Even though I was studying Architecture up until a year ago, writing had always been my forte. More than planning structures, I realised that reading about Isfahan’s closely stacked houses and Maharashtra’s palatial wadas, and then citing them as clever examples in architectural essays gave me happiness and mental stimulation. While my mind was chaotic regarding future professional prospects, I took respite at an exhibition on affordable housing curated by architect Sameep Padora. While the exhibition seemed to be focused on the architectural aspects of chawl designs, at its heart lay a deeper understanding – one that depicted a thriving chawl culture of communal living. As someone who had seen these structures all around, but never lived in one, I was keen to delve deeper.
The chawl typology started off in Mumbai with the mass-housing of countless families sometime in the 1900s. Every chawl had a social ranking depending on who it largely housed from the scheme of things, labourers, the service class, or merchants. While some chawls like Atmaram Chawl were community-centric, different people from several social groups coexisted in others like the prestigious Bhatia Chawl. Similar to anything that is on the verge of extinction, the fast-depleting chawl typology has now become the subject of historical research and architectural documentation.
My curiosity drew me to Siddharth Parwatay, Managing Editor of Digit Magazine, who as a teen lived with his grandfather for a brief time at his chawl-home. I threw the usual how, when and whys at him trying to dig through his experiences. With a delightful account, Siddharth took me back to somewhere in the mid-90s, to a place and time that is fondly etched in his memory.
Owing to some refurbishing work scheduled at their relatively modern flat in Tardeo, Siddharth and his parents moved in with Obaba, his grandfather, who lived in a chawl that housed quintessentially Marathi-speaking families, in Mumbai’s Girgaon precinct. “Obaba sold his upmarket Prabhadevi apartment, and bought himself a place in the chawl. After Aaji passed away he didn’t need a large apartment anyway and the chawl place was purchased at about half of what he got for his apartment. His plan was to invest the surplus and live off that interest for the remainder of his days,” Siddharth told me. “Most houses, called kholis, were rectangular and measured 350 square feet – the living room-cum-bedroom, with a tiny bath made by giving up a part of the kitchen area. But Obaba’s house was a corner kholi that was slightly bigger. Plywood partitions eked out a separate bedroom from the living area, and the orientation of the kholi allowed an inbuilt bath and toilet. The walls were thin, and iron girders supported the ceiling. It was was contained in one of the six buildings of the chawl that stood in succession. In between were courtyards that doubled as cricket pitches and arenas for celebrating festivities,” he described the setting further.
An effervescent communal life thrived inside the chawl. As an unspoken rule, main doors would be kept open; a shut door would only mean that the occupants are not in town. “Aromas emerging from each kitchen would confluence to stimulate wild guesses about who’s cooking what, and you could even join in without anyone batting an eyelid,” Siddharth recalled. The stereotypical yet colourful characters were there too – the drunk, the wife-beater, the washed-out businessman, the couple that fought each night, the flamboyant womanizer, the gossiping oldies. “As daylight softened, seniors would gather on the verandahs to talk about everything under the sun, from politics, to films, to mutually disliked neighbours. Murmurs overheard in the house from the group discussions outside weren’t supposed to be taken as a disturbance, the verandah was a space of public engagement,” he added.
While tattle and tales existed at one end of the socio-cultural ambience, games and sports were at the other. “Cricket was a daily ritual. Soon the boys came over to invite the new kid – me – to play their game. What looked exciting from a distance would actually turn out to be, upon closer inspection, foul cry about illegal fielding and no-ball, true or false run-out accusations, and so on,” Siddharth laughed. Not used to really playing outdoors he was hardly inclined to sacrifice his TV shows to go join the bickering, But A dozen boys playing with much commitment and vigour; the game’s charm couldn’t be fended off for long. Pretty soon, an evening game of cricket was routine for him too. Games would usually end with either the kid who owned the bat and ball storming out or some cantankerous grandpa confiscating the ball because it went into their house. “Being a kid, I had no hangups and took to chawl life pretty easily. I made a ton of friends from all six buildings,” he added.
Yet, not everything about living in a chawl is hunky-dory. The toilets are usually communal, meant to be shared by everybody. Meaning, you don’t know for sure if there’s a floater in there already as you step in to relieve yourself. “People had to queue up for using the toilet early morning, and cleanliness was an issue too. Thankfully ours was a self-contained unit, meaning it had a toilet-bath built in,” Siddharth continued, “Strewn garbage in rainwater drains would cause an ambient stench. There weren’t any rules about littering.” Another drawback was that privacy was a luxury, and you didn’t get it so easy. “Matters of one family would travel every house in the chawl to receive judgement and alterations. You did not have the option to not participate in festivities and celebrations. You couldn’t keep doors shut during daytime – that would encourage gossip.”
Nonetheless, what doesn’t have a flipside? While chawls might have demanded excess community participation, slick modern buildings sometimes almost hew off human connect. “In the seven months that we lived with Obaba, we witnessed a culture so close-knit, its customs unique to the surroundings in which it thrived. Obaba would teach English and Math to a local istriwallah’s son and the child’s mother would bring home-cooked meals, entirely out of reverence for her son’s tutor. People and relations were valued. I would go gallivanting around the chawl with my friends in the evenings. I missed all of that so dearly after we moved back,” Siddharth concluded.
The face of architecture will keep changing, but we might lose out on the delightful experiences that are fostered by connecting with people. A hackneyed housing typology like the chawl nurtured within it a valuable way of life. That’s certainly a beautiful takeaway.
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