Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: When gentrification is as much about people as it is about localities
Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis
Read more columns in this series here.
The Lines They Are A-Blurring
‘Home to work in 10 easy steps’ is the dream of every citizen plagued by long, sweaty overcrowded commutes. So, when the first gated community began rising from the debris of TJ Road’s China Mill, local shopkeepers came enquiring at the site office. But they turned away in disappointment. “We could not afford the asking price of Rs 1 crore plus,” recalled Arvind Visaria of Madhuban Saree Emporium, whom I had featured four columns ago. Well, I’m happy to report that the chasm has been bridged. By two very different sets of people. Hiten Gada moved into that same housing complex some months ago. Indralal Jain will do so soon.
Hiten’s connection is with Milan Electrical and Hardware Store across the road from our second gate. His grandfather, the Kutchhi Nanjibhai Gada, came from Bhuj in the 1950s, and set up shop here, astutely shifting from its original readymades because there were too many in the cloth trade on this short stretch. The Rajasthani Indralal is a halwai opposite our main gate. His father, Brijlal Jain, came from Udaipur and opened Jai Maharashtra in 1995, selling mithai, paneer and savouries. They sell like, well, hot samosas. Not surprising because they are freshly fried with an aloo-filing that’s as light in colour as on spices.
Indralal, 44, sells his wares from behind his street-level counter from early morning till late evening; walking the 20 minutes back to Sewri’s BBD chawl, where he’s lived till now. Hiten, 39, was born and brought up in the neighbourhood, but in fact has travelled back all the way from San Jose, Ca.
The bright son of the hardware seller had left Sewri for his Master’s in Computer Science at Louisiana Tech in 2003, and worked in Silicon Valley till 2014, when he decided to return. Why? Says his wife, Ami — who was an IT recruiter in the US, and is now a Professor of Child Development and Psychology at Santa Cruz’s SVT College — “We wanted our kids to have the childhood we had, in the embrace of both sets of grandparents and extended family.” Also, because, Hiten’s Kutchhi genes strained at the leash, wanting to move from employment to entrepreneurship. In a sense, like Indralal, he too began dealing in milk products. But this is from his computerised, contact-free factory in Wada, supplying not desi pedha-barfi, but vegan and regular Greek yoghurt to Epigamia, et al.
Indralal’s leap from crowded chawl to manicured sprawl will change the life of four generations. Shifting with him from his 180 sq ft one-room-kitchen to a 3BHK will be Kasturibai, his 96-year-old dadi, ‘merey Papa-Mummy, meri biwi aur hamare bachhey’, two daughters and son. From his third-floor, road-facing window, he can literally keep an eye on his strip of shop. What he saved up from his mithai had to be supplemented by wise share-market investments, and the contribution of his ‘jija-ji’ who co-owns the new flat. His bother-in-law will continue to live at his own place but ‘he is family’, and pitched in to provide a comfortable home for his wife’s parents.
Hiten has moved higher, to the seventh floor of the same tower with Ami and Naman, 10, and Rivaan, 8. As a child, he had first lived with his grandparents and parents in a room behind their Milan Hardware. Then as the family and income grew, to the Veena Beena Housing Society nearby which had come up on the old Mackinnon MacKenzie workshop which made goods wagons for the Railways. “Sewri is my forte,” says Hiten. “I know every family of every shop. All the children played together, and my dad was an active member of the local shopkeepers’ association.”
The father Navinbhai Gada has since retired, and Milan Hardware is ably manned by Ganpat Singh Rajput, 44, who joined as stripling lad of 14. He tells me that he is from Bhinmal, ‘lekin Sewri mera karm bhoomi hai’. He shares a special camaraderie with his fellow Rajasthani Indralal of Jai Maharashtra.
Navinbhai busies himself with charitable activities, part of the Vardhman group. The name notwithstanding, his son, Hiten, clarifies that they aren’t all Jains. “They aren’t concerned with caste and creed, only the critically ill and their beleaguered families. They feed over 700 every day, having started with the cancer patients of Tata Memorial, and now Wadia and KEM.” Passing Sewri-Parel’s hospital cluster at 6.30 am on my way to yoga, I would see the orderly long line for milk and a packet of breakfast.
Halwai Indralal or techpreneur Hiten, who has made the longer journey? What’s undisputed is that both are the human versions of this column’s raison d’etre, metromorphosis. Gentrification is as much about people as about localities, and why should it only entail the well-heeled moving in from elsewhere. Indeed, it is even more admirable when locals with enough belly-fire make that huge leap across the narrow width of TJ Road which separates the row of the old, tacky shops from the march of swanky towers.
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