Mumbai Lens: Who lives within?

This blog post was featured in the “Around the Blog” section of the DNA newspaper published on July 230, 2012 (pg.6).

Mumbaikars, many of whom live in tiny flats with “caged windows”, optimise every inch of space that they have and then some more. I have seen these caged windows being used to store bicycles, for growing plants, for drying clothes… And I have great fun imagining the families living in such flats. A bicycle indicated school-going children, a tricycle indicated a toddler at home. If the bicycle/tricycle looked unused, then maybe the “children” had grown up. The clothes lines would help me weave even more colourful backgrounds to the families living behind those caged windows.

And then I came across these windows recently, and incidentally from the same building. It is said that a person’s desk is a reflection of his or her mind. If this logic were to be extended to families, what would the “caged windows” in the photograph be a reflection of?

What comes to your mind when you see these caged windows?

Window 1: A cane chair, a mattress, a wooden shelf, a wooden stool and what not among stuff stored here
Window 2: Large plastic bowls, empty cooking oil cans, cardboard cartons, and stuff wrapped in plastic bags
Window 3: A gas cylinder and mysterious looking packages in plastic bags

Mumbai has indeed come a long way from the 1940s and the 1950s, when building residents were not allowed to dry their clothes in their road-facing windows or balconies or use it as a storage space. If residents were found doing it, they would be reprimanded and fined. Of course, it was also the time when the roads in Mumbai used to be washed every day. I know, it sounds unbelievable but it is true. I have a first hand account of these from my mother, who grew up in Mumbai.

I actually felt scared when I saw all the inflammable stuff in the caged windows. Are the families living in these flats hoarders or are they experts in hiding clutter from people visiting their houses? Or both. As for the family which has put the gas cylinder, I just don’t know what to say. I also wonder why the building society or the gas supplier or the municipal corporation not raised objections.

Hoarders or clutterers, these families definitely don’t care for the safety of their lives or that of others. And isn’t that quite like the city herself?

Mumbai Lens is a photographic series which, as the name suggests, is Mumbai-centric and is an attempt to capture the various moods of the city through my camera lens. You can read more posts from this series here.

43 thoughts on “Mumbai Lens: Who lives within?

    1. Even though we have the opportunity and temptation to buy, where is the space to hoard it all? I am acutely conscious of each book, each artwork, each painting that I covet or buy and where I will keep it. It’s bad enough if the house is cluttered, but when it spills over and becomes visible to the outside world, its worse.

      But you are right about one thing, nobody cares.

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  1. I too get apprehensive when I see gas cylinders in such windows. There are some people living in the next street from ours that keeps one just like in your photo. I wonder that they themselves are not troubled by this!

    I guess most people are not bothered by the clutter in their windows. A few may be too old or sick too clean it up though…..

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    1. I have seen the families living behind the windows and they are all young families. So the question of them being too old or sick to clean it up does not arise. Earlier today, a huge pile of newspapers put out in one of the window grills. Can you imagine what the rain and damp will do to it?

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  2. I think it all boils down to need. It’s not so much about hoarding stuff but more about making the most of what people have. Considering the houses and how small these flats are I think it’s safer to have the cylinder own than in. Still have lived in a “big” house all my life at times it’s hard to understand the living conditions of others so it would be wrong for me to judge them. Now I must go and buy what my family deems as “junk” 😉

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    1. One person’s collection can be another person’s junk. 🙂 I know that from the skirmishes I have in my house. But the thing is that once the junk or collection starts spilling over, then some of it has to go. I am not being judgemental about the families living behind the windows, but most of the things cannot be used again. So what is the point of clutter. And even if you do need to keep them, keep it inside your houses.

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  3. You have pretty much summed it up for me too. At times though, I try to imagine the hardships they might be putting up with: unpaid bills, dwindling provisions, asphyxiating aspirations….

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    1. But Umashankar, how has hoarding stuff helped anyone overcome “unpaid bills, dwindling provisions, asphyxiating aspirations…” What is it that makes these families put out stuff that they do not use or want out of their sight but in everybody else’s view? These are things that are in such a bad shape that they cannot be used again. Even if they may have been usable, exposure to the elements has ensured that they cannot be used now.

      I am trying very hard not to be judgemental here, but what is the point of holding on to something which has become a haven for pests, birds, mosquitoes and what not?

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        1. That’s an interesting viewpoint, and one that I am willing to consider. But if it has so much of sentiment attached, why don’t they store it carefully and properly inside the house?

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  4. True it is the space issue in Mumbai flats! And I think the concept of selling stuff 2nd hand or buying second hand stuff has not taken over in a big way in India. I have seen such flats in certain areas in Brussels and Paris, which reminded me only of those in Mumbai:))

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    1. Yes, space is always a premium in cities like Mumbai. And add to the fact the attitude of most Indians towards second hand stuff… we have a nightmarish proportions of stuff/junk/things we cannot use or do not want to use around us. While I would not like to wear second hand clothes, am ambivalent about second hand books, I have no problems about second hand furniture. In fact all the furniture in my house is second hand stuff.

      Now about those flats that you saw in Brussels and Paris, were they inhabited by Indians? 🙂

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  5. It starts acting like a dumpyard for the unwanted stuff that no one wants to sort and think that it might be useful some day. I have seen these caged windows. Looks like it gives them some sense of security that intruders cannot get in. Sometimes, it is difficult to dispose stuff. My hubby and I might always not agree about what to throw away. But, we certainly don’t leave it in our balconies to distress others :). Nice revolting pics ;-).

