Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: Tower-tenement clashes are cliché, intra-tower clashes are up close and personal

Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis

Bachi Karkaria October 17, 2020 12:29:07 IST
Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: Tower-tenement clashes are cliché, intra-tower clashes are up close and personal

The shoe-stand outside the door is harder to evict than a pesky tenant, perhaps harder even than the PLA from Pangong Tso. Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost

Read more columns in this series here.

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Where The Shoe-stand Pinches

‘Tower and tenement’ has become shorthand for the entire urban condition: disparity, upward mobility, migration, civic shortchanging, unreal estate, the farce of planning, the tragedy of greed, the flotsam of history. It is Mumbai’s marker more than that of any other Indian city.

Even in my first years here at the Illustrated Weekly in the ’70s, when we wanted a quickie of contrast, we’d use photographs of Malabar Hill swag with the Indira Gandhi slum sprawl at its very gates. This juxtaposition became sharper when the derelict mill-lands turned into a realty cheque. Ergo, the crescendo complexes of Lower Parel which are now segueing into lowlier Sewri, the metaphor of this column.

Encroachment has halved the original width of our TJ Road, so its new gated communities are literally an arm’s length away from its entrenched chawls. Tower-tenement clashes may have become the cliché of sociological theses, but intra-tower clashes are up close and personal. Also juicier. Getting the police to shut down loudspeakers blaring festive music is so ho-hum. Nothing compared to the strategy and satisfaction of getting your neighbour to remove that obstructive wooden shoe-stand plonked outside his door.

Scorn not this apparently innocuous box. It embodies that diehard component of urban living, encroachment. It is harder to evict than a pesky tenant, perhaps harder even than the PLA from Pangong Tso. More ladhais have happened over intrusion into the common area than the current one in Ladakh, more icy exchanges, more loss of face than in that face-off. The owner digs in his heels and his stand; the objector tries entreaties and cites existing treaties aka housing society rules. Impasse.

The battle escalates to the next AGM. The issue and voices are raised. Now it is no longer between individuals but cuts across floors, becomes a larger Them and Us issue. The gloves are off. The shoe-boxers and their opponents spar, thrust, give low blows. Each side punches with the ‘culture’ card. The heavyweight from 2808 pompously says ‘It is our tradition to leave our shoes outside the door.’ The gentle bantamweight from 906 archly responds with, ‘It was also our tradition to have outside toilets.’ The ‘Sophisticates’ applaud with smug nods. I may be biased, but they have a point. Two actually. One, the objection is not so much to the shoe box, but that all the shoes are outside it. The Crocs, sandals, wedgies in a neat line or a careless scatter across half the landing is the panorama which greets us every time the lift door opens. Gripe No 2. is that it is not just the day’s shoes, but the family’s entire footwear inventory which is arrayed outside. The opposers win this bout. But it remains a lost battle. The shoe-cases have been removed, the shoes remain showcased.

On Firstpost — Category Error, a series by Amruta Patil, on life in an Indian high rise complex, amid an unfolding pandemic

Flowers are a thorny issue. A far cry from grubby shoes, but again one where tradition is pitted against aesthetics. The incorrigible pluckers cite religion, that hoary cover for a multitude of sins. ‘It is for puja only,’ they say firmly as they proceed to lop off the colourful canna, yank fragrant champa blooms off the trees or denude whole bushes of the dwarf crepe jasmine. Telling the few that the carefully landscaped beauty is meant for the many may get a sheepish look from the offenders, but it is back to business when the complainer isn’t looking. The more likely response is a sanctimonious tirade on the mandatory minutiae of ritual, ‘which you obviously don’t know anything about!’ Withering under that onslaught, the conscientious objectors vent their impotent rage on the group WhatsApp.

The mask issue has created a schism between the Covidiots and The Rest.  The numbers of the former are diminishing because of the increasing cases in the complex.

The disturbance quotient of festivals may have been the standard sticking point between tower and tenement, but it is no less within the gilded gates. The elderly, ill and exam-bound were cited as the reason not to hold community celebrations of Ganapati, Navratri, Durga-Amba Mata Puja. The unequal clamour resulted in the compromise of taking the festivities indoors, to the ‘banquet hall’ instead of the open-air podium. But this time the festive spirit is infectious in a way we never imagined. We need to invoke our deities more than ever, or give us mortals escape from COVID and cash-crunch woes. But it is catch-22: bonding has curative powers; alas now it will achieve the opposite.

Net Net, however, the crisis has been a healer, toning down the clashes, making us a truly cooperative housing society. After all what’s a mere shoe-stand when we are all struggling to remain on our feet?

Updated Date:

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