January 2015
#Bandra , 191 Views
There Goes the Neighbourhood (Again)

Byline: Michael Snyder
Illustration: Reshidev RK

Bandra is changing, but it isn’t being gentrified.

“Bandra has arisen from the humble rank of a village in the possession of the Jesuits – as it was in the 17th century – to be one of the most popular suburbs of Bombay.”

Braz A. Fernandes, a Goan Bandra Catholic, wrote this in the introduction to his 1927 monograph Bandra: Its Religious and Secular History. He went on to describe the arrival of the first train here in 1867, and the population boom that ensued (by 1873 there were 24 trains running between Bandra and Virar). In 1876, the Municipality was established. “The influx continued,” Fernandes wrote, “and the Christian landlord who had lived on his estate like a small potentate, suddenly found himself hustled out of the way by the wealthy Parsi. Today, Bandra is a cosmopolitan town.”

If you know people who’ve lived in Bandra for more than 10 years, they’ve likely told you a similar story. When they first came to Bandra, they’ll tell you, the so-called Queen of the Suburbs still felt like a village, its tree-lined streets quiet, its buildings mostly low-rise, its population dominated by Catholics, but happily mixed with Parsis and Bohras, who arrived around the turn of the century, with Punjabis and Sindhis, who had come after partition, and the occasional cool kid from town or elsewhere who’d arrived but recently. By the late-90s or early-2000s, the influx had begun, with young creative types (graphic designers, musicians, artists, media people, &c.) moving in. The buildings got taller; the traffic got worse; the rents got higher. Then came the foreigners. Today, Bandra is an even more cosmopolitan town.

You’ll notice a significant difference, though, in these two stories: Fernandes tells his with a certain triumphalism, describing with pride the transformation of his native place; he describes the continued influx as part of Bandra’s history. The second version will likely end with a sigh and the complaint that Bandra’s not what it once was (surely true), that it’s been ‘discovered’, that, worst of all, it’s being gentrified.

That word ‘gentrification’ tends to come with quite a bit of baggage, much of it flown in long-distance. Coined in the late 1960s by the English sociologist Ruth Glass, ‘gentrification’ originally described a process of urban change taking place in London, and specifically in Notting Hill and Islington (both now decidedly gentrified), wherein working class renters were gradually forced out of their neighbourhoods by bourgeois bohemians (the equally derisive analogue and precursor to the modern-day ‘hipster,’ on which more later) with cash to burn. It described an invasion of the ‘gentry’ that subverted and ultimately destroyed the neighbourhoods’ preexisting textures.

Since its invention, the word has gained extraordinary traction, becoming particularly useful for describing trends in American inner cities that began in the 1990s with the reversal of ‘white flight’, the departure of wealthy white Americans from city centres to suburbs in the decades following WWII. Gentrification meant artists and their studios, followed by young professionals and the trappings of bourgeois, upper-middle class urbanity (e.g. cafes, restaurants, galleries, boutiques), moving into neighbourhoods previously treated as reservations for working-class minority communities. Real estate prices skyrocketed; fresh waves of even wealthier gentrifiers arrived; new businesses opened that deliberately (or at least obviously) alienated locals, who soon left for cheaper pastures.

In 2003, Mathew Rofe, a professor of Geography at the University of Adelaide, wrote an article titled “I Want to be Global: Theorising the Gentrifying Class as an Emerging Elite Global Community” (a nicely academic mouthful), published in the journal Urban Studies. In that essay, Rofe discusses the intersection of “a nationally disembedded group whose members are globally aligned” and the class of people typically identified as gentrifiers, who bring to inner-city neighbourhoods “a sense of cosmopolitanism” and use that sense to create what he calls “consumptionscapes […] characterised by the presence of cafés, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.”

