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Is Bhendi Bazaar’s Culture Pulling Back Its Progress?

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Juzer Tambawalla sat across from me in his well-lit living room as we sat down to talk about the place where he grew up – Bhendi Bazaar. His family lived there for nearly a century before moving out as part of the redevelopment scheme.

Juzer also an ‘Ambassador of Mumbai’ and conducts heritage walks around the city with an organization called ‘Khaki Tours’, which is dedicated to documenting the history of Bombay and making it accessible to people.

Built in 1803, the bazaar’s name has been the central theme of many legends. One such theory suggests that the original name of ‘behind the bazaar’ metamorphosed into ‘Bhendi’ over time by the locals. Another story posits that the marketplace got its name from the ‘Bhendi’ trees that grow aplenty around here.

Bhendi Bazaar.

The place which is equally lively, cramped and bustling with people did not however, exist until 1803 when a massive fire destroyed 75-80% of the houses in that area. It was only then that the Governor of Bombay decided to bring up a new part of town, called as native town because the people living there were Indians and had brown skin.  

When I walked into Bhendi Bazaar, I was immediately hit by a mixture of different smells and different activities taking place. Here, the smell of fresh jalebis blends into the putrid smell of waste which is disposed in the street corners.

All around me I was surrounded by men in skull caps and women in burkas. This place was originally inhabited by different communities with the large majority of people being Zoroastrians.

However, after 1803, a considerable proportion of the immigrant Muslim population began to live here, coming in from as far away as Afghanistan and Sindh, looking for work. Eventually, the Parsis left and gradually, the Muslims became a significant demographic.

Now, the place is pre-dominantly inhabited by the Muslim community. There are a few commercial establishments which do belong to non-Muslims but these are few in number,” Juzer told YKA. 

Redevelopment Vs. Culture

A significant part of the area’s buildings have been pulled down in lieu of the non-profit redevelopment project undertaken by the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust. The buildings which remain have blackened and faded with time.

He told me, “The buildings here aren’t 300 years old, but they aren’t completely new either; they’re probably 75 to 100 years old. 

A lot of the buildings in the city get demolished and upgraded unless these buildings have a certain historical significance and people revere it and want to preserve it, but because these structures aren’t associated with a major historical event most people and most importantly the government aren’t bothered with preservation.” 

However, this might not be such a bad thing after all. The living conditions in the original buildings were poor with the rooms being small, unhygienic with communal bathrooms – only one bathroom for the residents of the building, no elevators and lack of privacy.

None of these challenges could be resolved because the buildings were not constructed that way. There was no way to build a bathroom and sink inside your house when your house itself was so small. 

The redevelopment which started in 2016 has already completed two high-rise structures, with over 610 residences and 128 retail outlets. This is the first large redevelopment project since the state government’s cluster redevelopment policy in 2009.

The aim of the project is to decongest Mohammad Ali Road, Pydhonie and Nagpada and also provide flat ownership to those who have been living as tenants in Bhendi Bazaar for all these years. Juzer narrated how recently he went to visit an acquaintance in one of the two new buildings that have come up. 

He has a 520 square feet house, with two bathrooms, a hall, a kitchen and a 180 degree view of the sea and I asked the gentleman can you imagine if 15 years back someone told you that your building would be replaced by a 36 story tower with such an unbelievable view? He could never ever have imagined that he would get a house like this,” Tambawalla recalled. 

As we talked about the culture of Bhendi Bazaar, he reminisced the sense of community and camaraderie that won’t be present in the new structures.

He explained that, “In Bhendi Bazaar the sense of community was very strong, if something happened in one person’s house everyone would come to help and everyone would know and that doesn’t happen in redeveloped high rises.

But you have to strike a balance between something that is temporary and that is permanent, that sense of camaraderie is temporary but living comfortably is permanent.

On asking what the streets of Bhendi Bazaar look like on a daily basis, he supplied me with a vivid description. “The shops were very quaint, they were different sizes, some were just on a bench not even a proper shop. When I was there, the place was very famous for its street food.

People from all over the city would come in Ramadan, particularly to savor the delicacies in the evening. None of that will clearly be possible, now.

I talked to some of the popular vendors in Bhendi Bazaar like the Tawakkal Sweets shop, which is renowned for its Malai Khajla, jalebi, firni, malpua, etc.

They said that while the location of their shop has changed, business remains as usual due to the sheer popularity and demand for the sweets they provide. This is true for several of the popular businesses. 

But Is Everything As Rosy As It Seems?

However, street vendors like the person who sells handi says, “I will no longer be able to remain in the same area and will have to move to the streets surrounding Bhendi Bazaar.

It is these small hawkers and stall owners, many of whom set up shop in Ramadan and around Eid that will face losses when they have to move to other streets or areas.

Yet they are optimistic about the adaptability of their situation and say that they are confident of finding consumers in other areas of the city as well even if the inflow of people is not as reliable. 

There are no easy answers to this conundrum as it is an ever-present tussle between redevelopment and betterment of infrastructure and the culture of the place.

Juzer Tambawalla

Tambawalla put across my dilemma succinctly by saying, Something needs to go down for something to come up.

Even though Bhendi Bazaar will lose its indigenous culture and environment, he believed, “Heritage preservation is an important thing but there is a price you pay for it which can be very heavy in terms of human development.

I can say that yes this building is a heritage structure i should keep it but that means that everybody who goes to this building has to go to use the bathroom outside the house, so that brings in the question of at what cost? Do you as a person deserve that? So the cost of history preservation is also the price that humanity lives to live in the past and living in the past isn’t an easy thing.” 

The answers lie in the time to come.

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.
Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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