Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shahryar- Two Ghazals from Gaman

These two (now classic) ghazals are from Muzaffar Ali's 1978 film 'Gaman' (the Departure), and are written by Akhlaq Mohammad Khan, more well known by his pen name 'Shahryar'.

Khan was the fourth Jnanpith Award winner in Urdu in 2008. His collection of poems 'Khwab ka dar band hai' in 1987 won the Sahitya Akademi award. He died in 2012.

Seene mein jalan aankhon mein toofaan sa kyon hai
Akhlaq Mohammad Khan Shahryar

Seene mein jalan aankhon mein toofaan sa kyon hai
Is shaher main har shakhs pareshaan sa kyon hai

Dil hai to dhadakne ka bahaanaa koi dhoonde
Patthar ki tarah behis-o-bejaan sa kyon hai

Tanhaai ki yeh kaunsi manzil hai rafiqon
Taa hadd-e-nazar ek bayaabaan sa kyon hai

Kya koi nayee baat nazar aati hai ham mein
Aainaa hamein dekh ke hairaan sa kyon hai

translated by 
Mustansir Dalvi

Why does my heart smoulder, why this tempestuous gaze?
Why is everyone in this city filled with such disquiet?

This heart, such as it is, needs but to keep on beating,
why then is it so unfeeling, so lifeless, like a stone.

Which station of loneliness is this, my friends?
There is only wilderness as far as the eye can see.

Can you see something new in me today?
Why then, is my mirror so bewildered to see me?

Here is the ghazal from 'Gaman', with music by Jaidev and sung by Suresh Wadkar.

Ajeeb saaneha mujh par guzar gayaa yaaron
Akhlaq Mohammad Khan Shahryar

Ajeeb saaneha mujh par guzar gayaa yaaron
Main apne saaye se kal raat dar gaya yaaron

Hare ek naqsh-e-tamannaa ka ho gayaa dhundhlaa
Hare ek zakhm mere dil ka bhar gayaa yaaron

Bhatak rahi thi jo kashti woh garq-e-aab hui
Chadaa hua tha jo dariyaa utar gayaa yaaron

Woh kaun tha kahaan ka tha kya hua tha use
Sunaa hai aaj koi shakhs mar gayaa yaaron

translated by 
Mustansir Dalvi

How strange was this accident that befell me, friends,
for last night, I flinched with fear at my own shadow.

Every ideal that I ever aspired to has begun to fade,
every clot that rent my heart has begun to congeal.

Every boat, tossed about, lost, was eventually sunk,
the raging river that had swelled has now receded.

Who was that, where was he from, what befell him?
I have heard, friends that someone lost his life today.

Here is the ghazal from 'Gaman', with music by Jaidev and sung by Hariharan.

Translation and transliteration, copyright © Mustansir Dalvi, 2013, All rights reserved.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaan aur (translated by Mustansir Dalvi)

Hai bas ki har ek unke ishaare mein nishaan aur
a Ghazal by
Mirza Ghalib

Hai bas ki har ek unke ishaare mein nishaan aur
Karte hai muhabbat to guzartaa hai ghumaan aur

Ya rab! Woh na samjhe hain na samjhenge meri baat
De aur dil unko jo na de mujhko zubaan aur

Aabroo se hai kya us nigaah-e-naaz ko paiwand
Hai teer mukarrar magar hai uski kamaan aur

Tum shehar mein ho to hamein kya gham jab uthenge
Le aayenge bazaar se jaakar dil-o-jaan aur

Har chand subak-dast hue but-shikni mein
Hum hai to abhi raah mein hai sang-e-giraan aur

Hai khoon-e-jigar josh mein dil khol ke rota
Hote jo kaeen deedaa-e-khoon naab phishaan aur

Martaa hai us aawaaz pe har chand sar udd jaayein
Jallad ko lekin woh kahe jaaye ki ‘Haan aur!’

Logon ko hai khurshid-e-jahaantaab ka dhokaa
Har roz dikhaataa hoon main ek daag-e-nihaan aur

Letaa na agar dil tumhein detaa koi dum chain
Kartaa jo na martaa koi din aah-o-fughaan aur

Paate nahin jab raah to chad jaate hai naale
Rukti hai meri tab’h to hoti hai ravaan aur

Hai aur bhi duniyaa mein sukhanvar bahut achche
Kehte hain ke Ghaalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaan aur

Ghalib’s felicity
a Ghazal translated by 
Mustansir Dalvi

Within every gesture
she secretes undertones.
Her love is eloquent, yet
once spoken, raises suspicion.

She has not and will not
even consent to hear me out;
give her more heart, O Lord,
even if you grant me no more voice.

Her reticence is enhanced
in every lowered glance.
The arrows are all in place
but her bow is elsewhere.

As long as you remain in town
I have not a care, for should
sorrows weigh heavily upon me
I will buy new life from the bazaar.

You may have deftness
in the art of breaking idols,
but look, I too remain resolute-
a stone that crosses your path.

My heart is rent and gushes blood
and I would weep aloud myself,
if only there lay scattered more
blood-rent eyes to witness my grief.

I would be ready to lose my head
at the mere sound of her voice;
yet as the executioner raises his blade
she screams Yes! Yes, she cries: ‘More!’

Rising daily, this world-warming sun
is a delusion everyone believes,
but I, for one, can break each day
afresh with a veil’d wound on display.

I could have spent some time in peace
had I not already given my heart to you;
I could have cried and lamented more
had I not already given up the ghost.

On not finding the easiest path
river waters rise to a deluge.
My own spirit, when obstructed
finds release somewhere else.

There may be more, even better
wordsmiths in this world, but
they say that Ghalib’s felicity
is quite unmatched, anywhere.

Translation and Transliteration © Mustansir Dalvi, 2013, All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Time Out Mumbai- Re:claim

This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in my 'After Words' column in Time Out Mumbai, December 2013

Re: claim

Dear Mumbai,
re: your claim that the only solution to your congested, imploding self is to reclaim more land from the sea, here are our considered opinions-

We see from our records that your past actions re: reclamations on your good-self are chequered with inconsistencies- whereas your laying the many causeways in the mid 19th century interconnecting the erstwhile islands that constituted your good-self had some intrinsic merit in making you whole, this resulted in a low-lying centre prone to flooding annually and mosquitoes, a space you further exacerbated by raising several textile mills, creating a situation you have not satisfactorily resolved even after a century and a half.

Your next request for plastic surgery admittedly met with some success in 1940 with your self-named appendage- the Queen's Necklace. But you botched this up laying a road along the water edge rather than perpendicular to it, isolating a thin sliver of land only useful for walking dogs and/or resisting expressions of young love. All your subsequent actions, we note with concern, catered to the whims and fancies of automobiles rather than your own citizens, a trait so deeply embedded that you seem to think is normal. It is not.

We can only shake our head at your half-hearted, ultimately abandoned attempts to create a business district out of the sea in the late 1960s, which you ironically named after the same person who opposed you in the first place. We call your attention to the toothless gum that is the Cuffe Parade fishing village. Your desire to iconicize the Mantralaya only resulted in scuppering the very objective of your new city across the harbour. This reluctance to shift your administrative heart to Belapur put back both settlement and progress of New Bombay by three decades, making it a dormitory suburb. We must therefore infer, Mumbai, that you are, in your own words, 'aarambh shoor'; you know how to start things but not finish them.

It is with some relief that we note your fancy late '90s ideas proposed by your starchitect to reclaim a width of one kilometre on your western edge for 'public amenities' stayed on the drafting board. God alone knows how you would have monetized all that land in the millennium. On bended knee, we offer thanks to our city deity daily that your other scheme of enclosing your natural eastern harbour (linking Colaba to Uran, like bringing together a thumb and forefinger) in order to create, a 'giant freshwater lake' remained just an idea. Having seen your track record with sewage,re: the Mithi, we only shudder at what you could have done to the water you sought to sweeten.

Now, in your latest application, you have sought to expand on the aborted Nariman Point reclamation by another hundred hectares. We observe that you have enclosed testimonials from foreign experts to back your claim. Needless to say, you seem unconcerned that in the last decade your business centres have all shifted to BKC and the mill lands. Enterprise and commerce have moved north. Has this not helped change the mono-directional circulation of commuters and laid the base for a polycentric city? Who do you think will benefit from raising land to create high-end residential properties on the southern tip? You already have, at the last count, around 1,40,000 unsold ‘crore-plus’ flats all over the city. We suggest you sell them first.

