Sunday, June 29, 2014

Time Out Mumbai - Unforgiving City

This piece was published in an edited version in 
Time Out Mumbai, June 20- July 3, 2014, Volume 10, Issue 22

Unforgiving City

Just how far can you go on forgiving the foibles of our city?

In these pages and elsewhere I have defended Mumbai’s dirt, its density, its congestion, its dearth of open spaces, its overcrowding as natural to the processes of the city. I have extolled the virtues of living together messily in those everyday acts that contribute to its vibrancy and richness. But sometimes you come across a sight that makes you feel that your own leniency makes you an accomplice to something inexcusable.

In the back of a fast moving cab, moving from Metro to Flora Fountain, trundling in the left lane of Mahatma Gandhi Road that is filled with competing four wheelers, I see a decrepit old man laboriously pushing a wheelchair with a frail and visibly ill woman. Life does not seem to have been kind to either of them, and, they are very obviously trying to make their way to Bombay Hospital. The man is negotiating the wheelchair with care, right in the line of oncoming traffic that is not accommodating of his presence in a vehicular lane. He and his charge have no business being there.

I wonder too. But, as I pass them and move ahead it is woefully obvious that the footpath where M G Road turns to meet Mahapalika Marg is simply unfit for anyone to safely push a wheelchair. Walking, even able bodied, is something of a steeplechase. There is encroachment and debris, with little space for pedestrians; trees, hawkers and porta-cabins all grow out of jagged and dangerously irregular paver blocks. There is no length of pavement that is level and true. What else could the old gent do, but to throw caution to the winds, risking not one life but two in the maelstrom of rush hour?

This is too much, even for me. What kind of a city is so unaccommodating that even the infirm and the unwell cannot make their way across it? It is an unfeeling and hostile environment that we have become benumbed to inhabit. I’d like to think that the good city is one we can take for granted. My assumption hardly holds when the pedestrian ways of our city are out of bounds for pedestrians. My gripe is not only about the specially-abled, but for anyone, unfettered by any means of transportation, completely vanilla, on their feet being pushed to the very periphery of presence. 

It is all right, I can argue, that Mumbai really has no open spaces in the European mould, no street-side cafes, no buskers, no flower stalls and souvenir stores, no bespoke urban furniture, no streetlights that geo-position you just by their unique design, no useful signage- our piazzas are our streets. Always have been. We live out our lives measured in walking distances, and latching on to the most meagre of landmarks- shop signs, building corners, even compound walls. As Sahir Ludhiyanvi once wrote: ‘Jitni bhi bildingein thi, sethon ne baant li hai/ Footpath Bambai ke, hai aashiyaan hamaara’. The footpaths belong to us. 

When even this is denied, everyone, panhandler, commuter or flaneur are all exiled from the legitimate city, and are compensated with skywalks built to stop jaywalking, at such heights that trucks carrying idols during the festival season can conveniently drive under. Jaywalking, like jugaad is illegal, but fills the vacuum created by the oversight of the state. The old man and the lady were reduced to doing exactly that by the uncaring nonchalance of those holding municipal responsibility. It occurs to me that, if a mishap should, heaven forbid, happen and either of these two get injured or worse, it is they themselves who would be held accountable and at fault for trying to occupy the vehicular road. 

We are losing those streets that traditionally had very little or slow moving traffic that were once populated by the walking public, doing this and that, other than merely making their way from A to B. Streets, where the pace of life was slower, where one could meet, chat, eat, buy, haggle, curse and move along. Nakhoda Mohalla at one end of Mohammed Ali Road once was a street full of fabric sellers where chiffons and chikan were sold with equal felicity. That was completely ruined with the flyover that swept past one edge. Now Mutton Street, the road that transmogrifies weekly into Chor Bazaar is now on its last legs.

Mumbai is probably the only aspiring world city that does not have a single officially designated pedestrian street. What does this say about its inhabitants and those elected to run it? They seem to have, like Pilate washed their hands and sealed the fate of pedestrians, those pesky critters that move in the manner of the pack donkey. Cars, fortunately for them, are not linearly challenged and predictable in their movements. Just the thought of the pedestrian being considered collateral in the larger fortunes of the city, is distressing, to say the least. 

And as for soft spoken me, I feel just like Howard Beale in Network, who pulls his hair out in great tufts and screams : 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!'