Friday, December 7, 2012

Time Out Mumbai- Good manners

This piece was published in Time Out Mumbai's After words (Vol 9, Issue 8; December 7-20, 2012) in a slightly edited version.

Good Manners

Can architecture have good manners? Architects and urbanists have debated this for more than a century, ever since the idea of new towns was conceived. In Mumbai too, there is evidence of urban etiquette, but to see it you need to focus a bit. We have come to accept the notion that Mumbai is an unplanned, an accretive city. Not entirely. For a century, several precincts and neighbourhoods within it have been deliberately planned, to create better conditions for living. Look at some parts of apna shahar on Google Earth. You’ll see what I mean. After the dark years of plague in the 1890s, the city fathers set up the City Improvement Trust, and created several new neighbourhoods to the north, in contrast to the congested and compact ‘native city’. These precincts had wide roads and well spread out plots. They accounted for the rise of vehicular traffic while emphasising the need for green lungs. Five Gardens at Matunga is probably its best surviving example.

The impetus for this piece came from a discussion with a friend researching the social mores of the inner city. Why are some buildings curved, she asked? The answer, my friend, is because they are well mannered. Curved buildings are evidence that there is a town planning authority at work. When plots were laid out, the corners of streets always turned a quarter-circle, never a right angle to accommodate a turning radius for cars. Buildings on such plots swept along the two roads with a curved front. Enforced initially by building regulations for frontages, this resulted in built harmonies along streets. Walking along some of these streets is a delight even today. Good manners are something you expect, and anticipate. There is a special charm to a curved building that matches your urban perception, a comforting notion that things are as they should be.

A corner building also gets the privilege of being iconic - it can be seen from three sides unlike the next one in line which has to be content with one. They locate places in your memory. You describe them while giving directions. These buildings can surprise and delight when encountered for the first time. Take Hornby View on Gunbow Street, with its shorter semicircular end sharply bisecting the street. Its rousing Art Deco features emphasise the corner, while the inviting doorway leads straight into Ideal Restaurant, home of Dhan Dar Patiyo. We have many such urban delights- Empress Court on the Oval has streamlined curves, one of G B Mhatre’s best, while at the end of the road Eros, with its curved, turreted, marquee-end provides a most satisfying full stop.

Sometimes the buildings bow in reverse, in concave arcs like D. R. Chowdhary’s Yogakshema at Nariman Point, sweeping inwards to encompass the garden in front. So do the Venetian Gothic buildings flanking Hornimann Circle with their pioneering covered arcades. But, if I was pressed to choose one above the rest it would surely be the Jehangir Art Gallery, whose arced front, shell canopy and entrance steps on the street makes it the best mannered building in Mumbai.

Curved buildings also have a functional advantage when it comes to security. ‘The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers must be oriented to the street’ says urbanist Jane Jacobs. She prescribes ‘eyes upon the street’ belonging to those who live there. Typically, a curved building with windows on three sides allows for better surveillance, keeping the immediate surroundings safe. There is no blind side.

Ironically, Mumbai’s curved geometries are evidence of its past, not its present. Its built etiquette withered with time, and died an unlamented death in the seventies with the introduction of FSI. Rectangular buildings were designed on corner plots and cylindrical ones on rectangular ones- an expression of architects’ originality. Today, when the worldly ambition is to squeeze out the last inch of FSI or lay on as much extra TDR as can be mustered, good manners in architecture are not the first (or the last) thing that comes to mind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Time Out Mumbai- Art School

This piece was published in Time Out Mumbai's Back of the Book (Vol 9, Issue 6; November 9-22, 2012) in a slightly edited version.

Art School

For entirely personal reasons, I watch 'Mahek Bhi' from Sachin Kundalkar's 'Aiyya'. This song has Rani Mukerji olfactory-trolling some guy called Prithviraj and is filmed entirely in the Sir JJ School of Art Campus, which is where I have my day job. Such moments resonate painfully for me, as I take my workplace for granted sometimes, even one of such beauty and historicity. ‘Mahek’ makes the campus look breathtakingly lovely (which it is) but also highlights just how fragile this place has become.

The art campus is both an anachronism in our post-planning present as well as a harbinger of how our city could be. The erstwhile Bombay School of Art & Industry was set up by Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy who presented the Government of Bombay one lakh rupees in the early 1850s for a school to train ‘natives’ to preserve and develop their local crafts. The Government in turn granted the school some 'largely forested' land, just outside the fort walls, which were being dismantled to create the Urbs Prima.

Instead of native crafts, its founding fathers Terry, Griffiths and Kipling, all outsourced from England, would impart lessons in the Beaux-Arts. Thus would the school make a significant and physical impact on the city. Almost all the ornamentation on Bombay’s late 19th century buildings is created by the school, particularly under Lockwood Kipling. The impact of the Ajanta frescos worldwide was the result of a decade-long documentation by Griffiths and his students. For a while, the school produced the most sought-after pottery in the Empire- Bombay Pottery or ‘Terryware’. Its fecund soil even produced a man of letters: Rudyard Kipling, born somewhere on the campus in 1865.

While rarely regarded today (except for film shoots) the campus is an urban treasure. These two and a half acres are, in this mad city, a haven of quietude; its buildings and foliage insulate both noise and blight outside. Several trees predate the campus are now a venerable century and a half old. Many have fallen in monsoons past, never to be replaced. Here is a place pining for an environmental audit, for, like Jijamata Udyan, the campus hosts significant flora and fauna (especially bats). Its buildings too, never considered worthy of heritage walkabouts, are built in several styles, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Classical, eclectic and bungalow style, all more or less contemporaneous. Can you think of another place in Mumbai where the newest building on campus is dated 1957?

The campus has benefited from not being in the public eye, especially in an administrative environment that treats urban heritage as potential for redevelopment. Time, however, has not been kind to its buildings and grounds. Apart from Abha Lambah’s conservation of the Fine Arts building (1878), the rest of its edifices are under the benefaction of the state PWD. The college of architecture by George Wittet (1910) and the institute of applied art (1886) by Mancherjee Marzban, Bombay's first ‘Native’ architect are in need of expert conservation.

Then of course, there is the gem of the campus, the Dean's Residence, a timber framed structure from the 1880s with its wraparound verandahs and sensitive detailing. The building is now (and forever) associated with the eponymous Rudyard, who is commemorated in its porch with bust and plaque. Occasionally in the limelight for the wrong reasons, the wooden bungalow is most vulnerable, yet one with the best potential to be an archive. The century old artefacts of the campus’ three schools could not find a more fitting home.

Worst of all, the arts campus is almost devoid of security, its gates are thoroughfare for all and sundry crossing over from Crawford Market to Dhobi Talao. Even its garbage bins are used by neighbourhood restaurants to dump waste. For the present, the campus can absorb the many indignities heaped upon it, but it is close to a tipping point. For its handpicked students, who will be the vanguard of Mumbai’s liberal humanist future and for Mumbai itself, the Sir JJ School of Art campus deserves more than finding solace as a backdrop for Rani Mukerji.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Turtle Watching in Oman

In the heart of darkness, life’s throbbing beats. In the semantic of the night, the possibility of survival. In the blackness of the Ras Al-Jinz, a quiet beach on the eastern shore of the Arabian Peninsula, the potential of life is fulfilled, or thwarted. Here, in inkblot holes created in the sand in slow, slow strokes, the travails of giving birth, the long, invisible dawn of incubation, the swift process of emergence and the launching of a career at sea are all realised.

The Green Sea Turtle (chelonia mydas) has preferred to nest in the sands of just one beach in the Sultanate of Oman. The fragility of this choice has made it an endangered species. Human presence over the years has frequently interfered in the precise motions necessary for the successful breeding of this species. Natural predators have been adroitly faced off by the turtles themselves, but they really cannot handle the potentially lethal presence of the one man-made threat- a flash of light in a moonless night.