Also, your current policy allowing the densification of those parts of your good-self that are already some of the densest in the world displays an ambivalence about your own urban future. While you ignore debris-dumping on mangroves and salt-pans without permission, you keep a twenty kilometre stretch of eastern docklands undeveloped, hidden behind tall screens. This, after shifting the bulk of your maritime commerce to JNPT. We suggest, earnestly, you look up the word ‘oxymoron’.

Your new proposal also seeks to create another ‘freshwater lake’, this time at Mahim, which you intend to fill with water from the Mithi. You never learn, do you?

To conclude, your past history does not give us the confidence to endorse your proposal to resume reclaiming land. By allowing redevelopment on almost every plot of land (built or unbuilt), to provide ‘long denied’ benefits to the owners, your developers are reclaiming the entire city anyway, bit by bit. You should be satisfied. And satiated.

Nevertheless, given our long association, we specially commissioned our back office to develop a proposal to reclaim land from Bandra West to Sur-on-sea (Oman East). We are told this is feasible, as the crow flies. The only reason we resist giving it the go ahead is our concern about illegal migrants, and the possible dilution of your city’s culture.

The image at the top of this post is Neibhur's 1764 mapping of Bombay's islands.
This image was one of many made free for use online by the British Library.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Narayan Gangaram Surve- Two Poems

Write Your Own Name
Narayan Gangaram Surve
(Tumchach naav livha)

Master - write,
write your own name.

I’ll tell you the truth, Mariaai promise,
you just write.
Look at his curls, Master;
see how they spread like a naga’s hood…
they’re the gift of God, they are.

Master, the soil may be rich…
it may be fertile, but
if you don’t plough it
or seed it
will anything grow? Tell me, will it?
Then what use is my name instead of his father’s?
And without a father, what is to become of him?

Do not fill in the name of any god,
write only a man’s name…
what has God ever done, eh?
He filled this oti himself now, didn’t he?
Write down your own name.

Don’t ask about his caste;
C’mon, can women like us belong to any one person, Master?
We aren’t the householder type,
we aren’t that fortunate…

He was born right here.
Early one morning, 
I felt my womb slip below my navel,
and out he popped.
No midwife, nor anyone at hand,
this worried me at first… but then, I was delighted.

Come child,
touch his feet.
Touch Master’s feet, child.

But do this much for me; write your own name.

Oti, or oti bharne- A ritual among Hindu women in Maharashtra to make an offering to a Goddess by placing a coconut, a piece of cloth and grains in her lap. Done at specific times in a year, this ritual seems to be associated with female fertility.

(Thank you, Hemant  Divate, for some  essential interpretations.)

Money Order
Narayan Gangaram Surve

…and, look here,
write this down too:
Say, that I am happy.

This body aches, but still,
say, things are better here than in the village.
The men come like looming rain-clouds,
and burst in torrents all over us;
but Babdi, who always holds a grudge
asks all of them:
how many others did you visit,
before coming to me?
My dear, they’re men, I tell her,
if they ask you to sit next to them, you sit.
And why should their wives let go of their rightful claim,
I ask you?

…now, write this down as well:
The money orders may be delayed,
but they are sent.
Say, that the new things that were bought
have been sent with Vishnu,
along with fifty rupees, less ten.
From this amount,
buy schoolbooks for Gangi
and chuddies for Namya.
Give the brat ten paise everyday
so that he will run happily to school.
And kiss them both for me.

things are getting costlier here, too.
Even water in the glass evaporates.
Every new customer demands a fresh bed-sheet.
It’s not enough to provide a soft shoulder,
you need a ceiling fan too.
No, no, don’t write that down,
I only mention this because
you have been listening patiently to me.

All this makes me laugh. I am in two minds,
whether to tell you this, but
just the other day a customer came to me
and asked if a woman could be with him
while he was there.
Now, am I not sitting here, right next to you, I said?
He stared back at me, looked surprised and shuddered
and at that moment I felt like laughing
at the entire male race.

This skin we wear is a terrible thing,
men claw at it like hungry beasts
and feel free to say whatever they want.
I feel like laughing at all men,
and weeping for them at the same time.
are drawn to our skin like cattle,
they just can’t help themselves.

You must be tired,
listening to me go on and on, like this.
What to do?
Everything is tiring these days, I know,
But, even so
visit me, from time to time,
come visit me,
whenever you have the time,
come up and visit me.

translated from the Marathi
Mustansir Dalvi

Translations © Mustansir Dalvi, 2020/ 2013, All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Time Out Mumbai- Forever Bombay

This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in my 'After Words' column in Time Out Mumbai, Volume 10 Issue 6, November 8-21 2013.

Forever Bombay

At a vantage point above the Kala Ghoda parking lot, I watch the world whiz past. My gaze sweeps the panorama from right to left- the Jehangir, the Rampart Row, Rhythm House, and the undulating modernism of the BSE tower. Then, I turn my back to it all. Arrayed before me are several fornicator’s chairs, some occupied. They all face away from the street, towards the pointed stone arcade and the murmur of fans and nodding heads beyond. I lower myself into a chair that creaks with age but offers comfort. I turn its specially designed extendable arm and hoist one lazy foot over. To my left, a lady in an orange cotton saree lies dead to the world; on my right a college kid has his nose stuck in a textbook on economics. Soon the buzz of traffic lulls me into somnolence and I am gone. The pleasures offered by the David Sassoon Library are manifold, but perhaps the least known is their indulgence of sleeping members on their terrace.

When I wake, I find bodies all around me, expressions of repose softening their features. I move inside, walk past floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, old teak tables covered with textbooks, handwritten notes and reams of stapled, photocopied study stuff. This other indulgence the library offers is, in fact, a mandate. The Library doubles as a Reading Room accommodating students from nearby colleges (the Elphinstone is right next door) to study in the relative quiet imposed here. Students form the bulk of its transitory memberships, and the upper hall is often full to capacity. We have this image of school kids studying under street-lamps, or on the steps of the Asiatic, but here is the real deal- for the library keeps its doors open from 9 to 9 every day of the year. Old desks and reading lamps are available as are numerous plug-points, de rigueur for today's laptop and mobile fuelled world. 

This small colonial building houses so much history. Built with the munificence of one of Bombay's city fathers David Sassoon (a library booklet from 1931 calls him a merchant prince), this building was erected in 1870 for the erstwhile Bombay Mechanics Institute, an association of young professionals from the Royal Mint and the Government Dockyard. While their activities wound down by the 1930s, the legacy of mechanical excellence in Bombay is enshrined on the library’s mid-landing in a marble bust of James Berkley, Chief Engineer GIP Railways whose courage and risk-taking led to the first train line to cross the Bhor Ghat. Descending the grand staircase, I circumambulate the larger than life statue of David Sassoon by the English sculptor T. Woolner. I am fixated on his hands raised in prayer; the slim detailed fingers in marble remind me of Albrecht Durer’s 1508 drawing of praying hands. The polygonal Malad stone, the Venetian arcades, the sharply neo-gothic rooflines, the interiors of timber and the commemorative art all stand mute to the building’s dwindling relevance to the city. This is only emphasised as I walk past a notice that says ‘Happy Senior Citizens Day!’ The David Sassoon Library is symptomatic of several of Bombay’s public buildings that stay forgotten for most of the year, and are only occasionally made the most of, like a Parsee Gara during a wedding. Here too, the library’s pocket park is de-mummified annually during the Kala Ghoda Festival and mothballed when it is over.

Standing at the entrance on a mosaic of Minton tiles, I am struck that this should not be the case. The library’s essential resource- its books in English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati date from the 1790s and form an archive to be treasured and accessed, especially its scientific books procured as a memorial to Berkley. Like the Asiatic and the Bhau Daji this library quintessentially represents the city, and deserves every first copy of every book published in Mumbai. Today, the library relies on its own dwindling resources and the efforts of its bibliophile managing committee. I cannot but ask everyone reading this- if you love books, buildings and Bombay, become a member now. Read, study, sleep, or take in the garden, but embrace this patch of land that is forever Bombay.

