The God of Big Things

The city that never sleeps was born here. It is home, once a year, to Mumbai’s most popular Ganpati. But even as Lalbaugcha Raja has grown in riches, the iconic neighbourhood has shrunk in importance.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Published:September 4, 2016 12:01 am
Devotees throng Lalbaugcha Raja. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar) Devotees throng Lalbaugcha Raja. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

Ganpati Bappa is coming to his people. The shops are bright with flower-laden palkhis, rhinestone-encrusted mukuts and thermocol thrones. Sweet and savoury scents waft down Lalbaug’s gallis: the aroma of the poha chiwda and chakli, of ukadiche modak and shankarpali all telling Mumbai that its much-loved god is here, bringing 10 days of disruption, traffic chaos and blockbuster displays of faith.

This is that time of the year, when all roads in Mumbai lead to Lalbaug. And in Lalbaug, all roads lead to the king. His name is on calendars, posters and streamers. His face looks down at you with regal benevolence from photos hung inside shops. He is the most celebrated of Mumbai’s Ganpatis, revered because he is believed to grant any wish. On the 10 days that Lalbaugcha Raja takes his seat here, devotees turn up in thousands, prepared to wait in the mukh darshanachi line for hours, simply in order to catch a glimpse of his countenance. The navsachi queue, meant for those who have made vows to the god, is the endurance sports of worshippers, who often have to wait in line for over 24 hours. Last year, nearly 1.25 crore devotees came visiting.

Fifteen years ago, however, visiting Lalbaugcha Raja was like dropping by to meet a friend. “One could go as many times as one wanted and at any time of the day,” says Madhukar Nerale. The 74-year-old is the proprietor of New Hanuman Theatre Mangal Karyalay, a wedding hall, which, like most other places in Lalbaug Market, has been taken over by Ganeshotsav preparations. “Since 2000, I have seen Lalbaugcha Raja grow bigger with every year, with movie stars, industrialists, cricketers and politicians coming here to pay their respects,” says Nerale. He no longer visits the Lalbaugcha Raja Sarvajanik Ganesh Mandal because he cannot stand for hours.

The Lalbaug market. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar) The Lalbaug market. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

Much has changed about Lalbaugcha Raja, but in some ways, it is a reminder of a time when Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism had not been dented by competitive parochialism. For instance, the fortress under construction, where Lalbaugcha Raja will take his seat on September 4, is right next to the fish market in Masala Galli.

That kind of cohabitation is endangered in Mumbai now, where there is a proliferation of “vegetarian-only” enclaves, inhabited mostly by upper caste Hindus and Jains. In recent years, residents of nearby high-rises have objected to the garbage from the 80-year-old Lalbaug fish market and demanded that it make way for a mall.

A similar dispute lay at the heart of how Lalbaugcha Raja began. “The story starts on the other side of the road in Peru Chawl,” says Bharat Gothoskar, 42, founder of Khaki Tours, which organises heritage walks in the area. “The market in Peru Chawl was removed in 1932 after the residents complained of the dirt and the smell. The fish-sellers and other vendors then prayed to Ganesha for a place to sell their catch, vowing to establish an idol of the god if their prayers were answered. They eventually got a plot of land.” To fulfill the vow (navas), the first idol of Lalbaugcha Raja was established in 1934 once the market was set up.

As much as the stardust of celebrities and politicians, it is this navsacha (wish-fulfilling) reputation of the Ganpati that draws millions of devotees willing to wait as long as it takes, if it means that the lord will answer their prayers too.

The Shree Suvidhinath Jain Derasa. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran) The Shree Suvidhinath Jain Derasa. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

Over the years, Ganesha has watched over the multiple transformations of this neighbourhood, some would say its shrinking. Lalbaug’s story begins in the second half of the 19th century, when the city was growing as a textile hub. The city’s first textile mill, Bombay Spinning Mill, was set up by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar in 1854. In the next few decades, dozens of mills came up in the stretch between Byculla and Dadar, going up to 83 in the 1920s.

This area — Girangaon (Village of Mills) — stretched over nearly 1,000 acres, and attracted the earliest wave of migrant workers to the city, many of whom settled down in Lalbaug. The tenements or chawls, built to house these workers, were cramped spaces, with as many as 20 men living in a single room sometimes. “There is a history of cosmopolitanism in Lalbaug,” says Neera Adarkar, architect and urban researcher. “People who spoke different languages — Marathi, Konkani, Telugu, Urdu — lived next to each other, as did people practising different religions.”

