Mumbai Is Adrift, Rudderless And Doomed
We’d like to think that it’s only recently that Mumbaikars have expressed their unhappiness with their city so volubly and relentlessly. But Mumbai’s decline, its long time critics will know is not a recent phenomenon (“The housing famine is acute” huffed one citizen about Bandra in 1927). We’ve been on that trajectory for well over three centuries right from when the East India Company first leased the city from Charles II and saw in its swampy, malaria-ridden acres a strategically located port and trade route. It’s this path of decline, as warped as the course of the Mithi, that Naresh Fernandes charts in City Adrift: A Short Biography Of Bombay, a terrifically paced, terribly heartbreaking chronicle of the many times when the citizenry of Bombay very effectively screwed things up.
Fernandes’s tone is exasperated, angry even, that of a man whose love for the city has been ridden over roughshod just one too many times. He is obstinate too as when he stakes his right to call Bombay by its colonial name (until tellingly the very last line), because “the rechristening of the city is still remembered for what it is – a refutation of Bombay’s inclusive history”. If someone would like to come forth and defend Mumbai’s glories, then step forward please (unless you’re from the government), because as it stands, we have near none to claim anymore.
There is plenty to roil anyone living here – like when Navi Mumbai’s urban ambitions were thwarted in stupidity and shortsightedness to build Nariman Point; when crores were plugged into infrastructure projects like the Bandra Worli Sea Link that privilege a few. When mills are redeveloped in such higgledy piggledy nonchalance for the bottom line of profit, we are all but ensured a city of breathtaking claustrophobia. Today there are parks open to all situated, in a cruelly ironic twist, inside private mill compounds; few know they exist, fewer still ever see them. To wit: each of us living here has about 1.1 square metres of open space and that includes pavements and traffic islands.
It was not always so. We boast of current Mumbai as being a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan and open-armed hub, but the city was a centre for the arts and a haven for all sorts long before we decided to anoint it the New York of the east. During the 17th century the government freely invited various castes in, giving them incentives to make it their home and land of their livelihood. It was not uncommon to hear various languages and dialects spoken by the English, Portuguese, Parsis, Hindus, Muslims and Koli Christian fishermen. “Already, the incipient city carried the promise of equal opportunity that would make it different from any other settlement India had known,” Fernandes writes. Some two centuries later, by all accounts, Bombay was a bustling place, with outdoor bands, fairs, circuses, opera and music. It was not coincidentally the time when Bombay birthed its very own classical music gharana, named after Bhendi Bazaar, the area where its creators lived upon migrating from Uttar Pradesh.
By the beginning of the 20th century, several bad decisions, taken in particular by the ambitiously named Bombay Improvement Trust, set the city down a potholed road to disaster. In retrospect, the city’s manifold problems – shoddy building construction, slum rehabilitation, land encroachment – can be traced back to key moments when a wrong decision or a series of them was taken by authorities who thought they knew better or simply didn’t care. Less easy to explain is why today, with all the resources at hand and a population full of educated and industrious people, we’ve done nothing to fix any of it. Fernandes’s fury ends at the apathy of our upper and middle classes who wilfully disengage themselves from the city’s problems by retreating into the safety of air conditioned enclaves like malls and gated communities. Mumbai’s future, he admits, does not look good. And the question, unasked, rings out clearly at the last: will it ever?
City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay by Naresh Fernandes, Aleph, Rs295.