Category Archives: #TheCityasMuse
‘A City Fit for Royals’ by Shweta Sinha #TheCityasMuse Special Mention
As an IT professional, Shweta Sinha has been to several places around the world. When what is seen is not enough, she loves conjuring up worlds through her writing. Her stories and articles have been published on Kinooze.com, a children’s news website, and in Woman’s Era. There’s more from her at http://shwetasheel.wordpress.com. An avid reader, Shweta believes books complete her world that she otherwise shares with her husband, two boys, parents and an aquarium full of colourful fishes.
Comment: Shweta’s intensely personal and emotional piece on Kathmandu delves deep into nostalgia, but leaves a mark by making a poignant statement about the ethos of her city.
A CITY FIT FOR ROYALS
Houses crumbling to dust, the air resounding with haunting cries, historic monuments turning to history – these images rocked the world only months ago. While they shook every heart, mine bled with an unfamiliar angst. For the city of Kathmandu had always been my paradise.
The snow-capped Himalayas, casting their protective shadows over the valley, added a mystical allure to the exquisitely carved wooden houses. Smiling faces ambled the narrow, winding paths, nattering in a language that made them sing. My earliest memories from the 70’s consist of scuttling up a creaking wooden staircase into the attic kitchen, drawn by an aroma of sautéed jeera dunk into freshly boiled pulses. Of huddling together at bedtime, listening to my grandfather describe his treks across the mountains to the valley. Tall tales littered with sky-high bears and walls running through the wilderness that slithered and morphed into hissing snakes. His month-long hike sounded much more thrilling than our journey on rickety buses scraping the curvaceous mountain roads.
Kathmandu was once a shoppers’ delight for all things foreign. Summer after summer I waited with unbridled eagerness to spot the latest Hot wheels model or buy a blonde-haired doll. Sometimes Nani would tag me along to the teeming bylanes of the old-town market. She would pause at shops displaying hordes of ‘potey’ in red, blue, green and a myriad other colours. Miniscule beads, strung together into brilliantly crafted necklaces. Nani would haggle in Nepali while I pretended to follow every word. At the end, the shopkeeper, often dressed in a red saree over a white and red cholo, conceded to sell at Nani’s quoted price. As she stuffed the selected necklaces into paper packets, the lady would flash me a grin and ask my Nani if I were her ‘chhori‘. Shy at the sudden attention, I would wrap my tiny self in the loose end of my grandmother’s saree.
The city gave me my first fizz of Coca Cola, a drink banned in India then. Eons before they became ingrained in the Delhi street food culture, spicy momos gained popularity in the Kathmandu eateries. The flavour of the tangy-sweet-spicy titaura, a local version of candy made from fruit, still tingles my taste buds. If you’ve ever tasted one, I’m sure you’re already drooling. If you’ve not, you’re missing something.
My grandparents’ house provided an unhindered view of the royal palace grounds. Often I would find myself in the balcony, gazing at the ten-foot high brick wall surrounding a thicket of trees that hid the Narayan Hiti Durbar from prying eyes, even as I dreamt of the life the imperial family led inside. But never did I envision the gory circumstances that tainted the dazzling white walls a dirty red.
Jokes about Nepali watchmen abound, shared with an iota of smug merriment. To me, however, Nepal remains the country of the Sherpa who stepped aside to let Hillary claim his name to fame. A country whose spirit no calamity dare suppress. Kathmandu – the city with the wooden house – will resurrect itself with unforgettable smiles.
‘My City’ by Antara Choudhuri #TheCityasMuse Special Mention
Born and brought up in Kolkata, Antara Choudhuri was sensitized to Tagore, Nazrul Islam and other bards, dramatists and writers, whose contributions to the field of literature have earned the City of Joy its coveted sobriquet. She believes that nothing in this world can exceed the magical beauty of words, strung together in sentences, giving form to ideas and beliefs, and most importantly, making communication effective. Since her childhood, she has always loved to play around with words and her love for languages and writing stems from the belief that languages all over the world, have only one purpose, which is not to divide people on the basis of ethnicity, race, culture or geography, but to bring them together by facilitating effective communication.
Comment: Antara’s entry was appreciated for its deep passion and sense of belonging for Kolkata and the interesting use of personification, metaphor and symbolism in her description. Writing this piece was clearly an act of love!
Me: At least the moon, the stars and the wind are the same here as in Kolkata
You: Yes, the rain and the sand too.
