BOOK EXCERPT

It withstood the riots. But Mumbai’s quiet Gazdar Street cannot hold off the changing times

A new book attempts to capture the essence of Mumbai through stories of its homes and their inhabitants.

Gazdar Street has about fourteen residential buildings in the lane, apart from a 100-year-old school. Some of these buildings are owned by trusts, some by individuals who live in them (mostly on top floors). There are commercial establishments like godowns, shops and workshops too in the lane. But thanks to its unique layout and close-knit community, it has evolved into a fine example of community living.

Residents knew each other by their first names, just as they knew each other’s food preferences, love for music, hobbies and every little detail about their families and friends. Every evening, after the men got home from their workplaces, they pulled up plastic chairs and settled down at the head of the lane, forming an informal human gate. There they sat chatting, exchanging notes about their work and life, while keeping an eye out for their women folk and kids who would sometimes come in late from a social commitment or coaching classes. They would also keep an eye out for strangers – creating an incredibly organic system of security.

But nothing brought the residents of Gazdar Street closer than the festival of Navratri. For those nine days of the biggest celebration for Gujaratis, every resident of the houses lining the street plunged headlong into the festivities. “No one cooked at home, no one slept in the night, everyone was down there, dancing,” recalls Meena Sampat.

Over time, most of the younger residents have either moved out from here or developed a taste for glitzier entertainment.

Vishal, who traverses the city for work and socialising, rues the fact that the neighbourhood has nothing for youngsters, who prefer to participate in dandiya parties in the suburbs where stars, DJs and celebrity performers keep them happy and on their feet.“They (the people here) need to evolve in order to hold back the youngsters,” says Vishal, who still feels strongly connected to the neighbourhood and his family home, but his young heart has already taken flight.

Things are changing.

Image credit: Vishal Sampat
Image credit: Vishal Sampat

There are strong rumours that a real estate company that specialises in redevelopment has set foot in the next lane by acquiring a community living building, which may lead to a domino effect (literally) as other buildings might be pulled down too. Only time will tell.

The building opposite Bhatia Niwas has been sold to a Marwari businessman who is keen to redevelop it. CCTV cameras have been installed after a series of thefts jolted the residents out of their autumnal reverie. Talks are on with various stakeholders of Bhatia Niwas and a decision to redevelop it may be taken sooner than later. Vishal has been active on dating sites. He intends to get married soon.

Vishal had tried living in different parts of the suburbs, to be closer to his workplace, his friends and the young “scene”. “I have always been a Bombay boy, and like most people my age I too wanted to live on my own to get a taste of what it is really like,” he confesses. Once he had his taste, Vishal let pragmatism take over romanticism. “When you have your own house in the heart of South Bombay, why would you want to waste money on rentals,” he asks.

Even as we help ourselves to the sugary, buttery srikhand, his mother tells us, “Vishal has now realised that he wants to live here. It makes us happy,” she says.

Vishal waits for her to finish and then says softly, tenderly but emphatically, “I know no girl would want to marry me and move in here. Who wants to live in this sort of a building with no lifts, shared bathroom, zero privacy? People are used to better options, even if they are cramped apartments with high rentals. I want to live here but I don’t think I can get married and continue living here.”

Vishal’s marriage may not be the only reason why the Sampats may eventually move out of here. Some of the residents of this lane are planning to buy properties in the upcoming satellite townships that boast of Bollywood stars as brand ambassadors. A far cry from the chaotic, organic settlements of the old city, these new townships offer manicured lawns, yoga rooms, banquet halls, malls, multiplexes, international schools and hospitals within the periphery. The apartments too are more modern and they have elevators. The Sampats have been looking at a few options in these townships and gated communities that have been luring the old residents of the old city with promises of a more convenient life. But, as the senior Sampats point out, they are not really inconvenienced here.

“Crawford Market is still one of the best places to shop, everything is just a walk or a short drive away. We know all our neighbours, there are helpers who carry our luggage up to our floor. We have everything we need here,” says Meena. The gated housings, the swank condos may be convenient but there is no joy in a modern apartment when you don’t even know who your neighbour is, let alone trust them, says her husband. “I know my parents, how social they are, they will be able to make friends in no time,” says Vishal.

The parents and the son talk about their plans for the future. As the skies darken and the street lights come on, it becomes evident that the family has been discussing this particularly sensitive issue without making much headway.

Image credit: Vishal Sampat
Image credit: Vishal Sampat

Redevelopment plans for Chira Bazaar–Kalbadevi area are heavily debated and fraught with political collaterals. A 30-acre redevelopment plan that was floated some time back was met with mixed reactions. While a huge section of the residents welcomed it, for the sake of the younger generation, another group opposed it saying it would affect their businesses that have over time grown roots in this part of the city. Gazdar Street is mostly residential, with houses belonging to trusts that were never interested in joining the redevelopment conversation. There was also the Maharashtrian versus Gujarati debate that was thrown up by the proposed Metro Route 3, stoked by political interests.

The Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) were opposed to the route, accusing the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) of “parcelling off” the neighbourhood to the “vegetarian lobby” of Gujaratis and Marwaris. They demanded a new route map for the Metro so that the Marathi community, including the non-vegetarians, was not displaced. Eventually it became evident that the resistance to the route was more about political mileage than actual community concerns.

The conflict, stoked by political fuel, did once again reflect the changing demographics of South Mumbai. The bigger concern was about the weakening clout of non-vegetarian Marathis, who have had to make way for the more assertive Marwari and Gujarati traders. Despite the chief minister’s assurance that all displaced families will be rehabilitated in the same neighbourhood, it was being met with cynicism.

“Bambai kisike baap ka nahi hai,” shrugs Vishal.

Aware of the political designs but indifferent to them, he considers himself a true-blue “Bombay Boy” who is at home anywhere in the city, in any milieu. Dismissive about the allegations against the Gujaratis by vested political voices, Vishal is as apolitical as most of his peers in the city. “Besides, it is the trading community that actually built this city,” he says.

Of late, several instances of mysterious fires have broken out in the neighbourhood, in the cramped, densely populated buildings that have pushed out families in favour of godowns, shops and commercial establishments. There are hardly any casualties in these incidents, even though the houses stand cheek by jowl and are mostly in a pitiable state. There seems to be a pattern here, according to Vishal. Everything points towards the desperation of some people to redevelop their buildings and move on.

Gazdar Street had largely remained unsullied, untouched by the swirling political debates and controversies, except for those few days during the riots. That is when the Sampats, like everyone else in the neighbourhood, stocked up on chilli powder and petrol bombs and other home-made weapons. Despite repeated alarms – that the rioters were on their way – nothing really happened here. Except for the fact that a bunch of goons were about to attack a few homeless people who lived in the burial ground next door. “There was a rumour that they were sheltering rioters, but when faced with the sword- and scythe-wielding thugs, the poor people pleaded for their lives and convinced them of the truth,” recalls Vishal’s mother. The tide of violence and bloodshed that swept through the city stopped short at this cul-de-sac. The story goes: the residents had parked their cars outside their gates in such a way that not more than one person could get in. They also took turns to keep night-long vigils at that time, strengthening their bonds as a community.

Excerpted with permission from At Home in Mumbai: Stories from the City’s Living Spaces, Chandrima Pal, HarperCollins India.

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