The Mahanagari of missed chances

Mumbai must have been a place for humble experiments and manageable risks that most often than not paid off. But in recent decades the city’s myth has grown larger than its lived reality, its taste for modesty has soured.

December 03, 2015 01:54 am | Updated March 24, 2016 01:30 pm IST

Altaf Tyrewala Photo: Special Arrangement

Altaf Tyrewala Photo: Special Arrangement

Rhythm House has announced its impending closure. If recent trends in the Kala Ghoda arts district are anything to go by, we already know what will supplant the beloved music store. It’ll either be turned into a white-tiled, European-style cafe, or an ultra-expensive designer clothing boutique with its nose turned up at the casual walk-in crowd. There will be the usual out-cry about the fading of Old Bombay; the predictable venom against the onslaught of nouveau-riche Mumbai. No one will actually suspend their iTunes accounts or stop downloading illegal content — the very reasons why Mumbai’s culture-peddling business establishments have been going under. Once Rhythm House disappears, those of us who continue to miss it will point to its physical location and mumble, to whoever is listening, they used to sell music there .

Keeping track of change

Mumbai has always been shape-shifting, shedding landmarks and gaining new ones with impunity. To be modern is to accept life as a palimpsest — new truths, habits, landscapes and ideas layered over the see-through remnants of older points of reference. For those who’ve come of age, the act of seeing can never be divorced from the act of record keeping. The more Mumbai changes, the more its history piles up, the more there is to keep track of.

In a wholesome city, the old is usually supplanted by something vigorously new and crucial, something that tries to make good on the promise of urbanity that the old could no longer fulfil. In a wholesome city, for example, a provision for mass transit is pre-built into every new expressway, freeway, and flyover. In a wholesome city, “redevelopment” is synonymous with an organic re-envisioning of neighbourhoods, not just the replacement of dilapidated structures with skyscrapers. In such a city, a Rhythm House would never think of closing down — it would have the confidence to try to reinvent itself, in stead, by doubling up as a space for live music, a place where people could stroll in and out to sample performances unfolding all day long, or record music of their own if they so wished. Such reinvention wouldn’t necessarily rake in blinding profits for Rhythm House, but it would restore the store’s prominence on the city’s cultural landscape.

From openness to restrictions

At some point in its past, Mumbai must have been a metropolis of that sort — a place for humble experiments and manageable risks that most often than not paid off. But in recent decades the city’s myth has grown larger than its lived reality, its taste for modesty has soured. Blame it on shrinking resources, coalition politics, corruption, greed, overpopulation, real estate prices, dubious governance, or security threats — many reasons, one outcome: The systematic reshaping of Mumbai from a welcoming, open-source, commons-blessed metropolitan wonder-land into an increasingly foreboding, stricture-ridden island replete with no-go zones accessible only to the blessed few.

No entry for auto-rickshaws at the international airport’s departure area. No loitering around Gateway of India after 10 p.m. No photography allowed at monuments. No 1 bedroom flats for under 1 crore. Even if a Rhythm House tried to reinvent itself as a live music space, it would first have to surmount the random and petty-minded enforcement of some arcane pre-colonial law, some Protection of Commercial Establishment Act (or whatever) from 1927 (or whenever) prohibiting public performances on retail premises.

When long-running commercial establishments announce their closure, what most Mumbaikars rue is not the emotional fallout of their absence, but how these impending closures point to the city’s growing inhospitality. If 100-year-old bookshops can vanish without much of a hue and cry, what hope is there for 20, 30 or 40 year olds struggling to gain a foothold in the city. No one dreams of becoming a millionaire selling music or books, cutting hair or stitching clothes, serving meals or running a laundry. No one thinks of their stable bank job or their passion for poetry as their ticket to a jet-setter life. The spectrum of ambition is wide — most of us fall somewhere in the middle of it. The Mumbai of today no longer has patience for such middling existences. It’s either big budget or beggar bowl. Starbucks or tapri chai . If you can’t afford — or don’t want to pay up for — life in gated communities, you’re welcome to scope out the chawls and slums festering in the shadows of these communities. The city’s message to the middle-class seems to be clear: Go big time or get out. It is an unforgivable act of ingratitude towards the hard-working, rules-abiding, risk-averse nobodies on the backs of whose labour the mahanagari has earned its financial capital-hood.

So while the upwardly hopefuls are running faster and faster, and taking bigger and bigger loans to keep feeding the city’s cavernous appetite, millions more are checking out. There are many ways of being absent from Mumbai — fleeing to other cities or countries is just one of them. Those who cannot or do not want to leave the city must find other ways of being elsewhere. How else does one endure three-hour-long traffic jams? How else does one survive twice-daily train journeys squished up against hundreds of other fellow-commuters? The longer one lives in Mumbai, the further one must retreat into one’s head. A family of five may co-exist in a 350 sq. ft. flat, but each of them must necessarily nourish a palace in the head. Perhaps the biggest luxury in Mumbai is to be fully awake to the here and now, without recourse to escapist fantasies — no aspirations for some shiny future or nostalgia for some sepia-tinged past. There are only two sections of Mumbai’s society that enjoy this luxury: the ultra-rich, who already belong to the future, and the poor, for whom there is no escaping the past. For the city’s middle masses, who must toil and travel and love and die in the here and now, life is like a permanently dug up footpath — requiring long detours and risky leaps across deep trenches just to get through the day.

A barometer

The condition of pavements is a good barometer of what a city thinks of its middle and working classes. (According to the latest Census, 31 per cent of Mumbaikars walk to work.) The absence of pavements, on the other hand, is a sign that a city has taken leave of its senses. Long strolls on functional footpaths have long been South Mumbai’s USP. It was once possible, except for traffic intersections and minor gaps, to walk uninterrupted from Nariman Point right up till Mahim via Worli sea-face. Now the pavement at the northern end of Worli sea-face has a permanent and famous breach: the Bandra-Worli sea-link, which is threatening to unseat the Gateway of India as the new icon of Mumbai. The sea-link overshot its budget by 430 per cent and its deadline by five years. The traffic on the sea-link is nowhere close to the 1.2 lakh vehicles/day originally projected. One wonders if at any point during the sea-link’s construction, as its costs ballooned and its deadlines slipped by, did any of the engineers or planners or design consultants bring up the possibility of throwing in a single walkway for pedestrians alongside the eight lanes for vehicles? Imagine the experience of walking down from Bandra or Worli and being mid-way on the sea-link, suspended above the sea, feeling the breeze and foam from the dark, swirling ocean. A single pedestrian walkway on the sea-link. Imagine the inclusiveness of that gesture, and the respect it would have shown to millions of tax payers who cannot, or choose not to, shut themselves off in private, glass-and-metal mobile bubbles. Imagine the myths and romance that would result if the sea-link were accessible on foot. Imagine the rejuvenation of the city’s topography. Imagine the city that almost was.

(Altaf Tyrewala is the author of No God In Sight, Ministry of Hurt Sentiments and Engglishhh, and the editor of Mumbai Noir. He works in the e-learning industry.)

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