Me: Sand?? Are you making fun of me?
You: No. Matite bali thake toh. Kon balir kona kotha theke eshechhe tui janish? Ekta Kolkata, ekta Chennai, ekta London.
In that moment, these words became more than a mere three line message on my WhatsApp messenger. They made me feel closer to my city than ever before. The city that I had left behind with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat, that refused to let me be for days at a stretch.
Kolkata, a city like no other can ever be. No, she is not like the planned cities of today, divided into sectors and blocks. She has a character of her own, much like the mood swings of a well-read woman. A woman who is always on the lookout for something new, something that will make her think, read a little more into it and then think some more! She is a never-ending maze of roads and alleys that conceal a surprise at every turn. Each path leads you to a new destination, a destination which may be physically the same, yet has something new to offer each time you visit. You will never encounter a dead end, neither literally nor metaphorically! Such is the allure of my city!
An oasis of peace, of tranquillity, with diverse flavours that not only pamper your taste buds, but also make you think in ways and about things like never before! Each day brings with itself a new surprise. Be it the bright sunny day, the dreamy cloud cover or the despotic shroud of fog in winter, each day is different and has a new story to tell. A story that will intrigue you and leave you feeling unique and special at the end of each day. Such is the allure of my city!
My city is more than a mere collection of constructions in bricks and mortar. She is a living, breathing entity, waiting to breathe life into you! Her entity is not limited to her physical being. A plethora of sounds complement her physical being and make her a city that can be experienced through the five senses. When was the last time you felt even remotely connected to something non-human to the extent of endowing it with human qualities? Such is the allure of my city!
Kolkata, the city of my dreams. Indeed the city of joy, rife with festivals, the most important among them being the Durga Puja. The red bordered sarees, the red bindis, the tinkling of jewellery, the overwhelming enthusiasm of people flocking from one pandal to another. Yes, I can vividly see it all as I close my eyes. It’s like being transported back in time, back to the precious days spent in the all-encompassing affection of the city that I call my home. For, it is only here that I “live”, elsewhere I merely “exist”. Such is the allure of my city!
Devaansh Singh imagines the ideal future city #TheCityasMuse Special Mention
Devaansh Singh is 12 years old and lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. A 7th grader who loves reading, Devaansh is into robotics and enjoys playing chess. Last year, he participated in the national Future City Competition and is currently considering entering the NASA space colony competition as well.
Comment: Devaansh’s entry was refreshing in the way it gave free reign to his imagination. In contrast to other entries that commented on existing cities or wove together real and imagined urban experiences, Devaansh describes an urban utopia of the future complete with planning, engineering and environmental details. An interesting read indeed and a commendable effort for someone so young.
Moana Kulana Kauhale, the ideal city
In the beginning of the year 2015, a technologically advanced future seemed on our doorstep, but fatal problems were everywhere and all of our efforts were to stop them in their tracks and our marvelous future was postponed. Well, that future is today, 100 years after this competition, and today we are introducing the most amazing city of the future, Moana Kulana Kauhale. Named by the creator Devaansh Singh, its name means Ocean City. It is located on a former Hawaiian Island and creates a future that resolves many of the problematic issues that have been plaguing our world for the past 100 years Plus, all of the solutions are both innovative and environmentally friendly making Moana Kulana Kauhale the ideal city to live in.