I step outside and cross the road. I turn away from the city once again and meet the eyes of Sassoon, now in the roundel above the entrance portal. He is, just as Kolatkar describes, “a prisoner... wearing a collar... forced to watch the slow disintegration of a city I cared about more than any other.” Like Mumbai, here is a place pining for its potential to be released and shared.

All the photos here are by Smita Dalvi. My thanks.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Fifth Estate

Here is a long essay on the conundrum that is Mumbai's housing that was published in The Indian Quarterly; 
Volume I | Issue 4 | July-September 2013

The Fifth Estate
Mumbai’s developers are increasingly holding the city to ransom as its people desperately grapple with the dearth of affordable housing

I pass an hour in the local train listening to a man on his cell phone confess that he has no ready money for investment. What he does have is “property” that he will sell only when he gets the right price. On a second cell phone he is already making deals for the next property to buy. “Give and take” is his oft-invoked mantra. This is bijness. There was a time when one came to Mumbai to do business. Today, Mumbai nagariya is the bijness.

Mumbai has always attracted real estate deals. What is so different today? The change is in the mind-set. In a city where green-field land is virtually gone, all land is now perceived as available for (re)development, even if already built upon. Once you accept this premise, the whole city is a very large pot of gold, which like Kuber’s ghada can constantly be replenished.

The built city, the one we always held as a social contract to be permanent, a city we could take for granted, is now temporal, almost tentative, a commodity. The home is now the new unit of exchange. Once, it was accepted wisdom that occupation of space, whether through outright ownership, long-term rental or even common-law territoriality was the stable base upon which Mumbaikars built a life. Their home was the costliest thing they possessed, but this was the one thing they could never afford to sell. To sell was a downgrade, a displacement to the northern boondocks, away from the downtown soul of south Mumbai. Now there is another option: an upgrade, with the promise of more square footage and some rokda. Now the very house you live in can be monetized, even as you live in it. This has brought a venal sense of entitlement for a homeowner to lust for every last rupee that can be squeezed out of a deal.

Consider Vallabhbag, Ghatkopar, a suburban neighbourhood largely inhabited by Gujaratis. Built in the late 70s, this is not a gated community but built along lanes ending in cul-de-sacs. Very urbane, with pocket parks, very upper middle class. Each building is uniformly four storeys high, in reasonably good condition. Today, individual building societies are sourcing out developers to hand over their buildings to take them down and re-erect new apartments, with added areas granted through the municipal munificence of Floor Space Index (FSI) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). Homeowners negotiate for sops (space and cash) as quid pro quo for excess square footage that the developer can sell for profit. Aspirations are created where once none existed. Charles Correa in a recent interview said: “Sometimes aspirations of people can be quite ugly”. Aspirations here, having reached a tipping point become the norm. All change is justified. 

More housing in Mumbai sounds like a good idea, but in some localities like Altamont Road, Walkeshwar or Malabar Hill the price of real estate has risen exponentially. The most expensive real estate deal in the city, in June 2012, was for a 28th floor flat in Tahnee Heights on NapeanSea Road, which exchanged hands at the rate of Rs. 830/- per square inch! According to a recent survey by Liases Foras Real Estate Rating and Research, more than 60% of new housing units cost over a crore of rupees each. Housing affordable to the middle class now amounts to only 2% of the available stock. What this means is that at today’s rates even areas as far-flung as Jogeshwari West (13,987/sq ft), Powai (17,717/sq ft) or Palm Beach Road in Navi Mumbai (14341/sq ft) can provide, at most, a modest 500 square foot, super built-up apartment for a crore (figures from magicbricks.com, Jan-Mar 2013). No wonder then, no developer wants to construct anything in a size other than for the luxury segment. The rising cost of upper-end estate is unsustainable.  More than 35,000 housing units in the city are left unsold. Despite this, there is no fall in retail prices—proof if any that while the city can no longer provide homes to live in, it is still a haven for speculation.

The developer has become the fifth estate of the city. The grab bag of goodies is growing. This has been made possible by changes in the Development Control Rules of Greater Mumbai (Clauses 33(7) and 33(9), for the most part) that allow for reconstruction of buildings irrespective of their condition. Kamu Iyer, one of Mumbai’s most respected senior architects, always lived in Gold Finch near Five Gardens, designed by his teacher G.B. Mhatre in the late 1930s. Buildings like these in Parel, Matunga, and Wadala defined the domestic fabric of Art Deco Mumbai. Iyer’s own celebrated monograph on Mhatre helped generate awareness for these residential buildings worthy of heritage preservation. Gold Finch is one of the best examples of Mhatre’s mature work. Now, it is up for redevelopment, in amalgamation with an adjacent plot. The new building will loom 16 storeys above the four-storey harmony of the once salubrious R.P. Masani Road, calling attention to its nouveau riche occupants.

“Gated spaces are not new to Bombay,” says Iyer. “Kalbadevi, for example, had many community-based wadis, providing homes for all economic levels. Redevelopment today will lead to both gentrification and stratification of former mixed neighbourhoods, reducing considerably the public realm.” With single plots granted permission to rebuild, planning norms and urban sustainability are impatiently brushed aside for the “greater common good”. It is not unusual to see single buildings springing out of otherwise harmonious localities like mutant incisors. These extrusions affect the relation between building and street, and constrict light and ventilation, especially on the lower floors. New housing, exclusively for the affluent, directly affects available infrastructure like water supply and parking.

In Mumbai today, the builder lobby is all-influential. Since the mid-80s, they have negotiated operational space within the development rules, and these “understandings” have become more and more concretised. No wonder then, a former Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) chief was viewed with so much resentment for tightening the screws on new building projects and reducing concessional FSI on such mythic devices as flower beds. His recent departure was the reason that, according to newspaper reports, most of the afflicted members of the lobby allegedly took off to Dubai to celebrate his leaving.

A survey of Housing Typologies by the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) in 2007,2007 identified 21 distinct types, reflecting Mumbai’s diversity. These included chawls, slums, slum resettlements, site and service schemes, slum rehabilitation projects, housing at the urban edges, townships in the suburbs and redeveloped dilapidated structures. Many of these are self-help housing, consolidating older inner city areas and developing newer localities, mostly without state support. One such housing site laid out grid-wise on a garbage dump has become Shivaji Nagar, Deonar. Each grid has narrow alleys with five or six hundred units on a plot of around 120 square feet. Unlike organic slums, Shivaji Nagar was created by re-housing families uprooted from other parts of the city. Today it is a thriving locality, with several communities making their niche in Mumbai’s emerging middle class. Its alleys are paved, and repaved before every election. Electricity is legal, bought from Reliance; water comes to every house through overgroundover ground pipes that run for hundreds of feet. There is no squalor.

Every family in Shivaji Nagar is on the path to a pucca house. This is possible because land costs are not factored in and these are houses built outside the credit economy, in rokda, as it were, as and when the householder accumulates enough to upgrade. The prescient homeowner in Shivaji Nagar looks to the future: in (re)building, he creates an upper floor for giving out on rent. For every home rebuilt, at least two families get housed. Nowhere in the upper city does this 100% model of increasing housing stock exist. The poor renting from the poor seems like a win-win situation. Despite this, as Rakhi Mehra of micro Homes Solution has written, institutions like the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) have policies that block out those who need affordable housing the most by making a 15-year residency proof for families and a monthly household income above `5,000 as qualifying guidelines.

In Shivaji Nagar, every family partners with local contractors, who are as busy with work today as developers like the Lodhas or IndiaBulls in the other Mumbai. Pankaj Gupta is one such contractor who has learnt his craft through a decade of experience and apprenticeship. He has the process of house construction down to such a degree of efficiency that project management consultants could take notes from him. He can build a two-storey Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) house from demolition to handing over keys in five weeks flat. Gupta is well respected, for as he says, in Shivaji Nagar trust is the only currency. His work guarantees follow-up repairs and general maintenance even after the family has moved in. He has to; he lives in the neighbourhood too.

Gupta is only one of hundreds of contractors who build solid, lasting homes outside the pale of the mother city. This upgradation is happening in many other wards as well. Mumbai’s slums have a history at least half as long as the city itself. Few slums are new, and their inhabitants, through years of toil, have lifted themselves up in the world. The contractors’ creations are quite unique, for they work in deep collaboration with homeowners, constructing the most blatant displays of aspiration. New homes proudly show off shiny ceramic tile facades, idiosyncratic aesthetics, designed interiors, well-appointed kitchens and toilets. Some homes even have false ceilings with decorative mouldings and small chandeliers, just like in the movies. All this, on plots the size of postage stamps.