Photograph above courtesy Sanjay Austa (c).

Less than a week ago, I was privileged to witness the entire egg laying cycle of the giant Green Sea Turtle on the Ras AI-Jinz beach, a fishing village on the Arabian Sea in the Ras Al-Hadd Turtle Reserve in Eastern Oman. The moonless night was moot to my being able to do so. Turtle watching is a popular tourist activity, but sensitively controlled at the Reserve. Its researchers are very careful about bringing humans close to the turtle mothers, who would really like to get on and get over their labour without being chased by gawkers and paparazzi.

The walk to the beach from the Reserve is a long one. Not easy, as the sand is not very firm. Often, each step you take puts you ankle deep in the sand and you have to drag yourself out of this rather wobbly position and take another step. It hardly helps that there is almost zero visibility other than the small light of the guide’s torch that you follow like a newborn turtle. My efforts slowed me down considerably, allowing me to appreciate the night’s moonlessness. Above me, the Milky Way was arrayed in swathe of sparkle and I could discern interstellar gases in dimly glowing patches around the stars with the naked eye (or with numbered spectacles, as in my case). Watching nebula in our upended galaxy was probably reason enough to be here on this beach. But this was the prelude to the main event.

Our guide and researcher, Kamiz, asked us to wait while an associate vanished into the night looking for nesting sites. As we fretted, he showed us other presences- small scorpions that inhabit the beach, or in absentia, the paw prints of foxes, the chief predators of turtle eggs. A mommy chelonia mydas, or the Green Sea Turtle is one of the biggest in the turtle species, reaching four feet from snout to shell. These lumbering female giants weigh anything between a hundred to a hundred and fifty kilograms. Most important, each fully grown mum may be between 60 and 70 years old. That’s twenty years older than I am, and I am no spring chicken. They come to the Ras Al-Jinz, once or twice a year and, if all the portents are well, lay upto a hundred eggs at one go.

 The attendant returned with news. In the dark, the green turtles had come out to lay. They did this by spreading out all over the beach finding their own space to do their duty. On the night we were there, only maybe ten or a dozen turtles had found beach-head. That’s how endangered they are. We walked to what looked like a boulder on the sand. Nothing moved. The breeze had stopped. Kamiz used a small flashlight to show us a dugout, about seven or eight inches across and a foot or so deep. Here was a large green turtle, nearly buried in the sand. Cantilevered over the dugout was a mother green’s rear, from which she quietly ejected egg after egg, bright white, catching the light of the torch, soft at the time of laying, covered with mucous, going plop! into the hole at the rate of perhaps one per minute. James Cameron got this right in Aliens(1986), where the alien queen lays her eggs with similar deliberation. The business of birthing is a patient one.

We all watched in quiet awe, standing in a hushed semicircle behind the mother, ensuring no inadvertent distractions. The turtle herself remained stoic and stationary, only the eggs emerged, one after another. Some light illuminated part of the giant lady’s enormous shell, oval like a Grecian shield, hued in a deep Chinese jade, with textures and patterns on her back like a piece of the Jade Hut on the golden beach of Keelawee from the Lee Falk’s Phantom comics. Then we walked away, backwards, and the mother was slowly smothered into the sand and negritude.

Kamiz walked us along a deliberate path, showing us may bumps and troughs. ‘Under this here, two feet below’, he would say occasionally, ‘are eggs, laid several days ago, being incubated in the sand. You can walk on the mound; they are safe below it, from both humans and predators. Watch out for the hollows.’ The eggs take around two months to hatch. We came upon another boulder on the beach.

After laying all her eggs a mother turtle crawls forward by one body length. This one had done so, her eggs well below the level of the beach. Here, she was slowly covering them up, shovelling sand behind her over her potential brood with paddle-like forearms. Once more we took up a position behind her and watched. There was zen-like calm to her shovelling: one stroke every once in awhile. One. Two. One. Two. Very mystic. We drew closer, and some of us got a faceful of grit. We had entered the parabolic catenaries of her slinging motion. The whole act would last more than two hours. When she was satisfied, she would move away, leaving a modest mound behind her. She would then dig up another trough in the sand- a decoy hole to misdirect foxes, crabs and gulls that would inevitably come out, day or night, seeking succulence in the sand.

Her annual chore done, the old lady took off sea-wards, and we followed her, like supplicants, and said our goodbyes as she hit the waves, which consumed her as she swam away, eastwards in the direction of Bombay. The Green Sea Turtle never looks back. Once done, she plays no maternal role in the upbringing of her baby turtles, which fend for themselves after hatching. She lays a large number of eggs, and very few of those will survive into full grown adulthood to live their lives out over a century or so. She will repeat this process decade after decade until she is 80, then stop coming to the Ras Al-Jinz and live out the rest of her retirement years in the sea.

Then suddenly, out of the darkness, to the surprise of all, including Kamiz, three hatchlings scuttled into the torchlight, babies pitch-black in their infancy, which made their toddler’s way towards our guide. 'I am not your father!' Kamiz scolded the 4 inch turtlets, wagging his finger at them like a school marm. We became self-conscious, and checked around our feet so as not to step upon any more babies of the night.

This is the speed bump in the green sea turtle’s cycle of life. The hatchlings should ideally make their way back to the sea, immediately after breaking out of their eggs. This increases many-fold the possibility of their survival. To hit the surf, they use the ambient light of the galaxy reflected on the waves to find direction. Any other light source, and they scuttle towards it instinctively; and this is potentially lethal. The guardians of the turtle reserve have ensured that the beach remains in total darkness throughout the year, and that no ambient or reflected light from the Reserve reaches the beach.

Kamiz then mounted an impromptu rescue operation, pointing the beam of his torch on the sand. The babies moved towards this circular patch, which moved too, this time to the water and the surf. Bye, bye babies!

What are the odds that this cycle could get accomplished successfully? There are so many obstructions in the way. Even the consistency of the sand (its chemical properties and temperature will determine the sex of the babies) is tested by the mother Greens before they decide to lay their eggs or abort. The Ras Al-Jinz is a safe haven. The Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs have made significant inroads to alleviate threats from humans and have tried to preserve the habitat of the turtles in as pristine a manner as possible, preventing excessive footfalls, littering and light. The encouragement of sensitive and sustainable tourism probably helps in this preservation. The Reserve’s commitment to their charges is probably the only bulwark against the extinction of these lovely giants.

The father turtles are an absent presence, never leaving the sea for land; the only visible males may be some of the babies who sprint to the surf with the first light they see. But I am touched to witness these matriarchs at their most intimate and vulnerable moment. It is an honour. As a friend would later describe: a bucket list moment. 

All the images above are by Vipasha Rathore (c) , except where mentioned, for which many thanks!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Time Out Mumbai- Radio Days

The interiors of Radio Hotel, photographed in October 2012 by Mustansir Dalvi (c)

This piece was published in Time Out Mumbai's Back of the Book (Vol 9, Issue 4; October 12-25 2012) in a slightly edited version.

Radio Days

Manish Market, near Crawford Market, caught fire earlier this year. This re-ignited some smouldering embers at the back of my mind. And then the market caught fire once again, and unlocked the memory of a lurid poster of ‘Bhoot Bangala’. Several skeletons, with glowing eye-sockets danced the twist, while an image of Tanuja screaming was painted over the titles in chiselled, impressionistic strokes. The poster quite affected the five year-old that I was when I first saw it. My uncle, whose finger I tightly held on to, had to drag me away from this phantasmagoric tableau. I would conjure ghosts in every corner for a while after that. We were walking outside the Radio Talkies on Palton Road. This was the late sixties.

