Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Notes from B.Town (Day 2)

Moving out of the old city proper, I travelled to explore some of the suburbs of Mumbai. Starting at the Marine Drive, I went to the Banganga tank in Walkeshwar, the mills of Lower Parel and then to Bandra and Pali Hill. I was surprised to see that many Gymkhana Maidans along the Marine Drive do not have any boundary wall facing the main street; made the urban open space feel larger, more public.

I vividly remembered my last visit to the Banganga tank and wanted to relive the experience of this urban oasis, introspective and calm; as much beyond the city as it is inside it. The neighbourhood reminds me of the ruins of Hampi, ancient and oh-so-stable, as though it is going to remain exactly the same for another hundred years. The temples become the social anchor to the tank, holding the essence of the place together in all the bustle and transformation of the city.

Lower Parel was quite a surprising mix of the old and the intervened, with many fluid and elegant multi-storey glass buildings abutting grimly old low lying neighborhoods. This was a story of aggressive urban transformation, that I think would have had equally powerful social consequences. While rehabilitated people occupied humble four storey housing with hand painted signage; offices, stores and meeting rooms occupied the the glass towers. I then went to the Mathuradas Mill Compound, my taxi cab driver told me that most of these towers were built on mill compound sites that would have looked much like this at one point. I did sneaky tours of a few places and finally planted myself at the very pleasant Cafe Zoe. While all of the internal adaptive reuse was interesting indeed, these establishments just felt very disconnected from their setting, almost oblivious and opaque. It felt like the city had here been reduced to architecture, buildings in cement and steel and was then worked with, just formally and spatially. This was quite different to all that I had observed the previous day, but in some way very familiar (almost similar to a lot of Delhi).

I then went Bandra to meet my architect friend Pallavi who took me around Bandra. Lunching at the maze like Candies, we walked to the village of Chuim. Starkly different from the intense urban villages of Delhi, this was pleasant and quaint. Pallavi told me the villagers here were well to do but more importantly content with their peaceful lives. Walking past a few cool studios we came across this partly hidden funky signage to the Hive. Curious much, we walked in to find ourselves in the middle of this inspiring and engaging place that hosted coworking, independent events, workshops, classes for village children, a cafe and a sea of possibilities on their spacious terrace. The discovery excited and inspired me at many levels. How much does the Hive owe to its setting? Are there places like this in Delhi? How can I help sustain these creative projects?

The following visit to the Ranwar village only made many of these questions clearer. Walking across the main bazaar street selling fresh fruit and vegetables and everyday things we reached the neighborhoods that housed quaint cafes and street art. It was pleasant and pedestrian in a very good way. There were many people and houses rich and poor; young and old, but essentially ordinary and comfort. The place was eventful but not intense, it was comfortable. It made me wonder how the urban villages of Delhi became so intensely overused and abused, as hotbeds of volatile rental real estate and repurposed architecture disconnected with its neighboring social fabric?

And still every inch of urban space felt utilized skillfully and defined. Later that evening in front of Salman Khan’s home, Pallavi and I talked about this thrifty spirit everywhere in the city. She told me it came from how perhaps everyone comes to Bombay and struggles for a few years, working really really hard and only then does life become a little comfortable. It is not embarrassing to have less money. It is not embarrassing to travel on local trains and buses. It is ordinary life and there are many more people living this ordinary life, sharing public space and transport. How does this compare with Delhi? The metro has made so much of a difference but has it?

I clearly have to spend more time to figure out and visit many more places in Mumbai and Delhi. Crawford Market, Kala Ghoda, Dharavi, Versova, Thane and many many more places are still left to do. Do let me know if you have any recommendations/ suggestions or any starting points of answers to some of these questions.

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