Before we start, here is a brief description of the residential, commercial, and industrial zones of the city. Moana Kulana Kauhale is like a doughnut, the hole is the industrial section, then around it is the commercial zone, and around that, the farthest away from the industrial zone, is the residential zone. We do this because the industries can easily transport goods to the commercial zone, and residents don’t have to go too far to go shopping. The only disadvantage in this situation is the worker who has to go from the residential zone to the industrial zone , but that is taken care of by the speedy transportation, like the Vactrains, offered in this city. There is a specific train whose only purpose is to transport the workers to the factories and back. The industrial zone is built down, not up. Meaning entrances to the factories are situated above ground and the rest is all underground . The buildings that are above ground are the company’s headquarters which lies on top of the factory and the solar panels, wind turbines. PCUs are devices that power the city and the factories. PCUs are devices that catch pollution and convert it into energy. All the pollution made by the industrial zone is managed by the company and released into underground caverns. There, the PCUs are at every five feet and produce enough energy to power the factories and headquarters. The next zone is the commercial zone. It’s main power supply comes from the many clean power generators in the industrial zone and it receives shipments through the hyperloop train system which is underneath the ground. All the windows have solar panels installed in them and merchandise is made from clean energy produced in the industrial zone so we are independent The commercial zone is connected to the residential zone through multiple hyperloop tracks which are divided into centers, one per station. By center I mean shopping center, divided by type of store (i.e. clothing, groceries, etc.) and stations are where the train picks up and drops off its passengers. Now, that leaves the residential zone. The outside circle of the city is the residential zone. It has many neighborhoods and each neighborhood has a skyscraper to use as apartment buildings and offices for the neighborhood. To keep things fair and to have no homeless people, we have people who want a house to go to a government building. They tell them the house they want, the amount of people who are going to live in the house, and the buyer’s income. Then the government gives you a fair price. If you accept, then the government takes your money and gives half to the real estate agent managing the house and helping their clients. They keep the other half to use. The major source of energy for the residential area is clean, environmentally safe energy. All of the zones are as clean as possible and do their jobs well
The infrastructure of our city is truly remarkable. Our sewer system is one of the best. The waste goes into the various pipes that run way under the city. The waste all accumulates in a big cavern with a vat in it. Their, everything that isn’t sanitized is filtered into a big tank. It will fill up eventually and when that happens it will be sent to a plant so that it will be sanitize enough to be reused as toilet water or will be sent to a plant where we will burn it in a PCU area and collect energy from the heat using geothermal generators. Roads are only inside individual centers for people who don’t want to walk. the rest is managed by the citywide train stations. Each train’s tracks are connected to each station in individual tracks that run in a circle around each zone If you want to travel to a different zone, then you just get off at one of the tran-zone stations that has a special set of tracks and trains just for shuttling people around the two zones.
Our city has one main transportation mode: Our trains. They transport our people anywhere they want in super high speeds. We have two main types of trains; the Vactrain and the Hyperloop. The Vactrain is like a normal super fast magnet train today, except it is in a vacuum tube. The vacuum tube sucks all the air out of a place so their is no resistance. This allows the train to go many times faster than a normal magnetic train and is great for long travels, but can be used transport people in short distances. The Hyperloop works a similar way. the train is magnetic, shaped like a bullet, in a long tube which contains the tracks. Once the passengers board the train, everything closes off. Then a huge burst of air comes in and shoots the Hyperloop through the tube like a very big bullet. It is best used on straight tracks or in transporting goods. The system is fairly straightforward. There are tracks connecting to each other that is in a never ending square in each zone and a set of tracks in each station that connects to it’s counterpart in another zone, so everything is nice and connected. Another transportation perk is that these methods are all very eco friendly and do not harm the environment. These trains are also used for long distance travels with other cities and countries. Instead of an airport with airplanes, we just ship people and goods out with the trains.
One of our cities biggest strengths is its power generation. Our city is on a geothermal hotspot and so we have geothermal power generators in all the underground areas of our city. All of our pollution is redirected into PCU’S, or Pollution Capture Units These units capture pollution and convert it into electricity, so it is good for the environment and helps power our massive bustling metropolis. There are multiple solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal generators in the middle of the city and power is distributed through that. The coast has hydroelectric generators and every house has at least one solar window. All of these factors invariably make our city extremely self-sufficient.
The educational system of our city is quite comprehensive. Everyone is homeschooled and can go to a big virtual classroom software. One room in each house is completely dedicated to this for the children. Each child is sorted into a classroom where a teacher will help them if they need help on the work assigned to every child in the grade. The course is extremely vigorous and the students who can keep up with the program, that we call TOOLS, become extremely talented in their field of expertise. That is the average. The students who mess around on purpose and don’t care for their studies are expelled and are left to find a job among talented people. The students who really try hard but aren’t blessed with the brain to keep up are taken to a separate, slower paced course until caught up. That does not make them any worse than the others, it just means they needed help, and everyone needs help in their studies at one time or another.
And those are most of the facts about our amazing city, Moana Kulana Kauhale. It is extremely environmentally clean, it has marvelous transportation, and most importantly of all, we have an awesome educational system. With all these great minds being trained and going to the job everyday, our city evolves a bit every day. Soon, when Devaansh Singh sees his city again, he won’t recognize it because of how much it evolved, and it will make him happy, because his goal and mission would then be complete.