And yet, Shivaji Nagar and other similar localities like  Dharavi, Wadala and Bhandup live in the valley of the shadow of demolition. The BMC can be both benign and arbitrary. In Shivaji Nagar, no construction is permitted higher than fourteen feet. Any violation and sledgehammers may swing. Even though many houses routinely flout this restriction, demolition is not a norm. There is a policy to live and let live, which is why an inhabitant can pledge his life-savings for a pucca home. Contactors and officials understand each other. Pankaj Gupta had just completed building his own home and office in March 2012 when the BMC demolished its upper floor. “Bees saal mein pehli baar hua (It’s happened for the first time in 20 years),” he says stoically. It has hurt him, but the reason is politics, not personal.

Mumbai now is vertically cleaved into a binary of high-end luxury housing and hands-on, user-generated housing. Outside of the slums, there is no culture of building for oneself, discounting single-family anomalies such as Antilla. The model for cooperative middle-class housing—the mainstay of the 1970s that allowed families with modest incomes to build apartments—has almost gone. The state that once patronised cooperatives by providing subsidized land has now become a trader and auctioneer of land. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), the state organisation responsible for generating housing stock, finds it easier to outsource to developers, at terms that benefit them. This sedentary mindset has permeated the rising middle classes: no one wants to do for oneself what they can get done for a price.

While the middle class is inexorably being squeezed out of the reckoning, slums remain the sites of true affordability and self-help. Badmouthed as eyesores and bastions of filth, civic bodies have mandated to make the city slum-free by 2015. The way to these Elysian fields is, naturally, to be forged by builders regulated by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), who are to re-house the so-called unauthorised but “eligible” slum dwellers in free units of 300 or so square feet each on 20-storey skyscrapers clumped together, while freeing a large portion of the occupied site for sale at market rates. Dharavi can now happily be renamed Bandra–Kurla South.

With policies allowing unilateral interventions by lobbies intent only on making capital, the collegial soul of Mumbai is being inexorably ripped out. Mumbaikars are now wilful accomplices to their agenda, bought over by ephemeral but colour-saturated carrots. When the pupils of your eyes can reflect only rupee symbols, you are reduced to a caricature of a citizen. Individual rights become everything, while urban responsibility is NIMBY—someone else’s concern. Mumbai seems headed down a one-way road to transformation for its own sake.

This city has had a history of reclamations—some that defined its urbanity, like those in the 1930s and 40s, and some contentious like those in the 1970s—but Mumbai has never been more a site for reclamation than it is today. Even as you read this, the land that is sought to be reclaimed is the ground beneath your feet.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Time Out Mumbai- Free Ride

This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in my 'After Words' column in Time Out Mumbai,  August 2013.

Free Ride
The newly opened Eastern Freeway has been the flavour of the season. Firstly, because of the knife through- butter smoothness by which the 17 km from Chembur to Orange Gate can be negotiated (12 minutes), and secondly, because the average Mumbaikar in a car cannot believe that the freeway is, in fact, free. There has been some talk about the usual suspects feeling awkward about appending the term, “Mukt Marg” to the names of their heroes. I offer my own, in recompense. It is a sentiment many readers of this column would echo, I am sure.

A third reason that gives cheer is the access the freeway provides to the many views of the city from an elevated position, especially those of the eastern edge, hidden for decades behind the foreboding walls of the docks all along PD’Mello Road. Looking to the left while cruising towards South Bombay several versions of dystopian wasteland emerge, even as the sun rises from behind the mud flats, former salt pans and mangroves. Electric pylons punctuate this bleak nothingness we have been prevented from observing due to a specious sense of security. The pencil-like chimneys belching flames, dah-dit-dah as if in Morse from the refineries bring to mind the Los Angeles’ apocalyptic future landscapes from Blade Runner.

Then, just when it gets interesting and we anticipate a bird’s-eye view of the Ferry Wharf, tall grey barriers rise from the verge to remind us that you, the citizen, are much too infantile to be allowed to see Mumbai’s historic maritime infrastructure.You turn to the right, and sloping Mangalore tile roofs foreground the skyline of emerging new skyscrapers. You pass a hill called Antop, rue the diminishing greens of Parel and as the freeway winds down you meet the city at Carnac Bridge, old Bombay’s dockland heritage.

This little peek at the eastern beyond was impossible for all these years. This edge of the island city lies slit like a sliver, separated from the rest by a tall wall that hides the docklands from prying eyes. Beyond these walls lies the first manor house the Portuguese built, the singed memory of the Fort Stikine disaster, the pier from whence a million émigrés left to better lives in other countries, the same pier that Gandhi returned to a rousing welcome. Why is that wall still standing?

Now that the bulk of shipping cargo has moved to the JNPT, why can’t this, almost 15 km long stretch be returned to the city? Here is an opportunity for urban transformation far beyond that of the erstwhile mill lands. These seem to have had their time in the early 2000s and have exhausted their urban potential in a morass of contested tenures and exploitative real estate. On the other hand, this long piece of Mumbai straddles the natural harbour that enticed the British in the first place to put down roots, to relocate from Surat. East of the freeway and PD’Mello Road lies Mumbai’s final frontier that can become a potentially new dimension to city occupation. If the obsession with keeping the docklands sanitized can be overcome, the Mumbaikar can get first dibs on the edge that, with good urban planning can allow for a melange of waterfront activities the length of the city itself can be released. The hardworking Bhaucha Dhakka and the largely hidden Kala Bandar that bookend the docklands themselves can be refurbished with plazas, boardwalks and cafes, evening events and fireworks.

The Eastern Freeway is also the perfect bypass to the older choked north-south arteries of the city. The efficiency of traffic movement (current congestion at both ends notwithstanding) also shows up the redundancy of a lot of earlier infrastructure, especially the multitude of flyovers built since the 1990s. They were built for the same reason that the Freeway serves today, to bring in more and more vehicles into the southern parts, only piecemeal. What is their worth today, now that this alternative is available?

Anyone can see that the presence of flyovers in the city benefits only the fast moving traffic above it. Below the flyovers lie the detritus of the city, those neglected parts that are a mulch of garbage, dead vehicles, opportunistic pay and- park operators and general illegal occupation. In the process, flyovers destroyed the vibrant street life of several of Mumbai’s busiest streets and gardens, just look at Mohammed Ali Road or King’s Circle today. The freeway should be just the excuse for reclaiming street life by removing the redundant flyovers and allowing the sun once again to fall on the streets below. Let us start with dismantling the JJ Flyover, that long and unnecessary tapeworm, and then, one by one, work our way northwards.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Kundalkar, Chattarji, Manto- 3 book reviews

I am archiving three recent reviews of books that I wrote for Time Out Mumbai.
Dirty Love
a collection of short stories by Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji inhales her city in like a deep toke off an unfiltered Charminar. Her exhalations, equally unfiltered, are the short stories in her new collection Dirty Love. While other authors, from Salman Rushdie to Jeet Thayil, may prefer to project their urban perceptions into myth, Chattarji positions herself in the city as it is today. There is neither the benefit of hindsight, nor any studied objectivity. This is Bombay, “das Ding an sich” – the object in itself, which makes Dirty Love a brave and compelling enterprise.

“It’s not where you come from that matters, but how long you intend to stay,” writes Chattarji in her story “How Far Away is Faraway?” Like smoke swirling through the lungs, she has internalised the city. Out of these vapours emerge places and addresses: Colaba Causeway, Café Mondegar, Goregaon, the Mahim Dargah, Bohri Mohalla, the Strand Book Fair. These are the fulcrums around which Chattarji peoples her stories, with protagonists like dosamakers, rat-killers, postmen, watchmen, gas-men, general lowlifes and every-women. These characters are reminiscent of the denizens of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems. Only Chattarji uses a larger lens, a wide-angle that encapsulates the entire city in its gaze.