It is this history that Gothoskar walks you through on a tour of the neighbourhood. Here, various shrines have stood near each other for more than a 100 years, whether it is the dargah of Sayyed Hazrat Lal Shah Wali, which is said to have given Lalbaug its name, or the Shree Suvidhinath Jain Derasar, whose colourful sculptures depict the neighbourhood’s multicultural population, or the MJ Wadia Fire Temple that is a short distance from one of the city’s oldest Parsi residential complexes, Nowroz Baug.

Gothoskar says, “What I love about this neighbourhood is captured by the example of the Sayyed Chand Shah dargah in Chiwda Galli. This is a shrine for a Muslim saint, but has been looked after by a Hindu family for many years.” But during the 1992 riots, that sense of amity took a big knock. The dargah was destroyed in the violence, though rebuilt later. Samina Sheikh, whose family has lived near the Lal Shah dargah for generations, says that many Muslim families who had not left at the time of Partition, moved out soon after the ’92 riots.

The dargah of Sayyed Hazrat Lal Shah Wali. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran) The dargah of Sayyed Hazrat Lal Shah Wali. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

It is, perhaps, only natural that the elephant-god, the remover of obstacles, the granter of wishes, is the patron of a city hustling for success. For 10 days, Mumbaikars, perennially short of time, stop in their tracks to celebrate Ganesha. If the contemporary version of the festival is, to some, a paralysing cocktail of noise and traffic, to many more it is the welcome eruption of the carnivalesque on the streets.

Ganesh Chaturthi was not always a public or a sarvajanin festival, however. That reinvention is credited to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who, in 1893, used the festival as a means to mobilise Indians for the freedom struggle. Even though it was celebrated at homes, the festival became, over time, a phenomenon of the streets. And Lalbaug became host to the most popular of the Ganpatis.

At the end of Lalbaug’s narrow Masala Galli, the steady thwack-thwack of hammer meeting plank fills the air, joined by sundry other noises of activity — the swish of canvas, the buzz of saws and the sound of workers yelling instructions to each other. The idol is covered up to dissuade prying eyes.

Until the mukhdarshan ceremony, no one can know what the mandap looks like. “Everyone is curious to know what the sets will look like. I hope they will top last year’s, which was built to look like a sheesh mahal,” says Jagdish Kadam, who sells Ganesh decoration items from his stall just outside the main market. Standing at the entrance of the galli, it’s hard to believe that it’s through this narrow space that one of the city’s biggest Ganesh visarjan processions will pass. Gothoskar believes that this, more than anything else, is the act of faith here. “Somehow, every year, they manage to do it. Unless you’re there to see it, you can’t imagine it.”

The day of visarjan. (Express photo by Dilip Kagda) The day of visarjan. (Express photo by Dilip Kagda)

Work on the pandal continues through the night, and that is hardly atypical of Lalbaug. Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, was born here. “The mills used to run for 24 hours, and the labourers worked in three shifts. So other supporting industries that came up around the mills also went on till very late in the night. There were many women, too, though not all of them worked in the mills. Many of them set up khanavals (tiffin services), which would also be open for almost 24 hours,” says Nerale.

Lalbaug was also the site of a hybrid culture of performing arts, as migrants from different regions brought songs and plays from their villages and temples: tamasha, dashavatar, bhajan and katha. Nerale recalls a time when there were as many as six tamasha theatres in Lalbaug. One of these was Hanuman Theatre, built by his father in 1952. “As soon as a shift ended, mill workers would crowd the theatre to watch a show,” he says.

Lalbaug was at the centre of major political movements in the city, from the independence struggle to the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and the rise of the Shiv Sena. And it changed with each big disruption in Mumbai’s politics. For a while, it was a communist bastion in capitalist Mumbai. Here, emerged performances like loknatya, which spoke about the working class’s struggles. Its narrow gallis saw the rise of activist-performers like Annabhau Sathe, Amar Sheikh and DN Gavankar.