‘Gurgaon’ by Nupur Chaturvedi #TheCityasMuse Special Mention
Nupur writes for a living, but doesn’t call herself a writer yet. She has written short stories and poems, and is convinced there is a novel inside her somewhere. But for now, she is focused on her content marketing job at a communications firm. Nupur is based in Gurgaon and blogs at http://nupurchaturvedi.wordpress.com/
Comment: Gurgaon has been praised and maligned in equal measure over the last decade or so. Contradiction is essential to its character and Nupur got it just right in this poem. The “gilt and guilt” especially, swung it for her!
The wind brings in sand to scrape my eyes
When I open them again, the dust has settled
Powdered surfaces hiding the beauty that could have been
And then comes the rain
You would think it would wash everything clear
And the greens and oranges and reds would shine through.
But all the rain did was to drown everything in muck
And so, this is my city
Of expectations and disappointments
Gilt and guilt
Colours and desolation
Crowded roads and empty promises.
And yet, this is my city
My identity, my space, my future
So I must nurture this deep-set rot
In the hope that one day there will bloom
Hope, courage, beauty and love
In this, my city.
Ashmi Ahuwalia’s city through the lens of nostalgia #TheCityasMuse Special Mention
It’s amazing what a city can come to mean in nostalgia. Somewhere between a microscope and a dream, you really see it, the way you never had when you were there.
In my little studio flat at Putney, I remembered the chaat with the imli chutney. It had such a particular flavor only found in that one red-brick corner, behind the car park. The guardian of that corner was always in faded white, a chai in his hand. He was frying potatoes, feeding gol-gappas and chatting with his ardent line of customers all at the same time. He had a secret ingredient— and on a cold icy November evening—I tried recreating that delicious feeling in my kitchen. Time became that taste, and all I could think of. I made it with papdi I bought from Southall, and chutney I found in the local Indian shop. But my favourite city had patented that flurry of emotions, and nothing else was a patch.
Sometimes I was reminded of the midnight lane. And dancing to my heart’s delight on a small terrace with a man I was beginning to fall in love with. Everyone young in the city was thronging these little mazes of twilight, where love sometimes teased, sometimes lusted, sometimes fell into endless pits and sometimes ended. Between alcohol and the latest pop songs, hearts would beat faster; and young adults would slowly become adults. But we grew up more every weekend, learning the ways of the world. I like to think of it as the ambiguous tar passage that led to heaven, or hell. Or more appropriately, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s gray world, to ‘Hell-Heaven’.
Staring outside my window at the little boys playing ball often took me back to our Gandhi park—nondescript but warm with everything childhood. This place was memory-foamed; it was where the boundaries of friendship had moved from blurry to solid, like the chalk lines we drew out for Stapu every evening as kids. Our togetherness was that little eight-numbered, symmetrical game. Even today, going back quietly affirms that we have each other’s backs— the way we did in our chuppan-chuppai then, the way we do now.
And lately, what I miss the most is that newly constructed Superbahn in my city—where as a 25-year old having returned home from the holidays I would sort out my emotions. The quiet Expressway, quieter than the night where I drove like the wind and became self-aware—alone with my thoughts. Where I learnt what it means to fight my own battles in the marathon race of life, based mostly on gut and rarely on logic.
Wherever I am in the world, nothing compares of these spaces etched in my mind. These fragments are home; they are the narrow passages of space and time that have distilled quietly into my skin. I am a collage of these cityscapes, a map of memories I carry in the pocket of my heart, refusing to let go.
Divya Agrawal’s sketches and words bring Jaipur alive #TheCityasMuse Runners Up
Divya is an artist and a designer. She is greatly inspired by nature, cultures, patterns and places. An architect by training, she Divya in Mumbai and co-authors a Design blog On the Design Boat.
Comment: The size of the computer screen (and some of you might be reading this on a mobile phone or tab) doesn’t do justice to Divya’s enormously detailed and accurate sketches. Through her beautiful drawings and eloquent writing, she has been able to offer a glimpse into the rich heritage and street life of the vibrant city of Jaipur.
An omni-present array of jalis, cupolas and jharokhas; red crowned with the desert brown, streets brimming over with color and people, rickshaws, cows, food, fabric and divinity. This is the walled city of Jaipur, a place that has enthralled and inspired me for the longest time.
A city, besides being a destination, is a celebration of its occupants and their culture. It is a living canvas with a pulse, a unique style; a repository for history, a landscape that is constantly colored by the people who live out their dreams & aspirations in it.