So far, so Bandra. Kirpi Patel (he goes by Nanu), a Bandra native who has worked as a real estate broker since 1988, says he has seen the rental price of a modest 1RK apartment rise from Rs 5-10,000 per month just over a decade ago to Rs 40,000 per month today. He has also seen a rise in the number of renters (he estimates roughly a quarter of apartments in Bandra these days are rentals), primarily young professionals, childless couples and increasingly – though maybe not to the extent people like to imagine – foreigners. The bars and cafes and boutiques are self-evident.

Cost of living was the most important draw for that first wave of young creatives to arrive in Bandra, along with location and a generally laid back attitude more or less unique to the area. This new population brought a steady rise in the number of bars and restaurants and, as some would have you believe, made Bandra cool.  Rents skyrocketed as wealthier people started moving in (a standard second-step in gentrification scenarios). The Catholics who once represented the neighbourhood’s majority started leaving, selling their suddenly valuable bungalows to ravenous developers and buying spacious modern homes in new Catholic enclaves positioned in cheaper suburbs like Malad and Borivali. Those developers built highrise after ugly concrete highrise (pitched to renters both foreign and local as “modern buildings”), thereby increasing traffic, noise and congestion.

Through all this, Bandra, more than any other neighbourhood in Mumbai, maintains, and has always maintained, close ties to the cultural attitudes and tastes of the west, particularly a famously relaxed outlook more accommodating to lifestyles otherwise held suspect in a socially conservative nation. Bandra offers an increasingly international population (both in terms of resident foreigners and of Indians who have lived abroad) many of the comforts of western cityscapes: walkable streets, international food, relative ease of movement—comforts that most of the city lacks.

As much as any neighbourhood in Bombay—probably as much as any neighbourhood in India—Bandra feels ‘nationally disembedded,’ its population ‘globally aligned.’ Some people make the logical leap from this supposedly ‘emergent global community’ to the word gentrification. In doing so, they’re missing some important steps (and opportunities) in between.

Whatever else we might associate with the word, ‘gentrification’ always represents a rupture, usually one in which a globalised, majority-controlled aesthetic culture replaces a local, minority-controlled one. That rupture, in turn, almost always results in tensions between the two communities for which those cultures stand in. Check out, for example, Spike Lee’s furious response to a question about ‘the other [i.e. good] side’ of gentrification during a talk at the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, the New York borough that has for well over a decade been the front line of the global gentrification battle: “There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud.”

The anger that Lee expresses here is a hallmark of gentrification. While I was an undergrad at Columbia, I saw similar reactions from the community in an area of West Harlem that the University euphemized as ‘Manhattanville’ and euthanized with eminent domain. The remaining residents of the area staged protests against Columbia’s attempts at gentrification (they used the word on the signs they paraded down College Walk, in the center of campus); it was a fight over land rights and power and race and money and cultural capital; over an institution of international renown, a bastion of white privilege despite its long history of leftist activism, attempting to rechristen and ‘redevelop’ (the University’s word) a historically black neighbourhood. People were pissed; it got ugly.

Nothing like this has ever happened in Bandra. Indeed, real Bandraites – people who were born and brought up in the area, not the first wave of ‘cool’ migrants – tend to see the neighbourhood’s current position within Mumbai’s urban imagination as a continuation of, rather than a break with, its past.

An example: the supposed ‘hipster’ population and its affinity for globally vetted, largely western musical trends. During the height of Bombay’s Jazz Age, from the 1930s-60s, many of the musicians who played in South Bombay’s clubs were Goan and East Indian Catholics from Bandra. Denzel Smith, an actor and lifelong Bandraite, credits his own interest in western music and theater to his upbringing in the neighbourhood. During his childhood in the 1960s and 70s, Smith said, “If you walked down Chapel Road” – the emblematic, graffiti-spangled lane that runs through the heart of Bandra’s best-preserved village – “on a Sunday morning, you would hear houses competing with Jim Reeves and the Rolling Stones, each one blasting his fucking music. You would never hear a fucking Hindi song. You would only hear English music.”

