Hamara Shaher

Mumbai is sinking into a sea of narrow-mindedness, insecurity and exclusion

Recently, I was scanning the lanes of Mumbai to look for heritage buildings as part of a consultancy on behalf of the Mumbai Heritage Committee. The objective was to enlarge the scope of ‘heritage’ beyond architectural monuments to include locations of cultural importance as well. Working together, my friend, Rafique Baghdadi and I decided to include in the list the residence of writer Saadat Hasan Manto while he lived in Bombay.

We arrived at a middle class housing colony located in the heart of Central Mumbai, inhabited predominantly by non-Hindus. Beyond the closed gate we could see a large central open court surrounded by a cluster of modest Art Deco buildings. One of them could be the place where Manto once lived and wrote. The security guard at the gate refused to let us in unless we told him which colony resident we wanted to meet. Unable to provide him with a satisfactory answer, we requested him to let us speak to the men chatting in the courtyard, who, as luck would have it, turned out to be office bearers of the society.

With the locked gate between us, we explained the purpose of our visit and asked them to please allow us to enter. Yes, they had heard of Manto a few years ago when a foreigner came looking for Manto’s former home but failed to locate it. But now we know the exact apartment in which Manto lived, Rafique told them, so could they please let us in? No. We pleaded with them, we even tried to force our way through in desperation and things finally ended just short of a physical fight before we were thrown out of there.

This was the changing face of Bombay for us, post 1992-1993. Over the last decade and a half, the city seems to be reverting to its early character of being a cluster of islands. Islands of glittering steel and glass towers to keep up with global imagery, islands of sprawling housing complexes with private gardens and swimming pools, islands of slums and chawls locked in terror by the real estate mafia, islands of educational institutions controlled by politicians built on caste, community, language and religion, islands of majority and minority ghettos, and the high status island called the ‘town’ associated with the colonial past. These are the new islands with their own fortifications turning Mumbai into a multi-fortressed city. The causeways that connect these islands seem to be sinking into an ocean of unprecedented intolerance and insecurity.

This new environment has adversely affected the physical and social mobility of citizens at large but particularly its women and now, surprisingly, the city’s youth. I teach as a visiting faculty member in a college of architecture located in Mumbai’s richest suburb. I notice a wide rift between the students from South Mumbai, who are called ‘townies’, and those from the suburbs. I have also observed that today’s suburban youth rarely travel to ‘town’. In the past, students, their parents, chose a college based on its reputation rather than its proximity to their home. Today the position has been reversed.

It is surprising to learn that, on an average, 50 per cent of the students from well-to-do backgrounds seeking admission into architectural colleges have never visited public monuments like the Town Hall, the university or the museum located in South Mumbai. Safety and security are the current mantras for parents who also support moral surveillance by the state police, never mind if their children’s mobility and exposure is limited to their own PCs and neighbourhoods. This anxiety is no longer restricted to women alone. I know of a parent from the distant suburb of Borivali who, after last year’s train blasts, made her son give up his admission to a prestigious college near Churchgate and settle for a college in their own suburb instead!

The suburbs began to grow enormously in the seventies, responding to the emerging aspirations of nuclear families. This also coincided with the government’s realisation that its future lay in real estate development. The prestigious Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade areas were developed by reclaiming the sea at the city’s southern end, a clear indication that the city’s politicians had no real intention to reduce the commercial and administrative importance of South Bombay whose claim to fame is its cultural links to the colonial period. Developed by real estate investors, the new suburbs of Andheri, Malad and Borivali, to name but a few, encouraged the movement of the middle classes from the crowded chawls of South Bombay to self-contained flats.

Initially dependent on South Bombay for their social and cultural ties, over the years the suburbs generated their own commerce and culture. The eighties saw an increasing number of migrants – many of them single women – from professional fields like the law, media, art and culture who found that this city offered them the freedom, mobility and safety they were denied in most other urban areas of India. The suburbs grew in density of population, property development being facilitated by an increase in the FSI (floor space index) through changing urban policies, but without their due share of physical and social infrastructure.

Today malls and multiplexes are the landmarks of post-industrial suburbs that once were marked by industries and working class settlements. In the absence of adequate public spaces like parks, playgrounds, libraries and cultural centres, these malls and multiplexes are promoted as places for family recreation although not without their class-based exclusivist norms for entry.

Last Christmas, as I was waiting by the entrance of a mall enticingly decorated with a super size floating Santa Claus and various toys, I saw a working class father awkwardly entering the foyer with his young son. The security officer stopped them at the door and on learning that the father wanted to buy the boy an ice cream, promptly directed them to a roadside stall. When some of us lodged a strong protest, the mall authorities drew our attention to a board which clearly stipulated that right of entry was reserved. While we were busy arguing, the family had quietly walked away.

There was a time when Mumbai’s industrial character kept it alive, 24×7. Even late at night and in the wee hours, local trains would be bustling with workers, men and women, working various shifts throughout the day. The post-industrial landscape has affected life in the city in more ways than one. The vibrant community life that once characterised working class chawls and city slums is getting trapped in the high density ‘free’ housing provided in multi-storey towers with virtually no open space on the ground. Industrial disputes in the early eighties, the closures in the nineties and the resulting unemployment often supplied the cadres needed by emerging mafias.

If the state housing policy is an indicator of the future, the working classes will soon be housed in large townships outside the city and only be brought in to work by a rapid mass transport system. Is this not reminiscent of a time when blacks required an entry pass to remain in the city after sunset during the years of apartheid?

The growing paranoia about safety and security in the city has given rise to an unprecedented territorial claim made by the elite middle class on their respective neighbourhoods. Known as Advanced Locality Management or ALMs, these neighbourhood citizens’ groups have, as an interface of civil society initiatives, taken it upon themselves to save their own neighbourhoods by cleansing and beautifying them. More often than not they do not represent all the voices in the locality. In such initiatives ‘ugly encroachments’ of hawkers or slums are replaced by beautifying elements such as flower planters along the pavements and decorative fencing around playgrounds, parks and waterfronts to keep away the unwanted ‘others’. This ‘othering’ on the basis of class, caste and religion has shaken the very foundation of urbanisation.

I recall an event that the cultural centre, Majlis, had organised as part of a youth festival called ‘India Sabka’, held a few months after the Gujarat riots. We announced a competition for city students to create a design intervention in a playground located between a Muslim and a Hindu settlement that had become a battleground during the riots. One of the more striking proposals was a plan for a community centre designed as a composition of carefully fragmented built forms loosely assembled together. The line below the model read, "Reclaiming our common space".

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Architecture



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