In 1974, to my chagrin, Radio Talkies was pulled down, and Manish Market (Bombay’s bastion of ‘smuggling’ goods, especially of Sony and National Panasonic, made-in-Japan, televisions), would be erected in its place. This was a loss, not only because this cinema was within this child’s permissible walking distance, but also for being a purveyor of re-run Hindi picchers that changed daily. Growing up in the seventies, cinema houses were the horn of plenty from which we partook, not by watching films necessarily, but by devouring their posters. We would stand, open-mouthed like guppies in front of each new one, shovelling derring-do action, grand-guignol melodrama, and ‘Color by Technicolor’, Ravi Verma channelized heroinis into our subconscious wholesale. And here was a new one every day!

I did not give Radio Talkies much custom, but on such occasions I would run to a suitable bench (no seats, no numbers) in the dark hall with its plaster of paris ceiling and industrial fans. If you raised
your hand you could poke the projector’s beam and make funny shadows on the screen. The audience, largely local residents and market workers would rarely amount to a ‘Housefull’ board, but fillums were shown, complete with accoutrements like a Gujarati thali: advertisements, Indian News Review, Films Development Board Documentary (Hum Do, Hamaare Do; Nasbandi kijiye) and coming attractions. One intermission. Pee/smoking breaks optional, during songs.

Radio Cinema offered another urban pleasure, rare even for those times. It was a modest, one storey building, set back into large compound, bounded by low walls and a gate, always open (the other grounds I recall, with warmth-tinged sadness, is the former West End, on Poona’s Main Street). You could walk right up to the booking office with impunity and gaze at placards of the ‘Next Change’ persuasion. The grounds of the Radio always exuded an odour of cigarette smoke (everybody smoked) and fish. The Crawford Market sold meat but you had to cross the road to the shed alongside the cinema, abutting the Palton Road Police Chowkie (estab.1918), to buy everything from fresh paplet to dry kolbi soda.

When Radio Talkies was consigned to my memory so were its grounds. The old fish market soon followed. Manish Market would be built right on the road, denying even a reasonable footpath outside it. The Bombay of my childhood used to be an accommodating sponge; Mumbai today is its fossilized after-avatar, solidified, rocky and unyielding.

Radio Cinema lives on in name, in its cousin around the corner- the Radio Hotel. A true city survivor- a hotel in a standalone, erstwhile warehouse that has its former owner’s name (Akbarally Mulla Rasoolji Dharangadrawala) engraved in Gujarati above an entrance you could drive a truck through. Its whitewashed stucco façade is in the baroque style, with a centrally ornamented widow typical of mid- 19th century Bohra architecture. The Radio Hotel’s interior volume is certainly the largest in the city with a vast open floor and a ceiling that rises to more than twenty feet. The hotel has seen better days, but still offers an Irani menu, one of the last surviving places you can order gurda (goat’s kidneys) for breakfast.

Consider this: the Radio Hotel, the Musafirkhana, the police station, the Pedrushah Dargah and the Crawford Market all survived the ‘Fort Stikine’ blast at the Bombay Docks in 1944 that devastated many of the buildings adjacent to them. These places and artefacts that will go; no doubt, but let us at least pay them the respect of memory, give them a last hurrah.

Monday, October 1, 2012

First Post Mumbai: Say Goodbye to the Mumbai You Know

My new column in FirstPost.
for the full article, click here:


"Here then, is an incomplete and flawed view of the Mumbai of the present. In the future, this ELU is what the authorities in the Municipal Corporation and the ward offices will base their decisions and permissions on. If transformations are to be effected using readings that do not square up with ground realities, urban planning, however well intentioned will not amount to much.

Pankaj Joshi told his audience of how difficult it was to get hold of the ELU. Not in the public domain, he had to extricate the documents from the authorities by invoking the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

This is symptomatic of the ways of the state these days. Either by their own resources or by outsourcing these studies to various consultants and planners, the information gathered and the documents generated from them are increasingly held back. The citizens at large shall only experience the consequences slowly, over time, as the new Development Plan gets implemented. Consider this: the previous Development Plan was published in 1981, but sanctioned for implementation only in 1993, twelve years after."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

After Words 4: Wild World

An edited version of this piece is the fourth in a column called 'After Words' in Time Out Mumbai.
This is published in the September 2012 issue (Vol 8 Issue 28) of Time Out Mumbai.

Wild World

There’s a restaurant near my home I occasionally give custom to. The focus of this establishment is an aquarium, about three feet across and a foot and half deep. A motley bunch of fish therein measure out their lives in coffee spoons. The biggest machchi in this taaki is a goldfish, nine or ten inches long. There since the aquarium was installed around fifteen years ago, it swims in laps of four body lengths or so before it runs out of room, and turns and makes another lap, back and forth.

Fifteen years on, its golden lustre is now a listless aluminium; its eyes rheumy, completely cataracted, with no use for sight, or sense. I would have preferred this fish on my plate, properly fried all those years ago, than to remain witness to a fate I would not wish on Kasab. Imagine then, the thousands of aquariums in our city filled with incarcerated fish who should be gracing coral reefs, not marble chips, plastic seaweed and toy divers exhaling bubbles.

Even as a child I could not comprehend a visit to a zoo- why it was exciting to peer at once Royal Bengals behind bars, snakes in a stupor in glass boxes, or to feed bananas to an elephant in chains? I still wince at the recollection of a cage bearing the legend ‘Pongo Pygmaeus’ in the Peshwe Park, Pune. In a corner lay a nearly comatose adult male orang-utan. Its skin was a muddy brown having lost most of its hair to mange. It sat on its own faeces and stared. One hand clutched at air outside the bars. It struck me that this animal must be stark, raving mad. I have never visited a zoo since.

Apart from dogs and cats that have a shared existence with our ancestors since some fifteen thousand years, I support a blanket ban on all pets in our city. Farm animals should stay on farms. The panjrapols of Mumbai eventually wind down and the Victorias from Victorian times requiescat in pace in museums. Simple minded? Consider this: we live in a city that does not even have the culture to separate its dry garbage from its wet. Should animals then be subject to our detritus, breathe our exhalations or when abandoned, have no choice but scavenge on our plastic bags?

It is a poor imagination, to recreate any semblance of the wild in an urban environment, or populate it with species that have no business in a city. Our penchant of putting non-domestic species in cages and tanks has not waned, sadly, not even with hi-def NatGeog channels or hyper-realistic animated screen savers. I am even ambivalent about the continued presence of Taraporewala Aquarium. It makes me queasy to re-imagine it as an Oceanarium, with dolphins jumping through hoops, or majestic Orcas in a swimming tank.

Which brings me to the Byculla Zoo Redevelopment Project: it has rightly been criticized by urban and environmental groups, but the moot point is that in its redevelopment, every semblance of a zoo should be removed. Jijamata Udyan should revert to a botanical garden, where flora flourishes and supports such fauna natural to the micro-ecology that it creates. No cages. No animals. Just an abundance of common and uncommon plant life. Ironwood. Colvilles Glory. Amherstia Nobilis. Any continued existence or addition of animals would only undermine its carefully cultivated verdure that deserves a Grade ‘A’ heritage status all for itself.

What of the present animals in the zoo? There’s the rub. Too wild to be domesticated and too dependent to be rehabilitated in the wild- the larger the animal the bleaker its future. Call me names if you must, but this is what I think each one should get- a bullet behind the ear. They need to be put down. Let us steep in this collective guilt, at least for one generation, that we destroyed these fine beasts. Our city, while large enough to accommodate several thousands more from our own species should never again be a confinement to even one more from the wild.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hunchback of the World Trade Centre

Hunchback of the World Trade Centre

Myself,  Mondo Qasim. Address Tower One,
denizen since 1978. Formerly Mass’oud al Qasimi,
of country I not naming. How I come here?
Same as you, on raft from Quba Junction.