Another example: Bandra’s laisez-faire socio-cultural attitude is a point of pride for long-standing residents. It’s not, for instance, the relatively recent preponderance of foreigners and young creatives that has made Bandra the most comfortable place for Bombay’s gay community. Genesia Alves, whose family members own homes in Pali and Ranwar villages and burial plots at the 16th-century St. Andrews Church (true marks of a proper Bandra heritage), told me that when she was growing up in the late 70s, “there was always a cross dresser in line for communion.” When I told her I would quote her on that, she responded, “It’s a point of pride!”

On an evening last Spring, I visited a 187-year-old bungalow on Waroda Road, the main artery of Ranwar Village, owned by 72-year-old Peter Pereira and his extended family. Pereira, who sells magazines and newspapers from a small stand inside a fabric market on the major commercial thoroughfare Hill Road, sat with me in the living room and pulled out several bottles of homemade wine, the kind that Bandra Catholics have been brewing for generations and part of the reason the neighbourhood developed its raffish reputation for partying in the first place. Stylish bars may not have proliferated until the early 2000’s, around the time that the erstwhile watering hole Zenzi (now the subject of endless, and largely irritating, panegyrics) first opened its doors, but a pervasive casual drinking culture had been part of Bandra’s identity since at least the Prohibition era: For decades, Townies would make the otherwise unthinkable journey past Mahim Bay for a secret tipple in the back room of some chintz-clad auntie’s cottage-cum-brewery.

Like many Bandra Catholics, a significant number of whom worked in the merchant navy and other seafaring professions, Pereira’s work took him across the world, making him part of a ‘global community’ before that term had any cultural currency. As we sat together sipping on sweetly acidic raisin wine, Pereira pulled out a box of photographs and showed me dozens of pictures from his many visits to the cities of Europe and Asia. “He has friends everywhere, practically – from Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore,” said Pereira’s nephew, Ibsen Murzallo – named (naturally) for the Norwegian playwright whose masterpieces dealt with women’s lib and syphilis, not exactly suitable subjects in more traditional segments of Indian society.

As Rofe writes, “The individual must actively construct and place on display an identity marking them [sic] as ‘being global’. […] ‘Being global’ is a title of distinction, infusing the individual with a sense of cosmopolitanism.” Membership in Rofe’s élite global community, then, is something one assigns oneself. Whether or not Bandra’s Catholic communities ever represented a financial élite (they didn’t), they have always represented themselves as cosmopolitan in much the same way that newer, would-be gentrifiers do: through their tastes in clothing, food and music.

As Smith told me, “We were always the gentry.” And the gentry – whether built on real or cultural capital – can’t be gentrified. It would be disingenuous to claim that Bandra hasn’t changed dramatically in the last 20 years, but it’s equally disingenuous to pretend that that change isn’t consistent with the neighourhood’s history. As Blaine Murzallo, Ibsen’s older brother, told me: “Bandra is a place of change.” That changes have come more rapidly and haphazardly in recent years has nothing to do with gentrification and everything to do with Bandra’s geographic placement in the new heart of a metropolis whose population is leaving the historic core.

A 2013 study from the Asia Research Institute found that, since 1981, the percentage of Mumbai’s total population living in the suburbs has risen from 60 per cent to 75 per cent. The same study shows that between 2001 and 2011, the population of A Ward (the historic districts of Fort and Colaba) declined from 2,10,000 to 1,48,000, making Bombay City one of only three districts in the entire state of Maharashtra to experience negative population growth over that period. In the same interval, the population of H West Ward (Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz) rose from 3,37,000 to 4,20,000.  “I guess we’ve more or less reached the saturation point,” says Asif Zakaria, a Bandra native who has served as Municipal Corporator for H West Ward for eight years. “Or if we’re not there, then we’re getting there.” When I spoke to Zakaria in January of this year, he told me the population of H West Ward is likely closer to 5 lakhs.