Home to a multitude, a source of livelihood to many, a city can also be an inspiration, companion and muse. Being a history and architecture lover, the Pink City’s grandeur and detail envelop me. I have explored Jaipur on foot over many journeys, a sketchbook in hand, from the rooftops in its bazaars to the calm and desolate streets of old Amer; falling in love with it time and over again.
The walled city lives at a pace that defies comprehension, life throbbing effortlessly and endlessly around its pink facades. I feel transported into surrounds of another era – so profuse is the striking succession of facades, replete with latticed openings, balconies and arches. The city surprises me at every turn – be it discovering calm courtyards behind bustling shop fronts, or, landing in the midst of vast chaurahas big enough to double up as bus and rickshaw stands with idle parking for cows alongside…. Equally mesmerizing is the transformation of these spaces. As shops down shutters for the day, temple bells welcome darkness and aartis fill the soundscape, permeating my soul with devotion and calm.
At times the chaos and noise magically disappear, like inside the Hawa Mahal, just off one of the city’s busiest streets. And then, as I peep out of one of its latticed windows, I can’t help but marvel at its architecture – who did ever think of a wall for a palace? Moving further on entering Jantar Mantar, I catch a glimpse of the City Palace and the Nahargarh Fort – three different kinds of architecture in a snapshot!
I find a foil in the invigorating, sometimes exhausting chaos of the city in some very unusual and calm historic spaces on the outskirts, including the abandoned city of Amer, complete in its breathtaking remains.
This unique intersection of people, culture and landscapes has been a deep inspiration to the explorer and artist in me. I have found tremendous joy in sketching Jaipur’s environs, experiencing its interiors, interacting with its people and discovering their crafts. Sights, sounds and smells of a place make for a complete experience. With it’s palate satiating offerings of desert specialties, lassi, kachouris and ghevar, the city makes sure that the foodie in me too never has enough of it, beckoning to relive the experience yet again!
Note: The text and images contained in this document are copyrights of the author. Material contained herein cannot be used in any format for any purpose other than mentioned in the contest guidelines.
‘Karol Bagh’ by Vitasta Raina #TheCityasMuseRunners Up
Vitasta Raina is an architect and a writer. She has published a fictional novel, Writer’s Block, and a book of poems, Someday Dreams. She blogs at http://theurbanexploratory.blogspot.in/
Comment: Vitasta sent in 5 entries, all exhibiting her deep interest in the city as well as her talent with words. However, the judges were impressed by the particular emotional connect of this poem, which laments the decay of her family’s ancestral home. Along with her entry, she wrote a note that outlines the context: “My maternal grandparents migrated to Karol Bagh, New Delhi, in 1947 during the Partition of India. After my grandfather’s death, my uncle’s family moved out of the Kothi to a high-rise gated prison in Gurgaon. Upon my return to Delhi in 2013, I was miserable to see my childhood home abandoned, and the neglected squallor of our once lively mohalla. These poems are perhaps eulogies as I mourn.”
Beautiful decay, I could eat you,
split your pale brown gills,
on an autumn afternoon,
and consume your cultural layers.
You with salty crust of ageless expression,
you with the wood grains, patterns of the sea,
of micro-beads and snowflakes,
fractals of societies’ self-relieved agony,
inchoate clusters of myth-ridden mohallas,
fungal communes of local habits;
I could collect your inexistent senses,
and break down your unchanged names.
Beautiful decay, on pavements,
in small-worlds, in rotting walls of colonies
alive past their expiration date,
souvenirs of once-life, tombs for now-death.
All Rights Reserved. ( C.). Vitasta Raina
A World-Map folded into several layers: Travelogue of the Point I reached by Rikhia Pal #TheCityasMuse Runners-Up
Rikhia Pal is a Gurgaon-based homemaker who describes herself as “an ex tax consultant, part time traveller, freelance painter, occasional singer and future writer”
Comment: Rikhia’s construction of the city as a journey across the world is skillfully done and full of little details. A pleasurable read.
A World-Map folded into several layers- Travelogue of the Point I reached
The airport looked like a runway through the ocean when I peeped down the windows of my flight. It almost crashed over the voluptuous, chocolate skinned, bikini-clad women on the beach, as it prepared to land.
Near the airport exit, I could see several tourist information centers. Women, with small eyes, thin lips and orchids in their hair, greeted me with folding hands and warm smiles.
