Landscapes – Sites with people
A road like Marine Drive, like Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) has often been the iconic image of the city. Often, Bollywood movies have begun their narratives with a picture-perfect shot of these sites. The glory-entry and the fulfilled dream are often contained in these symbolic images.
About four years ago, a police constable raped a girl one afternoon inside a police booth on Marine Drive. There was a big uproar in the city. Media covered the incident at an all-India level. The local residents got angry and burnt down the police booth – the site of crime. The sanctity of this road, and its plush residences, and its rich residents was disturbed. A logic that always prevails is that crime should have its geographical location in the city clearly specified. If crime happens in Dongri or Pydhonie, or Antop Hill it is understood as the obvious occurrence; geographies are often never visited or constructed by any physical experience but created through stories of disorder in the press or television. The rhetoric was more about ‘crime at Marine Drive’ rather than the tragic event per se. The city’s geography is comfortably organized in safe areas and not-so-safe areas, if there is any threat to this imagined and accepted map, then ‘crime’ suddenly becomes a threat to life and human sanctity, until then, crime is accepted as a part of life. One knows, rather one accepts, that crime will exist, but as long as it follows the accepted map of where it should be and where not, it is fine, else it becomes an issue of concern. In having geographies of crime and safety defined in the citizen’s imagination of space, home and neighbourhood, there is a clear management of cultural and socio-economic representation of urban neighbourhoods. Once neighbourhoods are seen as clean and safe, the residents of those neighbourhoods seem to automatically become cleaner and better citizens. Those who can afford, politically and economically, a stamp of safety and security for their homes or neighbourhoods, do not need a complete eradication of crime; you need unsafe places to distinguish the ‘safer’ and ‘cleaner’ ones.
Marine Drive was also one of the sites of the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. On that night a person, who was outside Café Leopold where the first shooting happened, immediately ran for safety, and could not think of a place safer than the 5-star Taj Mahal Hotel just a few streets away. Lest did he know that he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire… literally! Café Leopold, every Bombay-visiting backpacking tourists’ haunt, every college-goer’s beer drinking hideout, started functioning on the Monday immediately after the terror weekend. Taj Mahal Hotel for weeks remained cordoned off! These are clear indications of how places and sites are assumed havens of safety or of crime. The shooting at Leopold was immediately reported as ‘gang-wars’, and for ages now Mumbai has not witnessed any gang-wars, but just the impressions of this café as a venue for hedonistic revelry and also maybe some ‘dirty-business’ was obviously not worthy of big talk, but a site for ‘gang-war’. But if the Taj Hotel was attacked, it was the ‘symbol of the city’ under attack. What was shocking for all, and everyone, was that a place that is apparently, and I mean here visually and psychologically, a fortress could be so easily penetrated and attacked. One should remember that only a few months before the attacks, there were allegations that a woman wearing no footwear was not allowed to enter the Hotel although she claimed she had enough money to pay for her purchases at any of the restaurants. For the vast masses that probably never entered these monument-sized buildings, secured and sanitized as they are, and which appeared so well guarded from the outside, and could be fairy-tale rich and glamorous probably just like a palace from the inside, were now exposed to chaos. The fairy-tale imaginations of these sites-of-aspiration, where every Mumbaikar dreamed of, and aspired to visit but sure could not always do so, were now chaotically unplugged. Oberoi Towers at Nariman Point, the climax end to Marine Drive was quite a location for viewing the terror drama, as Mumbai-ites strolled along the road to watch the terror-drama.
On 11 July 2006, 11 blasts occurred in a span of 11 minutes on the suburban railway line, inside train compartments and during peak travel hours of the evening. In terms of loss of life, injury and psychological impact these terror attacks were much more destructive than the attacks in November 2008. However the attacks on 5-Star hotels continue to grab attention. After the train blasts the city was surely jolted for about the next 2 days.
Some events assume larger than life importance while some other lives continue to toil and survive like the sweeper from one of the inner-city areas of Mumbai who I encountered during a research-workshop. The sweepers are one of those urban characters we rarely notice or like to enjoy, but are so essential to the system of a city. They often live in government housing quarters that provide very poor living conditions. Often families hold on to this job father to son, simply for the free one room tenement they are entitled to. Often the sweeper dies earlier than the general age due to conditions of working in garbage dumps for over 20-30 years and the drinking habit they develop to fight the stench and depression, and which also leads them into debts. His job is then taken on by his wife or elder son, simple to retain the kholi – one room tenement. Often two families live in this one tenement. The sweepers clean and clear from animal carcasses to dead babies, scrap metal and logs of rotting and splintered wood, medical waste to blood and sanitary napkins. The BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation over the past 100 years has not improved in technology or equipment, still very primitive means are used to collect and clean garbage. Hands to collect and shoulders to carry!
