A strange consequence of the cricket World Cup of 2003, in which India progressed steadily to the finals but ended up losing to Australia, was that it led students like 15-year-old Raj Janagam out of their tiny homes in central Mumbai and to a street a little way off the busy Worli naka, or checkpoint. Here, behind the quiet Podar Hospital, the noise from televisions was at a minimum. The SSC student joined many others to study for hours and sometimes overnight for his board exams, the mild hum of traffic notwithstanding. Those stints at Padhayi Galli, or Abhyaas Galli as it is known, helped him score 86 per cent in the final exams. A decade later, Janagam runs an incubator for start-ups in Hyderabad and calls himself a “proud ex-user of the Galli”.
Also among such ex-users is Amitesh Mishra, who studied there for eight years to become a polytechnic engineer. His family of five — two siblings, mother and father, who lost his mill job in 2003 — shared a cramped home in the Gopal Nagar slum. After working in call centres, media companies and Infosys, the 26-year-old started his own website development company, Renu Systems and Solutions, two years ago. Mishra’s clients include YES Bank, NSDL and Edelweiss.
Soap operas, cricket and catfights on news hour, chatty neighbours, bawling infants and the generally chaotic nature of life in slums and chawls have driven generations of young boys to public places like quiet streets and gardens to study. The best known among such streets is the one in Worli. There was even talk of officially renaming it Abhyaas Galli. Flanked by leafy trees, it is cool, dirt-free and home to cordial dogs. Other than students like Janagam or Mishra, though, there are also a few who drop by simply to smoke, chat or drink. Located in close proximity to the lane and home to a large portion of its users, the Bombay Development Department chawls are somewhat representative of the city itself. Like Mumbai, they hold more people than they should; the matchbox-size homes have rarely succeeded in containing the aspirations of the people living in them. Space and privacy are elusive. Shortly after they were constructed for mill workers, who settled here reluctantly in 1921, British architect Claude Batley described the homes as “single-room tenements with concrete-louvered verandahs from which neither heaven nor earth could be seen”.
Today, the rooms have furniture, televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, toddlers, their grandparents and the generation in between. Some families even own cars now. The boys who live here are fashion-conscious, and dress in T-shirts, football jerseys, baggy jeans, while liberal helpings of gel hold their hair up in spikes. Many of the lower-income households have risen to a level where they can afford most comforts except perhaps an apartment that includes a quiet corner for the children to study in. This search for a study corner ends at Abhyaas Galli.
Inconveniently enough, there are no public lavatories or refreshment shops close at hand. The students go home for lunch. During the evening, they walk or drive over to the main road for wada pav and tea. Girls are a curiosity here. Parents consider the galli unsafe for daughters. Though it is quieter than in neighbouring localities, the risks of being on the street prevail. Druggies are known to wander occasionally, often on the lookout for metal and other scrap to steal. This street is also a haunt of those learning to do motorcycle stunts. As night falls, people in nearby shanties start cooking meals and some of the benches meant for students are gradually occupied by the homeless. The students also unwind, taking breaks to stretch, nap or listen to music. Local police officer Sanjay Tangadi grew up in the BDD chawl, a section of which act as police quarters, but has purchased a flat in Thane since. Tangade, who used to cram for exams at the galli, is confident about its safety. Cops patrol the area three times a night and in the event of the occasional brawl or theft, they reach the place within 10 minutes.
Much has changed over the years. Though it is difficult to find an official record of the galli’s history, it is probably as old as the chawl itself. Posh residential buildings such as Kalpataru, home to the likes of KV Kamath, non-executive chairman of Infosys, have risen. While that brought in extra lights, the street grew smaller as people started parking their cars here. The chaiwalas, who once strolled every few hours, gradually disappeared. The crowds seem to have thinned too, notes Prakash Chavan, an Internet service provider and lifetime resident of BDD chawl. These open-air study hubs are also a statement on the failing effectiveness of libraries. City libraries often charge membership fees, stay open for limited hours and restrict conversations. Some of them give discounts to full-time students, while putting those studying by correspondence on the back-foot.
By comparison, the mosquitoes, stray dogs and zipping by of an odd bike in public places are relatively smaller burdens for students to endure. During the rains, however, some students shift their study sessions to a government-funded library and reading room in the vicinity. But it functions only between 10 am and 7 pm. Located on the first-floor of a nondescript building, its 50 seats invite around 150 students through the day. The brown furniture does not allow one to slouch and the fan moves gently to the dull background score of library caretakers gossiping in Marathi. The students, some of whom come from as far as Borivali and Virar, pick up reference books off the metal shelves, complete assignments or flick through the day’s papers. But as happens in the galli, they are not able to study in groups or get introduced to seniors who can help with trickier questions in the course.
There are other public study localities across Mumbai. Nagpada’s Education Garden, situated behind the local police chowki (post), was once a haven for drug addicts and anti-social elements, according to Aamir Edresy of Education and Welfare Foundation. The Muslim trust took over maintenance of the abandoned space from the municipality a decade ago. For the past eight years, students from the local Saboo Siddik College of Engineering, Maharashtra College and Burhani College have been gathering here. They are young, boisterous and in the manner of several male engineering students, become awkwardly shy around women. But unlike the Worli lane, girls too use the facilities here. They are instructed to leave after 7 pm “for safety reasons”. For two higher-level girls, the deadline is stretched to midnight. Congress MLA Amin Patel who helped fund the benches, fans and protective roof says he is looking for space to open an e-library.
Gardens provide a generally safer and pleasant environment for studying. Patel’s constituency also includes Durgadevi Udyan and Sitaram Udyan, which are used by students. The Pujya Sane Guruji Park near the Siddhivinayak temple in Prabhadevi, where the tight security of the temple heaves a sigh of relief, is another such hub. The watchman looks up from his cellphone to confirm that the park hosts students. The buzzing of play and chatter declines as you walk southwards, where the sight is familiar — students on concrete benches, books sprawled on their laps. There are problems to contend with, however, among them the lack of strong lights and the fact that the park stays open for only some hours in the morning and evening.
For those who studied there for many years, the galli is a habit they cannot kick. Well past his student years, Mishra still returns to talk to the youngsters there. “But I am surprised they study here even now with so much technology at their disposal.” He later adds, with the trademark suspicion of an adult, “I think it is more of a hangout nowadays.” The city and its people are in a constant state of flux. Buildings are replacing chawls and slums, internet and technology are replacing books in the field of education. In these conditions, one wonders if the practice of studying in public lanes will continue but as Patel points out, one thing is certain “Mumbai will always have a shortage of space.”