“We stand, but we do not pray”: religious plurality in a Mumbai chawl

Istvan Keid


Inspired among others by the work of anthropologist Laura Ring on social spaces in an ethnically mixed Karachi apartment building (2006), the initial main objective of the research that has led to this essay was to look at modes of sociality in culmrally and religiously diverse areas of Mumbai and - more specifically - to look into the role that religion may or may not play in the mutual perceptions and everyday interactions of these areas’ residents. I was interested in the ways in which religious factors contribute - if at all - to the forging of neighbourly structures and relations in their day-to-day lives. Known for its unparalleled religious diversity, Mumbai seemed like the perfect setting for a wide range of culmrally mixed residential constellations that could be studied as “composite spaces of socio-religious dynamics.”1

Based on earlier stays in the city and on relevant literature, it was not hard to identify potential localities of interest. In the course of the first weeks in the field, helpful interlocutors in South-Central Mumbai were instrumental in further narrowing down the scope of my explorations in this area to an inconspicuous three-level structure a little off a busy road. A variety of religious sites along this road and its side lanes were visible marks of the locality’s cultural diversity, with a number of Hindu temples and shrines, Jain temples, mosques and dargahs, a Jewish prayer hall and a Catholic church, as well as a Buddhist vihara. With a total of ten units, their sizes varying from approximately 180 to 300 square feet, the building belonged to the type of architectural structure that accommodates rows of mostly single-room tenements on several floors, locally called a chawl.2

The families residing there had diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds: at the time of my fieldwork (mainly between 2015 and 2017) four families were Muslim (Shia and Sunni), three Hindu (Maharashtrian), one Jewish (Bene Israeli), one mixed (Jewisli/Hindu) and one Christian (Goan Catholic). I visited three of these families a number of times, and they generously shared with me their life stories, talking also about various aspects of everyday life in the neighbourhood.3 Even though I have not gone back to the chawl for some time now, I still like to think of these conversations as ongoing and as part of a work in progress. The reflections on the margins of the collected material presented in the following are therefore

Religious plurality in a Mumbai chawl 207 preliminary. The focus lies on the data itself and the ways in which my research at this particular site - one of several - unfolded. Unsurprisingly, the resulting essay consists mainly of passages that resemble a field diary. That being said, it also contains a few pointers to possible directions for more detailed analysis (to follow at a later stage), which would include material from other areas of Mumbai as well.


My research in this part of the city evolved gradually, from repeatedly walking through the area to spending time at various places, to the more thorough exploration of mixed-religious dwelling. I crisscrossed the neighbourhood, stopping at various places, initiating conversations and spending time wherever I felt welcome enough. I remember a local pharmacist instantly giving me half of the orange he had just finished peeling, and we ended up talking about the Jain community he was part of. A pickle seller first praised and then gifted me his “world-famous” mixture of spices for seasoning fish. During a later visit we watched together a Muslim procession passing on the street from inside his shop. When I asked a tailor in one of the side lanes for directions, he was eager to help and went on explaining how parts of the area were reclaimed from the sea during the British period. Our subsequent conversations had as a recurring theme the question of the universality of religious ethics. To a rather terse owner of a flour mill I apparently looked both suspicious and harmless at the same time, a situation which resulted in us having a rather surreal exchange. I sat for a while at one of the neighbourhood temples, sipping tea and talking first about Hindu mythology with the priest and two visitors, then about particularities of the area. They were quick to point out the proximity of the temple to a Muslim neighbourhood they labelled - not entirely unexpectedly -“little Pakistan.” At one of the local dargahs I tried to talk to the caretaker. He listened and seemed friendly but turned out to be uninterested in anything I had to say or ask.

Then, one evening I sat on a bench outside the local church when mass just ended, and the participants were coming out. An elderly man approached me and inquired about where I was from, whether I was a Catholic and whether I had just come for a visit or for business purposes. I told him I was working at a Norwegian university and was interested to learn about the history and everyday life of the area's communities. The man's ten-year-old granddaughter joined us after a while, and the three of us engaged in a conversation about school and the girl's favourite subject (English), about the weather (it was unusually warm for early February), and later about the locality in general and the dwindling number of parishioners (with a large part of the young people moving to the northern parts of the city). The man, whom I will call Mr Fernandes,4 was quite jovial and communicative and seemed to be sympathetic to my project. When it was time for them to leave, he invited me to go along and see the chawl where he and his family lived. Also, he wanted me to meet his downstairs neighbours.

