Parel-Lalbaug could craft its autobiography, it would have told a stirring tale of rising and ebbing fortunes of what was once the city's unique amalgam of manufacturing and living spaces. It would, however, need to work in an epilogue today to tell the story of revival that is increasingly giving the earlier unified area a dichotomous character.
The revival, following the neo-liberalism of the era and largely led by the mill land owners, monetised the nearly 600 acres of land on which once stood textile mills. Parel-Lalbaug now has the largest concentration of tall and voluminous buildings in the city, both commercial and residential, according to a noted real estate firm.
The process that hesitatingly began last decade, when Kamala and Pheonix mills were re-designed as work and play spaces for the upper-middle and upper classes, is now in full flow across mill precincts on Dr. Ambedkar Road, Senapati Bapat Marg and Kalachowkie. Sky-scrapers, one advertised as a 117-storey luxury residential tower, compete with the forlorn odd chimney.
Sandwiched between these imposing structures or hidden behind them are the more modest high-rises that accommodate the area's older residents. Like Madhukar Khamkar, retired mechanic and folk artiste. "I have lived here since I was born, my father was a Mafatlal Mill worker. The redevelopment machine has brought many challenges for people like me," he says, "fights within families, tension about the project being completed." Khamkar adds he will somehow "adjust" in the new flat allotted by the re-developer but will always miss "the atmosphere of belonging and creative activities" of the mill-chawl culture.
Some choose to fit themselves into new frame, others opt to sell their allotted flats and move to the suburbs only to return periodically to take in the atmosphere. Like the young Laxman Chavan, whose family settled down in the far suburb of Kalyan recently, came to his favourite haunts in Girangaon for the ten-day festival. I cannot think of celebrating it anywhere else, he says.
The new Parel-Lalbaug is a dichotomy. It has a sizeable number of old residents, many of whom treat the streets and pavements as extensions of their homes, and is witnessing a steady influx of the new, many of whom appear from and disappear into their gated enclaves, in fancy cars. Supermarkets, malls, luxury goods outlets stand along the street and gully market culture of Lalbaug. The latter are seeing an impact though. "We have lost a few of our old customers, business is down by 15-20%," says Sanjay Rakshe of the famous Ladoo Samrat.
Each demographic set has attempted to claim Parel-Lalbaug as its own. For example, residents of the new Vijay Towers, most of them Jains, have an on-going battle with the age-old fish market in the lane leading to their building. "We get upset everyday with the fish and its smell. There should be a separate enclosure for such stuff," says Hetal, 35, home-maker, oblivious to the fact that the fish market was always part of Lalbaug life. Shekhar Jain (name changed), senior executive with a multi-national corporate, moved into Royal Residency, a typically chic high-rise, with his young family. "I am ten minutes drive from my office, but this isn't a place for my kids because they can't mix with municipality school kids," he says. Khamkar too says he misses the devan-ghevan (sharing) that existed earlier.
"The co-habitation in Parel-Lalbaug area has not led to deeper interaction and integrated neighbourhoods," avers sociologist Kamala Ganesh, "The chasms between the old residents and the newcomers is just too wide. In re-developed buildings, lower floors are allotted to the old residents and pricey higher floors to the newcomers. Social mixing is not common. Some societies even have separate entrances and lifts for the two sections (the lower floors and the upper floors)."
It's anybody's guess if the two strands will weave into a harmonious whole, ever.