“Right there, right there!”
“Where? I can’t see the damn station. Where is it?”
“Right there, you walk past that little lane, you will hit the station.”
Grudgingly, I walked through the lane and lo and behold! I was at the platform of Govandi railway station. It just took me a little row of settlements and some open drains running by them to get to that wretched Govandi station (not to forget to mention, passing by some of the children playing around and that sole bhaiyya woman sitting idly).
Did I say wretched? Yes, wretched is the feeling I get when I am at Govandi station. Perhaps in my life, I must have been to Govandi station exactly six times. Of the four of those six times, I have traveled in the east of Govandi, towards the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). But the last two times, I have actually experienced the wretchedness of Govandi station, when I have had to get off platform number 1 and then go past all the squatter settlements, till I eventually get to the infamously famous Lallubhai Compound.
Wretched, Unpleasant …
Wretched, that wretched Govandi area! Yes, I can feel the skin on me … I can feel the anger and irritation rising in me, a feeling that I have rarely gotten as I have traveled the insides of some of the squatter settlements in Mumbai. It is not the squalor that produces that feeling of unpleasantness in me. Yes, there is squalor and squalor of the worst form that can be seen and experienced. The proximity of the squatter settlements to the city’s only functional garbage dump and to the city’s only abattoir makes the open drains and sewage in these slums the worst of their kind and nothing compared with the reasonably better off sewage facilities in most of the other slums in the city.
Squalor, yes! Squalor! But that is not the cause of the unpleasantness within me. Then, what is it?
Cut to Lallubhai Compound, between Govandi and Mankhurd:
Lallubhai Compound, here it is, or should I say there it is. Yeah, there it is, so much of what I was trying to imagine it to be and so much of the reality that I could see and tried to fathom. I was not sure what I should feel when I see the rows of cement buildings that make up this Compound. Housed in these rows of buildings are slum dwellers from various parts of Mumbai City – those whole lived near the railway stations of Kurla terminus, Chembur and Matunga; those who once had dwellings along the pavements of the famous P. D’Mello road near VT station; people from Byculla, Dadar, Parel, you name it – they are all housed here.
“That minister Nawab Malik got us to come here. He said that if we did not move here, we would even lose this house. Hence we came here.”
“We were living near the railway lines. Government decided to expand the railway lines and so, we moved here.”
“It was crazy when we first moved here. Felt like we had come to a village. My family was shunted out of Matunga and then we were made to live in the transit camps in Mankhurd for five long years till we eventually came here. There was initially a hill here. People went up on the hill and jumped off. They could not tolerate the loneliness. Only now, more people have come to live here and there seems to be some development.”
About 1.5 kilometers away from Govandi station is situated Lallubhai Compound, that infamously famous rehabilitation colony. For a moment, I almost think of the chawls in Parel area when I see the built environment here. The same noise, running around, tamashas on the street, shops below the buildings – it’s just so much Parel. And yet, it is not Parel. There is hustle and bustle, lot of activity on the roads, but it seems like Lallubhai can only be a world within its own self (but for now!). Unlike Parel where the self of the chawl is intermingled with the multiple selves of the city that manifest in various forms – the industrial estates, the media offices, the traffic, the locality of Lalbagh – in stark comparison to all of this, Lallubhai is isolated, despite being so close to the row houses just across the bridge which house the wealthier residents of Govandi.
“Lallubhai is a clear instance of the US housing projects for the poor. The poor were evicted from the city areas and placed at the outskirts of the city. Complete ghettoization.”
Could I say that Lallubhai is an instance of ghettoization, another import from the Americas into the urbs prima indis? Undoubtedly, Lallubhai is a ghetto, almost like people are being brought from the city and thrown away into some form of confinement. And yet, I would be condemned and damned if I were to say that people have been confined. Ground floor houses have been converted into shops, beauty parlors, English teaching classes and STD-PCO booths. People go back to the older neighbourhoods for work and for reaching their children to schools. Some of the residents have given up their homes for rent and have begun to live in the nearby squatter settlements or in and around their original places of residence.
