As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Mumbai in late March 2020, Yogesh* returned to his village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. Unlike other migrant workers whose arduous journeys on foot caught the world’s attention, Yogesh paid Rs 3,000 to travel home in a private car.

Vaibhav, who stays in the same building, travelled back to his own Kolhapur village in a chartered bus. Sameer, from the building next door, had already returned to his nearby village for Holi and stayed put, avoiding the need to quarantine in the village school that later returnees faced.

I first met these three young men in 2017 when I spent a year conducting anthropological research on belonging and identity in the Bombay Development Department, or BDD, Chawls, a century-old residential colony on NM Joshi Marg (formerly Delisle Road) in Lower Parel.

Hardly wealthy by Mumbai standards, they enjoy a higher socio-economic status than those desperately poor labourers whose only option was to walk home. What they all have in common, other than hailing from neighbouring villages in Kolhapur district, is their living situation. While most of the 180-square-foot BDD Chawl rooms are occupied by families and cluttered with furniture, others are given over to dormitories owned by village migrant associations called gramastha mandals.

I spent long hours in numerous gramastha mandal rooms conducting participant observation, the social scientist’s glorified term for what everybody else calls hanging out. The gramastha mandal rooms are dingy places with limited natural light. In every room, the plaster wall is largely obscured by vests, shirts and trousers hanging from a row of hooks running round the room.

Signs of multiple occupancy are everywhere: an overflowing shoe rack, towels hanging from wires, a wooden ledge piled with suitcases and rolls of bedding on a shelf next to stainless steel tiffin boxes and a tangle of phone chargers. Other than a basic washing space called a mori, there is no internal toilet, and residents use the common toilets at the end of the chawl corridor.

A gramastha mandal room at the BDD Chawls. Credit: Jonathan Galton.

Each gramastha mandal is linked to a particular village and rents out cheap sleeping space exclusively to male migrants from that village. Many were established in the mid-20th century when Mumbai’s textile industry was at its height, and most initial occupants were millworkers. Rooms were filled beyond capacity. But because the mills operated in discrete eight-hour shifts, there was enough space for 30 or more occupants to sleep at some point.

Since the decline and closure of the mills in the late 20th century, the migration flow has abated somewhat. Today, gramastha mandal rooms accommodate around ten to 15 residents, generally in their twenties and in many cases the sons or even grandsons of former room residents now back in the village.

The range of jobs they undertake is diverse, with many, such as Sameer, filling precarious roles such as those of security guards, waiters and drivers in the malls and office complexes that occupy the former mill sites.

Others, like Yogesh and Vaibhav, work in better paid professional roles including information technology management, civil engineering, accounting and office administration. While the majority remit money back to their parents, a few are studying for a master’s in business administration or other degrees, usually financed by their parents.

This arrangement is not unique to the BDD Chawls, or even Mumbai, but a distinguishing feature of the NM Joshi Marg gramastha mandals is their almost uniform link to villages in Kolhapur district. The link is actively maintained, and room members typically return to their villages a few times a year for festivals and weddings or to help out in the fields during harvest time.

Migration theorists call this circular migration, or circulatory urbanism, a practice also found among much more established city dwellers, as the Urbz Collective explains. Even when in Mumbai, my gramastha mandal friends seemed preoccupied with the village, frequently telling me about the calm pace of life, the cool climate and the superior quality of the food and entertainment on offer.

The BDD Chawls at NM Joshi Marg. Credit: Jonathan Galton.

Their view of Mumbai was largely negative – crowded, exhausting, dirty and unhealthy. Shortly after declining Sameer’s kind invitation to accompany him on a visit to his village, I caught dengue fever. When he heard about this he rolled his eyes, and told me “You’d never have caught it if you’d come with me.”

I began to wonder how much Sameer and the others had really left the village behind. A young man joining a gramastha mandal will normally share a living space with friends or relatives that he grew up with. He will usually get his meals from a “mess” or khanaval, a home-run canteen serving Kolhapuri staples.