But what’s really interesting here is the nature of that demographic change. It’s basically impossible (or at least really difficult) to get solid data on the exact demographic breakdown among new migrants to Bandra, but anecdotal evidence abounds. Nanu, a Hindu, recalls a time when he was the only non-Catholic living in his building near Pali Market; today, he says, the building is roughly 60 per cent Muslim, 20 per cent Catholic and 20 per cent “others”. In the last 20 years or so, many families have sold their homes in predominantly Muslim areas like Bhendi Bazaar and Byculla to shift north, particularly following the ‘92-‘93 riots, seeing Bandra as a safe space for minorities of all kinds. And while Bandra’s ‘native’ communities – Catholic, Parsi, Bohri – have nurtured their neighbourhood’s cosmopolitan reputation, cracks have appeared in its foundations as the demographic ground has shifted.

Anil Kably, who co-founded Zenzi in his native barrio in 2005, told me, with a roll of the eyes, “I’ve heard people say ‘Pali has become Ali and Ranwar has become Anwar’ and shit like that.” This kind of thing, he said, is inimical to Bandra’s cosmopolitan ideal, but has become increasingly common. Ayaz Basrai, a lifelong Bandra resident and founder of the Ranwar Village-based architecture firm The Busride Studio, has been at the receiving end of these tensions. After a client (Muslim, like Basrai) purchased the St. Jude Bakery on Waroda Road a couple years back, rumours began circulating among local Catholics that the pair planned to turn it into a mosque.

In Bandra, Basrai told me, “your religious identity is mediated by your geographical identity. For me, for example, the fact that I’m Muslim comes way down in the hierarchy. The fact that I’m from Bandra is way up.” Whatever racial tensions exist in Bandra, he says, relate primarily to a new community of Muslims, settled in formerly Catholic areas like Bazaar Road and Chapel Road, that many Bandra natives feel, rightly or wrongly, has not reorganised its identity to align with the neighbourhood’s ethos (a problem of perception that should be discomfitingly familiar to the neighbourhood’s many European transplants). “Part of the culture of the suburb is to maintain a certain demographic mix,” Basrai told me. The conflict here, “soft” (to use Kably’s word) though it is, arises from a clash between a cultural ideal of inclusion, and the fear that that ideal will be its own undoing.

During our chat, Nanu had told me “the people who are generally from Bandra, they feel a bit unsecured. With the people who have come from outside you have lots of riff raff.” A year or so ago, when I first began researching this story, an East Indian Lady told me that St. Andrew’s church had to lock its Hill Road gate to keep out the “bhaiyas” who gather on the Bandstand. These aren’t the tensions characteristic of gentrification. They’re closer to the ‘there-goes-the-neighbourhood’ attitude of American white flight.

Around this time two years ago, three separate publications (Time OutHindustan Times, and, most laughably, Open) attempted to answer the same totally insipid question, What is an Indian Hipster?, wasting page after ridiculous page on a term that has outlived its relevance even in the US, the land of its invention, let alone in India where it likely never made much sense in the first place. That the term is most frequently applied to (and by) the same ‘nationally disembedded group’ accused of gentrifying Bandra is no accident.

Back in 2010, Mark Greif, an editor for n+1 (the New York-based hipster literary journal par excellence), published a book called What Was the Hipster?, an intermittently fascinating ethnography of an urban subculture whose modern heyday he sets (dubiously) at 1999-2009. Among Greif’s many points is the idea that hipsterism is not primarily an aesthetic code (flannel, skinny jeans, facial hair, fat late-20th-century novels—usually made of paper), but rather one based on knowledge, specifically on knowing first. Obvious enough. The more interesting point that Greif makes is that hipster culture “adopt[s] the rhetoric but not the politics of the counterculture,” and transforms those countercultural symbols into consumable objects. An example: hipster culture’s interest in hip hop lifts all the genre’s most digestible features with little or no interest in the political high stakes that energized it in the first place.

