[4 MINUTE READ] In a city magically reclaimed from the anarchic sea, a constant search for space defines its people.
Three out of every five families in Mumbai live in single room homes. Tightly packed across slums or around chawl courtyards that pepper the landscape of the city. The lines between private and public are blurred in these communes. Most doors are always open and walls completely porous to sound.
Driving from the airport towards the city, lined along a stretch overlooking the bay, are couples on bikes with their backs to the road. Escaping their homes for a moment exclusively to themselves. Enveloped in hugs, exchanging hesitant kisses, their love soaked silhouettes animating the dusk horizon. Capturing the sweet irony of Mumbai.
That allows you anonymity but denies you space.
The aura of a city is in how effortlessly it blends its meek and mighty into an everyday crowd. Lovers, tycoons, migrants or leaders can all fleetingly sidestep this benign indifference of the city. Sharing small spaces sufficient for love. Or hoarding large spaces to satiate ambition.
Like the constant cycle of life and death, this is the game that defines this city.
Every Sunday morning, I step out into the two lane street outside our sprawling apartment complex to walk my golden retriever Zoe. The road is barricaded on both sides by the mute walls of defunct textile mills. The street turns at our gate and winds around an adjacent office building before being swallowed into the chaotic corridors of a slum.
That small bend in the road transforms into a cricket ground on Sundays. Seven games operate in tandem – the gunshot sounds of rubber balls hit with urgent ferocity, sharp voices following the trajectory of the balls as they are retrieved and returned with brisk alertness. All young men consumed by a million meaningless weekday tasks that keep large cities from imploding into chaos. Takeaway delivery boys, parking valets, supermarket billing clerks, Uber drivers and satellite TV call centre operators.
Squeezed between imposing gated communities and deserted Mill lands locked in litigation – are these empty spaces that they smell out for a few hours each weekend.
When the 99 year lease for 8 acres of public land on which the exclusive Bombay Gymkhana club was situated expired, it opened up an awkward negotiation.
The extension could be offered if some of the government officers were granted membership to the club. This proposal was shot down when put to vote because it seemed like an unreasonably corrupt intrusion. A fatal flaw amongst the elite, is their lack of awareness towards the perilous nature of their privileges.
A threat to cancel the lease emerged. The club parking lot was dismantled to reclaim the public sidewalk. The widening of an adjoining road would eat into parts of the swimming pool and tennis courts. Amidst all this, new club guidelines were drafted to offer life membership to senior officers in government service. The government reciprocated with a revised land lease policy that kicked the annual rent up a few notches.
Compromises are made and deals are done. The abstract idea of public good is peripheral to the concerns of most that come flocking into this city. They come here to survive from an erratic monsoon, a shrinking farm land and a relentless loan shark. They remain here to surrender into the cult of a city magically reclaimed from the anarchic sea.
There was a time when textile mills formed the pulsating commercial heart of the city. Occupying vast tracts of land in central Bombay and employing close to a quarter of a million people. As their fortunes began to wane through the 80s, unemployment, gang wars and sectarian politics gained a grip on this region. And the value of the inert land beneath them soared.
As the textile mills began to shut down, a rare opportunity arose to claw back some of the open spaces lost by the city. The Government mandated Mills being redeveloped to hand over 2/3rd of their land to be equally divided between subsidized housing and public gardens. Mill owners baulked at the dilution of their holdings and waited.
A few years later, this law was tweaked to only cover 2/3rd of the ‘vacant’ land instead of the ‘total’ land. In the paperwork defining these fractions of land, what returned to the city reduced to almost nothing. As 400 acres of mill land got redeveloped, a few gutsy men turned into billionaires.
The constant negotiation
I live in a complex built on part of those 400 acres. A first world respite from the permanently crowded bowels of Mumbai.
Victory and defeat intertwine into a pragmatic knot inside this city’s heart.
The search for open spaces is its enigmatic anthem. As government officers arm twist their own access to it at the Bombay Gymkhana, my son and I dodge each other across the empty basketball court downstairs, where once a multitude of men bent over their looms.
The original law of returning 2/3rd of Mill land to the city was reinstated last year. In the Sunday cricket games outside my gate, the confidence of a life led close to the ground seems to give them what it takes to survive this city. The thought that the adjoining deserted warehouse could one day make way for their Sunday pitch seems incidental to their scheme of things. There will always be an empty road that will be found for the game to go on.
Mumbai is a city of stoic acceptance. It is also one of resilient negotiations.
Its quiet ironies make you acknowledge. That it is what it is. And we are what we are.
(This post has been written for the special ‘Mumbai – Maximum City’ issue of the Indo-French magazine La Nouvelle Revue de L’Inde)