Sleeping Under the Stars on the Footpaths of Sultry Mumbai

It used to be an article of faith in Bombay that, on its streets, a lone, bejeweled woman could return home after a wedding at midnight, safe and unmolested. This is because people still sleep on Mumbai's streets

It used to be an article of faith in Bombay (as it was known) that, on its streets, a lone, bejeweled woman could return home after a wedding at midnight, safe and unmolested. In some parts of the city, especially in its denser, older, ‘run-down’ areas, this may still hold true. This is because people still sleep on Mumbai’s streets.

There are many reasons for making beds of pavements, but Mumbai’s year-round unchanging tropical humidity is possibly the most compelling. Al fresco is the place to catch ‘every breath of a breeze’, as Claude Batley, one of Bombay’s foremost architects in the 1930s, memorably put it.

Bhandari Street is just off the southern end of Masjid Station. It is lined with shop-fronts of transportation companies, with several trucks that move goods in bulk across the country. These are modest, almost retail enterprises, not the kind that own 16-wheelers to shuffle containers. All through the day, there is the din of loading activity, everything from cartons, to cement bags to building steel. Smaller loads are transported by hand-carts. At night, silence descends on Bhandari Street, except for the collective snoring of loaders who sleep where they can find space, on trucks or haath-gaadis, under them or on the Shahbad stone lined pavement.

The street caravan rolls on

Rising above the somnolent are densely occupied chawls that have been here since the turn of the 20th century, built to house the erstwhile dock workers but now populated with middle class Bohras, Jains, Marathas and Mathadis- traders and workers who live on crisscrossing streets. Life does not end at the end of the day, for, walking, stepping gingerly between, around and sometimes over sleeping bodies, women (and men) think nothing of returning from late shifts, from a night out or from a wedding. ‘Sadkon pe ghoomta hai’, as Sahir says ‘ab kaarvaan hamara’.

Further afield, in Dongri, on Mohammed Ali Road, through Bhendi Bazaar, to Byculla and beyond, nights end late and morning begin early for the small restaurants and bakeries. Whether Irani or Udipi, the last activity in most of these small eateries is to shift all the benches, chairs and tables out on the pavement and wash out the kitchen and seating spaces. Clean tables, of course, are also good beds for the night. On Mohammed Ali Road, while the workers at Patel Restaurant haul furniture, cinnamon smells from the Marghoob-e-Aalam Bakery co-mingle with the comforting sight of fresh-baked burun pao, or the diamond shaped ‘chachya’ pao.

Sleeping on the pavements is generic throughout the older city, even further north into the erstwhile mill lands and across the creek edging Dharavi and into the gaothans or villages of Bandra, where both the A-1 and the American Express Bakery are situated, now infamous because Salman Khan’s Land Cruiser ran over bakery workers sleeping on its stoop. Such bakeries have been around for a century, much before the influx of artisanal bread in our city, and they can still make a loaf of bread with a crispy crust and insides so soft that you can roll a slice into a tube to take a bite. Bakers and waiters, cooks and truck-loaders all make pavements their bed.

Sentinels of the street

The authorities recently gave out a ballpark figure of five lakh people sleeping on the streets of Mumbai. People who sleep on the city’s pavements are not necessarily homeless or destitute (for the most part), but workers who are economically bound to their place of work. They are overwhelmingly male, but their presence on the street on the dead reaches of the night keep it safe. The urbanist Jane Jacobs has referred to people like these as ‘natural proprietors’ of the street, providing unselfconscious surveillance to each other and to passers-by. Streets are safe not only because they can see what is happening on it, but because they can be seen as well.

In newer visualizations of the city, hybrid usage of public spaces finds no place in our collective futures. Years after zoning has been debunked, planners still mark out areas as residential, commercial, institutional or recreational. Public spaces are seen simply as parks or roads. Mumbai’s planners have routinely prioritized the motorized vehicle over the pedestrian, smoothening the movement of four (or more) wheelers all over the city. Pesky pedestrians have to move around, over or under them- get out of their way, as far as possible. Mixed use is routinely discouraged.

Consider that in the older cities of Europe, public plazas have often been referred to as the ‘living rooms’ of the city. Citizens live active and fulfilling lives out of their homes. We, of course, have no public plazas to speak of. Mumbai is perhaps the only major city with no pedestrian streets at all. So, we have to make do with our pavements. Our footpaths are our plazas, our open spaces, our ‘aashiyanas’, traditionally, used through the day and night.

It is a social contract that we have with our fellow citizens that allow public spaces to be so occupied. In the day, pavements are for walking on or shopping, in the night for maintenance, hygiene, production or sleeping. To deny this, to even imagine that that such activity is a nuisance (or to compare those sleeping on the streets to dogs) is to display an ignorance of urban living. Those making an argument against sleeping on the street because of safety concerns seem far removed from any active participation with the city. It is this mind-set that causes them to zoom around in fast cars from behind tall, CCTV-mounted compound walls and race out into a city that is, for all purposes, a foreign land, filled with ‘others’.

For the rest, the knowledge that there are ‘eyes on the street’, to use Jacobs’ celebrated phrase, make a street at night a safe and inclusive space.