliness. Only now, more people have come to live here and there seems to be some development.”

About 1.5 kilometers away from Govandi station is situated Lallubhai Compound, that infamously famous rehabilitation colony. For a moment, I almost think of the chawls in Parel area when I see the built environment here. The same noise, running around, tamashas on the street, shops below the buildings – it’s just so much Parel. And yet, it is not Parel. There is hustle and bustle, lot of activity on the roads, but it seems like Lallubhai can only be a world within its own self (but for now!). Unlike Parel where the self of the chawl is intermingled with the multiple selves of the city that manifest in various forms – the industrial estates, the media offices, the traffic, the locality of Lalbagh – in stark comparison to all of this, Lallubhai is isolated, despite being so close to the row houses just across the bridge which house the wealthier residents of Govandi.

“Lallubhai is a clear instance of the US housing projects for the poor. The poor were evicted from the city areas and placed at the outskirts of the city. Complete ghettoization.”

Could I say that Lallubhai is an instance of ghettoization, another import from the Americas into the urbs prima indis? Undoubtedly, Lallubhai is a ghetto, almost like people are being brought from the city and thrown away into some form of confinement. And yet, I would be condemned and damned if I were to say that people have been confined. Ground floor houses have been converted into shops, beauty parlors, English teaching classes and STD-PCO booths. People go back to the older neighbourhoods for work and for reaching their children to schools. Some of the residents have given up their homes for rent and have begun to live in the nearby squatter settlements or in and around their original places of residence.

I walk around the area. A thriving women’s hawker market has come up on the roads. I am told this is an “illegal” market because it is not certified by the municipality. The drains and rats between the buildings remind you of the house-gully situation in Null Bazaar where the settlers are harassed by the overflowing sewage between two buildings.
There are groups of unemployed boys loafing around the area. I am told that these have become frequent lately.
The rickshaw drivers make their killing each day – five rupees a seat for a one-way ride between Govandi station and Lallubhai. The local autorickshaw fellas seem like another socio-political group emerging in the area, they being camped around the naka which is their adda.
Then there are the various forms of groups and organizations that abound within Lallubhai – the women’s savings group, the hawkers’ federation, National Slum Dwellers’ Federation-Mahila Milan-SPARC – all housed within the same office premises of what is mentioned in bold as the Public Information Center.
There are financial networks woven within the social and political fabric of the area – the grain merchants, the jewellery shops which double up as lending and borrowing institutions, you name it.
There are social and political organizations that I am unaware of but which likely exist – the very networks that existed in the squatter settlements and that formed an important aspect of the everyday practice of a slum.
Isolated – ghettoized – confinement – sorry to disappoint, but the space of Lallubhai is only unfolding with time. The self is emerging …

Rethinking the Idea and Practice of a Slum …

“It’s good that people have been moved into these flats. They will learn to live in a sanitized environment. They will learn to live with dignity and respect.”

“They get more space than what they had in their little slums. This rehabilitation is benefiting the people.”

“It will take a while for the slum dwellers to learn to live here. They are not used to the vertical way of living.”

“The community has to learn to accept one and all. The lepers’ rehabilitation colony in Oshiwara is placed away from the rest of the rehab housing. People don’t want other groups to live around them. The community will have to learn.”

“Now, there are a lot of Muslims coming into this area as tenants. The Maharahstrians are reducing in numbers.”

By now, I have been going to all those areas in the city that I did not ever venture into while I lived here for 25 odd years. There are times when I pass through those unevenly lined row houses and I ask myself – why is this labeled a slum? By what standards are these well furnished houses within this apparently uneven settlement classed as slums?
It would be highly banal on my end to state that the idea of a slum is quite different from its practice. But let me state what I felt as I experienced Lallubhai compound. That visit to Lallubhai has made it clear to me a slum is not merely a physical structure as it might be projected in policy and media. The slum is a network and simultaneously many networks and several circuits – all these networks and circuits connected with the space of the city, with the locality and meshed into numerous scales of statedom and nationdom and globaldom. When people are “rehabilitated” into flats and built structures, some of the circuits and networks are severed but at the same time, other connections become stronger and some connections become even more oppressive than they previously were.
Consistently, I also hear remarks of how the slum dwellers had occupied the lands and have now gotten flats in return for free, that they are now living in sanitized conditions and their lives will improve and that they should learn to live in the flats rather than escape from there. The stories in Lallubhai betray all these notions. While some of the more upwardly mobile among this misleading category of “urban poor” benefit with the receipt of the house, for many other individuals and families, the receipt of the home could not be a greater curse. These have been families that have been in the bottom rung among the poor and that the house in Lallubhai for them is a liability more than an asset. For these groups, the monthly payment of electricity bills and maintenance fees coupled with increased transportation costs and the loss of their jobs or the lack of increase in salaries but rise in expenses, all of these factors lead us to rethink whether the house is truly a marker of improvement in their lives. And then there are several among those who never made it to Lallubhai despite living among the same populations who were to be ‘rehoused’ – the process of rehabilitation and the political dynamics are in no way equal for all – some get the house, some decide to move out, some are deprived, and much more than what I can know and tell … And as for the sanitized living, the more seen, the better – the poor garbage lifting facilities, the overflowing drains between the buildings, the lack of water until water is fought for as an entitlement, and the teeming rats – yes certainly, sanity and sanitation have to be rethought as much as the idea and practice of the slum have to be reconsidered.

Beyond …
That pervasive feeling of wretchedness and disgust continues within me until I reach Govandi station. It persists beyond as I pass Wadala, Chunnabhatti, Sewri, Dockyard and even further, into the passing days … It travels within me and beyond me. I am still thinking what the city is and how the city is continuously accessed, both symbolically and physically, from time to time …

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