Tuesday, January 31, 2012

FirstPost Mumbai: Garbage-in, Garbage-out: The state of bricks in Mumbai

Image: eartharchitecture.org
Here is an excerpt from my new column on FirstPost.Com:
Garbage-in, garbage-out: The state of bricks in Mumbai
for full article , click on link above

Many kilns in operation just outside Mumbai work with rough and ready techniques for firing bricks that obey no norms of production. Although guidelines for building and operating brick kilns have been framed by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), it is unlikely that these kiln owners have even heard of the organisation. Their work habits result in near-toxic levels of air pollution in the vicinity of the kilns which are fired for days on end, emitting the acrid smoke that every worker cannot avoid inhaling. Notwithstanding this, bricks are churned out by the millions.

The quality of bricks produced and available in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai are, even to be most charitable, rubbish. In architecture school, we learnt that a good brick should be ‘of standard size, have sharp and truly right angled corners, have a bright colour, be of dense and uniform texture, should emit a ringing sound when struck, and, when dropped from a height of three feet or so should not break into pieces.’ None of this applies to the average Mumbai brick. Given the fact that most of your houses have an external face that is only half-a-brick thick, is it little wonder that your houses leak? If the supply end is poor to start with, how could the constructed edifice be otherwise?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Bookshop dies: a paean to Manney’s

A Bookshop dies: a paean to Manney’s

I growed up, like Topsy, in libraries and bookshops.

Besides the British Council Library (Motto: ‘Truth Always Triumphs’) where my father was the librarian, it is the bookshops of Poona that were the long suffering witnesses to the sputters and spurts of my pubescence. One of the most visited was Manney’s Booksellers next to Westend Cinema (English movies, soda fountain) at Camp. And now, it is shutting down.

Bookshops, like Irani Cafes, seem to have a way of doing this, blindsiding your comfortable memories and leaving them frayed and crotchety. Manney’s (the anglicised ‘Mani’s’, after its owners) is (for a short while now) a cavernous bookstore of current bestsellers and oddities and rarities that one can safely get lost in for an afternoon. In its bowels, I graduated from the vast collection of comics (GoldKey and Indrajal) and children’s books (especially the Three Investigators Mystery Series, ghost authored, but hosted by Alfred Hitchcock) to Alistair MacLean's oeuvre of war novels and contemporary thrillers (where I read my first swear words, and was thrilled to learn their spellings) to a completely eclectic set of reading habits, foraging rather than finding new stuff to read.

Manney’s was the first port of call, though not the only one. Around the corner from Manney’s were the Modern Book Stall and the Express Book Stall, both on East Street; while the Utkarsha and Popular were both at the Deccan. Each was different from the other, so visiting them all one after the other, browsing, not necessarily buying, was as ritualistic as temple darshan. Manney’s offered the largest collection, its employees tolerated, yet frowned upon my frequently darkening its doorstep (Free Reading Not Allowed). Manney’s has bookshelves upon bookshelves- travel, the English language, the Classics, novels, books on spirituality, philosophy, cinema, music and uniquely, a section on the military. Presumably it caters to the extended presence of Armed Forces folk in that part of Poona, the Southern Command being nearby, but also the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla and the Armed Forces Medical College. Then the shelves peter out, un-categorized yet fun to delve into. I have always found that the best bookshops are the ones without direction. But then maybe Manney’s had imprinted on me in my impressionable years.

These are the institutions that landmark your life, that you take for granted will always be there. And yet, after nearly forty years of browsing, I did feel that bookshops like these remained behind the times as the world moved on. It is not that monster bookshops (a huge Landmark store is just across the road) now dominate the book buying scene, nor that online reading and online buying are killing them. It is simply that these single proprietor bookshops never developed a warm relationship with their customers, never created the ambience for an extended stay and never made offers that bibliophiles could never refuse. This standoffish, take-it-or-leave-it attitude lingered on even after the challenges to their former monopolies loomed large.

