Saturday, July 17, 2010

RVR Autobio Excerpts II -Life in a Chawl

Chawl life is unique to Bombay. A chawl consists of a 2 to 3 storey building with several single room tenements to a floor in which any¬where from 10 to 20 families live, sharing 2 or 3 common toilets and bathrooms. Each tenant will have a minimum of 5 occupants or more. Occupants could be lower class (factory workers), middle class with white collar jobs, small traders and businessmen.

A typical chawl is a potpourri of Indian diaspora as people from different religions, hailing from different parts of the country live to¬gether, unlike modern day flat system where people lead isolated lives and busy that they have no time for neighbours (of¬ten they won’t even know who the neighbour is). Interestingly, in a chawl people live like a joint family. Since the rooms are small (max. 250 sq.ft.) and placed next to each other, there was absolutely no privacy. Even ordinary conversations among family members will be heard by the neighbours.

Though the individual tenements are very small, when there are occasions to be celebrated by a family, the rooms of all the tenants are thrown open to the host for accommodating visiting relatives, providing space for serving meals to visitors or even providing room for the visitors to sleep for a night or two. In spite of living in cloistered surroundings, the hearts of the chawl members were big.

At the same time, it was not uncommon to witness serious fights among neighbours, often for trivial reasons. Most common fights were over disputes among children carried forth to the parents. Another common fight used to be over the mess that small kids make on the passageway to common toilets – the issue hotly debated as to whose child did the job and who should clean up the mess. These fights among two neighbours were often free entertainment for the other neighbours, from very personal attacks to general, using the most abu¬sive language. There will be Marathi abuses vs. Gujarati abuses, Punjabi vs. Bengali, Madrasi (anybody south of the Vind¬hyas is known as a Madrasi in Bombay be it a Tamilian, Kannadhiga, Andhraite or a Malayalee) vs. Hindi. Sometimes the verbal attack would lead to fisticuffs, forcing the other neighbours to intervene and separate the “fighters”. Very interestingly, the same neighbours who fought like cats and dogs one day, will be seen enjoying bonhomie like long lost friends on other happier occasions.

A chawl is one place where you can never get bored or depressed. For children of all ages, living in a chawl is fun. You are always surrounded by friends from the building who are playing with you, joking around or generally keeping you engagedn and that they had told him that he was a ‘God’s blessing’ to them. We got frightened that he might go back and check this out with his parents and land us all in trouble. So we had to pacify him and tell him that what his parents had told him must be true. It will be interesting to know that this is the same Ganesh who married very early (at the age of 23), and later gave us the true insights into married life. He also became a father and a grand father at a very early age

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