Mumbai today is all about people contemplating people, watching and being watched; everyone is an ongoing subject. Vinita, Kausar and Lara are “Three Women in a Restaurant”, strangers, literally and culturally, who spend their time sitting at their solitary tables, regarding one another with envy. In “Burn”, a stoic woman contemplates a howling body on fire from her upstairs window. Chattarji’s city is, after all, “built on a scream” (from the story “An Ancient Memory of Pillage”). Chattarji is a novelist, translator, author of children’s books, editor and poet, and her short stories are rooted on the bedrock of her poetic sensibility. Her stories are written montages, short takes and jump cuts, which interweave urban angst, nostalgia, popular culture and the city’s cultural histories. Her prose is intense, but with the staccato slant of poetic enjambment. This is best seen in the eponymous “Dirty Love” which is a prose poem and should be read aloud, the better to revel in its words while dealing with its explorations into less-than-salubrious odours and secretions. This story is the collection’s guilty pleasure, and perhaps the best one in the book.

Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Penguin India (11 March 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0143068008
ISBN-13: 978-0143068006

Cobalt Blue
a novel by Sachin Kundalkar
translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto

Cobalt Blue is the still-life of a family. Or rather, like dried and cracked paint leaked out of a tube: full of potential but never used. The younger Joshi siblings, Tanay and Anuja, find their existence transformed by the appearance of a stranger who takes centre stage in their lives for a while and then mysteriously vanishes, leaving them both bereft. Both have fallen in love with this man, of their own age but without conventional moorings, a bohemian artist who had joined their household as a paying guest. Sachin Kundalkar’s 2006 novel (translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto) delves into the vacuum of individual heartbreak, exploring those unconnected spaces inside people who live together, but are ultimately alone.

Kundalkar tells his story in two parts. In the first, Tanay directly addresses the absent presence of this unnamed tenant, who embeds himself with innocuous politeness and deference in the household. The memory of the man who became his lover in no time at all, “surges back, hot and fresh”. When the man elopes with Anuja, Tanay (who doesn't see this coming) is left unmoored twice over.

In the second part, Anuja confronts her own demons, having returned after running away with this rather inscrutable artist, who takes her to Pondicherry, then abruptly abandons her. Back home, she confronts her loss and embarrassment by writing a diary, trying to find an explanation for what went wrong. She sees her family’s individual aspirations pull and tug at each other, catalysed by this outsider suddenly introduced into the mix. In this turbulence, Anuja finds a way to reassert herself and makes a beginning at a life determined by her own choosing.

Despite this, Anuja and Tanay’s accounts are uneven. Their paths rarely cross and this leaves one thwarted – particularly in comprehending their motivations to seek love, especially Tanay, who wonders, after numerous casual physical encounters, “How long could I play this game of bodies?” Anuja, even after living in the claustrophobia of a close family never realises the physical nature of her brother’s relationship with her lover.

Kundalkar fills his canvas with colour, detail and hue, painting the Joshi family, their neighbourhood (the girls’ hostel next door, various kakus and maushis) and the conventions (motorbikes, Irani restaurants, kelwans) of the city, unnamed but filled with landmarks that remind one of Pune. His prose is sparse, using repetition and restraint, a quality of contemporary Marathi writing. Jerry Pinto translates, using instinct and imperfection (as he describes in an afterword), a strategy that allows him to remain satisfyingly true to English-speaking Maharashtrian soundscapes. This makes Cobalt Blue, a welcome addition to published translations from the Marathi.

Hardcover:240 pages
Publisher: Penguin (March 18, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10 0670086843
ISBN-13 978-0670086849

Bombay Stories
by Saadat Hasan Manto
translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed

Manto’s Bombay stories were mostly written in Pakistan, where he lived his last years. “It was almost twenty years ago that I used to frequent those restaurants”, he narrates in “Mammad Bhai”. Here, Manto himself occupies the same space as the eponymous Mammad. Ergo, both are real and fictitious, simultaneously. Most of the stories in this new anthology are situated in and around Byculla, its Irani joints, Pilahouse, Golpitha, Foras (not Faras) Road and Safed Galli. These ossified signifiers remain in Manto’s memory to become pegs on which his stories hang. But what stories they are!

Manto is always readable, his prose curt and direct, like Hemingway’s; but the specifics of these stories set in the Bombay of his past (and of ours) evokes enough nostalgia to stick in your side, like Mammad Bhai’s Rampuri. Even so, it is edifying to look back at a city, which is even now dematerialising, and of a time when the local strongman was still called “dada”, when one travelled by trams and tongas and played solitaire with real cards and called it patience.

In the spirit of Manto, this reviewer recommends reading Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, back to front. Begin with the occasional writings in the Appendix to quickly get immersed into his milieu. The stories can come later. Manto spent less time around Filmistan and Bombay Talkies writing screenplays and dialogues, but more observing the shenanigans of Ashok Kumar and friends. Here, the quirky Manto describes why he does not see movies any more: “The cinema is delusion and those in the film industry get sucked into it too”. He also writes about the perception of “filmi” women, and makes a completely self-deprecating lecture at a Jogeshwari College on “Modern Literature”. If the publishers wished to sell many more copies, they could have called this book “Punters, Pimps and Prostitutes”. Was the Bombay of the 1940s populated entirely by this triumvirate of “lowlives” as Rushdie once described Manto’s subjects? Almost all these stories revolve around them. One does, however, look beyond this salacious potential, and empathise with his fellow denizens, dominated by havenots, trying only to get through the day. Stuck inside this unsettled city, women could be either housewives or whores, and men made a living in any manner possible. Unlike today, individual aspiration is dimmed in the miasma of the present, which is where Manto’s characters live.

And yet, in that, they are very real: a prostitute relentlessly examines her own sexuality in “Insult”; in “Ten Rupees”, the flibbertigibbet Sarita shocks with the unusual choices she makes; even Manto himself is an unwitting beneficiary in “Barren”, as postmodern a meta-tale as one can get. It is in this reality that Bombay emerges as a multicultural, immigrant city where, at the level of the gutter, all are accommodated equally. The translations suffer from some excess, such as the necessity to make “Achoot Kanya” into “Untouchable Girl”. Some folksy Americanisms like “Shit happens" throw you out of the stories. Quibbles aside, this book, based in a city constructed out of Manto’s fevered imagination, should be well received by its citizens today.

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Random House India (1 November 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 8184003056
ISBN-13: 978-8184003055

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Time Out Mumbai- Inert Deco

This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in my 'After Words' column in Time Out Mumbai,  Volume 9 Issue 21, June  7-20, 2013.

Inert Deco

It’s about time, I think, that we stopped referring to a particular type of building in Mumbai as ‘Art Deco’. This appellation only trivialises our city’s urban fabric and some of its most loved icons, and could, in fact be the cause of its ultimate ruination. We should, simply and correctly, refer to these structures and precincts as ‘Bombay’s architecture from the 30s and 40s’. Even the name- Art Deco, is anachronistic. It came into common parlance retrospectively, in the 1960s.

We tend to look at the buildings like the ones along the Oval Maidan or Marine Drive, especially at their external ornament, colour and fancy grille-work, and call this the Art Deco Style. It was hardly surprising when; very recently, a former member of the heritage committee and a senior architect made light of the Marine Drive buildings and their purported style by saying that even a coffin can be made in the Art Deco style. Such a view is superficial; it is as if Art Deco can be applied to any building, like an ointment. This implies that buildings occupied for several generations can be demolished and rebuilt, provided they are then overlaid with the selfsame external ornament, colour and fancy grille-work.

In an earlier column, I had talked about how some places in our city are well mannered. The best examples of urban etiquette in Mumbai come from the two decades leading to Indian independence. This was the time of reclamation (first the Backbay, then the Marine Drive) and the laying out of plotted precincts that led to a building boom. This resulted in a lot of architecture, not only at the Oval or the Marine Drive, but also at Mohammed Ali Road, Phirozeshah Mehta Road and the Dadar/ Matunga/ Five-Garden areas. This was a time when office buildings like the United Insurance or New India Assurance, cinema houses like the Regal, Eros and Metro, and the many new-fangled apartment blocks from Napean Sea Road to Chembur were designed as both foci and fabric. With bursts of streamlined concrete, they defined the optimism of metropolitan life, tempered with the ‘zara hatke, zara bachke’ nature of Bombay meri jaan. These harmonious ground plus three buildings lining our streets form our image of the city even today. To see them isolated of their context and re-imagined only as wallpaper is to do them a profound disservice.