Lived multiculturalism, everyday peace and the nature of sanity

Before the reader meets other residents of the building, a brief note on the directions in which my research evolved in those first weeks of interacting with interlocutors in various parts of the city will contribute to placing the material presented next in a more adequate context. In the course of fieldwork in South-Central Mumbai my initial research design became somewhat untidy, with the focus of inquiry gradually blurring and including aspects that had not been part of the project proposal.5 Exploring inter-religious perception and communication in socially and historically multilayered areas had sounded wonderful on paper and in the project application but proved to be difficult if not impossible to pursue in the field, at least not in the consistent and focused manner I had imagined. Other factors and perspectives had made their presence felt from the very first moments, and more pertinent themes seemed to suggest themselves, which contributed to a gradual shift of focus. Overall, the scope of my inquiry became broader, with additional research questions such as: How do individuals perceive their culturally diverse surroundings? How open are they in relation to culmrally different others? To what extent - if at all - do they engage with people belonging to ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic groups differing from their own? And, aimed at the chawl I was about to explore, which of the modes and degrees of individual engagement between residents will be prevalent?

With other words, I first drifted, then steered towards the constantly growing field of scholarship on everyday multiculturalism. The wide-ranging possibilities resulting from multicultural encounters listed by Wise and Velayutham (2009) in the introduction to their eponymous edited volume offered a first orientation. Like their observation site, but embedded in a different socio-geograpliical context, the residential buildings I was looking at could also turn out to be sites of "conviviality, of light-touch rubbing along, of competition for space, everyday racism and cross-cultural discomforts, ... of interethnic exchange and hybridity, encounter and hospitality” (2009: 2). In addition to interactions of potentially various kinds and intensity levels, there were other aspects to take into consideration as well, for example the stability of individual self-positionings in mixed-cultural settings. Scholars such as Glick Schiller and Irving (2015: 5) describe cultural openness as relational, aspirational and processual, as part of situated individual epistemologies. An exploration of individual life-worlds in a Mumbai chawl and the relational positionalities of their residents with regard to the culmrally different others next door seemed to be an increasingly attractive task. From yet another perspective, that of peace studies, an ethnographic approach to "undramatic” sociality promised possible contributions to understanding the complexities and processual nature of everyday peace (Williams 2015). Reflecting on a passage from Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (2008 [1988]: 254) ("that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independent of their governments”), Laura Ring ends her study of the Karachi apartment building by emphasising the need for analytical

Religious plurality in a Mumbai chawl 209 inquiry into the nature of such sanity, or everyday peace, “its forms of authority, narrative properties, sensibilities, and contingencies” (2006: 182).

While this gradual widening of my research focus unburdened me somewhat and offered useful theoretical vectors and coordinates, it made me aware of the limitations of my fieldwork and the consequences for my material and subsequent analysis. Not having the possibility to reside in the building(s) under study for a longer period of time, I had to rely on repeated interactions with my interlocutors in the form of conversations about their life histories and everyday lives, hoping to observe and document in the process the one or other serendipitous neighbourly exchange as well.

Mr Nawgaonkar

Mr Fernandes did introduce me to the downstairs neighbours on that same night. Two octogenarian men - Mr Fernandes's neighbour, whom I will call Mr Nawgaonkar,6 together with a visitor - sitting under a lazily rotating fan in a rather dimly lit corner of the ground-floor tenement greeted us warmly when we entered. "He is a professor at a university in Norway and wants to study how we live,” Mr Fernandes said after a brief exchange of social niceties, and the two aged gentlemen nodded approvingly in my direction. I introduced myself, talked briefly about my research interests and sat around for some time listening to the neighbours chatting about a common acquaintance, apparently continuing an earlier conversation. After a while, Mr Nawgaonkar said he was happy to see that I was interested in the history of the Jewish communities in Mumbai, adding that, while around 1950 there had been more than 50,000 Jews in the city, today there were only a few thousand left, in spite of 2,000 years of Jewish history in the area.7 He then mentioned Marx, Freud and Einstein as towering Jewish figures of European cultural history. “He knows so many things,” Mr Fernandes said admiringly to me, to which Mr Nawgaonkar replied that he had always been interested in history and had gone to very good schools, mentioning the Catholic school of the area and Mumbai's Jesuit-founded St Xavier’s College. To this, Mr Fernandes interjected proudly: "Yes, it was us [the Catholics] who provided education to everybody.” Mr Nawgaonkar nodded again and said that I was welcome to return and meet with him on one of the coming days. We exchanged phone numbers and I took my leave. Mr Fernandes excused himself as well and left the ground-floor flat together with me. Before going up the flight of stairs leading to his floor, he reassured me that I was in good hands and that I will most surely find out everything I needed to know from Mr Nawgaonkar, whom he - once again - characterised as a very knowledgeable interlocutor who may have a surprise or two to share. Mr Fernandes also said that he was hoping to see me again and extended what sounded like an open invitation for a cup of tea at his place.

