Hindus and Hinduism in a Hindu Heartland

My latest assignment takes me to the Kalbadevi area of Mumbai. Amongst the oldest areas of the city, it could be more than two centuries old. The area was originally the only commercial business district of the city and in spite of the city growing far more in all directions and with much more business districts it still retains its status as the prima donna of trading areas. It is the bastion of members of India’s most prominent trading communities, the Gujarati’s, Marwari’s, Punjabi’s, Sindhi’s and the Jain’s.

The area (even Kalbadevi’s immediate neighbourhoods) does thousands of crores worth of turnover daily in almost every conceivable material and commodity that the country produces, exports or imports.

My assignment is about a project looking into how the area can be systematically redeveloped as per a Master Plan. My role is to engage the community in the area so to understand their views and demands from the redevelopment exercise. Besides, my key area of interest remains environmental sustainability and the project has an interest in incorporating best practices, such that the environmental impact of the new planned development is minimal.

I have a historic connect with the area since my father was born and lived most of his youth a little away from where my site office is. I too would have been born in the area but thankfully wasn’t. As a kid in the 1980’s I would visit this area during vacations or odd times and would be pretty disgusted with the crowds, the dirt, the strained urban nature and complete lack of any civic sense amongst most of the residents of the area. And to top it there would be a certain sense of pride and arrogance in the way they lived – just because they live in Kalbadevi and South Mumbai. I would wish death to most of the people then, and a great fire to the area. None happened and the area is as dirty and the people as incapable of finding a solution for their area. Though my father passed away last year.

My father was every bit the solution finder and imaginative about urban issues as I am except that all he wanted to do was to show his knowledge and impress his ideas upon people. He was no different from the average Kalbadevi-ite in being able to take initiative (at least on such issues).

When I compare my childhood memories then I feel the area has certainly improved in its civic sense and cleanliness a lot. Then I would see these really vicious people whom you couldn’t say a thing if they threw waste from their windows on the street. Or the streets were much dirtier and littering more prevalent then. I think globalisation and the exposure to the world (through TV for most) has made the area cleaner.

Now as I spend ‘quality time’ in the area (almost 12 hours a day at times) in the area I cannot once again but observe in detail the people of the area, their behaviour, their thought patterns, their levels of civility, their imagination levels and their display (or lack of it) of those more elevated levels of behaviour that humanity fervently chases.

The area is pre dominatly Hindu and Jain and I get intrigued about the role of religion and culture in the current state of the area. I live further north of the area in the suburbs in a building which has a compound space where cars can be parked and kids can play. On one side of my building there is a 5 acre garden and immediately facing my 3rd floor balcony is a small garden with palm trees. As I write this sitting in my balcony I think about how contrary the atmosphere is in Kalbadevi.

Kalbadevi reeks of sewage and rotting garbage as they mix in narrow gaps between two buildings called house gullies. These house gullies are areas where the sewage and water pipelines for the buildings pass through. Some of the individual tenements of the buildings find themselves with one window besides the house gully and people do not think twice before throwing garbage into these. Over time the garbage mixes with sewage leaking from decades old pipes and the combination stinks only to be cleaned by the Municipal authorities once in a while. Rats find it a very convenient home.

The people live in dingy buildings with dark and foreboding staircases. Most buildings are supported with stilts and other props which keep them from falling. Most people live in 200-400 sq. feet tenements and share common toilets. An average of 4-5 people live in tenements of this size. For most people at least a generation or two has lived like this. I wonder what kind of lives these people must be living in these units.

Businessmen have over the years carried out their trading from such places and become multimillionaires able to afford posh flats close by and travel all over the world. But the wealth has had no impact in their attitudes towards their neighbourhood.

The area doesn’t have any open spaces and playgrounds. Children play gully cricket on Sundays or sometimes go to Azad Maidan and other grounds a little bit away. While a century back most of the commercial and economic activity was limited to some of the well defined markets in the past few decades a number of the residential tenements in buildings have been converted to various commercial usages including storage of cotton yarn and other products. Labour and business visitors throng the area during the day.

When we come up with the idea of a planned redevelopment of the area I wonder how these people have anyways lived like this all these years. What kind of a culture do these people belong to which allows people to live in these kind of conditions for decades without finding solutions? Is it the same culture which proudly talks of the Mohenjo Daro civilisations, which provided for exemplary levels of drainage 5000 years back.

I have for long been a vocal critic of the jingoism that passes of for Indian culture and Hinduism and its supposed greatness over western culture and other cultures. And in Kalbadevi that supposed greatness gets not only questioned but also cremated. When a culture and people get so busy to get into one upmanship and petty rivalry and arrogance at the cost of even not being able to live in clean and decent surroundings then there is not an iota of greatness in that culture.

