Kusum Gogate, a sprightly 84, has lived at the same address in Girgaum - first floor, Keshavji Naik chawl where Bal Gangadhar Tilak organised the first public Ganeshotsav in 1897 - for 70 years. "These days, when I step out on Khadilkar Road to buy fruits and vegetables, I am conscious that I have to speak in Hindi to the fruitwalla," says Gogate. "That I'd have to speak any language other than
Marathi here was unthinkable till a few years ago but that's the change."
Once home to a mix of Maharashtrians and East Indians, Girgaum is rapidly transforming into a melting pot of communities and cultures. The trader and business classes, mainly Marwaris, Gujaratis and Kutchis, who work out of the diamond hub and wholesale markets nearby, find Girgaum an attractive address to live in.
Girgaum in transition is a narrative of clashing aspirations, competitive cultures that share little, and several small histories being erased with the razed buildings. A changed Girgaum, which is a key area in inner south Mumbai, holds economic and identity implications first for its residents and then the city's urbanscape.
Girgaum is now a mix of old-world commercial establishments, the classic stand-alone shops, old style chawls, all of which form a dichotomous backdrop to the new vertical, glass and chrome construction, air-conditioned outlets and swanky cars. As the ground-plus-two storey buildings and the typical 19th century chawls give way to glass-chrome high-rises, the influx of new residents gathers momentum. The "towers" intersperse the uniformity of the old structures.
The Girgaum skyline has changed, and will continue to do so as more vertical structures rise in the years to come. With the look, the texture and sounds too are undergoing a change. The Ganeshotsav, for example, now focuses more on the idol size and decorations rather than live performances and social reform propaganda.
Old-timers like Gogate find that their address is the same it was, yet their area isn't the old familiar one. "The Marathi-pan of the area is gone," she laments, "these towers will make it nightmarish to live in." The towers represent aspiration to some like Ilaben Patel, a tenant in the area awaiting possession of a flat her diamond-merchant husband booked a couple of years ago. "We will be able to see Mumbai below our balcony, we will live a modern life with Italian marble and elevators."
"The demographic change also means a change in the institutions and therefore the character," says Arvind Adarkar, noted architect whose home used to be in 1st Batwadi lane. "Local schools like Chikitsak, Ram Mohan and Kamlabai Girls, local institutions like Majestic theatre, Blavatsky lodge and Nutan Kala Mandir, the halls and baugs are going or gone. It's as if residents now only need apartments, without any of the social spaces needed for a fulfilling human existence."
Women's groups associated with the Brahman Samaj noted a trend in the last couple of years: mid-day meal of khichdi would be prepared by volunteers, mostly housewives, and dispatched to about 35, mostly Marathi-medium, schools across Girgaum; the number stands at ten today.
Amidst the change, a few notable landmarks still stand strong, such as the Marathi Sahitya Sangh, the crucible of Marathi theatre and music at one time. "We do have shows but the action seems to have shifted to the suburbs," says the manager, unwilling to be identified. The iconic Girgaum Pancha Depot, the one-place destination for typical Maharashtrian clothing, is in decline, as is Sahade & Athavale, the shop for Maharashtrian saris.
The main Jagannath Shankershet Road now has new shops and new owners of old shops. Some of them believe the redevelopment is not moving at a pace as swift as that in neighbouring areas.
"Maharashtrians are moving out because they find it profitable to sell and go elsewhere. This area has a lot of scope for re-development, but towers aren't coming up fast," says businessman Ashok Gala. What about amenities and institutions? "People make do with TV these days."