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Mumbai’s disappearing community baths

Housed in a building you will most likely miss, the haamam or a Turkish community bath house is hardly as opulent as it sounds.

mumbai Updated: Nov 09, 2016 01:51 IST
Debasish Panigrahi
Bilal Ahmed stands in his Nawaab Haircutting Salon and Haamam  set up by his grandfather in 1954. It was a thriving business then, but has few takers today.
Bilal Ahmed stands in his Nawaab Haircutting Salon and Haamam set up by his grandfather in 1954. It was a thriving business then, but has few takers today.(HT)

(An occasional series on how what was once commonplace is vanishing as Mumbai changes)

A cold tub of water, a small ceramic-tiled cubicle and a bar of soap – a tumbledown salon off Stable Street in Mumbai’s Kamathipura area has for 60 years given thousands of homeless workers a place to take a good shower at the end of long day. It’s a haamam or a Turkish community bath house; but it is hardly as opulent as it sounds.

Housed in a building you will most likely miss, the Nawaab Haircutting Salon and Haamam offers no massages, steaming tubs or pleasant smelling towels. Instead, what one gets here is a tub of water precariously placed in a window-shaped cavity on one side of the 4x4ft cubicle, a plastic mug to draw water and functional curtains that act as doors.

“We are traditional Hazaams (barbers) from Lucknow. My grandfather was in the service of one of the Nawaabs before he migrated to Mumbai in the early 1950s to seek a fortune,” said Bilal Ahmed, the owner of the salon that was set up by his grandfather Nawaab Ali in 1954.

“Things were different those days,” said Mohamed Riaz, a 55-year-old resident of the neighbouring Do Tanki area. Riaz grew up in lanes like these, where migrants set up several such haamams. To understand why Mumbai needed them, Riaz offers a trip back in time.

“Places like Stable Street, Duncan Road and the many lanes of Kamathipura mostly had lower-middle class residents and thriving brothels,” Riaz remembers.

The quaint haamams were a vital part of Mumbai’s growth story – a place that welcomed the hands that built this city. They are now quickly becoming a part of its history. (HT)

It’s the 1960s. As the sun sets and the streets empty, hundreds of migrant labourers — who work in the upcoming business areas of Bharat Bazaar, Chor Bazaar and at scrap yards in Mazgaon — are looking for a spot on the pavements of the streets to sleep as they cannot afford their own homes.

“The workers would start very early, toil in the heat and dust all day long. They had no homes, but they needed to bathe. There were some public toilets in the area, but no place for a bath,” Riaz said.

Some enterprising salons cashed in on this, offering a place for a bath at a measly price.

Zaffar Khan, 60, a resident of Saqui Manzil, a building that shares a wall with the Nawaab salon, remembers how workers would queue up there after sunset. “Queues ran as far as the eye could see sometimes. During the 1970s, the salon charged Rs2 for a bath. A bath with soap cost 25 paisa more.”

Khan said a Lifebuoy bar was cut into 10 pieces and sold to customers at 25 paisa; they got a tub full of water, around 35 litres and every extra tub cost Rs2 more. The haamam would function until the 1,400 litre tank above the salon ran dry. “We got our water came from baudis (wells) that were only open during the day. When the stock finished at night, there was no way of refilling the tank,” said Abdul Mannan,55, the only worker left in the salon that used to have five to six workers in its heyday.

Nawaab offered haircuts and shaves as well.

“After a good bath, the workers dressed up, put on cheap perfume on their shirts and walked around Kamathipura. They would land up in a drinking hole or a brothel, before making their way back to their tiny spots on the road by midnight,” Bilal said.

The quaint haamams were a vital part of Mumbai’s growth story – a place that welcomed the hands that built this city. They are now quickly becoming a part of its history.

“I clearly remember my father earning at least Rs200 a night from the hamaams alone,” said Bilal, adding that in the past decade, several of them shut down.

“There are water taps on every street corner today, there are portable bathrooms the civic body set up in the early 1990s. We are no more a necessity,” he said. Bilal charges Rs15 for the same facilities today, when public toilets charge half that price. “Only those who want the pleasure of bathing in well water come here now.”

Riaz said there was a time such haamams were a common sight on the streets of south central Mumbai. “Five on Stable Street itself. Today, only Nawaab is left. There is another salon, Peer Mohammad Ghulam Mohammad Hair dressing Hall, in a corner of Duncan Road.”

Tanveer Alam Salmani, 19, from the Peer Mohammad salon said many shut down because maintaining a haamam has become expensive. “I have kept this salon open to continue the legacy of my grandfather who set it up. But the returns I get are not enough to pay for the water, electricity or salaries of the cleaners.”

“The haamams will soon be a closed chapter of Mumbai’s history. This is inevitable,” Riaz said.