When I called Mr Nawgaonkar the next day, he sounded eager to meet. Pleasantly surprised by the impact I seemed to have made, I happily cancelled my plans for fieldwork in another part of the city and went to see him. After I reiterated my interest in the multicultural neighbourhood and especially the religiously diverse building he was living in, the first thing Mr Nawgaonkar told me was that the building was more than 100 years old and that, at some point, all the rooms had once belonged to Jewish families, most of whom migrated to Israel from 1948 onwards. He was quick to point out that he had never experienced anti-Semitism in India and neither had those Bene Israeli who left the country. The coexistence of Jews and Hindus in Mumbai had always been peaceful, he said, and its harmoniousness was well illustrated by the fact that many members of the Jewish community (him included) gave up eating beef a long time ago.

When I asked him whether he knew who the first non-Jewish resident in the building was, he replied that he did not know, but he supposed they were Bohra Muslims. The first hour of our meeting was spent talking mostly about issues related to the Jewish community, despite my occasional attempts to steer the conversation towards questions concerning his everyday experiences in a multicultural residential context. The themes alternated between contemporary and historical ones, Mr Nawgaonkar talking, for instance, about one of the community’s trustees opposing the reopening of the Worli Jewish cemetery for burials and about the arrogance displayed for many decades by Mumbai’s Baghdadi Jews8 in their dealings with the Bene Israelis. When I asked about his family history, he told me that his parents had migrated to Israel in the 1970s together with his younger brother. We talked about their lives, both in India and in Israel, and their professions, with all male family members including Mr Nawgaonkar (who never married) having worked in relatively high positions in the city's economic and administrative sectors. When I asked him about his everyday life in the neighbourhood, he again at first seemed to evade the question by talking mainly about his self-imposed marginalisation in the local Jewish community, as a result of a perceived lack of transparency on the side of the community leaders. But then he suddenly mentioned his upstairs neighbour Mr Fernandes as someone with whom he had a good relationship and regularly discussed politics and other issues. When I asked him to tell me about the Muslim families in the building and his interactions with them. Mr Nawgaonkar replied - again rather evasively - that there were no problems whatsoever, that he had good neighbourly relations with everybody and that he had not experienced anti-Semitism in his entire life.

Then, after a few moments of silence, which I used for quickly finishing my notes on our latest exchange, he mentioned almost casually that some years ago he took in Ravi, a Hindu boy, who gradually became like an own son to him. When the young man reached marital age, Mr Nawgaonkar travelled to Uttar Pradesh, to the home village of his adopted son, found a bride and arranged their marriage. The young couple moved in with him, and today, he said, he was the grandfather of two beautiful, intelligent children. Noticing my somewhat surprised look, Mr Nawgaonkar added that both at the time of my last visit, as well as now, the young people were not at home, and that I will most certainly have the opportunity to meet them next time.

My first longer encounter with Mr Nawgaonkar was revealing in several respects. In addition to learning about the rather unusual biographical details and the living arrangement he was part of, I was left wondering whether his repeatedly evasive reactions to my questions about everyday interactions with his neighbours or other culturally different residents of the area were deliberate deflections, or just random expressions of his momentary lack of interest in talking about the matter. Even though I had described to him in some detail the broadly cross-cultural thrust of my research project, he seemed to view our meetings primarily as opportunities to converse about the history of the Jewish communities of Mumbai, ignoring most of the time my occasional questions aimed at lived cultural and religious diversity and cultural difference. In the weeks and months to come, I experienced similar reactions from my other interlocutors in the building as well.

