Saturday, June 20, 2009

Aamchi Mumbai is not pretty like Shanghai

I was reading a blog by a well travelled woman where she asks why Mumbai is not pretty, planned, architectural heritage concious or otherwise orderly.

My first thought was... perfectly understandable but naive questions.

I can see the horror that an organic Mumbai greets the returning traveller with at the airports or the train stations. I smell it, I feel its grit, it haunts my waking nightmares as I run from one moss grown developers monstrosity to another in the puddles of a Mumbai monsoon. I feel its rough hewn unplanned edges underfoot as I travel the roads of Mumbai. Roads teeming with the weight of the unwashed millions all striving to make a living in this megalopolis. I risk my life crossing the street at Regal cinema or Linking road, barely missing being crushed by the insane traffic chocking narrow roads. This is the reality of Mumbai. No doubt about it.

It is what it is.

As someone with a modicum of a design education, at some level I do mourn the loss of a vernacular motif and am appalled by the general mayhem in planning the city.

However I also realise that Mumbai is an everchanging organism, chameleon like and ever morphing to absorb all its economic migrants and new opportunities for economic growth... both legal and illegal. There are few other cities that have not broken under such pressures as Mumbai has. Its strength lies in this resilience. It is because of this quality that I do not question constantly why Mumbai is not pretty, why Mumbai is not orderly, why Mumbai is not the city of my imaginative dreams.

As a design professional with an education in the vernacular motif of Mumbai, I dont see that Mumbai (yeah its Mumbai, not Bombay) had much vernacular architecture to lose after Mumbai became a metropolis in the early part of the last century. Everything had been lost already.

Mumbai is an organic city. Haphazard in the manner of burgeoning commerical capitals. Planning and controls is for seats of government not for morphing organisms where commerce is king.

To equate Mumbai with European world capitals or even Shanghai is an excercise in idiocy. Not because Mumbai can never aspire to greatness, but because Mumbai is Mosambi to London/Paris/Shanghai's apples or Asian pears or whatever fruit they eat.

Mumbai was not made and nurtured by despots. Mumbai also has greater pressures on it than any city has had for centuries, expect perhaps for Cairo and Mexico City. Mumbai happened for commerce and it continues to happen because of commerce. A great leveller and a very democratic in many ways. Mumbai never had a rigid planners like Hausmann to straighten the “goat paths of paris” and to create vistas with alees. Mumbai did not have a despot looking to place his stamp on the land he ruled. Every European city has for the most part been nutured and beaten into submission by despots. Shanghai has its despotic rulers very much in evidence. Mumbais despots have been salaried Municipal Commisoners that went in and out through a revolving door. That is nature of governance in the city.

Do I wish that Mumbai had more trees and prettier buildings and nothing was taller than the palm trees and we all drank tea with our pinkies in the air? Hell yeah, I do. But that is not the way Mumbai survives. Can we change things? yes and no. No mostly, due to both resources and will and ever increasing pressures on civic services and land.

Wanting things to be like London and Barcelona and Berlin and Shanghai(all of which have execrable architecture alongside the sublime) is for countries with better resourses. Not for mumbai and India as it is now. People need food and employment and standing room first. Yeah, even sleeping room on the pavement sometimes!


neeraj_only said...

Good to see u blogging regularly :)

i have never been to mumbai , but have read alot and watched alot about mumbai . If not mumbai , i wish we have some other city which can be 'compared' to cities named by you .
Let amchi mumbai change amchi style .

Rahul Viswanath said...

Long way to go or no way it goes !!

Anonymous said...

Totally unrelated to Mumbai but would you come back and read a comment someone left to your chutiya wala comment.

I was going to delete it but thought we'll have some fun first :)

Another Kiran In NYC said...

I hope you visit Mumbai and have a lot of fun there. It is very civilised under the grime.

Long way to go I think.

Hahahaha I am so bad and so unrepentant! Very chutiya of me... see I sneaked it in again :)

memsaab said...

I totally love Mumbai simply because it is the way it is. How boring if all cities were the same.

Although the city does make me want to SCREAM sometimes. But that's not necessarily a bad thing :)

The Panorama said...

Great post from someone who can see Mumbai for what it really is. However, I feel there is one factor that is overlooked..climate...Europe owes it's beauty to it's climate primarily I feel. I mean, if you visit parts of India where the climate is not as harsh as in Mumbai or Delhi, the twons and cities are as pretty as in Europe- take Simla, Himachal, Kashmir, Nainital...aren't these places equal to any place in europe?
Very nice post:) enjoyed reading it.

Mama - Mia said...


thats so true! just yesterday a pal passionately said "but why do we even WANT to make Mumbai into another Shanghai?" and i just KNEW what he meant! felt it and understood it! and here you have put it into words so perfectly! :)

am sending this link to him!



Another Kiran In NYC said...

Yeah the city can make you want to scream. But screaming can be a good thing, if done the "nahiiiiiii nahiiiiii" hindi fillum heroine way! No?

Climate can be a factor, so true. The monsoons wreck havoc with Mumbai's infrastructure every year.

Your friend and I think alike. Is your friend cute looking? hehehehehe