Sunil More, a sweeper with C Ward, who helped with this research, starts his day at 6.15 a.m. from Do Tanki near Kumbharwada Police Chowki. Prostitution is the dominant activity in the area, but at six in the morning one realises there are other chores of the labouring day that emerge with the smell of bakeries and bathing. You see men, truck drivers and those living in abysmal conditions on the streets, taking a bath just outside a Sauchalaya. At dawn these public toilets seem to be the most active spots in the city; at night however, many of them are spaces for men to attract other men. If you walked in Bhuleshwar Street or the Panjrapol lane, the smell of flowers and sandal paste drugs the air, but there are other streets where urine and soap are orders of life. If one thought that the visual and the ‘seen’ drew maps in our heads and on paper, stench and smell draw fresh maps of the same area. To see the city through the eyes of a sweeper was like visiting lane after lane of narrowness, convoluted turns, broken pipes splashing constant water out of them, clogged garbage and hence collecting stagnant water, entry points and spaces that allowed one access only if one moved sideways. It is not that one has not seen garbage in the city before, but not as the material and living reality of people who clean it, not as a geography which is also produced in the same cauldron that produces the sites for dreams.
One has walked in these same streets earlier, but now peeping into the galis which I had normally never looked at specifically; their existence normally manifested only in the sudden splash of stench as one walked past them. The galis are also, most of the time, very visible from the streets, but either there is a conscious curtain that blinds the street users to these alleys of dirt and filth, or we just do not imagine them. As freshly bathed men and women, now clean and pure run to a temple, their dirty bathing water is being cleaned by men and women who are probably invisible. They do this every day, unnoticed by the businesses and families and gods in the area. Indeed, the city has two worlds – one where we live and one which we refuse exists. The city also promises us that there are others available who will take care of things which you would not shame yourself with, or you are scared to pollute yourself with and you think it is not in your dignity to even think about them. What is the concept of dirt? Is there a vision in allowing dirt to perpetrate and exist? What dreams produce what kinds of dirt?
The city of Mumbai, seen with its particular history of trade and money, of cotton and opium, of share markets and Bollywood, is a city that is composed of an endless number of lives. Waves of migrations involving traders, weavers, carpenters and wage-labourers, and attempts on the part of these people to organise themselves into communities or groups based on caste and religion have established a unique kind of geography in the city and its neighbourhoods. Contrary to how it is often imagined, there are no ghettoised demarcations; there are instead ambiguous streets that are dominated by different professions and groups. These streets often do not look very different from one another, but they do have distinctive characteristics identifiable by sight and encounter.
As Jayashankar enters the city in 1901, he records it thus,
In the morning I got off the train at some station. My uncle was there to receive me. Getting the coolie to carry my luggage we started our walk towards Gaiety Theatre. It was the morning of 19 May 1901 that I stepped into Gaiety Theatre for the first time….The Gaiety that was to be the mark of my personality and career; I entered that Gaiety with a natural bout of romance and happiness. On the first sight of the theatre school, my heart skipped a beat, the tenderness in my heart was coupled with the excitement of joy… as if I had encountered a place I always knew. The way my heart would have danced at the sight of a known place, so was it as I entered Gaiety. My legs felt a burst of energy as I stood before the rangmanch—the gay stage. The physical self emitted the spirit to act, to perform. Images and visions of a Gujarati lady, with joyous and serious expressions, danced in front of me on that stage. Audience… Oh audience… my Gujaratis… my beloved… my family… Oh great rangmanch… the echo of clapping hands and the expressions on a woman’s face… it was all there, unfolding in front of me. I felt as if my soul’s energy was bursting with enthusiasm to portray the Gujaratan—the Gujarati lady. Knowingly or unknowingly, the actor in me was flowing with joy and expressing the self forth. This Gaiety would one day give me glory, this Gaiety would bring me gold laurels, this Gaiety will entertain to satisfaction thousands of Gujaratis, and one day suddenly I would have to leave this Gaiety. Oh! One day my character on this stage will join in my name for the rest of my life. All this I did not know… .That this Gaiety Theatre will be the Capitol Cinema of another day, I did not know that day. It was joy and excitement, that day my mind was bloated with the spirit of the gay stage; it could only partake in the ranglila—the joyous dance of spring and dream, that day at the sight of Gaiety. ’
