The argumentative city

Taking stock
Last Updated 24 July 2010, 12:57 IST

The city today, and especially one like Mumbai/Bombay, is often very quickly reduced to a set of stereotypes and catch phrases - ‘Maximum City’, ‘City of Gold’, ‘the City that never sleeps’, ‘City of slums’, ‘City of dreams’ and so on. If we any longer stick around with these catch phrases and stereotypical ideas, we will lose our grasp on understanding the city. The city for many of us is a familiar object, but that familiarity is not the same as knowing the city, or understanding it. The city continuously escapes definition, and we should accept this, much contrary to our rationalist bent of mind. Planners often get great pleasure in drawing maps of a city into pretty shaped diagrams, and feel content over the imagined grasp and control they have of the city through that drawing. Often a painting by Sudhir Patwardhan or Gieve Patel, or a poem from Arun Kolatkar makes a much telling map of Mumbai. 

One of the most beautiful things about large cities, and which has also been the great mark of Mumbai, is travelling across the city by large masses of people on a daily basis. The traversing of a city across its length and breadth, moving across neighbourhoods, to reach your school or office, and returning back to the neighbourhood of the home is the most essential aspect of what consolidates a city into ‘one object’.

Planners and policy-makers often talk only of traffic jams and reducing mobility, but that can never happen and if that ever happens, it will start the slow death of a city. Moving is an integral part of this city, as much as waiting at a railway platform, loitering at the paan shop or a chai tapdi, or sitting, apparently aimlessly, at Bandra bandstand or the Five Gardens, where often couples are hounded by self-righteous politicians or worse, the resident groups.

One is not romanticising the travel part of city life, but proposes it as a strong political stance of crossing through different city-neighbourhoods. As much as neighbourhoods are the sites where the city exists – Bhuleshwar, Girgaum, Antop Hill, Walkeshwar, Mogul Lane, Yashodham, Sundar Nagar, the need for these neighbourhoods to simultaneously collapse and consolidate is very necessary.

The second most important aspect of a city, is the experience of encountering fellow-citizens. The city is a collection of strangers, you are sharing your road, street, train seat, bus-stop with strangers at all times; but at the same time that stranger is no object of fear, s/he is someone who is familiar to you. You do not know him/her but you still recognise them. The city is constantly creating urban characters that dot its landscape – the taxi driver, the neighbourhood saloon barber, the boy at the Xerox shop, or the chaiwalla. Urban characters play a significant role in constructing the myths and narratives of this city. Only a movie like Slumdog Millionaire with a director who sure understands nothing about a city or Mumbai, except some distorted stereotypes, could have misrepresented a character like a ‘Bambaiya chaiwalla’. 

Bombay or Mumbai or Bambai is essentially a 19th century city. A city that had practically no political significance in the Indian subcontinent, except as a pilgrim place, grew to international importance largely with the British.

Even the Company in its early years of developing Bombay, ran only in losses, and it’s the profits from Bengal and Bihar that helped the very initial development of the city.
Trade in Opium was very crucial to the growth of this ‘city of gold’, probably more than trade in cotton. Merchant princes invested in the city they knew was crucial to their prosperity and vision, along with Governors like Elphinstone. The city has always developed as an individual entity.

Its relationship to the subcontinent, can be compared to its relationship with Europe or China or the middle-east.

The flow of people from Rajasthan, Marwar, Gujarat, central India and the Deccan has been the central aspect of the city’s history. The pre-British trade network which not only continued but got encouraged with the international trade through the Empire traversed across continents and political boundaries, and cities like Bombay were important nodes in that network.

People and ideas flowed in and out of the city bringing to this place a variety of languages, architecture, street patterns, rituals, festivals and folk lore.

This trading node and hub of industrial activity after the American Civil War got entrenched in ties and relationships – investor-industrialists, mill labour, building material like the Deccan trap stone, neo-Gothic architecture from the fashion in England, to instruments of the Modern state like law courts and railways soon became objects that gave this city a ground beneath her feet. Europe’s Empire and the nation-state of the newly forming India both simultaneously, yet probably unconsciously, blew the winds through Bon Bahia’s streets and shores.

The city even today struggles between global ideas and ‘sons of the soil’ aspirations. It is not important to look at the history of this city to know what happened when, but it is only the history of this city that can explain the conflicts and negotiations this city faces today.

Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner correctly used the phrase ‘Bombay as a Metaphor…’ in the title of their edited volume on the city. Mumbai is a metaphor! Mumbai could be India, it could be ‘the west’, it could be the Bollywood dream, it could be the ‘manoos’ reality.
All one can do is claim many things – ideas, aspirations, anger, disgust, from the city; but one can never pin it down to a Bombay or a Mumbai or Bambai.

This exactly is the strength of this city; it has thwarted every attempt to pin it down. Every time one fears that Mumbai is losing itself to political egos, or cultural narrow-mindedness, or the real estate greed, there is some hope the city offers. Maybe this is optimistic, but maybe it is time once again to believe in optimism and idealism, as some characters of the past like Nathuram Premiji (who set up the very first publishing house in Bombay of 1912, publishing a Hindi translation of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty at the cost of earning the colonial government’s ire) did.

The objects and ideas of the city have changed essentially over the last two decades. At one point the urbanity of Bombay got defined in 19th century, at another point the image of Mumbai got strongly redefined in the 1990’s.

As political and economic agendas changed with the event on 6 December, 1992 and with the Finance Minister ‘opening doors’ to the world and games of finance in the same period, people’s imagination of themselves and their neighbours, of citizens and strangers changed – it surely marked a new way we perceived the world, and a city like Mumbai embodied that shift. Its urbanity remodeled a new geography – physical as well as cultural.

The mall marks a new sense of geography and image – a space and a visual setting that transmogrifies our sense of ‘the urban’. The sense of safety and security has heightened to a limit where posters from the police department are pasted all over train compartments asking you to ‘beware of your neighbour’, and these are sponsored by a company that produces water purifying machines.

A rape case at Marine Drive, the city’s flagship road had citizens of that area raise protests and get the attention of national press.

Not that this was the first or rare instance of police atrocity or crime against women, but it was ‘crime on Marine Drive’ – the ‘clean and safe’ area of the city! At the site of the police booth, where the crime took place and which was soon demolished after the incident, a public sculpture stands today – a coy topless mermaid.

The November 2008 terrorist attack at Café Leopold was early on reported as gang war, but the attack on Taj Hotel was an attack on a city icon! And today, as Municipal schools refuse admissions to thousands of kids for lack of space, the tallest tower in India, built at a former mill site will house only 100, mostly NRI families, and yes it is eco friendly – it will control the environment inside those castles in the air.  

The city is all about negotiations and tactics, lives and ideas, resistances and struggles, that criss-cross its landscape. In a way the city is always challenging its own self, its own self-definition and its own cartographic projections and in this it fights all forces that ever threaten to make the city into a static object. Its struggles and arguments will always be our savior.

(Kaiwan Mehta is a researcher and theorist in the fields of architecture, urbanity and visual culture; author of ‘Alice in Bhuleshwar – Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood’, Yoda Press, 2009)

(Published 24 July 2010, 12:57 IST)

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