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    1. “Nice revolting”… What a lovely oxymoron, Rachna. Thanks. 🙂

      The caged windows are for security, but probably also deter would-be thieves from entering the house as they would think that the house was only full of worthless clutter !

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  6. To me , it just boils down to a total lack of civic and aesthetic sensibilities. Our culture and upbringing encourages cleanliness and tidiness within the four walls of our homes, but not outside of them. In Calcutta, it was common to see people throw garbage and waste outside their homes or from their terraces. I was the target of such an activity once.
    So, I guess storing/hoarding junk in window ledges/sills/grills is an extension of outside the house/out of sight syndrome.

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    1. And aren’t we as a nation famous for our lack of civic and aesthetic sensibilities?

      How did you react to being the receiving end of someone else’s cleaning activity? I’m curious to know.

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  7. Wonder what sentimental value a torn, upturned cardboard carton could have? Getting rid of accumulated junk is perhaps the most stressful of family activities and I think the families living in those houses are yet to arrive at a common definition of junk.

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    1. Maybe the carton held the first possessions of the family? Maybe their first gift? And yes, junk is stressful for the family that has it and for the people who have to see it. 🙂

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  8. The caged windows are real eyesores I like open balconies & windows which are the original designs of the outer facade of the building. If one has to enclose it for security reasons please do not keep anything except flower pots which would be feast to the eyes,Balconies & windows are certainly not meant for displaying your personal effects.

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  9. The concept of a loft is non existent in the new apartments but people still have to have a space to keep their stuff which they used to keep in their lofts 🙂
    A lovely interesting feature!

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  10. There was a time when Mumbaikars were fined for putting their clothes out in the balcony and the roads were ‘washed?’ Wow! That’s news to me :).
    These spaces do have a lot to say about the residents, don’t they?

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    1. This was in the late 40s and the 50s. My mother, who grew up in Matunga in Mumbai remembers the municipal workers sweeping and washing the roads in the morning. And of course being fined hanging clothes in the balcony 🙂 Residents were not allowed to cover their balconies with grills and windows were allowed to have only simple bars for protection. Of course the houses were also designed in such a way that they had lofts, a separate drying area for clothes, etc.

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  11. You know, even though I am totally for using the ‘caged window’ space as you call it for storage or gardening, I don’t agree with using it to dry clothes. Somehow its makes the saying ‘Washing your dirty linen in public’ come alive. I would go with clothes racks that can be set in the balconies helping clothes to dry off rather than hanging them up for the whole world to see, but hey, that’s just me! As far as safety or value of human life, the lesser said, the better!

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    1. Delighted to see you here, Deepa. While I agree with you on the clothes part, I do know that it is not always possible to dry clothes within the house. And not all flats have balconies and not all flats can access building terraces. But I would not be okay for storage. 🙂

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      1. Very true. I would love to have plants in such an area and by storage I mean gardening stuff again. The cylinder and boxes and stuff are plain stupid and careless as per me, as far as life goes. But for such people am guessing space is at a premium, hence. Not justified though.

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  12. And oh, we need the sweepers and washers to come back! Definitely! Even if the roads are nicely built of asphalt and tar, big 5 line highways and stuff, trees alongside but one glance at the area on the side of the roads – you find everything from water bottles, chewing gum paper, plastic bags, newspapers. God, we need people to have a better sense of cleanliness!

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  13. One of those caged windows could certainly belong to our house in Mumbai. Our caged windows have seen clothes being hung out to dry, karuvadam on plastic sheets getting their daily dose of sun, plastic dabbas being air dried before they’re filled with bakshanam. The key difference being it’s all organized and the cages are meticulously washed and cleaned before being put to use. My MIL and FIL have called these areas of the house into action given the paucity of space in Mumbai homes. Oh, once in a while you might see DD sitting and feeding the local kakas out of these cages 🙂

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  14. wow!! i had no idea about that rule of no clothes on balconies!!! wonder why i havent heard of it earlier… it reminds me of a friend i used to go to college with, and every day she used to complain about all the new buildings that were coming up in our area.. i would say that they looked beautiful and she would complain that as soon as people started living in them, they would spoil the look with their clothes hanging all over!

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    1. This was in the 40s and early 50s, Anu. My mother grew up in Matunga and lived on Vincent Road, which is today, Ambedkar Road. It was the days of trams, buses, roads that were not just swept, but washed everyday and strict rules about clothes not being put out to dry in balconies. The municipality workers would come knocking. Yes, I know it sounds like a believe it or not, but Bombay was like that. 🙂

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    1. Welcome here Shiv, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I’m not sure when caged balconies came in, though I suppose it came in with the rise in mutistoried buildings and for security purposes. Of course, in a space-starved city with people who hoard this became a space for storage as well.

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      1. A friend had remarked how Delhi or Kolkata do not have such structure. I think when Mumbai crunched for space, and the law was specifically taken off- this was the first idea that came to people.

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        1. One doesn’t have to go as far as Delhi or Kolkata – even Pune does not have it. In fact, as far as I know, the caged windows are not even allowed nor ar enclosing balconies !

          But this is an interesting topic to research into 🙂

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