Little of this really makes sense in India—at least not yet. The true subcultures that exist here (I’m thinking of Dalit street theater and the radical adivasi left) are so sub that no urban elite can adopt even their most superficial trappings. What, after all, is the consumable aesthetic of Naxalism? Neither do India’s young urban creatives pretend to poverty, an important mark of the almost always upper-middle-class American hipster; in cities as blighted by true destitution as Bombay and Delhi, to do so would be not just ridiculous but unforgivably callous. When people use the term ‘hipster’ to describe people living in Bandra, they are describing a set of superficial signs, the same signs they use to mark out the class of people they would describe as ‘gentrifier’.

It’s worth pointing out that the people lumped into this group—those of us who have moved here in the last several years (in my case about three years ago)—have a very specific stake in arguing that Bandra has not, in fact, been gentrified; no one, after all, wants to be a parasite. But just as clearly as I have a stake in claiming that Bandra is not being gentrified, the people who most often use the term – those who came here 10 or 15 years ago, rather than five or forever ago – have a stake in believing that it is. If gentrification used in the present progressive – i.e. Bandra is being gentrified – suggests an ongoing process, then the clear implication for the people who use it is we were here before. It’s Greif’s hipster to a tee.

But the trouble with this is bigger than just rhetorical chauvinism or factual inaccuracy. It doesn’t really matter if people choose to believe they discovered or imported Bandra’s coolness, annoying though it may be. By pretending that Bandra is gentrifying we direct the conversation about demographic and structural change away from the poor communities – migrant and otherwise – who live at the neighbourhood’s fringes, and away from the even more pressing issues related to infrastructure and over-crowding that affect everyone, not just in Bandra but throughout modern Mumbai.

Bandra is, if course, notably better off infrastructure-wise than most parts of the city, and certainly better off than any other suburb. The roads are reasonably good and flooding is rarely a problem, though traffic surely is. According to both Basrai and Zakaria, the credit for Bandra’s manifold comforts goes primarily to the system of ‘Advanced Locality Management’ that cleans and maintains the neighbourhood’s streets, a grassroots program wherein each lane has a committee of volunteers who field and remedy local complaints. Though ALMs exist throughout the city, Zakaria told me, “In the entire city of Mumbai, Bandra has the maximum activism.” Grassroots activism can, in fact, help correct the neighbourhood’s most pressing issues. That those issues are less pressing in Bandra than elsewhere proves it. Infrastructure, overcrowding, restriction of pedestrian movement and the unscrupulous developers responsible, at least in part, for creating these problems – these are the major concerns for Bandra’s native population, not the supposed scourge of gentrification.

As neighbourhoods all over the world have demonstrated, gentrification is an unstoppable force, a cultural/economic juggernaut that, once started, doesn’t stop. Look at neighbourhoods across New York and London, cities, as a million think pieces have lamented, whose identities as cultural crucibles are being undermined and perhaps destroyed by the bane of impossibly high rents. And Gentrification is not restricted to the great cities of the West: Even Mumbai has seen the disastrous consequences of this process in Lower Parel as chawl dwellers have been forced from their homes and an essential piece of the city’s urban history has been systematically and clumsily obliterated.

So the problem here is not just semantic, nor is it just factual: the problem is diagnostic. Using the term ‘gentrification’ to describe what’s happening isn’t just wrong, it’s lazy; by calling Bandra gentrified, we’re really calling it terminal, simultaneously insisting that its identity as a hub for creativity and progressivism has been irrevocably lost and claiming that identity as something introduced—like an invasive foreign species—rather than endemic. The idea of Bandra’s gentrification, then, serves as an elegant disguise for Bombay’s two favourite forms of fatalism: nostalgia and political apathy. It is a zero-stakes aesthetic stance, the adoption of a rhetoric without its politics.

When I first wrote this piece, the framing question was simple: “Have Hipsters Ruined Bandra?” Riposte: What if the only thing ‘hipster’ about Bandra is the idea that it’s already ruined?
A earlier version of this piece originally ran on the Mumbai Boss website.