I have my own Manney’s story: I have mentioned browsing and not buying; one could not afford most books in the shop. Once, in the late eighties, while still in college, voraciously skimming books on rock ‘n roll, I found a freshly minted paperback of ‘20 Years of Rolling Stone: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been’ edited by Jann S. Wenner. Its pristine cover and chewed-off corner delighted and enticed, and equally quickly disappointed as it was way too dear for my collegeboy allowance. I left, feeling all the worse because I had riffled through its pages and it offered everything a rock-philiac would have liked to get jiggy with.

Twenty years later, the book was still there, on the same set of shelves, now yellowed, considerably worse for the wear, thumbed by strangers, never owned. Between the two decades, each time I visited Manney’s, I gave the book a darshan and a wistful caress. God knows, the book is probably still there. I wondered each time: just what kind of turn-over policy did the proprietors have for their old stock?

I do not vouch for this, but I never heard of Manney’s ever having a sale. Now, as the shop-owners have announced, when Manney’s will finally shut shop by the end of March, they will organise a ‘Grand Sale’ with discounts of twenty percent. Twenty percent. Bookshops like the Strand in Bombay offer a discount of twenty percent on All new books, and considerably more on older ones. Life goes on in these bookshops; books keep changing, the shelves are constantly refreshed. The sale events of bookshops like Strand are looked forward to with anticipation; when you can buy books in buckets. Little wonder then a shop like Manney’s, much loved, can also leave you in a state of perplexity.

Its old world charm and old school obduracy notwithstanding, I am sorry to see Manney’s go. The vast space it occupies and the advantage of its location in Poona Camp makes it real-estate to be sought after. I wonder what will replace it though. Cafe Coffee Day? Barista? KFC?

Another bookshop? Naah, unlikely.

Friday, January 13, 2012

FirstPost Mumbai: When Dharavi grows up, it wants to be Khotachiwadi.

Here is my new column on FirstPost.Com:

When Dharavi grows up, it does not want to be Shanghai

Dharavi Koliwada
Photo by Smita Dalvi, (c) 2009
When Dharavi grows up, it wants to be Khotachiwadi. Or Fontainhas. Certainly not Shanghai, nor Singapore, god forbid, with all its imposed hygiene and eugenic living. 

The vast slums of Mumbai are blithely derided and dismissed. They suffer from a monomaniacal insistence from the upper city: that they are unwanted and should be removed. This wanton labeling ensures they remain under-appreciated. Even when condescended to as being vital to the city's services — that they provide Mumbai's manpower — an undertone of otherness separates them from the city that matters. 

Slums in Mumbai, such as they are, have to be seen for themselves. Of course, many of them occupy plots whose ownership is contentious. But not all, having grown from earlier settlements that sometimes predate the city. 

Easily ignored in this tarring and feathering is that slums are diverse: they are just being settled or undergoing transformation, young or old, random or well laid out. Despite this, they share one important trait with the city itself — they are in a state of becoming. 

Slums, in their third stage of development, are not free from the threat of demolition. But they have ways to deal with it. What they cannot deal with is the finality of 'rehabilitation'.Reuters From their very rudimentary beginnings, one can notice a sense of order. Settled first as 'tent cities', slums begin their infancy as roofs, as mere shelters and little else. In their chrysalis stage, they get the 'slumdog' image that is so familiar — hutments with rough and ready enclosures of blue tarpaulin or flex movie hoardings, pattra or cement sheets held in place by brickbats. These are the settlements that suffer most in the rains, bear the brunt of frequent demolitions and fires, and have problematic sewerage and drainage. 

In their third stage, however, they aspire to becoming pucca, properly rebuilt with services equivalent to the rest of the 'legitimate' city. Large areas of the so-called slums of Mumbai have already reached this stage. They are rarely noticed. From Dharavi to Deonar, from Cuffe Parade to Bhandup, these erstwhile settlements are now full-fledged urban neighborhoods that create value for themselves and their immediate surroundings. Once again, a sense of order and self-similarity prevails, with most issues of hygiene and public health already resolved. 

