It had been raining for three days straight, when the entire neighbourhood in Kanchandas chawl was rudely woken up by the screams. Including me.
Now, a chawl is basically a crunched urban settlement where scores of families live in one building – much like a Manhattan condominium – but crunched. And in the case of Kanchandas chawl – dilapidated as well. This did not bode well for the private lives of the residents at Kanchandas chawl. In fact topics like “The Naiks seem to be going through a lull in their love life…” based on the absence of nocturnal emissions of passionate utterings from Room#152 dominated the evening chatter of the group of old men who gathered daily in the courtyard in front of the chawl.
The courtyard was the pride and joy of the residents of Kanchandas Chawl. This was where the children erected makeshift cricket pitches for the daily “inter-chawl” matches. This was where the decked up housewives made colorful patterns and designs during the many festivals of the year. This is where the D’Souzas put up the Christmas tree every December – with old grandpa D’souza plonking himself squarely in front of the embellished tree, keeping it safe from dogs with excretory tendencies. If the Chawl itself was like the larder in an Indian kitchen, the courtyard was like a melting pot, like a “kadhai” where people of various colors and tastes descended from their storage boxes to mix, match, fry and boil into something delicious for the world outside to enjoy.
Yes…my chawl was clearly the most important landmark in this part of Mumbai. And why not? Sprawling over an area equivalent to 4 blocks in a prime area of the city, the Kanchandas chawl was home to 148 families of various sizes, forms, religions and dreams. Though an official census had not been done of the place in a long time, with the process of a census itself rendered next to impossible by the significant floating population of visiting relatives and friends, it was said that more than a 1000 people breathed the spicy and dusty air of Kanchandas chawl at any given time. There were anywhere between 15 to 30 births every year at Kanchandas, prompting Dr.Gheewala to open a maternity clinic right down the road and there were atleast 20 deaths every year too, which due to the religious diversity, had not yet given birth to a business venture.
Along with births and deaths dotting the annual events calendar at Kanchandas chawl, there were naming ceremonies, baptisms, engagements, hindu bar-mitzvas, weddings which along with the aforementioned festivals accounted for very busy year for the residents. There was hardly a day where there was no celebration, or no mourning. There days when there were both – like the day when Old Husseinbhai from #54 died when a sharp surmai bone got lodged in his throat, while he was stuffing his face at Savitaben’s daughter’s wedding reception. The wedding went on as planned and the entire party turned up for Husseinbhai’s funeral the next day at the cemetary behind the chawl.
Life and Death went on in an interminable circle at Kanchandas chawl. Until that rainy night in September – when the piercing scream shattered every life, penetrated every dream and forever altered the lives of those who lived at Kanchandas chawl. And that included mine.