Nerale recalls a performance by lokshahir Sheikh in which the firebrand poet held thousands gathered at Shivaji Park in thrall for over two hours. The communist hold, however, loosened over time, thanks in large part to the aggressive rise of Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena in the 1960s. The rivalry between the two groups culminated in 1970 in the murder of communist leader Krishna Desai by local youths whose sympathies lay with the Shiv Sena, a loss that the CPI failed to recover from.

Nowroz Bag, a Parsi colony in Lalbaug. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran) Nowroz Bag, a Parsi colony in Lalbaug. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

This was the arrival of a new kind of politics in Lalbaug, with reverberations across Mumbai. “Though red flags did not flutter much beyond the mill gates, they signified the working class’s claim on the city. Workers, intellectuals and political activists saw radical urban dreams expressed in the colour red. Behind the saffronisation of the city is the story of the destruction of its working-class politics,” notes historian Gyan Prakash in Mumbai Fables.

The general strike of 1982, which lasted two years, irrevocably changed Lalbaug. It led to the decline of the textile mills and nearly 2.5 lakh mill workers and a greater number of workers connected to ancillary industries lost their jobs. The ’80s and early ’90s were dark periods in Lalbaug’s story. Prakash writes about how newly jobless mill workers were recruited by the city’s notorious gangs as foot-soldiers. “The densely packed chawls became their hideouts,” he notes. The growing lawlessness culminated in the 1992 communal riots.

Resident Somdutt Walmiki recalls a time when taxis used to refuse fares to Lalbaug for fear of being set upon by goondas that roamed there. To be from Lalbaug was, during this period, a cause for shame. “If you wrote ‘Lalbaug’ on your job application, that was it. You wouldn’t be called for an interview,” says the 52-year-old retired banker.

From being feared as a den of goons to holding pride of place in Mumbai’s shark-eat-shark real estate economy, it has been a radical image makeover for Lalbaug. Tukaram Marathe, 61, a former dockworker who lives in Meghwadi chawl, puts it this way: “When I was a child, there was little focus on education, because a mill worker’s son would join the mills too. But with the mills shutting down, what option did we have but to find another way out? So we made sure that our children studied hard and found good jobs.” Marathe, who owns his kholi, points with pride to his family and that of all his neighbours. “All the children in this chawl are graduates,” he says.

Lalbaug resident Somdutt Walmiki. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran) Lalbaug resident Somdutt Walmiki. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

Girangaon’s gentrification began as the mill lands were opened up for sale. In a newly liberalised India, the value of the unused mill lands drew real estate developers in droves, once the government allowed the acquisition of the properties. By the early 2000s, the “redevelopment” of Girangaon was underway. Lalbaug was slower to change because it was a residential area, but it is now hemmed in by gated high-rises. “They’re now trying to rebrand this place by calling it ‘Upper Worli’,” says Walmiki with a laugh.

“When the rest of Mumbai changes, how can Lalbaug remain unaffected?” asks Datta Iswalkar, president of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti. It’s a rhetorical question. Iswalkar, who fought long and hard for the rights of former millworkers to employment and affordable housing on the redeveloped mill lands, is acknowledging the inevitable. “We were never against modernisation. That is bound to happen. Our only demand was that the working-class population here shouldn’t be left behind.”

That fear is all-pervasive. Deals with builders have resulted in tall towers with poorly ventilated, isolated, box-like flats. “We don’t want too much, just give us 450 sq ft flats. We’ll be happy with that,” says Marathe.

Like many other local residents, Marathe is not sure-footed enough in the new “redeveloped” Girangaon. Or even in the noisy celebrations of Lalbaugcha Raja. Old-timers also bemoan the erosion of the ideal of the sarvajanin, with the festival being now associated with money, political power and spectacle. “The feeling of ‘community’ that the sarvajanik Ganeshotsav was supposed to foster is now secondary to the celebrity power of the pandal,” says Iswalkar. Lalbaugcha Raja is one of the richest pandals of Mumbai and has, over the years, raked in crores in cash, gold, silver, and even luxury watches and cars. But Lalbaug residents now feel it is more a festival of “outsiders”, and not theirs to claim.

Marathe will not be visiting the pandal this year, not even to urge the navsacha Ganpati to answer his prayers of a new home. “It’s too crowded,” says the 61-year-old. In a city of commerce and big bucks, shielding Girangaon from the unstoppable logic of change might be difficult even for Lalbaugcha Raja.