I dress uniform, many numbers and colours
with photo batches. And hump on my bump,
shape like Liberty Bell. Is batch of honour,
so ‘Smrelda on 1/87 tell me. Also Korea Kim,
medic on 1/64, she say don’t worry,
you don’t need no steenking batches.
I freewheeler in One. Not wanted as much
in Two, but as I like, I comes, I goes.

Sleeping on Top minus 3 floors in One.
Waking with sunrise, pointing bottoms to Phoebus
praying five times daily for blessings
to mother Marica. Sweet land of Statue of Liberty,
country of free, home of Twin Tower.

Each morning, I look through pointy arches
at objects in sky making motion like Calder mobile.
My desire fly. Is it bird, I aks. Is it plane?
Here, I supreme (after 11 pm)
I monitor lightings. Oversee parkings,
also count trains going in and out of bottoms.

Here, very good, very warm in NY cold.
Soft carpetings like pashmina, remind me of mudder
who I sends dola on regular basis. I makes many dola
gophering, minding store, fetching coffees.
Much preciated, Mondo, you say, thank you kindly.
Hoot Mon, say Mcivery on 2/36. Mansion not,

I say as taught. Dutifully, by GI Frollo of G. I. church
in earlier life. RC Fadder in battle gear teach Marican,
also Cobol and Unix systems. Give me CocoCola,
read for me from Superman book. By this I know
Marican falsafa much same as five daily prayers.

Now I squatting kerbside;
One and Two becoming powder.
I sitting whiteface, coughing
like tuberculotic, lung full of gypsum talc,
with paper, paper like tickytape parade,

like I hero contemplating kismet.
Haid ringing and ringing, until posse
in blue uniform telling me loudly to put
between laigs. Haid between laigs.
Why, I aks. KYAG, ya fuckin gargoyle,
he say, and exit, pursued by white cloud.

I know better, I just wait
for Caped Crusader to come,
make all this again OK.
I speak troot. I seek jushtish.
I have lived the Marican way.
Tower One my house. One and Two my country,
why they take my home away?

This poem was written in February 2003.
(c) 2012, Mustansir Dalvi, all rights reserved.

FirstPost Mumbai: Why preserving Mumbai’s heritage is preserving Marathi Asmita

The Dadar-Matunga Estate, Mumbai; laid out in the 1920s on either side of the Kingsway.
Image: Google Earth

My new column at
First Published On : Sep 10, 2012 15:03 IST

Why preserving Mumbai’s heritage is preserving Marathi Asmita

Twenty years ago, a report on Mumbai’s urban heritage was prepared under an enlightened Municipal  Commissioner, Jamshed Kanga. The Kanga Report articulated the need to identify, document and preserve through legislation those parts of Mumbai that made it Mumbai. This was adopted by the State Government and the municipality and became policy.

Using international benchmarks while appreciating local conditions, heritage guidelines were drafted to stave off the wanton destruction of buildings and precincts. Its recommendations did get implemented, slowly, with the patient participation and efforts of many sensitive citizens: architects, academics, planners, sociologists and educated laypersons from every walk of life. At one point, we all patted ourselves on the back, celebrating the success of the heritage moment.

Now, Mumbai’s Heritage Movement is dead. Weep not for the buildings, public spaces and water bodies that will soon be lost in the miasma of ‘redevelopment’; shed a tear instead for ignorant, ideologically moribund and capricious thinking, that considers the preservation of the urban fabric of our city a speed breaker on our expressway to Shanghai.

A new, completely manufactured discourse has just been raised, decrying the civic heritage committee’s move to expand the ambit of areas to be preserved. Evoking the Marathi Manoos to bulwark against heritage has resulted in an ominous class and culture-based discourse of difference. This accusation that heritage listing is the enemy of redevelopment is being articulated from all shades of the political spectrum. It damns everything that the city has achieved in preserving its physical urbanity by calling its success one-sided and bourgeois.

Heritage is elitist: Oh so SoBo!

Shivaji Park and its surroundings are the battleground for this new power-play, based on a perceived articulation of victim-hood. The argument goes like this: areas predominantly inhabited by Marathi speaking Mumbaikars (like Dadar, Matunga, Prabhadevi, Lalbaug and Mahim) will be stifled from the benefits of change if they come under the Heritage Preservation List. What is the heritage worth preserving in these decrepit, about to collapse, poorly serviced buildings, that the Marathi Manoos be deprived from the benefits of redevelopment?

What is left unsaid is that ‘redevelopment’ today means is unbridled, grounded in profit, aspiration. The promise of ‘free’ FSI is only possible by the infiltration into an egalitarian space by speculators whose purpose can only be served by the wholesale gentrification of a city that was, up to this point, everybody’s city.

The Marathi Manoos argument misses out on two essentials: The first is that open spaces in Mumbai like Shivaji Park or Five Gardens were designed as green lungs in well laid out neighbourhoods. They were meant to be public spaces for the use of everyone who lived in its vicinity. They are not and have never been gated spaces. These spaces were part of the City Improvement Trust developments starting from the 1920s to create middle class housing for an essentially migrant, rising population.

The best of these new neighbourhoods were the Dadar-Matunga Estate, the Parsi and Hindu Colonies on either side of King’s Circle. Their success rested on the scale of their buildings and the harmonious urban fabric that resulted, with ground and three upper stories and matching building lines. We recognise this harmony today as a symbol of Mumbai’s urbanity and cosmopolitanism. This fabric is the heritage that needs preserving, not individual buildings as such. Open spaces are determined by the height of the buildings that flank them. New twenty storey buildings around Shivaji Park would not only destroy its fabric but also loom overbearingly over the maidan making the vast public space puny.

The second argument is historic. In Mumbai, while the architecture of the Raj, the public buildings that defined Urbs Prima Indis, have been largely identified as heritage and preserved, there has been little recognition of the buildings outside of these hoary piles, especially in public perception. These ‘other’ buildings are largely non-monumental, even domestic in scale. They define the architecture of the city that came up in the penultimate decades before independence.

The Improvement Trust laid out residential precincts in Sion, Parel, Dadar, Matunga, Mohammed Ali Road, Byculla, Nagpada, Princess Street, Sandhurst Road, Elphinstone Road and Colaba. These planned neighborhoods provided homes at reasonable rents and open spaces for all. That should be enough reason to preserve these areas as essential urban image givers to the city, its familiar and friendly face.

But if ever a reason is needed for a heritage listing of these very areas, it is this: The buildings of the 1930s and 1940s represent the first examples of Mumbai’s home-grown architectural practice. After graduating from the Sir JJ School, having studied and worked with stalwarts like Claude Batley, C. M. Master, Foster King and G. B. Mhatre, these young architects would design hundreds of buildings in these emerging localities and collectively establish an urban image that was both unique and local, an expression of RCC adapted to Mumbai’s tropical climate and the social exigencies of middle income housing.

Here are some of the architects and architecture firms who designed most of the buildings in the Shivaji Park locality at this time: G. B. Mhatre, S. H. Parelkar, V. M. Suvarnapatki, R. K. Joshi, D. P. Borkar, S. J. Narvekar, G. D. Sambhare, G. W. Marathe, D. G. Vaidya, S. M. Kini; Patki, Jadhav & Dadarkar, Jaykar & Gupchup, Parelkar, Ovalekar, Gore & Parpia and the Dhurandhar brothers. The buildings around Shivaji Park, Five Gardens and the Dadar-Matunga estate were predominantly designed by pioneering Marathi Manoos. Seeking to destroy them today in the name of redevelopment is to erase an essential, eighty year old built heritage that contributed to the Marathi Asmita (pride) of the city, just as much as the poets and litterateurs of the language did.