What is Art Deco after all? The Oval Maidan buildings form Bombay’s most famous stretch. These twenty or so apartments (with Eros as full-stop) were all built in just three years, from 1935 to 1938. They are the most ornate, with motifs of chevrons, ziggurats and frozen fountains, painted in bright pastels. Other buildings from the 1940s are far less ‘jazzy’ but are relevant nevertheless as icons of that era. Many office buildings are formal stone piles, while cinema houses are specially designed with striking verticals and ocean-liner horizontals, punctuated with spaces for the marquee. These buildings are numerous and varied, but the one constant is not their style (whatever you want to call it) but their urban placement, the manner in which they line the streets and circles that connect the city like a neural network. In most cases these buildings abut the road directly with no setbacks or gated edges. They belong to everybody.

There was a time when several of these buildings were protected as heritage. Now, under new dispensations, individual rights completely overshadow collective responsibility, so any of these buildings may be demolished and rebuilt with all benefits accrued, should the occupants desire so. Who can stop a multi-storey building emerging out of the seventy year old harmonies of the Marine Drive? That would be depriving its inhabitants of the benefits of FSI, TDR, and other fungibles and, in any case, we can take a forty storey building and Art Decofy it, no?

That is the problem with labels and names; they tend to obscure context and relevance by offering mental shortcuts to take the place of critical thought. Give a dog a bad name and hang him. An Art Deco building is no longer inviolate. By extension, neither are any of the buildings from the 30s and 40s. Full page adverts front our newspapers every day, pushing new building proposals in the Spanish Hacienda style or the Swiss Chalet style, or the all purpose Classical style, so Art Deco is just another surface solution to assuage fears of wanton urban destruction. I would not be surprised to see proposals of skyscraper sized Art Deco coffins in tomorrow’s dailies. After all, the tallest building in the world for several decades- the Empire State Building was an Art Deco building too.

Now I am gone (a Ghazal by Ghalib)

Husn gamze ki kashaakash se chuta mere baad
Mirza Ghalib

Husn gamze ki kashaakash se chuta mere baad
Baare aaraam se hain ahl-e-jafaa mere baad

Mansab-e-shaftagi ke koi qaabil na rahaa
Hui mazuli-e-andaaz-o-adaa mere baad

Shamma bujhti hai to usmein se dhuan uthtaa hai
Sholaa-e-ishq siyaah-posh hua mere baad

Khoon hai dil khaak mein ahwaal-e-butaan par yaani
Unke naakhoon hue mohtaaj-e-hinaa mere baad

Darkhur-e-arz nahin, jauhar-e-bedaad ko jaa
Nigaah-e-naaz hai surme se khafaa mere baad

Hai junoon ahl-e-junoon ke liye aaghosh-e-vidaa
Chhak hotaa hai girebaan se judaa mere baad

Kaun hotaa hai harif-e-mai-e-mard afghan-e-ishq
Hai muqarrar lab-e-saaqi mein salaa mere baad

Gham se martaa hoon ki itna nahin duniyaa mein koi
Ki kare taaziyat-e-mehr-o-wafaa mere baad

Aaaye hai beqasi-e-ishq pe rona Ghaalib
Kiske ghar jaayegaa sailaab-e-balaa mere baad

Now I am gone
translated by
Mustansir Dalvi 

Beauty is free, no more
obliged to coquetry,
now I am gone.
These architects of cruelty
lounge in repose, at long last
now I am gone.

No one remains worthy
of the title of lover, obsessed;
beguiling charm, refined poise
are both made derelict,
now I am gone.

Smoke slowly rises
as the flame is snuffed out,
even once-blazing love
is clothed in black
now I am gone.

The heart spills all its blood
in the dirt. Cold comfort then,
Beloved, whose anaemic nails
will find red henna no more
now I am gone.

Neither solace nor petition work
against oppressors bejeweled,
even the once-flirtatious glance
is upset with the kohl that adorns
now I am gone

Crazed love lies entrenched
in the lovers’ parting embrace
that unravels like fabric torn,
fraying at shoulder-sleeves
now I am gone.

Again, again, the beseeching cry
flies out from the saaqi’s lips:
is there a man bold enough
to down the brimming bowl of love?
Now I am gone.

My sorrows are the death of me,
but there is no one in this world
to mourn over my grave,
to grieve over love lost,
now I am gone.

The plight of helpless love,
moves me to tears, Ghalib;
whose home will be tormented
by the next wave of calamity,
now I am gone?

Translation and Transliteration © Mustansir Dalvi, 2013, All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Don't Stand So Close To Me

Image Copyright Mustansir Dalvi, 2013
It's springtime in Bombay, should you care to notice.

The time when, in the midst of unbearable heat, flowers bloom all over our port city, trees are lush, the foliage at its thickest, and riotous color explodes all over. One tree in the Sir JJ School of Art Campus is currently misbehaving wonderfully, blossoming in all the wrong places and, in near surreal narratives of decoys and smells creating the most ridiculous fruit, perfectly spherical globes that would crack your nut open if it fell on you squarely from its traditional height of eighty feet. Hence the title.

Image Copyright Mustansir Dalvi, 2013
Although regarded as a tree with medicinal qualities since  the times of the Ayurveda, there are not too many surviving examples of the Cannonball Tree (Couroupita Guianensis) in Bombay. There is one in the University campus at Fort, one in the Victoria Gardens (Jijamata Udyan) and yet another in the IIT Campus in Powai, and then there is this one- growing sturdily and quietly behind the canteen in the Sir JJ School of Art Campus. This is a good time to visit the campus, incidentally, gulmohur and bougainvillea are arrayed like Hindi fillum heroinis on the Cannes red carpet.

Image Copyright Mustansir Dalvi, 2013
Unlike other trees, the Cannonball tree oozes flowers directly from its trunk, hanging out showers of globular buds just like crazed amaltas from gnarly stems. The buds break open into spectacular six petaled flowers, with its anemone like stamens, which instantly get busy attracting pollinators from all around them.

Image Copyright Mustansir Dalvi, 2013
I did a bit of reading and discovered that these fairly large (cabbage sized)  flowers proffer no nectar, but attract bees and bats because of their vibrant display and unusual hood shaped arrangements of stamens (compared to nagas, hence the local names Naagchapha or Kailashpati) and an enticing aroma. The outer more attractive purplish and yellow stamens are sterile decoys and the inner less imposing ones are the real thing. Bees or bats fly into or between them and get coated with pollen. Thus does the selfish gene pass on.

Our campus is particularly suited to this arrangement as we have our share of  bats that occupy two trees. These flying foxes have been around since before the site became the School of Art. Their fore-mummies and daddies very likely oversaw young Rudyard making a mess in his aayah's lap, wailing for Uncle Terry. Today, sadly, they are slowly diminishing in number, thanks to the unfavorable environment that metropolitan life creates but they persist nevertheless and we are happy about this.This cannonball tree is but one example of their perennial usefulness.

Image Copyright Mustansir Dalvi, 2013
The flowers turn into fruit, in the same bunched formations as the buds, slowly browning in the summer heat, and honing their spherical shapes until they are too heavy to sustain and fall with an almighty explosion on the ground, cracking open like dried coconuts and throwing their seeds all around. Although I have not experienced this, the fruit apparently give out the most godawful smell, which, de gustibus non est disputandum, attract some animals who eat their pulp and move away with the seeds to drop them serendipitously in other places for another tree to begin its eighty foot journey into space.

Image Copyright Mustansir Dalvi, 2013
These fruit are the eponymous cannonballs, and you can see how perfectly shaped they are. You might want to take a step (or two) back. 

Unless, of course you have passed your genes on already.

Image Copyright Mustansir Dalvi, 2013

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Semiotics of Indian Citizenship

This is a long-form essay first published in 'the Indian Quarterly', Vol.1, Issue 2, January-March 2013, with the title 'When Rules Acquire Flesh'. 

Illustration by MSMDNYC, courtesy Indian Quarterly

The Semiotics of Indian Citizenship
an essay by
Mustansir Dalvi

In Mumbai, here are a few things you can do with relative impunity: travel ticket-less; wheedle your way out of a parking ticket; get a substantial discount on a piece of real estate by paying rokda; erect a pavilion in the middle of a busy road during festival time; squat on government land or burn an effigy, a book or a bus, should you be collectively outraged. In Mumbai, you can also land in jail for kissing a cheek.