Mr Fernandes

Soon after meeting him for the first time, I went to Mr Fernandes’s place. His wife prepared tea and we sat in the living room talking about family history. He told me that he was a Goan Catholic and that his family came to Mumbai in the 1940s, when he was six years old. He said he felt the need to clarify one thing, as this was something people often got wrong: the Goan Catholics did not convert to Christianity but were descendants of Portuguese who had married Goan women. About his childhood he did not have much to say, except that he grew up in another tenement in the same area and received up to eighth standard free education at the local Catholic school. He started working at an early age in his father's metal workshop, got married when he was 22, and continued to live, together with his wife and children, in his parents’ home. When the tenement was sold for redevelopment purposes - with both his parents having passed away a few years earlier - Mr and Mrs Fernandes and their five children moved into the present building. The year was 1980, and they bought the tenancy rights for the 300-square-feet room from the Hindu family who had lived there before them. The landlord was a Bohra Muslim. Mr Fernandes, in the meantime a trained mechanic, worked in a garage for some time, before founding together with a partner his own business of producing elevator parts. Since he moved in, two Bohra families replaced a Hindu and a Jewish family in the chawl. Mr Fernandes then talked about the exponential growth of rent rates and housing prices in this part of the city, noting that buying tenancy rights today would cost him almost a hundred times the amount paid in 1980.

When I asked him about his relationship with the other tenants in the building, he was quick to point out that there were no problems at all with any of them, except on rare occasions when children quarrelled and parents had to intervene. He then remarked that they had always been the only Catholic family in the building, which he found strange, given that in the 1980s there were still many Christians in the area. But the number of parishioners had been steadily decreasing over the years, with the young people moving away in search for a better life in the northern, less congested parts of the city, only to realise, he said, that they were not happier there, on the contrary. Four of his children had done that and they were constantly complaining. In many areas there were no proper cemeteries even, he said, giving the conversation a somewhat surprising twist. To be sure, he went on, there was the central one at Mahalakshmi. but in Mahim, for example, they had to bury their dead in the vicinity of the church. This was fortunately not the case here, and even if small, the congregation was still vigorous to a certain extent. He himself went to mass two or three times a week, his wife even more often.

Having received the evasive response I was already prepared for, I then inquired directly whether there were any special occasions, such as festivals or other functions, when the building's residents came together. Mr Fernandes reacted to my question by talking about the exchange of sweets and other typical dishes among the residents during various religious festivals: the Muslims sent over sheer korma at Id (Eid), the Hindus sent chakli at Divali, the Jewish families sent nial-ida and pcikoras at Hanukkah and Mrs Fernandes reciprocated at Christmas with coconut gujias, kulkuls and other sweets. Listening to Mr Fernandes talk about what sounded like ongoing neighbourly conviviality, for a moment I already saw myself snowballing through the homes of every family in the building and having long conversations about their everyday experiences with their culturally different neighbours, only to realise in the next moment how non-specific his replies until then had been. (He did not say, for instance, that Ms Gupta made wonderfully juicy gidab jamuns, or that the Ahmeds would always send their little boy over with a plate of sweets.) I asked him nevertheless towards the end of our conversation whether he could put me in contact with his neighbours, to which he replied jovially that this was no problem and that I should call him in a day or two. However, when I did, he sounded very apologetic, saying that he was not able to get anyone to talk to me. He explained that most of his neighbours were not at home during the day, and, besides, some were uneducated and could not have helped me anyway.

Ms Lohawala

I was standing with Mr Nawgaonkar in the backyard of the chawl on a warm evening in June when a young woman wearing a rida, the typical two-piece dress of the Bohras,9 came rushing down the stairs. She greeted Mr Nawgaonkar and headed towards one of the scooters parked in the yard. A few minutes earlier I had asked Mr Nawgaonkar (once again) whether he saw any possibility to introduce me to one of his neighbours, and he replied that this would be probably difficult, as he did not have much contact with the people staying upstairs, except for Mr Fernandes, but that he would see what he could do. As I had heard this before, I did not have much hope. But this time, as the woman was starting up the scooter, we approached her, introductions were made, and an appointment fixed for later that same week to meet with her and her family.

As it nimed out, the Lohawalas' flat was only two doors away from the double unit where the Fernandeses lived. Mr Lohawala had to work that afternoon, so I talked to Ms Lohawala and her 15-year-old son Ismail. They were both accommodating, although - at least in the beginning of our conversation - also somewhat

Religious plurality in a Mumbai chawl 213 reserved. I briefly described my research project, answered a few questions on my own background and suggested to begin with the Lohawala family history, and Ms Lohawala graciously obliged. Her grandparents from the mother’s side hailed from a village in Gujarat, while those from her father’s side were Mumbaikars. When she was a child, her family lived in one of Mumbai’s northern suburbs, where she also attended the English-medium community school. She pointed out that this was a school run by the Bohras themselves and founded by the spiritual leader of community, who had died recently (with the leadership being passed on to his son). Later, Ms Lohawala obtained a B.Com from one of the colleges in Mira Road. She was now a housewife, and the income for the family was provided by her husband, who ran a hardware business.