Happily, redevelopment does not mean the wholesale demolition of buildings so that towers can be built in their place. Heritage conservation is sufficiently well developed in Mumbai, with some excellent practitioners who can refurbish these buildings and adapt them for contemporary use, easily increasing their age for many decades to come. The buildings and the concurrent fabric can remain as it was, even as users and uses change. The present open precincts do not need to become walled enclosures for the affluent. The Marathi socio-cultural sphere has always been nourished by the buildings of middle Mumbai, as much as it has by the chawls of Girangaon. Both formed the fertile ground for a lot of its expression over the last half century or so, but have never been acknowledged as the agency that encouraged this.

In our world of rising affluence today, we are happy to wallow in the ignorance of our own past. Happy to flush it away as irrelevant, we choose to selectively raise a banner of victimhood instead. Preserving the immovable feast that is architecture and encouraging its appreciation is an ongoing cultural sustenance. Recognising our heritage is  recognising ourselves.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

After Words 3 : Fly Sucker

An edited version of this piece is the third in a column called 'After Words' in Time Out Mumbai.
This is published in the Aug 17-20, 2012 issue (Vol 8 Issue 26) of Time Out Mumbai.

Makkhi choos: someone who, on seeing a fly fall into his cutting chai, first contemplates its presence, then removes it delicately with thumb and forefinger, and finishes his chai. After which, leaving nothing behind, he puts the fly to his lips, and with a slurping sound, sucks the tea out of its soggy corpse, its innards and gizzards with it, leaving a dry husk that was once a proud makkhi. Etymologically, you may gag at this, however, what with our collectively upward mobility and increased spending power, this phrase no longer has the resonance it once did. And yet, how apt is this description when applied to us collectively.

How else would we explain the recent World Cities Culture Report, commissioned by London’s Mayor that Mumbai is a world laggard when it comes to cultural infrastructure, huffing and puffing far behind Paris, New York, London, even Shanghai when it comes to the number of museums, heritage sites, live music venues, nightclubs and bars. In our pursuit of rampant free market capitalism and our jugaadu- kaam chalau ways, we have sucked the public out of every public space in the city in an attempt to make money from it. 

The government, who should have been patron to cultural enterprise, has itself outsourced culture to private players in the city, all of whom are more concerned about profit to be sucked out of investment rather than the free provision of cultural enrichment to its citizens. How else do we see a purported art festival called Kala Ghoda become a vast venue of stalls upon stalls usurping open space that could well have been used for cultural events. Must this always fund that? How again, one may ask, is the premiere centre for performing arts in Mumbai now available at a (considerable) price to conduct your second cousin’s aunts’ daughter’s sangeet? Possibilities of monetising are sucking city culture dry of richness and diversity. Culture thrives in a large places filled to the brim with magnanimity, in the warmth of a shared city, not in the husk of makkhi choos mindsets.

Mumbai’s city culture is also being sucked to nothingness by burgeoning moral killjoys, who, like Rowling’s Dementors, feign outrage at the slightest stimulus. Were it not that much of the outraging is expressed through violence, vandalism and destruction, we could have brushed it off. But taking opportunistic offence to remain in the public imagination is, unfortunately, carried to completion by a capitulating state quick to ban everything from academic tomes, to pixellating cigarette smoke on television or shutting down art exhibitions ‘for the greater good’. 

Whose morals were being protected recently, when posters of ‘Jism 2’ were removed from the bodies of BEST buses? In all honesty, this is how I think a conversation between a mother and child would go- Child (curious, pointing at bus): What’s that, mommy? Mother: That is a picture of a woman covered with a wet cloth. Child: Is she nangu-pangu? Mother: Yes. Child: Oh, okay! (going back to picking its nose, or chasing street dogs or whatever it is that kids do in public spaces nowadays). An unbridled, bristling outrage is leaving our city dry, ‘niras’, as it were, and our makkhi choos imaginations are left bereft of any cultural inclusivity or liberality. Enjoyment is mediated by ten o’clock curfews and hockey-sticks, by rules still applied (ad-hoc) from the late 1860s and by a forced homogenization of just about everything that could benefit from diversity.

As the power of our purse grows through increasing economic liberalisation; the breadth of our minds shrinks in the morass of our own making. We anticipate trouble everywhere, the fear of shutdown, the fear of litigation guides our actions to the point that you don’t need a Dhoble to tell you how to behave; you modify your behaviour in anticipation of a Dhoble. He may never come, but you’ve been booked. Miserliness borne out of economic hardship may be understood, but miserliness borne of an attitude cultivated by making a virtue out of squeezing money in any situation or to live in fear and denial of one’s own cultural potential is the thin edge of the wedge and Mumbai seems to have given itself up to it. 

Our city has been called a ‘cultural wasteland’. Dry as a dead fly is more like it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

After Words 2: Urbs Secunda

An edited version of this piece is the second in a column called 'After Words' in Time Out Mumbai.
This is published in the July 20-Aug 2, 2012 issue (Vol 8 Issue 24) of Time Out Mumbai.

My first memory of New Bombay is a mountain of dead chicken. This must be in the early seventies, when the first buildings to come up in Belapur, designated capital of the new city across the harbor, were government buildings. This imposing mound of fowl, Mont Blanc to my less than ten year old self, was in a room-sized deep freezer of a MAFCO warehouse. MAFCO, if you remember was one of the earliest brands of processed foods. New Bombay was a detour while travelling with my parents from Bombay to Poona, which in those days you did via Thana, before the Vashi Creek Bridge was built. 

I did not know this at the time, but New Bombay was at the frontier of imagination. Land was readily available all along the several nodes, strung like a necklace from Vashi to Panvel. Each node was a potential pearl, designed with sound urban planning vision by Charles Correa, Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel in the late 60s. It was intended to complement the old city, by shifting wholesale markets and administrative hubs, moving jobs, workplaces and homes across the pond. There was a renewed call, just after the Mantralaya fire, to relocate it to Belapur, like it was intended in the first place. It did not happen then, and consequently the new town slipped into quiet slumber for two decades. Navi Mumbai rubbed her eyes open again in the nineties, fuelled by impossible land prices in Mumbai proper and by gaining a spine in the Harbour Line that inched, station by station, down its north south axis.

Two decades of somnolence meant that Navi Mumbai was, for most part, bypassed even as Bombay imploded. The misbegotten reclamations at Nariman Point, the cement crisis, textile strikes and subsequent closure of mills, the rising influence of the builder/speculator, the decline of housing cooperatives, the hyper-monetization of FSI and the inevitability of user generated/ slum formations would all have been affected, had the occupation of the new town been steady and determined during the seventies and eighties. Navi Mumbai came into her own only after several educational campuses were established along her spine, and the agglomeration of housing and services around them.

Here’s a thought. All this and more could have been achieved more than thirty years before it actually did, had a rather avant-garde notion taken root in June 1945. In his annual presidential address, Foster King, founding father of the Indian Institute of Architects, proposed that Bombay would benefit by ‘boldly striking out laterally across the harbour to the inviting mainland beyond, rather than unimaginatively persisting in a northerly advance which led further and further away from the heart of the city.’ The main advantage, other than access to the mainland was its geographical edge that would allow new settlements to enjoy the western breeze. King thought it ‘stupid to reclaim land when cheap land with good western frontage is already available on the other side’. Breeze was a commodity fervently sought after by south Bombay’s householders of the 30s and 40s. They had already rued its passing due to the new architecture on the Backbay and Marine Drive reclamations that had dammed the westerly’s from wafting freely though the city. 

