How To Traverse Mumbai In The Rains
Across the city on foot…without an umbrella.
Water is what chemists, both medical and general, call the universal solvent. In other words, it dissolves whatever you can throw at it. As Fela Kuti had it, it “no get enemy”. It surrounds, accepts, dismantles, assimilates.
It’s this balletic molecular drama that we witness every year at the blunt macroscopic level. Elemental forces take us as their collective hostage, leaving an unintelligible spatter of a ransom note up the back of our pant leg.
Rain has that way of dissolving differences. Not the weak drizzle that my hiking companions called “crow’s piss” in Marathi. We conquer that daily with a squint and a clenched gait. No, I mean rain. Pummeling, merciless rain. When it starts coming down we’re all in the same, ahem, boat.
Reuniting this week with friends from all over, I heard a rain story from San Francisco. Supposedly it’s possible to cross the city outdoors from end to end without getting wet. Or soaked, anyway; in a few places the only option is to sprint for half a block toward a welcoming doorway.
The route was discovered by the late Herb Caen, a longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here it is in its entirety:
It was raining pitchforks, cats and dogs and/or violets Friday (pick one) and there I was at Le Central with no Burberry or bumbershoot.
Take deep breath and—dash up Bush through Sutter-Stockton Garage, fight traffic to Hyatt Union Square, cross into Union Square Garage, fly over Geary, skid into Macy’s, scamper down escalator, exit on O’Farrell into O’Farrell-Ellis garage, take elevator down to Ellis, whoosh into Woolworth’s (terrible chicken smell), leap headlong down steps into basement, run though Powell-Market BART station to Emporium’s new basement (Market on Market, terrific), go up rear escalator to rear exit, cross Jessie into Giannini’s Market, scuttle through (holding nose) and arrive at Chronicle reasonably dry.
Yes, this entails a lot of jaywalking. And if The Chronicle isn’t where you wanted to go why didn’t you say so?
If such a feat is possible in San Francisco it’s thanks to basic infrastructure Caen mentions, like pedestrian subways and skywalks. Slowly, we’re getting those, and some of us even like them. It also leans heavily on underground mass transit, for which I’m not holding my breath.
Being indoors all the time presumes, in addition, a certain style of dense commercial development, composed of malls and stores that span entire blocks. We’ll inevitably get those. Of course, they also have to be connected by a walkable street grid, an amenity to which certain sections of Mumbai are better suited than others.
Faced with several months of the year when nobody dares to step outdoors, wintry cities like Minneapolis and Calgary built a new street grid indoors. And, most promising for us, it didn’t take a municipal corporation or a central authority to get it done. The owners of the connecting buildings saw a commercial opportunity and took it. The elevated passageways that make up these skyways are sort of like the subway malls leading out of VT or Churchgate, only above ground and shorter on electrified mosquito swatters. Nariman Point would be much improved if you never had to pass through its drab, narrow lobbies. Why not embrace a way to bypass them entirely?
But in these days of hardened entrances, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a spirit of permeability taking root. Ironically, one of the few buildings you can still walk through from end to end is the Oberoi-Trident complex. It suggests that the clampdown of the adjacent Air India and Express Towers is a matter less of security than of sclerosis. Or, increasingly, of money. One Indiabulls Centre stretches most of the way from Lower Parel to Elphinstone Road, which should allow you to make the trip indoors. And indeed you can, if you own an apartment in the 65-storey Indiabulls Sky Suites and work next door at Morgan Stanley.
It would be nice to say that we’re craftier than that. After all, there’s another kind of infrastructure at street level, an eye-level map of the city that no Google Street View or IOS6 will track. The way we interact with our built environment can’t be summed up in a flipbook of storefronts. Mumbaikars have an improvised, three-dimensional relationship with the street. We might find shelter by ducking into doorways, darting under awnings or cleaving to walls. Older parts of town like Dhobi Talao, with its overhanging balconies, and Fort, with its colonnaded arcades, are virtually rainproof. Rahul Mehrotra, one architect whose work attempts to renegotiate the boundary between public and private spaces, punctuates the entrances and exits of his buildings with such devices.
Most of the city lacks even these jugaad-style amenities. Outside my office it rains all year round, thanks to hanging A/C units and broken drain pipes. We’re through with creating permissive, permeable public spaces. The Mumbai of the near future is an archipelago of walled compounds. Even worse are the fixtures actually built for the public. Try staying dry in a BEST bus shelter, which is curved just enough to obstruct foot traffic behind it but not enough to provide any protection from rain or, for that matter, sun.
There is one model of inclusive architecture that works in the wet. Say what you will about commercial blight and aesthetic desecration; the Mohammed Ali Road flyover has created a second city inside the one we thought we knew. When Ramzan falls during monsoon, it’s a marvel. The road functions like a rainforest canopy, nurturing an entirely new ecosystem below. Besides the staggered downspouts from the flyover above, it’s completely dry underneath.
You can start your trip on the other side of CST, which, after all, is just an enormous shed with a heritage structure dangling off the front end. The walk under the over takes you, on foot, as far as JJ Hospital. You’ll be stepping over bodies the entire way—that’s the test of whether it’s inclusive—but you’ll be bone dry. Except, of course, up to the ankle. No amount of development will help you there. Bring wellies.Tags: Monsoons, Rahul Mehrotra, The Holdout