These quotidian acts make for a substantial part of the city’s citizenship. You can see them for what they are, illegal. But that will neither lead to an understanding of why they take place, nor help imagine useful remedial or preventive defenses against them. 

Think instead, of practiced citizenship (legal and otherwise) as a language, an articulation of communication between the city’s inhabitants, and a development of conversations that, taken to a head leads to a discourse that runs parallel to the one created by the state through its legislation  Language is a speech-act, where meaning is possible only in a context. Language is, in a very real sense, a game you play, and games can only be coherently played when all the players know (and follow) the rules. Citizenship is a street-act, played out in an urban context that gives rise to both a discourse and a semiotic. 

Language, as it is used is defined and in turn defines its user. This bonded binary was first described by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in 1916. For Saussure, language presents itself to the user as a series of rules, such as grammar, that form an essential sign-system that all its users know and accept. Saussure calls this system ‘langue’. However, it is practiced by each individual user as a series of everyday choices, where the spoken or written word is articulated, or made visible, either perfectly within the system of grammar, or deviated from (which works, as long as meaning is conveyed). Saussure calls this praxis ‘parole’. With such practice and deviation, language is constantly evolving and is at any given moment the sum of the parts that are langue and parole.

Meaning and coherence is the result of this pas de deux, where rules are tentative, but followed and the spoken words are the rules made flesh, equally tentative, emerging in a visible spectrum from ‘propah’, to colloquial, to slang, to nonsense, to entirely internal dialogues, which still retain a semblance of sense across speakers.

It is no great stretch of imagination to see that our street-acts also follow a kind of langue and parole. What each citizen does individually coalesces into collective custom over a period of time that like an Impressionist painting, metonymically expresses the wisdom of the whole. How we act is governed by how everybody acts. And yet, our actions change based on immediate stimuli, peer pressure, or, on occasion our own motivations. So, in Mumbai here is another thing I can do with relative impunity: cross a street when the light is red, if the traffic is relatively frugal. I do so, of course, because everyone else is doing it too.

The idea that laws can be bent, abused or broken is a matter of transaction on Mumbai’s streets. Looked at from an objective distance one can, somewhat vaguely, discern the rules that define the transactions.  These rules are like langue, ‘multiform and heterogeneous’ to quote Saussure. The parole/acts, however, are diverse, random and arbitrary, but spontaneity is often followed by mimesis, leading to a kind of normalization of behavior that we recognize as ‘common law’. I have to do so, because everyone else is doing it too.

If pulled up by a traffic policeman for a possible breach, what should I do? This quotidian stimulus calls for my response. This response is particularly acute when there are two ways to do something: one within and one outside the law. Do I show him my driving license with, or without a fifty rupee note tucked inside it? If we accept as a given that no one consciously breaks the law unless there is the possibility of a reward, then we accept that specific incentives are in place for making a choice. Whether I actually do this or not is parole. An act, as Roland Barthes says, of selection and actualization. The confidence to do it depends on the discourse, the extended street-acts that recur. I know it has been done before. 

This known discourse is based on possibility, tolerance and acceptability and is practiced, mostly by imitation. It is nearly impossible to find the first offender for any breach of law. Through iteration then, to impunity. I put the currency note in my driving license; it gets looked at and is returned, sans note. I drive away. There is a tipping point beyond which such behavior becomes convention, and is integrated into the language of the street-act. At the pointy end of parole, any attempt to attribute ethical values or moral judgement is beside the point. What remains is the transaction conveyed, without words, acted out as a meme.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, in his seminal book ‘The Selfish Gene’ proposed the concept of the meme (an extrapolation of the ‘gene’) as an idea that is transmitted through a culture through words, speech, or actions, anything that can be imitated. These idea/memes take a life of their own in a society and persist through mimesis. Just like genetic evolution, these self-replicate to become ‘sticky’, like catch-phrases, or a tune that you cannot get out of your head. 

For good or ill, they remain as events in the life of a culture. The meme cannot be controlled or wished away; it can only be modified through mutation, or lost through disuse. A meme may be replaced by another meme, over a period of time. If certain normalized memes in our society breach the laws that our own society makes, then cracking down on individual offenders is most unlikely to stop that meme/act from taking place in the future. For this very reason, attributing causality to certain acts serves no purpose beyond merely showing that these acts do, in fact, take place.

Of course we know memes today as those quirky elements in the social networking universe that seem to keep capturing the eyeballs and multiplying in numbers and variations. With text, images and videos, meme-generators and phone applications, some objects, like cute kittens or laughing babies, on the internet, go ‘viral’. It is interesting how the language around memes uses phrases associated with disease.  Viruses spread. Memes are transmitted. Copycat behavior or even a general kind of imitation keeps the memes active and the infection in the population thrives. 

Aaron Lynch describes the spread and persistence of memes as a ‘Thought Contagion’. In his book ‘Thought Contagion: how belief spreads through society’, he describes the various ways that memes spread in a favorable environment: Some ideas remain as their consumers are loath to let them go. The user preserves the meme in the presence of other memes. Some memes are motivational, in that people adopt them out of a need for self-interest. Some memes are cognitive; they fall in smoothly with accepted belief patterns of their consumers in a society and thrive in their easy acceptability. On the other hand some memes thrive by being adversarial, by being aggressive against other memes. Crossing railway tracks, for example, can be seen as cognitive behaviour, preserved through repeated practice. Parole as seen in the practice of citizenry often takes one or the other of these meme paths, more out of convenience and custom rather than such options being well thought out.

In all these cases mimesis, usage and transmission make the memes flourish in a society favorable to their adoption. Taken together they coagulate into a rough and ready discourse, a system that is largely followed simply because it is largely followed. This coagulation or langue then is institutionalized socially, as (in Barthian terms) a collective contract that should be accepted in its entirety if one wishes to communicate. At this level, a single individual cannot bring change into the system.

Unlike language, the semiotics of citizenship differ in one important aspect. Langue manifests itself in two forms, both separately institutionalized  but one at a systemic level and one at the level of praxis. The langue described thus far is the second, formed by common-law agreement and repetitive usage. It is largely arbitrary and unmotivated, quite beyond the pale of cause and effect. The first langue is what society legislates as law, written down, for practice, defended and adjudicated over. The law applies to all, irrespective of individual desire, belief, value and motivation. There are written consequences for breaking the law, applicable theoretically to all who do so.

This law, an alternative manifestation of langue, is framed, codified and signed off in the legislatures of a country. While they seek to represent the values of its citizens as a whole, laws tend not to be reactionary, but equitable, even handed. As such, many deliberations go into its final framing, issues are examined from all sides, several times over, usage is simulated and worst case scenarios analysed. Framing the law is an intellectual and critical activity, serving its citizens well by deliberately looking beyond common sense. Law is frequently counter-intuitive, and thus prone to conflict with the other langue, the one of common-law agreement. 

Consider this: in the enrollment form for the Universal Identity Card (the Aadhar Card) issued by the Government of India to all its citizens, there are three boxes to be ticked under the category of gender: Male, Female and Transgender (in Hindi- ‘Anya’ or Other). This clear legitimation at the level of the State of the possibility of gender affiliation extending beyond the obvious binary is completely at variance with the way people with alternative gender choices are treated (or even recognized  in Indian society today. In an ideal culture, parole should coalesce into langue codified in law, but that is seldom the case. To use a Darwinian analogy, while the langue of the street develops through a process of evolution, trial and error, a survival of the most repeated meme; the langue presupposed by legislation is often a mutation, an intellectual exercise whose consequences appear at first glance to be far removed from the day to day.

So often at the level of the street-act, ‘the law is an ass’. Why can’t I cross the street when the light is red and there are no cars in sight? Why can’t I cross tracks when no train is present? Why can’t I pay for something in cash for a discount; I don’t keep the bill anyway? Why can’t I collectively express my religious fervor on a busy street during a festival day? Parole sees law as obdurate, as inconsiderate as a speed breaker is to a driver with one foot on the accelerator, who will (because he can) by pass this bump by taking his car over the pavement instead. Everyone does it, no? No one was harmed. So parole subverts one langue with another, one that it makes collectively, and soon breaking the law does not seem such a big deal after all.