Other architects, writing in the institute’s journal responded enthusiastically, taking King’s vision even further: ‘We feel that a bold a solution is demanded. And what bolder than an undersea tunnel linking up shore to shore? Daring, yes, but impractical, no.’ Considering the development of underground and undersea connections in other countries between the wars, this proposal was not all that futuristic. The tunnel could have been built, what with the incontestable might and resources of a colonial administration, who could have ensured compliance and execution without much ado. Had the Bombay trans-harbour tunnel of ‘45 come to pass, what would Mumbai be like in 2012? Would be exult over an Art Deco skyline ringing the inner harbour like a vast lakefront? Would we celebrate half a century of an effective N/E/W/S transport network? The answer my friend, would (probably) be blowin’ in the western wind.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Taj Mahal by Sahir Ludhianvi: a new translation

Taj Mahal 
Sahir Ludhianvi

Taaj tere liye ek mazaar-e-ulfat hi sahi
Tumko is vaadi-e-rangeen se aquidat hi sahi
Mere mehboob kahin aur milaa kar mujhse

Bazm-e-shaahi mein gareebon ka guzar kya maani
Sabt jis raah pe ho satwat-e-shaahi ke nishaan
Us pe ulfat bhari roohon ka safar kya maani

Mere mehboob paas-e-pardah-e-tasheer-e-wafaa
Tu ne satwat ke nishaanon ko to dekhaa hotaa
Murdaashaahon ke maqaabir se behelnewaali
Apne taareeq makaanon ko to dekhaa hotaa

Anginat logon ne duniyaa mein muhabbat ki hain
Kaun kehtaa hai ki saadiq na the jazbe unke
Lekin unke liye tasheer ka saamaan nahin
Kyonki who log bhi apni hi tarah muflis the

Yeh imaarat-o-maqaabir, yeh faseelein, yeh hisaar
Mutalqulhukm shahenshaahon ki azmat ke sutoon
Daaman-e-dehr pe us rang ki gulkaari hai
Jisme shaamil hain tere aur mere ajdaad ka khoon

Mere mehboob, unhe bhi to muhabbat hogi
Jinki sannaaee ne bakshi hai ise shakl-e-jameel
Unke pyaaron ke maqaabir rahe benaam-o-namood
Aaj tak un pe jalaayee na kisi ne qandeel

Yeh chamanzaar, ye jamunaa ka kinaaraa, yeh mahal
Yeh munaqqash dar-o-deewaar, yeh mehraab, yeh taaq
Ik shahenshaah ne daulat kaa sahaaraa lekar
Hum gareebon ki muhabbat kaa udaayaa hai mazaaq

Mere mehboob kahin aur milaa kar mujhse

Taj Mahal

translated by
Mustansir Dalvi

For you, my love, the Taj
may well be the quintessence
of ardour; while full well
may you regard
this exquisite vale. Even so,
dear one, let us meet
someplace else.

What worth, these lowly ones,
loitering in the halls of the lords,
where on every path lie etched
remains of pomp and glory?
What worth then, the passing
of lovelorn souls?

My love, behind the veils
of love’s proud proclamations,
did you see the signs
of imperious grandeur?
You, who revel
in mausoleums of dead kings,
did you not heed the dark hovels
that fostered us?

Beyond count are those, in this world
who have lived and loved.
Could anyone deny the truth
of their passions?
But they, like us, stay destitute,
without the means
to erect monuments to their love.

These edifices, these tombs,
these battlements, these forts,
haughty relics
of the conceit of emperors
are left behind like resilient creepers
on the face of the world,
seeped in the blood
of our forefathers.

My love, those artful hands
who created this beauty
would have lived
and loved too; but their lovers
are long gone, nameless,
without a trace.
To this day, no one has lit
a candle in their memory.

The lush gardens and palaces,
the Yamuna’s edge;
the exquisitely carved portals,
the arches and niches,
the handiwork of the one
emperor who, buttress’d
by infinite wealth
has mocked our very love,
our impoverish'd, destitute love.

Even so, my love,
let us meet
someplace else.

© 2012, translation and transliteration by Mustansir Dalvi, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

After Words 1: Raise the Roof

An edited version of this piece is the first in a column called 'After Words' in Time Out Mumbai.
This is published in the June 8-21 2012 (Vol 8 Issue 21) issue of Time Out Mumbai.

Raise the Roof

There is a reason God invented flat roofs- so that his creations could loiter, contemplate the cosmos or ‘in this life full of care’ find some time to stand and stare. Terraces, ubiquitous to modern Mumbai, are for most part used to stash old furniture, residual air-conditioning equipment or to install mobile phone towers. The breath of fresh air that a rooftop offers is never breathed, and this part of the building is often relegated to: if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It’s bad enough that these very vital spaces are ignored in residential buildings, but in public buildings these are resolutely ‘No Man’s Land’.

In Mumbai then, it is refreshing to see elevated planes brought back into the reckoning in the public realm, as was done recently. The roofs of two of our best known buildings were opened up for public access and use. Of course, conditions applied, but the opportunity to climb up to take in a high level view of a busy street or a bird’s eye of the south Mumbai skyline is an occasion for delight in itself.

The Jehangir Art Gallery recently opened a small display space, thanks to the munificence of Kakubhai Kothari, the veteran photographer. This is significant not only because the new gallery is dedicated to photography but because it is accessed from the terrace of the building; you have to first go outdoors to go indoors. While the exhibitions are reason enough to climb the newly refurbished steel stairs, the chance to hover above the Kala Ghoda and take in at leisure the life passing below is rare joy. Looking out over the western parapet, you can enjoy the neo-Gothic details of the Elphinstone College, Army and Navy building and the David Sassoon Library at close quarters, while turning eastwards you can debate whether the Stock Exchange building, soaring high above Rhythm House, should ever have been built. Or you can, in a position slightly removed, emulate a Pi-dog, and in Arun Kolhatkar’s words, muse: "...this is the hour/ when I can call this city my own/ when I like nothing better/ than to lie down here, at the exact centre/of this traffic island..."; hoping of course that the management does not chance upon you in your state of horizontality.

The other roof that was host to a public event recently was the top of the Godrej Bhavan, that modernist glass and aluminium pile from the 1970s, on Home Street, overlooking the Bombay Gym. The Godrej-organised Friday event had Sidharth Bhatia and Sathya Saran reading from their biographies of Dev Anand and Abrar Alvi. While the authors kept the audience enraptured, it was the balmy evening spent alfresco on the manicured lawn of the roof with its signature trees, and the ‘khoya khoya chand, khula aasmaan’ over the Azad maidan made this event magical, and quite filmy. The opening up of this otherwise private corporate space to the public, even for a few hours, is a gesture that deserves kudos, but also calls for several encores.

A recent survey has found that all the maidans, parks and other recreation spaces put together in Mumbai amount to an imposing total of one square meter per person. That’s space enough to put your left leg out to do the boogie-woogie, but not enough to do the phugdi. Looking beyond ground coverage, however, you know that since the late fifties almost all the buildings in this city have flat roofs that are available for active use. Le Corbusier, the modernist architect, in the late 20s, called for the flat terrace (made possible by RCC construction) to be imagined as a roof garden for multiple uses, to replace the patch of the same size removed from the ground by the building’s footprint. What is required is a culture of inhabiting the open-to-sky. Seen this way, the city could reclaim an amount of open space equivalent to its own size for public use. Mumbai already has a culture of the pedestrian; all that is needed now is to develop the daily habit of climbing up instead of down.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

An Architect Reviews Ram Gopal Verma's 'Bhoot'

This is a piece I wrote in June 2003. I am posting this here in the nature of archive particularly after brainstorming with Chirodeep Choudhary today about his project on the views from/out of high rises. I wonder how many of you saw 'Bhoot' and if you did, how many remember it at all.