The jingoists present India and Hinduism as the one stop shop for solutions to all the problems of the world. We gave the world the zero, which in itself is such an over riding contribution, that the world just need not doubt us about our ability and ask for anymore proof. But still the benign and generous and most intelligent people that we are we can give you the yoga and Ayurveda to take care of all your health problems. Our intelligent techies run the wheels of the world. Our culture is unparalleled and we are a country which respects it elders and where the family is most sacrosanct unlike the defiled West. Number of half truths and unchallenged statements.

Kalbadevi is full of super religious Hindus. I consider myself a rational Hindu – considering the Gods to my friends whom I say hi and bye to and whose counsel I seek in times of need. The Hindus of Kalbadevi are different. They are a bit too much into their gods and temples and rituals and a bit too less in loving their fellow beings. They are vicious lot who like the quote goes “mooh pe ram aur bagal mein choori” can never be trusted with what ill they may have in their minds for their fellow residents.

And when I hear of the same people talking of the problems like the Amarnath yatra and the damage Muslims are doing etc. I wonder what is stopping them from doing some good for their own selves in their own secure bastion? The Muslims or other imagined enemies are not responsible for the ridiculously bad living conditions in which these people live in a completely Hindu area. For all the talk of benevolence neither the tenants or the landlords display any of the characteristics which the thousands of spiritual gurus – which the area follows cultivates – propound. Members of castes and sects, and sub castes and sub sects are so wedded to their narrow community and dogmatic that they will not cooperate with another Hindu also.

I think it is these characteristics – which too me somewhere have become representative of Hindus- which are turning out to be the biggest enemy of Hinduism.

I cant help splitting up when I hear people talk of making the temple at Ayodhya and collecting funds for the yatra and other such things. If Ram was around he wouldn’t have come to so much as even shit in this area. If one were to believe that God exists everywhere then the wealthy and not so wealthy of Kalbadevi need to first do something about the squalor they have reduced their temple to, with absolutely no help from Babar or his tribe.

Peepal Tree Building

The pictures below show the deep neglect a number of the old and dilapidated buildings in the island city of Mumbai suffer from.
The Rent Control Act shouldn’t have deterred the people staying in the buildings from doing something to secure their own safety atleast. But the neglect is now coming to haunt them as they have to evacuate their buildings. Below are pictures from Brijwasi Building, 6 Navi Wadi, Off Chira Bazaar Road, a critical section of which collapsed on 25th July.
Un disturbed and uninterrupted the tree was allowed to grow through the yars
Undisturbed and uninterrupted the tree was allowed to grow through the years
The trees roorts have deeply and strongly clutched the building now. Any attempt at uprooting would be dangerous.
The trees roorts have deeply and strongly clutched the building now. Any attempt at uprooting would be dangerous.

Cluster Bombing

The article
The article

Dear Vikas,

I write these views in personal interest and not as part of any of the organisations I am a part of. I read with interest your article ‘Cluster Bombing’. I found myself agreeing with some of the things you say, disagreeing with others and at other times found myself in a dilemma considering that I had joined the Remaking of Mumbai Federation two months back with some kind of a healers and surgeons state of being, thinking of cleaning the area of all the dead and diseased tissue and restoring the flow of fresh oxygenated blood.

Most of the area in C Ward and some of the other adjoining wards in the island city are clearly composed of buildings which are in a dangerous condition to inhabit. Some of these are certainly part of some of the heritage precincts we all love. But there are two aspects to consider in your article. One covers either heritage precincts and individual heritage buildings and the other non-heritage buildings. There is another way of looking at the matter where we club everything together, the sights, the smells the heritage and non-heritage together, the narrow lanes, the low rise nature and others aspects together which are now reminiscent of another age and talk of preserving the same. I think it is the latter which you (myself certainly) think of as the heritage we would wish to preserve.

As far as I am concerned I have come to realize that I cannot have everything I wish. This effectively means that we will have to pay a price for our decades of neglect. My favourite quote holds – “in nature there are no rewards or punishments, only consequences”. And while we may feel remorseful about loosing a certain something we treasure, we have to also learn to live with the fact that the loss is a direct consequence of something which has been done or not done by us or somebody else or all collectively. (For the context my father was born in a building on Princess Street)

And this is exactly what is happening in some of old inner city areas. The 33(9) regulation is about redeveloping of areas which are now composed of a significantly high number of dangerous buildings in which people continue to live. Over the years there has been a criminal neglect of the conditions of the buildings and the various social issues like the landlord-tenant disputes, the quality of life etc. The participation of people in most matters has been so poor that the bureaucrat-builder-politician partnership has had to take decisions. There cannot be a vacuum. And if there have been irregularities why aren’t we (you and me or also the residents of the area?) doing something about that?