After gathering information, I headed towards the nearby Grand Bazar. Since I was hungry, I ate breakfast- a Vada Pao and a plate of Missal Pao. Full and happy, I loitered around some more in the market and bought a small replica of the Eiffel Tower as a souvenir for my folks back home. The mall was huge and soon I lost my way.
I came out of one of the gates and found myself on the side of the river Nile. Its blue waters dotted with numerous black gondolas rowed by handsome men. I got into one myself. The man started singing a song called “Amore Mio” as we passed by numerous monuments, palaces and ordinary homes. The streets, corners and houses were decorated by hanging paper-cut dragons, tigers and red ball shaped lanterns. I was amused to see a red telephone booth being guarded by red-coated black-hatted men standing like statues. As the river approached a bay, I got down just round the corner. The house in front had long glass windows lit with red lights. There were beautiful women standing in front of those windows waving at people.
As I came in front of the bay, I was awed by the stately opera house built on a piece of land protruding into the bay. It looked like a series of shells stacked together. It was backed by a red colored suspension bridge called the Golden Gate Harbor Bridge.
Soon after, I entered the state museum shaped like a pyramid. I learnt that the city was built when the mythical Lion-Mermaid drank the oceans and spilled the water over the lost city of Machhu Pichhu, which was earlier destroyed by Mount Vesuvius, a conical mountain sprinkled with snow on top. The present Tsar of the city, was of the lineage formed when the 5th Tsar married a local Geisha. They were married in the Royal Peculier, St. Basil’s Cathedral, a grand red structure with a cluster of decorated onion domes. 10,000 Cherry Blossom trees were planted to mark the occasion.
It was almost evening and I felt hungry. I went to a restaurant inside a park on the star shaped Liberty Island in the bay. A huge statue of a woman holding a book and a torch was at the center of the park. There were celebrations everywhere as the people were heralding the new year of the Tiger.
After finishing my dinner, I headed back to the airport. I bid adieu to the ember-red city of Brasilia. Rabindra Sangeet played on my ipod as I flew home to Calcutta.
The Bangalore Bohemian’s Nash-inspired poem #TheCityasMuse Runners-Up
The Bangalore Bohemian (he prefers his pen name) comes from a family of writers and journalists; his departed dad being his early inspiration. For this poem particularly, he follows in the footsteps of the infamous Ogden Nash!
Comment: It’s hard not to smile when you read this quirky piece of writing. And so did the judges!
A BOHEMIAN FROM BANGALORE
He sets out with the poise of a Bon Vivant,
But, the auto-wallah he hails is recalcitrant–
There are somethings he knows he can’t
Surmount, for his ears he has already lent
In acquiescence, to fare demands sardonically strident !
Our gourmet meanders along to Malleshwaram’s VEENA STORES
Imagining in”Nadaswaram” notes, the wailing wife’s cries hoarse
“You have always, incorrigibly, coveted the grass in the neighbor’s garden…
And conveniently called ME a correction-home’s warden ?”—
Psst, years of a south-headed marriage can render courtesies coarse.
In a Bohemian Bangalore, become an irrepressible social butterfly—
Flitting, flamboyantly, hither and thither— come rain or shine,
Having learnt well— sensibly seasoned— to keep his powder dry:
Past his prime, it’s a convivially platonic gambit–“your place or mine…”–
A charming connoisseur— anytime, anywhere, to DINE is fine.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.( C.). KUMAARA SUKEJA. AUG.2015.
‘Notes from B.Town’ by Rohan Patankar #TheCityasMuse Winning Entry
Rohan Patankar is a Delhi-based architect who loves to read, listen, draw, write and delve into the realm of creative spaces, both in terms of function and value. He presently works at Co.Lab design architecture studio and also initiates Delhi Dallying, where a bunch of interesting people write, organize walks, workshops and interactive events. This piece was originally published in The Scribbler.
Comment: Rohan’s fluid and evocative drawings combined with his quirky observations about his experience of Bombay were much appreciated, with one judge practically swooning at the quality of his artwork! As for me, I really like the twist at the end….
In March 2014, I was in Mumbai for a short solo vacation in the city. The intention was to just absorb some energy from the city; draw of it and draw from it. After these few years of Delhi Dallying, being vaguely familiar to Bombay and its local language, I meant to quickly break the touristy ice and get some local flavour.