Just saw ‘Bhoot’ this evening, and this set me off wondering how architecture is depicted in films. There are many film theories, but let that go for another time. I enjoyed this film, and here are some ruminations about its effective use of space.

The first half is the more effective. An ordinary high-rise residential apartment building (definitely not Hafeez, could be Khareghat) is one of the main ‘actors’ in the film, It is shot though various distorting lenses to give it a Bhootly appearence, but what makes it menacing is its utter ordinariness. What hits you is the view from the terrace: the horizon is filled with buildings- each ordinary and mediocre, you cannot differentiate one from the other. The skyline is jagged, and there are no landmarks to give it focus. Is this the view that most of the upper classes in Bombay look at out of their windows?

The ordinariness is reflected in the couple (Ajay Devgan and Urmila Matondkar) who move into a duplex flat with a terrace on one of the building’s upper floors. The fact that they have to rent the apartment is itself an act of disassociation. They have come from somewhere, we don’t know. They live in the anonymity of an apartment that belongs to someone else in this building that, apart from 1 landlord, 1 Bai and 1 watchman, no one else seems to inhabit.

This vulnerability is seen in the well crafted initial scenes. All they have is each other and the flat. When Ajay goes to work Urmila has the house to herself, with its double height spaces and the ambient sound of the many channels on cable TV. It is a big house for one person to inhabit alone for the day. A prime target for attack: whether voyeuristic, in the form of the watchman, or supernatural in the form of the Bhoot.

The spaces in the flat are interesting. The double heights allow for a bottom up and top down shots which reminded me of Escher once in a fleeting shot with Victor Banerjee and Ajay Devgan. The duplex’s stairs to the upper level figure prominently. There is an unstated menace in the steps, that are unprotected (no railing). Other aspects of the flat show a fuzzy line between safety and danger: the windows have no grilles, the terrace no protection above the standard parapet. The main door seems to open for everybody. But there seems to be no one in the building. The basement parking lot has cars but no people. There is unfinished RCC here and there with the reinforcement bars poking out like knives ready to put out some one’s eyes. The street outside has no character at all. All told, this is a chillingly unfriendly habitat, which nevertheless is home. A particularly dangerous place for children, or the mentally imbalanced.

Seeing the film, I realised that the effect of the depiction of architectural space in Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Bhoot’ is not in what he shows, but what you see. The uneasiness you feel is by reflection. Your everyday fears are ignited by the shots of detail and the relentless roving camerawork: The fear of being alone, the deja-vu feeling that someone else is in your home besides you, the fear of falling off an unprotected terrace or window, the fear of intruders, of attack from outside (the vulnerable main door), the fear of hurt (the jagged corners of the duplex’s stairs), even the fear of being in a public place full of strangers, and suddenly finding yourself naked. All these fears are experienced by a viewer while seeing the film.

Another quality that brings about the effectiveness of the interior spaces is that this film is shot on location: this is a real apartment, this is a real building, there are no sets, even the basement parking lot is authentic enough, except for perhaps the jagged reinforcement (for what is an unfinished column doing in a basement?) The apartment is not very well finished and it is these nicks and burrs that in fact drag us into the story by implying that this could be any one of our own homes. Nothing is perfect; this is no idealized ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’ world. That’s what makes this place spooky. Also the ‘interior decorashun’ seems hurriedly thrown together, with a mix of fresh furniture (a rather usefully designed bed, and some horrendous and large paintings) and pieces left over (a mirror, what else?) from the earlier owners. This is a house that has not yet become a home, not for the couple.

A home is something one needs to root ones self in. A protected space to return to, to take for granted. If the home itself is perceived to be oppressive or menacing, there is no where you can go. This is a clear subtext in the film, as the couple hardly ever leave the apartment throughout. By extension, if one of the partners becomes the object of fear and suspicion, how can you resolve conflicts?

The apartment and the building, as I mentioned earlier, become characters in the film, ‘acting’ along with the rest of the cast. That’s what makes the film enjoyable. Ambient space design that suggests the authenticity of life can go a long way to make a film realistic. The film that comes to mind here is ‘Alien’, the first one that showed the inside of spacecraft as ‘dirty’. Most of the space films that came before, such as 2001 and the Star Wars series showed a clean, well lighted interior, more a virtual mindspace rather than the real world. They always made you aware that this was a set. I can’t remember the last time spaces were so integral to a Bollywood film. The only example I remember with great fondness is the inside of the Qutub Minar shown beautifully with spiralling camerawork around Dev Anand and Nutan in the song ‘Dil ka Bhanwar kare Pukar’ from Tere Ghar Ke Saamne.”

June 2003

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Urban Bawl 7: Hate Story

An edited version of this piece is the seventh in the series of my Urban Bawl columns in Time Out Mumbai for their 'Back of the Book' page.
This is published in the May 11-24 2012  (Vol 8 Issue 19) issue of Time Out Mumbai.

Hate Story

I don’t really hate my city, though-

I am concerned that we have more than enough resources to change the city, but hardly any to preserve it. That our urban memory does not seem to go deeper that our last Facebook update. That we have suddenly become hypersensitive about our rights as citizens but lackadaisical about our responsibilities.

I am worried that every square inch of our city is fair game for builder/speculators; including the house I live in. That it is acceptable to demolish a 5 storey building only 5 years old to build a 40 storey new one, thanks to the toppings provided by 33/7, rehab components, TDR and relaxed FSI.

I find it ironical we believe that the densest neighbourhood in the world, Kalbadevi, can be further densified by cluster development. That Chor Bazaar will inevitably become a thing of the past. That the balcony has already become a thing of the past.

I think it hypocritical that Mumbaikars complain about how filthy our slums are, when Mumbai itself does not have a culture of separating its garbage into wet and dry compartments.

I am outraged that a skywalk from CST to Churchgate could even be contemplated. That congestion on our streets can be resolved just by building another street over it. In fact, our general belief that all the problems of the city can be solved by more building.

I am filled with wonder that, on the one hand we hope that 3 compartment elevated trains with automatically closing doors will bring down overcrowding in trains, while at the same time older platforms are being extended to fit 15 dabba trains. That I live in that part of the city where rickshawallahs have never plied by the meter, yet go on strike each time the minimum fare needs to be raised.

I am disgusted that Churchgate station needed to be tarted up with public funds to become an ugly, blister-packed carbuncle. And yet, we still snigger at Antilla whenever it is mentioned.

I think it is silly that public art in our city can only be designated as such by fencing it off and putting a label on it. Come February, I dread seeing the pastiche soup of installations at Kala Ghoda that will inevitably send me into deep depression until approximately the same time next year. That the second most photographed building in the country, the Bombay Stock Exchange, needs a monstrous neon sign proclaiming that it is, in fact, the Bombay Stock Exchange.

I despair that it nearly impossible to get a couple of decent fried eggs in the city. That the local Udipi charges me Rs.16 for a cup of tea and Rs.50 for a Sada Dosa. That the Wayside Inn has already become a thing of the past.

I live for the day when cinema theatres will display slides in BIG BOLD letters that say: ‘Turn your f***ing phone off right now, Bhen****!’ before the movie begins. Same is true for announcements in local train compartments, instead of ‘Pudcha Station- Currey Road’ in 3 languages.

I am cross that I have to pass through at least three security filters before I can use the loo at the Taj, which has always been the convenience of choice when I am in the vicinity.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Saadat Hassan Manto: What I write

To celebrate the centenary of Saadat Hassan Manto (11 May 1912), I have translated a piece he wrote towards the end of his life in Pakistan, where he discusses the subjects of writing that interest him. 

