Part 1 of a two-part series where we revisit the lesser-known spots mentioned in the book 'Maximum City' and see how they have changed since the book came out more than a decade ago.
It has been 10 years since Suketu Mehta’s bestseller 'Maximum City' was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. A book so definitive that its name became synonymous with the city that it covered. The genius of the book lay in it speaking about the city at large, through landmarks and personalities that inhabited its fringes. But the recent reports of the Mumbai Police deciding to restrict sex workers to just one lane in Kamathipura (the red light district of the city), made me realise how fast these fringes are being erased away into oblivion.
It was time to take out the book, mark down a trail and see for myself how the last decade has treated Mumbai’s lesser known but nevertheless historic landmarks.
Excerpt: ‘…The biggest whorehouse in Bombay is called Congress House. It is named for the headquarters of the Congress Party across the street. The eighty-six-year old watchman will tell you that Mahatma Gandhi set up camp here during the freedom struggle…’
Congress House, Grant Road
It’s dusk and my heart is racing looking at a building whose board reads ‘Mumbai Sangeet Kalakaar Mandal’. This is the legendary Congress House; ‘a fortress of whores’ as the book calls it. The building is barely a few hundred metres away from Lamington Road, a place frequented by customers seeking bargains on the latest gadgets. The ‘Sangeet Kalakaar...’ part owes its existence to the music academy that was set up here in 1972 by Indira Gandhi to rehabilitate dancers and musicians from the royal courts of Agra. The mujra sessions that happen inside are now the only remnants of that innocent endeavour.
Going by the garbage that lines the sides of the entrance, it doesn’t look as if much has changed in the last 10 years, certainly not for the better. A few pimps stand outside the building casually talking and sizing up potential customers while a police truck is parked just a few steps away. The police truck gives me the strength to go approach a few pimps and ask them if they can get a prostitute to agree to an interview. The pimps are surprisingly polite in making me realize how stupid my idea of just sauntering in and convincing a prostitute to give me a soundbite or two, sounds. They tell me their views though. ‘Internet sabse badi dikkat hai. Jo bhi type ki ladki chahiye woh internet pe mil jaati hai. Dhande pe toh effect hoga hi. (Internet has been the biggest problem. You can get any type of girl you want from the internet. It certainly has affected the business.) ’ says one pimp who has been in the business for around 15 years.
Even after being told that no prostitute would agree to be photographed, I decide to enter the whorehouse. A paan-waala inside tells me to go try my luck with Pinkyben, a senior ‘madam’ who would perhaps be able to help me out. As I ask around for Pinkyben, I am greeted by sights of prostitutes, decked up in loud clothes, leaving for work; children and women peeking out of tiny one-bedrooms; prostitutes and their ‘madams’ sitting in nighties, chopping vegetables for dinner; regular customers going brazenly into rooms where they know what to expect.
In a corridor of sorts I find Pinkyben playing cards with a few pimps. She shoots down my idea of talking to a prostitute without even looking at me, and after being asked about what has changed in the last 10 years, she replies with a curt ‘Kuch nahi. Aaj se 10 saal pehle bhi zindagi jhand thi aur aaj bhi jhand hai. (Nothing has changed. Life was hopeless back then also and it still is.)’. She leaves abruptly to resolve an argument between a pimp and a group of young men trying to bring down the price of a prostitute. This is when I decide to try my luck and go straight to a prostitute to see if she would agree to a couple of photos in which her face won’t be revealed. She tells me plainly ‘I wouldn’t get my photo clicked even if you pay me 10 lakhs, but I’ll give you a shot for 500’. I decline the offer politely and come out of the complex dodging the I-pill satchets and used sanitary pads that dot the sides of the narrow, dark exit.
Excerpt: ‘…Rashid wants to keep the Brabourne just the way it is. There is a great sense of space at the Brabourne not found in Bombay at restaurants ten times as expensive… It serves simple fare: eggs, bread, minced beef, biscuits, tea. Twelve years ago Rashid added beer to his Irani’s offerings, and now the evening hours are filled mostly with beer drinkers…'
Brabourne restaurant at Dhobi Talao now lies closed, much to my dismay. I have no other option but to just take a photo of the shuttered shop where the restaurant once existed. It has gone the way of many other Irani restaurants in the city. High rents and the reluctance of the young generation to run an Irani, are two of the biggest factors behind their doom. Monthly rents rose up so high for Brabourne that it was left with only two options – lose the middle class clientele that it had prided itself on, by going upmarket or shut shop. It decided to shut shop. In November 2008, keeping it ‘just the way it is’ did the popular Irani in. My dreams of having kheema pav with some beer in the evening, under the watchful eyes of Rashid Irani who doubles up as a notable film critic, lay shattered. I found some solace though, minus the beer, across the street at Kayani’s, one of the few Iranis still soldiering on in these difficult times.
Brabourne Restaurant before it closed down and now. (image on the left courtsey: http://www.iranichaimumbai.com/)
Radhabai Chawl (officially known as Gandhi Chawl)
Excerpt: ‘…On January 8, 1993, a Hindu family of millworkers was sleeping in a room in Radhabai Chawl, in the middle of the Muslim part of the slum. Someone locked their door from the outside; someone threw a petrol bomb in through the window. The family of six died screaming, clawing at the door to get out…’
Mohammed Hussain, the volunteer assigned to me by a local NGO called Saher, tells me that the road dissecting the sprawling Prem Nagar slum in Jogeshwari into Hindu and Muslim ghettos is referred to as ‘The Border’ by the locals, a clear allusion to the LoC dividing India and Pakistan. But come any major festival – whether Hindu or Muslim – and the procession passes through the border as it is the only road wide enough to carry one, making it, rather ironically, the most secular part of the slums.
It is this rigid segregation that makes me uncomfortable while asking for directions to a building that sparked the 1993 Hindu-Muslim riots. Surprisingly, it’s no big deal for the locals and they point me towards a cluster of haphazardly arranged houses, through a maze of cramped, narrow alleys. Inside the chawl, a lady in her late thirties tells me that the biggest problem that the residents have to face is not the building’s history but the severe lack of basic infrastructure. The sewers overflow because the requests to unclog them falls on deaf ears and a promise of just 2 hours of water supply in a day is also not met fully, with the taps sometimes drying up way before the 2 hours are up.
Radhabai Chawl (also known as Gandhi chawl), Jogeshwari
Aareefa Khan, a women’s activist who features prominently in the book and now resides in Nalasopara, says with a mix of hopelessness and dejection, ‘Nothing much has changed in the last 10 years. The apathy of the local government towards the slum dwellers, especially the Muslim ones, still remains as it was back in 2005. Muslims are being made to suffer a lot. I can feel another Hindu-Muslim riot brewing’. When you hear someone who knows her grassroots as well as Aareefa say this, you can’t help but worry.
Words and Photography: Avijit Pathak