Still doubtful about what it was exactly that I wanted to do walking around town all alone; my uncle jokingly insisted that I could never get the real feel of Bombay until I spent a night on a footpath. Having lived in the city for almost all his adult life, he claimed to have never even wanted to get this “real feel” of the city for himself. While I decided consciously to have no music playing in my ears when I was out, I was listening to Avishai Cohen’s Gently Disturbed in all the off time I got. He seemed to be getting the vibe of the city quite well; articulating an underlying structure that one can surely sense but cannot decipher completely.
I began with visiting the ancient Sassoon docks, followed by some landmark eateries and public squares in South Bombay. The fresh catch from the sea, the morning flowers and the market of ordinary things by the docks made for one of the most (overwhelmingly) memorable sensations of this trip. Walking through the buildings of colonial lineage at Fort and Ballard Estate, I sensed this comfort for the human scale. The formal building edge, the generous footpath and the sufficiently wide road seemed to really make it comfortable for people and cars. The synergy in the city felt home-grown and deliberate, and somehow, far more mature than what I experience in Delhi usually.
The vivid neighbourhoods and market streets of Dhobi Talao and Bhuleshwar were full of diverse building features and shop signs reading in many many local languages. The public space seemed to have been owned and claimed by people since forever. The threshold of the big Krishna temple at Bhuleshwar had me teleported from this busy transactional hub to a humble un-urbane courtyard. The chatter of the old Gujarati women and men seemed to be suspended in time across all of this space.
Walking along Marine Drive, I was quite surprised to see that many Gymkhana Maidans along the Marine Drive did not have any real boundary wall facing the main street. In an instant, the street felt wider and the open space more public. The Banganga tank in Walkeshwar; this ancient urban oasis seemed unchanging in the face of all the bustle and transformation of the city. It appeared to anchor all the temples that marked the edge of its steps, holding together the essence of the neighbourhood.
Lower Parel was quite a heady mix of the old and the intervened, with many elegant multi-storey glass buildings abutting grimly old low lying neighbourhoods. This looked like a story of aggressive urban transformation that I think would have had equally powerful social consequences. My taxi cab driver told me that most of these towers were built on mill sites. I walked through the Mathuradas Mill Compound where most mill buildings are converted into clubs and restaurants. The adaptive reuse was interesting indeed, but the establishments in this compound just felt disconnected from their setting, almost oblivious and opaque. It felt like the city here had been de-urbanized and reduced to architecture; mere buildings in cement and steel to work with.
I then went to Bandra to meet my architect friend Pallavi who showed me around. After lunching at the maze like Candies, we walked to the villages of Chuim and Ranwar. Starkly different from the intense urban villages of Delhi, this was pleasant. Walking across the main bazaar street selling fruit and everyday things we reached the back lanes that housed quaint cafes and pretty homes amid street art. There were many people and houses, rich and poor; young and old, but essentially ordinary and comfortable.
And still every bit of urban space appeared to be well defined and utilized skilfully. Elsewhere in the city, I had also noticed the seating created on the edge of buildings, places for potted plants by the windows, large doors that could also work like windows when opened partly. But, Bademiya in Colaba surprised me and inspired me in a whole new way. The main kitchen and seating area in this landmark restaurant are separated by a motorable main street! So it functions like a take-away and a dine-in place with its service circulation space being the most public. I hadn’t seen such sharp intensity in a long while.
I remember when we were at Bandstand in front of Salman Khan’s home (whatte landmark!), Pallavi and I were talking about this thrifty spirit that I sensed everywhere in the city. She felt that it comes from how perhaps everyone comes to Bombay and struggles for years, working really really hard. Only then does life get a little comfortable. So it is never embarrassing to have less money. It’s just an ordinary humble life that one shares with most other people in the city; sharing public space and transport. There appeared to be a sense of celebration in this struggle (couldn’t you see the cliché coming?).
I was found myself back in Bombay a few weeks ago, this time though, considering whether I would want to move to the city for work. And that thought changed a whole bunch of perspectives. Much of the romanticism was washed away instantly and the city suddenly felt like a dense mass of fast moving objects, racing against time. Architecture could actually be reduced to floating geometry that sits back and observes the city unfold through its people and their transaction.
I realized pretty soon that my experience in the city would keep changing every time I would explore it since all of what I saw outside had much to do with who I was within at that point in time. I would still be just another blind man forever looking at Bombay as the fabled elephant.