We then talked briefly about the advantages of an English education, and Ms Lohawala said that there was never a doubt in her mind that her two children (her eight-year-old daughter was visiting a friend at the time of our conversation) would attend English schools as well and that her husband was of the same opinion. When I asked her about her family's history in this building and their everyday lives and experiences with the neighbours over the years, Ms Lohawala gave me a detailed listing of how long each family had been residing on their (the first) floor, how long the previous residents had lived in their (the Lohawalas’) room, as well as its size and floor plan. To begin with, she pointed out that they were the last to move in seven years ago, all the others having lived there for several decades: The Fernandeses for 30 years (it was actually 35), one of the Maharashtrian Hindu families for more than 50 years, the other for 30 years. On the same floor there was also another Bohra family (living here for at least 20 years), the remaining room being occupied by "some Muslim [non-Bohra] family,” who had been in the building for 30 years. She then went on to enumerate the residents who previously lived in their (the Lohawalas’) unit: Hindus, then Bohras (for 30 years), another Bohra family for seven years and then "some Muslim guy” who had bought the tenancy rights as an investment and from whom they took over seven years ago. The Lohawalas' unit had a size of 180 square feet (approximately 16.5 square metres), which meant basically the room we were sitting in (on a mattress on the floor), where “everything [was] happening: eating, sleeping, studying” (Ms Lohawala); a rather crammed kitchen corner behind a mid-height partition wall; and a small bathroom with a washing machine. The shared toilets were outside, Ismail added, pointing towards one end of the open hallway running in front of the rooms.

I then asked again about the neighbourly relations on their floor, and Ms Lohawala said that everything was fine, that they greeted each other in the hallway and in the staircase, and that this pretty much summed up all the interaction. How about a chawl committee, I inquired? Were there any regular meetings of the tenants to discuss building maintenance and such? No, there was nothing like that, she said. Only when some urgent repair was needed would the residents call an ad-hoc meeting. Asked about possible get-togethers with the occasion of religious festivals, Ms Lohawala explained that at Christmas they would get cake from the Christians, and that they, the Lohawalas, reciprocated at Id, when they used to send sweets to everyone in the building. And at Divali, the Hindus distributed their specific dishes. The residents did not participate in each other's celebrations, she said; they gave each other the sweets, wished Happy Christmas, Id or Divali, and that was it.

We then talked about Ismail's time-consuming school and sports activities and the fact that he grew up having no playmates his age in the building. We spent the remaining part of my visit touching on a wide range of topics related mostly to the Bohra community: the Raudat Tahera (the imposing mausoleum of the community's leaders, with the Quran engraved on its inner walls) and the Saifee mosque (both located in Bhendi Bazaar); other Bohra mosques in Mumbai; the differences between the various Muslim communities; the Lohawalas' daily religious practices (frequency and timings of the daily prayers, their weekly visits to the mosque); the languages spoken in the family (Hindi, English, Marathi, Gujarati); the peculiarities of the Lisan ud-Dawat, the language specific to the community. Ismail talked about his upcoming participation in the misaq ceremony and explained the difference between a festive topi (cap) with a golden border and the regular white one he was wearing. We parted cordially, with Ismail offering to accompany me to the Raudat Tahera on my next visit.

Ms Thakur

The marriage he arranged for his adoptive son cost a lot of money, Mr Naw-gaonkar said when I visited the chawl again. But he never regretted all that money, as both the new wife and later the grandchildren turned out to be kind and well behaved. One of them, the boy, a vivacious fifth-grader, had just left for a game of cricket on the playground behind the chawl, close to a bust of Chatrapati Shivaji. Ravi, his father, was not at home, and his mother could be heard working in the kitchen in a remote corner of the flat. The Jews were not converted to Islam precisely because of Shivaji, who protected the Hindus and created an empire out of nothing, my host said. He was a Maratha warrior, and the Marathas never harmed the Jews. And there was never any anti-Semitism in India, he added once again. It took some time before we could return to my questions concerning his adoptive son's family. First, I listened to Mr Nawgaonkar talk about Prophet Elijah’s ascent to heaven from a rock near Alibag, a coastal town in the Raigad district; the conquest of Israel by the Assyrian king Sargon II, the subsequent exiling of the region's inhabitants and the arrival of the legendary seven ships to the shores of India; the differences between Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews with regard to their Jewish heritage and respective religious practices; the Yad Vashem memorial and the impossibility of visiting it only once; the genetic similarities between the Pathans of Malihabad and the Jews; the major role played by J. F. R. Jacob, an Indian general of Jewish descent and later governor of Goa and Punjab, in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