What I Write 
Sa'adat Hassan Manto

translated by 
Mustansir Dalvi

Why do I write? That’s like asking me why I eat... why I drink... but look at it this way: I have to spend money to eat or to drink, but when I write I have to give nothing away in cash.

But if I examine this deeply, I realise that this line of thinking is wrong, and I sustain my writing by money alone.

Obviously, if I don’t get food or drink, my body will weaken to a state that I can no longer hold a pen in my hand. It is possible, even in my famished state, my mind may work, but it is necessary that my hand works too. If the hand is too weak to function, the tongue, at least, should give voice. What a tragedy it is that one cannot do anything without food or drink.

Art is given such a high status that it is elevated to the seventh heaven. But isn’t it true that every worthy and important thing is dependent on a dry scrap of bread?

I write because I have something to say. I write, so that I can earn enough to be able to say something.

It’s strange, this relation between bread and art, but what is to be done if this is what God wills? He positions Himself neutrally from all things, but this is wrong. He is most certainly not neutral. He desires your supplication. And supplication is a very soft and delicate roti... why, it can be said that your supplication is like a roti lubricated with ghee with which He fills his belly.

If the lady next door deigns to be beaten up by her husband every day, and cleans his shoes nevertheless, then she does not elicit any sympathy within me. But if the lady next door fights with her husband, threatens to kill herself and then goes off to the movies, and I am able to see her husband fret and fulminate for an hour or two, then I feel a weird sort of empathy for them both.

If a boy falls in love with a girl, it’s as if I had a mild cold, I couldn’t be bothered. But the boy would certainly grab my attention if he declared that despite the many, many girls willing to die for him, he feels a dryness in his heart like a drought-stricken denizen from Bengal. If I could ever feel the tragic sobs bubbling under the colourful love stories of this self-proclaimed Romeo, my heart would seek him out, and I would tell his story to anyone who would listen.

Any woman who grinds grain for the whole day and goes to sleep without a care can never be a heroine in my stories. My heroine can be an well-worn whore. A whore who stays awake at night and, during the day sometimes awakes in horror from her slumber with the nightmare thought that old age shall soon come knocking at her door. Her heavy drooping eyelids, weary with years of waiting to sleep can be the subject of my story. I like the thought of her infirmities, her illnesses, her irritations, her gaalis, I write about these things, and I prefer to ignore the religious rectitude, the good health and the cultivated propriety of housewives.

Saadat Hassan Manto writes because this God is not the greatest poet or teller of tales, but it is the regard for Him that makes Him so.

I am aware that I have a big personality and that in Urdu literary circles I am very well regarded. If I was not self-opinionated like this, it would be even harder to go through life. But for me, it is a fact that I cannot put aside that I have never been able to find my proper place in my homeland, which goes by the name of Pakistan. This is keeps my soul unsettled. This leads me to stay in a madhouse sometimes and in a hospital at other times.

I am often asked why I do not get rid of my chronic alcoholism. I have given away a full three quarters of my life to indulgence. And it has led me to this- I have to stay in a madhouse sometimes and in a hospital at other times.

I think that leading a life of abstinence is like being in jail. Leading a life full of indulgence is also like being in jail. What we have to do, in some form or the other, is to hang on to a strand of this unravelling rope and keep going. That’s all.
Translation (c) Mustansir Dalvi, 2012 All rights reserved

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kala Ghoda Ver. 2.0

Once, just once in a while, does our city give back to its citizens. More through serendipity than through design, but who are we to complain? A new al-fresco space has been made accessible to the public at large, taking them off the streets around Kala Ghoda and elevating them one level above it, and allowing for a new vantage point from which to observe the beating, beating heart of South Bombay.

Through a an act of munificence, veteran photographer Kakubhai Kothari has set up a simple new gallery on the terrace of the Jehangir Art Gallery devoted exclusively to photography. The Gallery is itself small, an asymmetrical room of one straight and one curved wall, enough to hang about 24 midsized frames. This space was, for many years, the former studio of the water colorist who would sign his work as, simply 'Chetan'. Now back in the possession of the Jehangir management, this reconverted space shall, hopefully, be the venue for many exhibitions of photographs. The first one, appropriately enough, is by Kothari himself and he has put up several large unframed images of tigers that he photographed in the Bandhavgad, Sariska and Tadoba reserves.

What supersedes the new gallery, to me, is the terrace itself that I have to first traverse to get to the photographs. Reaching the top, having climbed the refurbished steel staircase next to the Samover, I realize how large the terrace is, and (reflecting the lobby and galleries below) how it is broken up into several footprints. It is currently, perhaps quaintly, carpeted over (see image) but I doubt this will last the monsoon. Nevertheless, (and am I speaking too soon here?) there is a potential for this space to be put to use in a variety of ways, should the management appreciate this.

Standing on the terrace looking to the West, I can observe life in the Kala Ghoda parking lot. In this, I am not alone. The lot has, for more than a century now, been overseen by a portentous head of Sir David Sassoon,
"...stuck like a schmuck up here
-an ahmaq.
a certified keer-e-khar –
                                (David Sassoon)
I can now see the old man eye to eye, as he sticks his “pilloried head/ out of a medallion/ in the pediment above the archway...” of the building formerly known as the Mechanics Institute. The Army and Navy Building and the Elphinstone College on either side make up the line of neo-Gothic edifices, whose details one can appreciate better from this crow's nest. There is the precarious Watson's Hotel that I fervently pray will not collapse just because I am looking at it. From beyond, I can clearly hear the bongs from the clock tower named after Premchand Roychand's mum calling the faithful to paryushan. To the east looms the other tower, named after another Jeejeebhoy, aka the Bombay Stock Exchange, and I wonder why India's second most photographed building needed to have a monstrous neon sign capping it, just to tell me of its provenance as Babel and Sodom Inc.

But best of all, I can turn my head up and look up into nothingness, unafraid of getting run over, propositioned, or hauled up for loitering.
Arun Kolhatkar had the same idea:
"This is the time of day I like best,
and this is the hour
when I can call this city my own;
when I like nothing better
than to lie down here, at the exact centre
of this traffic island..." 

But I find myself at a point somewhat removed from the centre of the lot both along the x and the z axis, and I am overwhelmed with a desire to lie down on my back on the carpet and stare at the waning, pink rippled dusk. I stop myself, of course, out of a sense of decorousness. There are too many people around. A couple with far too many children are making their way up the stairs after asking whether there is anything to see. There is. The best thing about the Jehangir Art Gallery is its stellar location. The second best thing is that it is a space that has always been free to all. This terrace could be the harbinger of an opportunity to become another welcome public space.

This said, I have some hopes too:
I hope that the terrace space will always remain open.

I hope that the newly created gallery shall always be dedicated to the display of photography.

I hope that the terrace will inspire installations specific to the opportunities the site offers.

I hope that the management of Jehangir will consider some light trelliswork to shelter visitors during the summer months.

I hope that the edges of the terrace shall not be barricaded with safety features that obscure the views of the streets below.

I hope that this space will be made available for lectures and performances in addition to displays of art, and that these shall never be made exclusive.

I hope better sense (and taste) shall prevail, especially during the Kala Ghoda Festival, unlike the ritualistic buggering up that happens once every year of the parking lot below.

I hope that Samovar shall be allowed to set up an al-fresco eating place. There is enough space for this.

I hope the skyline that we grew up with and loved will never be obliterated because of DC Rule 33/7.

I hope the sky may never fall on my head.

“A twig! A twig! A twig! A twig!
You got it! You got it! You got it!
It’s all yours now.
You can take it away 
Anytime you want
But first, examine it.”
(To a Crow)

(All the excerpted lines are from Arun Kolhatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems, 2004, Pras)