I am commenting not keeping just the 33(9) context in mind. Some of the points you have raised have standalone merit. I am in agreement about the bad quality of policy reflected in 33(9).

I think it is still possible to find solutions to some of the problems raised by you but those will not solved by just doing the identification of the symptoms. The underlying disease will have to understood and resolved for anything to reflect.

I am putting some comments on the points raised by you. The portions in black below are from your article and my responses are in blue. If the views express a certain unhappiness and anger it is not with you but with the general state of affairs. Thanks for initiating the discussion.

The article said – “For most people, the appeal of Mumbai’s distinct skyline comes from its variety—from the stately structures of Fort to the bustling chaos of Kalbadevi or the bazaars of Girgaum. However, all this could be a thing of the past, if the state government’s plans to implement cluster development in the island city go through.

Cluster development refers to the clubbing together of all kinds of buildings—heritage structures, government buildings and slums—to be redeveloped with a higher FSI. This plan threatens the distinct visual character of the city, by aiming to replace it with a skyline of homogenous high-rises. Moreover, the areas that will be affected by the plan form the heart of the city’s historical character. (See box)

As much we care for heritage, we (conservationists) are equally aware that the quality of life is as important if not more important than heritage. But the strategy of cluster development fails to address the root cause of the problem —why our heritage is being neglected—while advocating a blanket formula for some of the most architecturally significant parts of our city. It is like advocating a new set of dentures that will be shiny and look good to a patient, when just a root canal will do. “

This para has the biggest question which itself merits to become the sole point of discussion – “why our heritage is being neglected?” The cluster redevelopment strategy has a number of flaws but one of them cannot be not addressing that question. Addressing that question is not the job of laws alone but a whole way of thinking and being. It is how society as a whole finds appeal in the varying Mumbai skylines mentioned above, is what is important.

Beyond a few of us who would much rather be keeping our faces hanging out – like dogs in a car – enjoying each and every bit of the vistas the city offers, most of the public would much rather be listening to their I Pod. And it is the attitude and active participation or lack of it in the millions which reflects in regulations like 33(9) being drafted. And is it the responsibility of the government to make people appreciate the importance of heritage? Was it the role of the government that shaped our appreciation for heritage? Or is it that our appreciation was shaped due to other factors and now we try to shape the attitude of the government and society.

Why is it that only some of us go so mad when we see that particular piece of architecture or vista? Why is it that more often than not people who inhabit a particular precinct of heritage value themselves fail to have any appreciation for it or are not able to find solutions to preserve the heritage value. Why is it that so many of the breed which appreciates heritage is not able to deliver to its complete potential their efforts in saving heritage. The questions we face are many and the answers few. And it is only in answering some of the other questions that we find some respite from the anguish we face “while advocating a blanket formula for one of the most architecturally significant parts of our city.”

The article said – “By clubbing together our heritage precincts and the entire island city with slums for redevelopment we are degrading our historical legacy. The new development that we would get would be nothing more than another larger vertical slum soon. This is clear from the fact that many modern buildings built as recently as the 1970s and 80s are already becoming dilapidated due to lack of maintenance and are going for redevelopment in the suburbs within a span of 30 years. On the other hand, our heritage precincts —many of them a century old—are in fair or good condition due to the robust materials used.

It is only due to the lack of maintenance, overuse and misuse of these structures that problems arise. These can be dealt with by making good maintenance mandatory, which can happen by experimenting with diluting the Rent Control Act from the listed heritage buildings to begin with. This is a minuscule proportion of few hundred buildings in lakhs of tenanted buildings. It is obvious that the market value of the properties would go up which would be a win-win situation for all. This will help in preserving and maintaining our heritage rather than demolishing everything and leaving only a building or two as a relic of the past, as seen in Singapore. Mumbai is on the tourist map for its glorious heritage and not for its vertical high rises. Heritage precincts can be treated as special development areas, where more sensitive development patterns can be worked out after understanding the complex social and cultural matrix of these areas, rather than seeing it only from the economic point of view. ”

Why is it that in spite of having a good idea of the solutions we fail to implement them for decades to end even as the problems continuously keep becoming bigger and bigger. Why talk of experimenting with diluting the Rent Act? The experimenting should have been done in the 60’s. The Rent Act itself is the single biggest reason for the falling apart of the Kalbadevi, Chira Bazaar, Girgaum, Bhuleshwar area. This was more than evident till 3 decades back also. If tenants are not going to pay market rent, which landlord or government authority will pay for the upkeep of their building? Forget paying market rent most people could not incorporate non-expenditure habits like not spitting on the walls or throwing garbage in house gullies. Had we only succeeded in treating our buildings and precincts with a bit of decency in our civic behaviour the precincts wouldn’t have been so run down or structurally weakened to require a redevelopment? What could have been a scenario of relatively smaller payments (market rent) being made on a regular basis leading to a regular upkeep and maintenance of the buildings has become a scenario where now even if the tenants want to make large payments nothing can be done because the buildings are damaged beyond salvage. A sinking fund for maintenance should have been maintained since day one. But everybody wanted to cut corners.

