The chawls of Mumbai

In Mint Lounge, a review of Neera Adarkar’s The Chawls of Mumbai (ImprintOne, 162 pages, Rs1,200):

Mumbai would not be the city it is today without its chawls. These three- and four-storey blocks of one- and two-room tenements dotting all of south and central Mumbai, built on a massive scale over the 19th and early 20th centuries by both the colonial government and private landlords, stand at the centre of the city’s social history. Although each of the great chawl neighbourhoods—Girgaon, Girangaon, Kalbadevi, Worli, Byculla—has its own distinct history and religious and class composition, together they form an architectural and city-specific continuum through which many of Mumbai’s traits can be understood. The quiddity of chawls and their influence “as a historical actor” on Mumbai’s landscape are illuminated through a variety of academic and narrative perspectives in Neera Adarkar’s excellent new anthology The Chawls of Mumbai.

The word “chawl” is a slightly anglicized version of the Marathi “chaal”, which means “anklet” and by extension “corridor” or, to use the Mumbai word, “gallery”. The very etymology of this architectural form, then, reveals what kind of residential space it was—one in which the boundary between private and public space was blurred, and communal areas were as significant as private ones.

Chawls began to come up in great numbers in the “Indian quarter” of Mumbai, north of the spacious, landscaped European quarter in Fort, from the mid-19th century onwards as the Indian cotton industry boomed, filling up the breach left by the Civil War in America. The colonial government and an emerging class of Indian capitalists needed labour; and migrant workers thronging the city from the Western Ghats and the Konkan coast needed cheap housing. As Mumbai (then called Bombay) urbanized and industrialized, many chawls were built by private parties on what was formerly farmland. But after an outbreak of plague in 1898, attributed to unsanitary conditions in the native neighbourhoods, the colonial government stepped in, in its own interest, to build chawls on a large scale. The massive Bombay Development Department (BDD) chawls in Worli, for instance, a colony of over a hundred chawl buildings, were built by the government on what was then cheap uninhabited land in north Bombay, now turned by the advance of history into what might be thought of as Mumbai’s centre. More:

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