This is supplemented by a steady supply of local snacks brought back throughout the year by roommates returning from village visits. Very few of my gramastha mandal friends interacted in any meaningful way with the families living in their buildings. They seemed reluctant to join in the festivals and activities organised by the social clubs that were a mainstay of BDD Chawl family life.

I found this strange at first, given that the families who dominated these social clubs belonged to the Hindu Maratha community and traced their roots to Kolhapur district, just like most gramastha mandal residents.

This is not a case of Hindi-speaking migrants receiving a frosty reception from territorially-conscious Maharashtrians, or Kerala labourers sequestered away from the wealthy Emirati families whose Gulf cityscapes they are toiling to construct.

Rather, it seems to be a difference based on timescales. Many of the chawl social clubs were originally founded back in the 1960s and ’70s by gramastha mandal residents themselves. In time, some of these men bought chawl units of their own and started families, many of whom have remained in the BDD Chawls.

Their children thus grew up in Mumbai and started to dominate the clubs. As a result, more recent gramastha mandal migrants feel marginalised and unable to participate in this urban social life.

Pedrewadi village in Kolhapur district. Credit: Jonathan Galton.

Instead, the migrants tend to socialise in their rooms, where a young, male approximation of village life is recreated, replete with small-scale village festivals and the occasional noisy drinking party.

Their family neighbours look upon them with indifference or open disdain. An exasperated man from the chawl opposite Sameer’s told me that there were no gramastha mandals in his building because, “We don’t allow. We don’t like it. They keep the room dirty, chewing tobacco...”

One of Yogesh’s roommates recalled several occasions on which the family down the corridor had threatened to call the police when birthday celebrations got out of hand. “They tolerate us,” he reflected, “but they do not entertain us.”

Even village social divisions are imported and reconfigured in the built layout of the BDD Chawls. Many of the villages in question are spatially divided by community with Marathas living in one area, and Dalit Hindus, such as Chambhars, and Dalit Buddhists (Mahars) in others.

Likewise, many of the gramastha mandals I encountered were restricted to Hindus, some only allowing Marathas to join. A few others were Buddhist-only affairs, and these were located in chawl buildings with a strong contingent of Dalit Buddhist families. Residents were frequently evasive when I asked them about room eligibility policies, shrugging their shoulders and muttering about village politics.

Sameer was emphatic that only Marathas were allowed in his room, and told me that he had no problem with Dalits personally, but living with them was out of the question as they ate beef. Friendships do exist between Hindu and Buddhist co-villagers living in different chawl buildings but, given the intensity with which their social lives revolve around their own rooms, these appear to be cordial rather than intimate.

The view expressed by some social theorists that city migration erodes rural divisions seems unrealistically optimistic in the case of gramastha mandals. Nevertheless, the fact that a number of formerly Hindu-only rooms have now opened their doors to Buddhists provides a glimmer of hope for the future.

Janmashtami celebrations at the BDD Chawls. Credit: Jonathan Galton

This hope notwithstanding, the future of gramastha mandals is far from certain. Many survived the seismic changes of the late twentieth century, but will Covid-19 do to them what industrial collapse and industrial transformation did not?

Over the past two years, the return from the village has been gradual. Sameer stayed on in his village for 18 months, getting by on casual work, before returning to Mumbai. Yogesh has moved to Pune and says many of his former roommates have stayed in the village. Vaibhav returned to Mumbai after a few months, but opted to live in a rental property and his old room remained empty for much of the following year.

Although by late 2021 the gramastha mandals were showing signs of coming back to life, their days are numbered. Even if the organisations survive, the physical rooms will not, as a much-delayed redevelopment project will transform the BDD Chawls into a neighbourhood of high-rise towers in the coming years. The immediate future remains uncertain for many people the world over, and gramastha mandals are no exception.

*This article uses only first names to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in it.

Jonathan Galton is an anthropologist at University College London. His research interests include belonging and identity in western India, and the intersections of queerness, Islam and leftwing politics in the UK.