When you mention that tourists come to Mumbai not for its high rises but for its glorious heritage I am reminded of the reality as I see it on the street. I have been passing the streets of Kalbadevi more frequently now and yet to come across a tourist admiring the streetscape. Even if I go to CST or DN Road I do not see the hordes of tourists that one associated with similar areas elsewhere. In my opinion tourists only come to heritage places which are appreciated by the original inhabitants themselves. You cannot look at the heritage in isolation only. The people are an important part of the package.

We have never been a culture which has any broad based interest in history.

The article said – “The history of heritage legislation throughout the world shows that in the early 19th century, protection was extended only to monuments. This was later increased to the enclosure of the monuments and then to its immediate surrounding, which was further stretched to views and vistas. Mumbai, in contrast, seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Our heritage precincts are the grain of our urban fabric, as a result of which our city landmarks stand out. If this grain shifts to becoming high-rises (with higher FSI’s) then the neo-Gothic silhouette of our city, acclaimed by historians as the finest city in the East of Suez, will vanish. It will be a shame if UNESCO takes back the World Heritage Status Tag from CST seeing the present trends.

At the Venice Biennale exhibition of Cities of the World in 2006, one of the exhibits showed the new skyline of Girgaum area. Even without cluster development, viz a viz the density model of Mumbai city, you could see the densities of New York and Tokyo were evenly distributed and were less than half of Mumbai in some areas. It is cities like Cairo which follow the Mumbai pattern but they have at-least sorted out their traffic problems first.”

I could vouch that if I was to take a poll on Chira Bazaar road or on Kalbadevi Road or Girgaum none of the passerby’s I would encounter would know what the Venice Biennale Exhibition would be all about. Even if ten percent know about it I would consider it a super achievement. Appreciating the heritage and preserving it has become the preserve of a very few educated people in this country unfortunately. And maybe education also has nothing to do with it. Then there are the elite in our city who occupy the seats of decision making who use their interest in heritage as a Page 3 visa. They have so much time, energy and resources at their disposal but unfortunately lack the imagination and what it takes to make a difference. All these years couldn’t a few wealthy people from Malabar Hill and Cuffe Parade and Marine Drive – a lot of whom must have grown in their economic stature from the markets of Kalbadevi – have bothered to set up a trust or commission which would look into the preserving of the area for eternity? The few of these rich who care for these things would rather bother to be seen at the Venice Biennale with their mediocre contributions (or no contribution) rather than make an exemplary contribution anonymously.

The article said – “The proposed cluster development plan also raises important questions even aside from heritage, like—what happens in case of natural disasters? Where do we have open spaces where people can be evacuated temporarily? And how will our already fragile, century-old infrastructure cope with even higher pressures?”

The proposed cluster development plan is unimaginative but where are the open spaces even now in case of natural disasters? A moderate earthquake would ensure that the buildings in Kalbadevi would come down like a pack of cards.

The article said – “Such plans ignore the fact that many of our old structures are intelligent buildings—crafted with attention to our climate and culture, and excellent in their detail and ornamentation. Their form is rooted in the social and cultural life of the communities that created them. All this would be lost with cluster development, which would tempt the tenants of even a good condition heritage building to go in for redevelopment, drawn by the temptation of a higher FSI. The loss of heritage and sense of continuity would be immeasurable and irreplaceable. With the loss of the mills, heritage structures and Grade I buildings like Crawford Market waiting for redevelopment, we would have lost the Mumbai that we inherited.”

Again this needs to be felt by people at least in the thousands and those feelings then need to be converted to kinetic energy for 33(9) to reflect them. Saving the heritage or environment is a complex interplay of various disciplines. Achieving desired results would inevitably mean influencing the thoughts of un-connected disciplines.

There is a tectonic shift in society. The communities that created these buildings are now dead and extinct. The neighbourhoods evolved in all probability with the British and were maintained only till then. Since the time the areas have come into the hand of Indians the degradation has started. 33(9) is a very small contribution to that process.