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Leaving the loom

The skyline is changing in this pocket of south Mumbai. Low-rise chawls inhabited by the traditional Ansari clan of weavers are being replaced by high-rises as a new generation of non-weavers comes of age. Humaira Ansari writes. History lesson

mumbai Updated: Apr 15, 2012 13:00 IST
Humaira Ansari

Preparing for his civil engineering exam in his one-room chawl home in Madanpura's Building No 43, an anxious Aslam Ansari had to contend with the cacophony of four siblings and a screechy news broadcast blaring out of his grandfather's old radio.

"I guess after a point I just got used to the congestion," says Aslam, 40.

The son of a laid-off mill worker, Ansari had realised at an early age that the key to a dignified future lay in a good education and a good job.

More than two decades after that engineering exam, Aslam, having previously worked as a site engineer with a major private developer, is now a builder and is earning each month more than his father earned in a year.

In 2007, Aslam roped in an investor and a builder and had two buildings - Building No 43 and 45, two storeys each - redeveloped, with all 42 families rehoused in Mohammadi Palace, a 16-storey tower that has risen in its place.

"Our neighbours were happy to sign up because they knew I would be overseeing the project," says Aslam. "Now each of them has a one-bedroom flat."

Aslam's was one of the first chawl buildings to be redeveloped in Madanpura, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood of common balconies that overlook butchers' shops, with common toilets at the end of each floor.

Over the past five years, 10 other high-rises have risen above this once-horizontal skyline, bringing with them novelties such as lifts, 24-hour water supply and private toilets

Most of the 1.5 lakh-odd residents of this Muslim-dominated, 2-sq-km area still live in the crowded, crumbling two- and three-storey chawl buildings.

But even here, in the narrow, winding alleys lined with tiny shops, amid burkha-clad mothers hurrying their children to school and young men in Being Human T-shirts zipping about on their motorcycles, there are signs of the change that has come to Building No 43/45 and its residents.

Traditionally a community of weavers, the Ansaris of Madanpura moved to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh, to escape the British backlash after the 1857 uprising.

Not a wealthy community, they were content to ply their traditional trade in the nearby textile hub of Girangaon in what is now central Mumbai.

It was only when the mills began to shut down in the 1980s, coinciding with the establishment of new colleges in nearby Grant Road, Byculla and Mumbai Central in the early 1990s, that parents began to push their children to graduate and find good jobs in the growing, liberalised economy.

It was only when the mills began to shut down in the 1980s, coinciding with the establishment of new colleges in nearby Grant Road, Byculla and Mumbai Central in the early 1990s, that parents began to push their children to graduate and find good jobs in the growing, liberalised economy.

Those youngsters are now well-entrenched professionals in their respective fields and their family homes are changing as a reflection of this progress.

"Until 1980, most houses in Madanpura, including mine, had one tubelight and a fan," says retired local school principal Mehmood Pervez Ansari, 62. "Today, the wealthier families have marble flooring and air-conditioners."

At Mehmood's own home, the cement floor has been covered with glossy tiles, a cooler chills the air and there are two TV sets and a DVD player.

"All that's left now," says his 23-year-old son Owais, an architect, "is for the building to be redeveloped so that we can have a larger home."

History lesson