Ad author RK Narayan based his short stories in Mumbai, the lush green forests and scenic hilly terrains once visible in Chembur could have passed off as the sleepy village of Malgudi.
“We spent time walking through paddy fields and chasing butterflies,” reminisces Dr Suhasini Bansare, 76, born into Chembur’s first family- Chemburkars. “Even local trains didn’t halt here.”
That Chembur is now in the past. So is the quiet, wealthy and laid-back Chembur of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Chembur of 2012 is a story of convenience and connectivity.
As the city’s corridor into the fast-developing Navi Mumbai and beyond, Chembur, off the bustling Eastern Expressway Highway, is now the transit point for lakhs of commuters between Mumbai and its satellite cities. This has brought a number of large-scale infrastructure projects: Santacruz-Chembur Link Road, Charkop-Bandra-Mankhurd metro line, Jacob Circle-Wadala-Chembur monorail route and the Eastern freeway project totally worth Rs20,590 crore.
This, coupled with a boom in real estate development, marked by the ubiquitous residential towers, has meant that the area’s geography, demography and density have undergone a transformation. No longer do old-time residents see winding roads on which herds of cattle once freely strode, the rows of old and quaint bungalows that characterised Chembur are now few and far between, the glamour and wealth that came from Bollywood studios and families have moved to Juhu.
Touted as the Bollywood capital of Mumbai up to the late 1970s, it was here that superstars shot dream sequences, ran around trees and purchased ‘convenience’ homes to stay after long hours of shooting schedules. “Young boys and girls used to follow Raj Kapoor’s car every time it left the grand gates of RK Films Studio just to shake hands with him,” recounts 70-year-old Hari Manyam, whose childhood home -- complete with a green backyard and independent servant quarters -- now houses the upscale hotel Jewel of Chembur.
Chembur is home to one of the city’s oldest cultural institution promoting classical music —The Fine Arts Society. Keeping pace with the changing cultural tastes and demands of the suburb, the 50-year-old institution today, caters to not just the Tamil-speaking population.
Formerly home to fishermen, government employees and refugees, the suburb is all about extremes, with two classes of people leading parallel lives: businessmen and professionals, zooming in and out of their complexes in their Bentleys on one hand; dilapidated hutments and slums, relief and rehabilitation camps hit by the worst human development index in the city, on the other.
The contradictions from its physical landscape extend to its demography. Located at the tip on the city’s map, Chembur is at the end of the pile for the city’s development. This underside of Chembur continues to be filthy. Taunted as “gas chamber of Mumbai” for its heavily polluted air, Chembur does not fare better now. “Basic amenities such as water supply, healthcare and toilets continue to be luxuries for us. The stench emitted from the Deonar dumping ground has made it a mosquito breeding ground,” says Mustaq Sheikh, 30, resident of Shivaji Nagar slum.
While the underclass seems to languish, the other Chembur determinedly marches towards development.“With its infrastructural and cultural overhaul, I fear Chembur might soon become like any other city suburb,” rues Manyam.