‘One can find many references in government records to how roads and streets, areas and localities, were divided among communities. The records consciously state that ‘up to the decade of 1870–80 most of the houses on the Kalbadevi Road from Ramwadi to Robert Money School, as also those in the two Hanuman lanes, Chaulwadi, Gaiwadi, Popatwadi, Phanaswadi, and Dukkarwadi, - belonged to the Prabhus and the few Palshikar Brahmins; and members of both these communities, particularly the Prabhus, held important posts in the government. At the present date they have been ousted from these areas by the more enterprising Bhattias and Banias, who have acquired most of the properties in Kalbadevi road and the neighbouring localities. The Bhattias and Banias (especially those of the Kapol division) have played an important part in the commercial development of Bombay during the last two centuries. The Kapol Banias came from Gogha and Surat with their leader Seth Rupji Dhanji, in around the year 1756. The Bhattias came from Kathiawar and Cutch around the beginning of the nineteenth century, and have since played a large part in the development of the mill industry. They voyage to Zanzibar, Muscat, China, and Japan for trade purposes, but are forbidden by religion to journey to Europe and America.’ (Noted in The Gazetteer, 1909)The promise of the newly emerging metropolis turned out a reality as Jayashankar ‘Sundari’ turned out to be a rage on the very popular Parsee-Gujarati theatre, so fashionable in Mumbai in the first-half of the twentieth century. This excerpt also reminds one of those many Bollywood movies which either begin with a shot framing the Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) or feature it at some point in the movie, wherein a migrant awed by the glamour of dreams and images, crowds and heights, enters this city he wishes to make his own – in the voice of Bappi Lahiri ‘a city where roads are made of gold, but there is no place even on these roads for anyone [a newcomer to the city] to sleep’ . The song is from a movie titled Taxi No. 9211, a Bollywood movie from 2006, where the quintessential Mumbai taxi driver is at odds with the new age, thirty plus global businessman-entrepreneur of the city who demands and wishes to cover every distance of thirty minutes in three minutes only! The taxi driver, another urban character who at one point probably symbolised the wealth and modern structure of a newly emerging metropolis in the early twentieth century, and later at some point symbolised the power and structure of labour and struggle in the over-crowding city where everyone demanded a share – fair or not!
The taxi-driver in this post 90’s movie is carrying the burden of many past symbols but his struggles are new, or rather his struggles are those that have very little hope, except for a survival with some happiness in the events of an everyday life.
Coming to the city, making it a home – a temporary one or a more settled one, has been the central struggle of the city. But this struggle is viewed differently in different narratives. If you are a poor migrant to the city, in search for a livelihood, unsure of life and home in the days to come, you could be entering a hell-hole where dreams will get converted to survival tactics. You could also be entering the city to work in one of the plush corporate offices, where under the garb of civilised spaces of the 21st century, fostering the ‘corporate family’ your ambitions are converted into survival tactics of competing employees. The latter have more citizenship in the metropolis. The former is seen as a parasite, giving rise to slums and dirt, filth and vagaries, but the latter who will stress to survive in his corporate job by weekdays and consume to ‘relax’ in shopping malls and multiplexes by weekends is welcomed heartily.
The very first mall to open in the city – Crossroads, was at Tardeo (Haji Ali) where they actually had an entry rule, and visitors had to show their mobile phones or credit cards to enter; it was in its initial days that they had the rule as a pretext to control the throngs of visitors who came there only to see ‘a mall’.The Rajabai Tower, attached to the library building in the Bombay University campus is an interesting symbol of the city. Indeed, clock towers have for long symbolised towns, forts and cities in the colonised world. The tower bears on it eight men all dressed differently. These eight men symbolise the eight communities in Bombay that contributed to the development of the city. To select eight representative communities from among the 44 listed in the Bombay Gazette (1909), is a clear indication of choice exhibited by the colonial administration. On the tower, figures representing various communities, identifiable by their costume, are placed to demarcate and celebrate prominent social groups. Costume being symbolic of ethnic and native identities, the ideology of the clock tower acknowledges and encourages the making of Bombay’s urban fabric on the basis of community identities. It shows the existence of various social groups and even encourages the ‘difference’ they represent. Vivan Sundaram’s installation Fallen Mortal which plays on the migrant identity after the city was devastated in the 1992-93 riots is an interesting reference to this issue, especially as he raised a monument/memorial of metal trunks – the box to carry the travelling migrant’s belongings, a quintessential motif of the migrant.
A city, with its topographies of brick and memory, its spaces crushed by religion, hushed in dirt, is like a novel where every page is growing, and also being born from the debris of some rough notes. Walking this city is like tip-toeing on mounds of broken pieces of memory, some dead long ago, some still shimmering. But what does it mean to see a city where buildings and people are both struggling to make sense of a life foretold, or maybe often, as yet untold?