I walk around the area. A thriving women’s hawker market has come up on the roads. I am told this is an “illegal” market because it is not certified by the municipality. The drains and rats between the buildings remind you of the house-gully situation in Null Bazaar where the settlers are harassed by the overflowing sewage between two buildings.
There are groups of unemployed boys loafing around the area. I am told that these have become frequent lately.
The rickshaw drivers make their killing each day – five rupees a seat for a one-way ride between Govandi station and Lallubhai. The local autorickshaw fellas seem like another socio-political group emerging in the area, they being camped around the naka which is their adda.
Then there are the various forms of groups and organizations that abound within Lallubhai – the women’s savings group, the hawkers’ federation, National Slum Dwellers’ Federation-Mahila Milan-SPARC – all housed within the same office premises of what is mentioned in bold as the Public Information Center.
There are financial networks woven within the social and political fabric of the area – the grain merchants, the jewellery shops which double up as lending and borrowing institutions, you name it.
There are social and political organizations that I am unaware of but which likely exist – the very networks that existed in the squatter settlements and that formed an important aspect of the everyday practice of a slum.
Isolated – ghettoized – confinement – sorry to disappoint, but the space of Lallubhai is only unfolding with time. The self is emerging …
Rethinking the Idea and Practice of a Slum …
“It’s good that people have been moved into these flats. They will learn to live in a sanitized environment. They will learn to live with dignity and respect.”
“They get more space than what they had in their little slums. This rehabilitation is benefiting the people.”
“It will take a while for the slum dwellers to learn to live here. They are not used to the vertical way of living.”
“The community has to learn to accept one and all. The lepers’ rehabilitation colony in Oshiwara is placed away from the rest of the rehab housing. People don’t want other groups to live around them. The community will have to learn.”
“Now, there are a lot of Muslims coming into this area as tenants. The Maharahstrians are reducing in numbers.”
By now, I have been going to all those areas in the city that I did not ever venture into while I lived here for 25 odd years. There are times when I pass through those unevenly lined row houses and I ask myself – why is this labeled a slum? By what standards are these well furnished houses within this apparently uneven settlement classed as slums?
It would be highly banal on my end to state that the idea of a slum is quite different from its practice. But let me state what I felt as I experienced Lallubhai compound. That visit to Lallubhai has made it clear to me a slum is not merely a physical structure as it might be projected in policy and media. The slum is a network and simultaneously many networks and several circuits – all these networks and circuits connected with the space of the city, with the locality and meshed into numerous scales of statedom and nationdom and globaldom. When people are “rehabilitated” into flats and built structures, some of the circuits and networks are severed but at the same time, other connections become stronger and some connections become even more oppressive than they previously were.
Consistently, I also hear remarks of how the slum dwellers had occupied the lands and have now gotten flats in return for free, that they are now living in sanitized conditions and their lives will improve and that they should learn to live in the flats rather than escape from there. The stories in Lallubhai betray all these notions. While some of the more upwardly mobile among this misleading category of “urban poor” benefit with the receipt of the house, for many other individuals and families, the receipt of the home could not be a greater curse. These have been families that have been in the bottom rung among the poor and that the house in Lallubhai for them is a liability more than an asset. For these groups, the monthly payment of electricity bills and maintenance fees coupled with increased transportation costs and the loss of their jobs or the lack of increase in salaries but rise in expenses, all of these factors lead us to rethink whether the house is truly a marker of improvement in their lives. And then there are several among those who never made it to Lallubhai despite living among the same populations who were to be ‘rehoused’ – the process of rehabilitation and the political dynamics are in no way equal for all – some get the house, some decide to move out, some are deprived, and much more than what I can know and tell … And as for the sanitized living, the more seen, the better – the poor garbage lifting facilities, the overflowing drains between the buildings, the lack of water until water is fought for as an entitlement, and the teeming rats – yes certainly, sanity and sanitation have to be rethought as much as the idea and practice of the slum have to be reconsidered.
That pervasive feeling of wretchedness and disgust continues within me until I reach Govandi station. It persists beyond as I pass Wadala, Chunnabhatti, Sewri, Dockyard and even further, into the passing days … It travels within me and beyond me. I am still thinking what the city is and how the city is continuously accessed, both symbolically and physically, from time to time …