In our country, there has been a growing distance between the codification of law and its actual implementation. In this vacuum, parole flourishes, and the law is bent, abused or broken in its use (as has been mentioned before, at a transactional level) rather than followed, as a civic partaking from a common troth. As the gulf widens, parallel discourses squat in their place. While the law is seldom actualized  except in the most heinous of circumstances; at a quotidian level it is ‘used’ as a locally applied tincture, a semiotic, an exploration for possible gain, for the moment. There is an otherness while considering the ethical positions that brought the law into being. ‘The law may be so, but over here, this is what everybody does.’

The manner in which the law is followed, in part or in the breach, becomes normative, and soon takes a life of its own. Memes that emerge from motivational or cognitive imperatives become material. Common sense becomes operative in the common-law langue of the street: not rigid, not causal, loosely based on agreed upon values and beliefs, mediated by consequences of investment and return. This langue is powered by a shopkeeper’s logic that varies from day to day, depending on a perception of gain or loss, fueled by notions of acceptability and elasticity. Nothing personal, only bijness. In the end, all that remains is possibility.

In the miasma of implementation, lies the shadow of occupation. 
Out of the 18 million or so citizens of Mumbai, more than half live in homes they have built for themselves, glossing over the city’s building bye laws and development control rules. From simple tarpaulin tents, often occupying land that belonged to the government, many of its inhabitants have, through slow accretion, now built ‘pucca’ homes in RCC with all the fittings of modern life, while still existing in a status of dubious legality. Some have lived in the same place for nearly half a century. This physical occupation, illegal though it is from the point of view of the state, is an example of the tolerance exhibited by the state itself in the form of deferred implementation of laws that prohibit such occupation. 

Illegality is allowed to happen for a variety of reasons that over time cease to matter. What only does is that the squatters are there, fait accompli. Parole has subsumed into langue, and every second person in the city you could shake hands with arguably lives in one or the other of these neighborhoods  More and more migrants, who come to the city plug into this system, learn to play the game of slum-dwelling. Soon, by becoming normative this results in a palimpsest of urban living that, although unrecognized by the authorities, cannot be wished away by mere legislation. Every major initiative by the state to eradicate slums in the city has flopped, in large part because they have got the discourse wrong. Calling the slums ‘difficult areas’, using a language that pontificates, harping on the dwellers of having a lack of hygiene, living in congestion or ‘stealing electricity’ simply treats them as unwanted without actually having a plan for them. Waving the red flag of illegality has simply ceased to have effect. In the meanwhile, these parts of the city live and flourish, following a langue of their own, evolved the hard way, over time.

Here, tolerance is a game played by all the stakeholders. Local officials allow the neighborhoods to continue, while they implement tentative rules that are acceptable to both. The occupiers are allowed to live, but under the constant threat of demolition, a threat that is seldom carried out, and both know it. Services and infrastructure make their way into these neighborhoods slowly, and very soon they take their place as alternative middle class housing, with the structures they live in, while still illegal now command real estate values equivalent to the ‘legal’ parts of the city.

In the miasma of implementation, lies the shadow of transaction. 
Laws are made; they are just not applied that way. The consequences of behavior in the breach are a series of negotiations over a rough ground of transactions that are smoothened through mutual agreement. The langue of the common people displays a level of acceptance that is much more elastic and variable than the law, that rigid old school master with a cane and a set of arcane pronouncements. Some things are frowned upon, completely unacceptable: thou shalt not kill, no doubt, nor rape, nor cause bodily harm. Thou shalt not burgle a home. Thou shalt certainly not be in breach of promise, but for all else there is cash. 

The parallel economy is widely acknowledged as one that substantially greases the wheels of the country’s economy. This economy runs outside the law, which insists that all transactions must be acknowledged to the state and taxes paid over services and value given. But what the state will not know, it will not miss, and nudge-nudge, wink-wink, things can be managed. The langue that is derived from the discourse of acceptability has, in our country, developed systems that are as rigid as the laws of the state. It is extremely unlikely, for example, that you could buy a piece of real-estate in Mumbai entirely through ‘cheque payment’. Hard, unaccountable currency is a large part of these transactions. The law is completely subverted by the norm. Now in practice for so many years this has become custom, accepted by all. To deny this is to encounter looks of astonishment, to be pitied as naive, as an amateur in a world whose rules you obviously have no idea of, Membership in a city based on a langue derived from praxis, exacts a price for your participation in it. We don’t need no steenking rule-book. Play this game, there is no other.

Even at the level of the state, where someone is authorized to permit an activity or a transaction, there exist a series of stages where interpersonal negotiations (settled in cash) make for quick or customized permissions. Such acts have now become convention, and monies have to be paid for permits even if everything is above board and nothing special is asked for. Such practices, loftily labelled corruption, are now so entrenched; even to describe them seems infantile. As mentioned before, an act practiced over and over, by a greater and greater number of people becomes essentially amoral, even though it is agreed to have broken the law. 

Where transactions acceptable between two entities outside of the gaze of the law are now conventionalized and follow their own specific langue acts, it is virtually impossible to eradicate such behavior by merely describing it in morally dubious terms. The corruption meme works strictly within preservational and cognitive ambits, having far too many participants and far too little useful outrage to actually transform it into anything else. Legislations against corrupt practices fail if they refuse to look at the practice as transactional and merely focus on booking the receiver of graft and denying the role or culpability of the giver. 

In the miasma of implementation, lies the shadow of outrage. 
Where implementation of most laws are largely unmonitored, some laws can be fore-grounded, based on the perceived values of the wielder. A police inspector, scouring the watering holes of Mumbai to eradicate illicit activities, and arresting all the women in a restaurant or pub for perceived prostitution, is taking a high moral ground no different from a mob burning a bus in self-righteous moral outrage. A beat cop, booking a couple for a relatively benign display of affection in  a public space is implementing a law to suit his purpose and thus abuses it as a matter of personal choice. This is an act of parole as a reflection of a common-law langue, rooted in a vague moral conservatism, born out a milieu where the alienation of the other is a necessary aspect of the validation of the self. The law becomes subservient to the individual, and is interpreted arbitrarily to serve the individual’s purpose.

Let us take this possibility to its natural limit: imagine then, legislation made purely on the basis of the street-act. If langue is formed out of the collective discourse of a million acts of parole, then parole is the way langue is practiced. If common-law rules become the law, they will inevitably reflect a reactionary and conservative mindset, limited by peer pressure, not wanting to step across a line. The acceptability of the opinions of the lowest common denominator will rearrange the limits for the majority to remain within. In a sense this is the langue of the mob made law. 

In a public realm that is becoming rapidly de-intellectualized, this can only lead to a limiting of diversity, of free expression, of an acceptance of personal values, beliefs and choices of action. In this ‘with-us-or-against-us’ environment, petty slights will be enacted on the street in the form of expressions of outrage. Even today, even with our laws in place there is a hypersensitivity about treating the violent, public expression of outrage (especially religious) for what they are, as acts of criminality and vandalism. Imagine then, a common-law legislated to legitimize such behavior. 

In the recent past Mumbai has seen enough examples of such collective ‘rage’. This anger was essentially fueled by an astute use of adversarial memes that placed one set of people in a discourse of victim-hood  essentially in opposition to the rest. This manifested itself into public violence that disrupted the city and cost lives.  When the state acts to prevent such outbreaks in the future, an over compensation is inevitable, and an excessive zeal to keep the peace will result in the proscription of all free expression in the form of the arts, books, media, dress, and even individual presence in public spaces.

If the discourse of state does not actively engage its citizens, the citizens will create their own through practice and experience. One discourse will rapidly be replaced by another discourse if the former recedes from public imagination. Such a langue will have no reasons for being other than that they exist at any given moment. Largely un-premeditated, it will flourish in its use and iteration, and only vaguely reflect the collective opinion of its practitioners. It will, however, have a hold on its adherents, who will follow the langue in their acts of parole simply because that is the way things are done. After all the reasons have been subsumed in the actions, the actions themselves will remain, carried out mechanically. For those who are charged with making good laws for their citizens, this situation will allow no accommodation. They are, after all, playing a different game. 

Unless engagement is actively sought and cultivated, laws, however well intentioned are doomed to sterility. Sensitivity to the semiotics of citizenship is the necessary first step in the development of a functioning, critical and inclusive nation state.

Thank you, Madhu Jain and Jonathan Foreman.