Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Unraveling, Of Sorts

It is possible to stumble upon the unknown in Bombay even after spending a lifetime here. I visited a set of fairly standard-issue corporate offices this morning – there was little traffic to contend with, and I managed to make my appointment well ahead of time. As I took a turn off the main road to find my way to the parking lot, I was suddenly confronted by a totally different landscape – acres of land, still green with shrubbery, upon which were situated the crumbling shells of abandoned textile mills.

Bombay’s mills are rapidly being converted into shopping complexes, residential and commercial properties, parking lots, hotels and even nightclubs. This is a city hungry for real estate, and any available space is acquired and redeveloped with unusual rapacity. But remnants of the city’s past – moss and lichen covered chimneys, rusting gates and signboards, stone-built sheds and storehouses, dilapidated structures that will soon be dismantled by wrecking balls – are still visible, most notably in central Bombay.

In the immediate aftermath of the textile industry’s bitter and acrimonious collapse, a pall of gloom hung over the mills. Rumors began to swirl around these contested tracts of land – some of them were believed to be haunted, others actually became sites for petty crime, even murder. Soon, the mills were visited only by the suspect – prostitutes, drug dealers, gangsters. Even today, late at night, the streetlights in many of these precincts are dimmer, the roads are wider and darker, and the by lanes are quieter.

Much has been made of the dismantling of the mill-based ecosystem. The erosion of tenements, community kitchens, recreational spaces, local celebrations and festivals has been swift and seems irreversible. Urban activists are attempting to document these spaces and nuances by collecting narratives and memories and organizing seminars and lecture series. But the oncoming surge of gated communities, superstores and supermarkets is insistent, and is bringing a new demographic and culture in its wake. This is evolution, of course – but the new seems very roughly grafted onto the old, and it is obvious that stakeholders in the mill communities have had very little control over the terms of the ‘revitalization.’  

All cities change, constantly. But it is critical to attempt to negotiate such changes collectively. This is why the mills are symptomatic of so much that has gone wrong in Bombay - unemployment and concomitant resentment run deep, and today the area is not so much a saffron as a linguistic bastion, home to political parties that preach parochialism and peddle violence.

I spent two and a half years working in a redeveloped office complex in central Bombay. My surroundings felt oddly unfamiliar – to step out of the office was to stand out, to be conspicuous. I may have been a resident of the city, but I obviously came from someplace else. Since then, I have felt this way several times – not only in Parel, but across the city. Most of the newer offices and residential complexes I have visited seem to bear little relation to their immediate environment, and it is often easy to identify who occupies which side of these micro divides.

Like most people, I appreciate being pleasantly surprised by my city. But I find it somewhat discomfiting that I need to travel only fifteen minutes away from home to feel like I no longer ‘belong.’ Urban coexistence is many things, but I cannot accept that it involves occupying self-contained worlds that overlap only occasionally, in the most superficial ways. 

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