These neighborhoods are hives of building activity. The houses here have long passed the hutment stage and are now as pucca as your own homes, albeit in constrained conditions. Unlike most flat owners (this means you), these homes occupy a plot on the ground and rise to a height that will not get them in trouble with the BMC. They are built in RCC and brick masonry, finished with ceramic tiles, both inside and outside, are clean and largely maintenance-free. They have electricity and piped water running to their kitchens and toilets. This is clearly seen by the miles of running pipes over ground, on both sides of the streets. The roads outside their homes are paved with interlocking tiles, just like any other part of the city. 

Despite this, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) chooses to name these localities as 'difficult' areas, and damn them to the eternal hell of rehabilitation. 

The first impression one gets while walking through these localities is the humane scale of building, the coziness of homes, shops and production units nestling close to each other. You know the fortune of each dweller is dependent on their neighbor. This social network is a vast support system, fueled by proximity and circumstance. One is reminded of the Barrio das Fontainhas in Goa, with its similar architecture of narrow, sheltered alleys, quaint, colorful facades and outdoor living. Or of Khotachiwadi, an urban village in Mumbai, a well-knit community, so popular with tourists who love just to walk through its narrow streets and pocket plazas. 

Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava of URBZ, located in Dharavi, study user-generated cities. They have interacted with various contractors and mistrys who build the houses in these 'slums' and have documented their work. They demonstrate that the construction is efficient and locally derived, based on such optimization of men, materials, processes and time as could give a few good lessons to professionals in building and management. Although untrained, these contractors develop on a bank of building lore, learning from precedent and experience, adjusting to the vagaries of budgets, climate and the ever looming threat of demolition. For example, their way of introducing toilets in places where underground infrastructure is absent is remarkable for its ingenuity. They are also true masters of recycling, nothing goes waste. Each house is built on the debris of its older avatar, which when demolished is compacted into a high plinth. Those organisations rating 'green' buildings for low carbon footprints and zero-energy construction would have a field day here.

These slums, in their third stage of development, are not free from the threat of demolition. But they have ways to deal with it. What they cannot deal with is the finality of 'rehabilitation'. Entire neighborhoods could be razed and reconstructed in a faux Singaporean image, with the inhabitants being 'rehoused' in zoo-cages of 300 square feet several feet above the ground. This is a strong possibility. This new model goes against the grain of every neighborhood as has developed organically over a period of several decades. The architect Richard Rogers has critiqued such models of rehabilitation: "If you can repair, it is so much more sustainable than starting again. We should reuse land and materials. Even slums can be renovated." 

The short, sharp shock proposed by the SRA will result not only in gentrification, but in displacement. The social integration of currently thriving neighborhoods and the value, both material and intangible, that they have infused into the plots they currently occupy will be unraveled in no time. Connections, associations, inter-dependency, a strong shoulder to rest on in times of need will all get subsumed in a miasma of legitimacy. It is sad to contemplate that the only network that these communities would now have easy access would be Facebook.

Dharavi Koliwada
Photo by Smita Dalvi (c) 2009
Street in Fontainhas, Goa
Photo by MalenaN; posted in virtualtourist.com

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Urban Bawl 4: Dead Spot

Here is the third in the series of my Urban Bawl columns in Time Out Mumbai for their 'Back of the Book' page.Some of my nostalgic ruminations on the 'forceclosed' Rang Bhavan and a clarion call for its return to active duty.
The Rang Bhavan at Dhobhi Talao, with an entrance from Badruddin Tyabji Marg next to St. Xaviers.
Image from Google Earth, accessed on 7.01.12
Dead Spot
(click on link above)
"I have my own trove of memories of this lovely place in the heart of the city. Being of congruent vintage and having studied in a college just a few steps down the road from Rang Bhavan (not St Xavier’s), I have marked my presence at several landmark events there. The hairs on my forearms still rise as I recall being pushed against bamboo barricades, within touching distance of Osibisa in the mid-’80s; in awe of the resonating drums of Daku Potato, who wielded a club rather than sticks to rock the joint. Now rarely remembered, Osibisa’s AfroCarib songs were more viral than “Kolaveri”."