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.