Mr Nawgaonkar adopted Ravi Thakur when he (Ravi) was ten years old. He had come to Mumbai from a village near Allahabad, where his father, a small farmer. had experienced financial difficulties and decided to send his son to work for a distant relative in the city. In Mumbai, Ravi ended up as a tea stall boy, which is how he and MrNawgaonkar met: he delivered tea when Mr Nawgaonkar had meetings with colleagues in a nearby hall. Even after moving in with Mr Nawgaonkar, Ravi did not go to school much, learning with a private teacher how to properly read and write. Already as a boy he was very intelligent. Mr Nawgaonkar said, adding that he had now put Ravi in charge of managing his (Mr Nawgaonkar's) stocks, paying him a fixed monthly salary.

In the meantime, Ravi’s wife Ms Thakur joined the conversation. She had not been very happy during her early years in Mumbai, she said, but felt now more adjusted. For the first six to seven months she did not leave the house at all, but then she started going to the market, and things got better from there. She must have gotten to know her Hindu neighbours upstairs well during those first months, I said. No, she replied. Even if they were Hindus, they were Maharashtrians, and they only spoke to her when absolutely necessary. Which was fine, Mr Nawgaonkar interjected on his way out, because she was already busy enough raising the children, going to the market, cooking and doing other housework anyway.

When we were alone, Ms Thakur told me that she occasionally met with other women from UP when visiting a Ganapati shrine nearby but otherwise did not make many acquaintances here. Once in every two or three years she returned to her home village, often in connection with some life-cycle ritual for her children that she needed to perform in the village temple. The most recent ceremony they had to arrange was the mundan (first haircut) for her son, she said. His hair was offered to the village goddess, together with the blood of a piglet. Ms Thakur added that it was an expensive affair with many people, priests, an artistic programme and whatnot. Expectations in the village were higher, now that they were known to be coming from the big city, and her children were the first from that entire area to go to convent school. But they had no choice: upanayana, marriage, everything had to be done in the village temple, otherwise the goddess would get angry (devTgussa hogi). Which goddess, I asked? She was the village goddess and the kuldevi (family deity) at the same time, she said, who had been in the family for many generations, and they just called her "Kuldevi.” Ms Thakur then showed me a shrine in the wall beneath the TV set, with small images of Ganesha, Hanu-man and Shiva, and pictures of Sai Baba and Durga. They were all equally important to her. she said when I asked about her istadevata, her chosen deity, and every morning she performed a collective piija for them. We talked about her relatives back in the village (three brothers, one sister, all doing agricultural work, kheti ka kanty a case of levirate marriage in the family; the financial privileges that went with the harijan status during the rule of Mayavati, which lead many members of other jatis in her village to declare themselves harijans-, the gradual improvements in health care and schools during the past years.

Then, Mr Nawgaonkar returned and rejoined the conversation by saying that Ms Thakur was an excellent housewife, except for one thing. She went to the market regularly and prepared delicious dishes for the family but refused to shop at the fish market. Ms Thakur nodded in consent, saying that she could not stand the smell there. She added that she had no problems cooking chicken and mutton, even though her family in the village was vegetarian. When a little later Ms Thakur excused herself, I asked Mr Nawgaonkar what he as a Bene Israeli thought about the images of Hindu deities in his house, to which he shrugged and said that the Jewish community had a long history of living together with Hindus, reminded me that he had stopped eating beef long before he met Ravi, and that when he was younger, he and his friends used to regularly participate in the annual Ganapati celebrations. Accordingly, he said, he did not have any problems at all with the Thakurs worshipping their deities, or with participating in religious functions connected to his grandchildren’s sariiskâras, or during festivals. "On all these occasions, we stand,” he said, "but we do not pray, fold our hands, or bow.”

