In recent years, the conflicting models of the city as either a subscription to suburban middle-class life or a dense urban development has left planners in doldrums. The bungalow ideal of independent city living has always been at odds with the more cohesive overlapping patterns of older, denser communities. The Mumbai chawl is an architectural type that emerged out of the need to house industrial workers for the mills of Bombay, 19th century migrants from across rural Maharashtra who flooded the city.
The chawl, as the book points out, is a form of industrial housing, which defines home in the most rudimentary type of confinement, ‘a dislocation of the sky and earth’. The only connection to the outside is a single window. Everything else is shared: verandah, water tap, toilet, garbage dump, play area, temple. The personal histories of many of its long-time residents, the deep and inexhaustible resolve of their daily existence, and the search for dignity in such dense confinement, all form a complex web of experiences that make for compelling reading. Among them, the difficulties of sharing a room with a tenant; the painful comparisons of enclosed urban defecation, against a memory of the open field in the village.