Concluding remarks

As already suspected, the repeated visits to this multireligious chawl in South-Central Mumbai did not offer opportunities to observe more than only a few fleeting neighbourly encounters. However, as the preceding pages hopefully showed, the conversations with members of resident families were earnest and informative. Yielding apparently limited insight into cross-cultural neighbourly relations in the building, they offered nevertheless a glimpse at strategies of dealing with culturally different others living next door. Certain recurrent patterns encountered in the conversations merit further consideration in future detailed analyses of the material, such as the interlocutors’ evasive answers when asked about experiences and opportunities of living in culmrally mixed environments, or the (often lengthy) accounts of historical events and of doctrinal and rimai aspects concerning the interlocutors’ respective religious communities, likely indications of their pronounced community identity.10

The time spent with the people in the building seems to suggest that a civil and peaceful sociality across religious boundaries can be maintained even without building close personal relationships. While conscious of the dangers of drawing hasty parallels, the recipe for maintaining a peaceful everyday in this chawl did not seem to differ at the surface very much from what I had experienced in my childhood growing up in a multi-ethnic block of flats and from what most probably is a defining feature of many similar residential constellations: a combination of pragmatism, politeness and indifference. Of these, it is the latter ingredient in the mix, indifference, that will receive increased attention in the further work with the material collected in this and other mixed-religious neighbourhoods in Mumbai. Singled out in early social theory (Simmel 1903 [1995]) as one of the behavioural responses of individuals to the close proximity encountered in urban environments, reflections on the notion of indifference can be found not only in contemporary social theory (Amin 2012) but also in literature on everyday multiculturalism and situated cosmopolitanism (Wise 2009). In a range of possible reactions and attitudes vis-à-vis cultural otherness, indifference seems to occupy there a middle position between apprehension / cross-cultural discomfort and the

Religious plurality in a Mumbai chawl 217 wholehearted embracing of the other, somewhere in the vicinity of reserved scepticism and the concept of “parallel lives.” In Stichweh's outline of a sociology of indifference, the notion is described as an "attitudinal complex” that is the result of "an incessant sorting out of most persons present to whom no further attention is given” (1997: 11). Stichweh draws on complementary perspectives developed by Goffman ("civil inattention,” or mutual non-engagement)11 and Silver (“routine benevolence”) (1985: 64). In addition, Bailey's “civility of indifference” and "commonsensical pragmatism” (1996), developed in his analysis of social dynamics and hierarchy in rural Orissa, and Amit’s "watchful indifference” as a form of attentive co-presence (2020) are among the potentially useful perspectives to be considered in a forthcoming comparative analysis of a broader corpus of interviews conducted across South-Central Mumbai.


  • 1 This essay is the outcome of an interdisciplinary, international research project on religion in Mumbai initiated by Michael Stausberg. based at the University of Bergen and funded by the Research Council of Norway (2014-2018). The project did not follow the more common strategy of looking at one specific religious tradition or movement, focusing instead on places and geographical areas and attempting to capture broader pictures that would simultaneously include a range of religious affiliations. The quote is from the project application. On the extraordinary cultural diversity of the city and its historical development see Fernandes (2013), Prakash (2010), Dwiwedi and Mehro-tra (1995) and others.
  • 2 On the history and typology of the chawl, see Adarkar (2011: 16f).
  • 3 I am grateful to all my conversation partners for the time they spent with me, their openness, patience and hospitality.
  • 4 This is not his real name, and the same applies to all my other conversation partners in this essay. In order to protect my interlocutors’ identity, I changed their names and altered parts of their socio-biographical data.
  • 5 For a more detailed discussion of the initial stages of my research in Mumbai, see also Keul(2021: 37f).
  • 6 The names of members of the Bene Israel Jewish community are very often biblical first names followed by surnames that end in -kar and refer to villages in the Konkan (Alibag) area: Nawgaon, Pen, Wakrul, Kurul, Kihim, Dive and others.
  • 7 For a history of the Bene Israel Jewish community in India (and a bibliography), see Numark (2012).
  • 8 On this Jewish community, see Weil (2019).
  • 9 On the Dawoodi Bohras, see, for instance. Blank (2001).
  • 10 Williams (2015: 14) correctly observes that spatial proximity can lead to a stronger demarcation of such identities and affiliations instead of intensified neighbourly exchanges and interaction.
  • 11 “One appreciates that the other is present. . . while at the next moment withdrawing one’s attention from him so as to express that he does not constitute a target of special curiosity” (Goffman 1963: 84).


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