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‘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.

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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.

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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?).

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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.

Failure in planning OR failure of planning? Reflections on the saga of Mumbai’s DP

Some concrete suggestions for planners in the context of Mumbai’s recently shelved (but soon to re-appear) DP!

CPR Urban blog

The ambitious Mumbai Development Plan (DP) 2034, envisaged as a blueprint that specifies the land allocations, land use patterns, transportation networks and amenities for India’s largest metropolis, has been recently put on the shelf  for revisions following intense criticism on several fronts. It is to be revised and republished for public response within four months.

gateway of india Iconic monument, Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Photo credits: Mukta Naik

The release of the plan into the public domain, itself a unique occurrence for Indian city planning, has facilitated an unprecedented amount of public debate and discussion. In the process, many hitherto unconcerned citizens have hopefully thought about the issues involved in deciding a future for their city. However, several burning questions remain. On the mechanics of planning a megacity like Mumbai. On the processes and institutions required. On responsibility. On why Indian cities are unable to plan. And on why they must learn to…

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Megacity Narratives

The role of public transport in integrating labor markets, discussed in the South Asian context

TheSouthAsianIdea Weblog

By Anjum Altaf

The discussion of megacities has drifted into a combination of oh-my-god and pie-in-the-sky narratives displacing potentially sensible and useful analyses.

As an example of the first, consider how often one hears that Karachi had a population of 11 million in 1998 and is twice that now – as if that was enough to clinch the argument that we have a mega-problem on our hands.

My response is: So what? I am not particularly bothered if the population rises to 30 million. What matters, and this is the real question we should be asking, is whether Karachi is well managed and whether its management is improving or deteriorating over time.

Suppose the answer is that Karachi is not well managed. If so, does that have anything to do with its size? As a test, I would ask the proponents of the size-is-the-problem argument to go live in Mirpur…

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Mumbai before dawn #GirlyRoadTrip Day 1

An early start is the best mantra for road trips and there is really nothing better than empty roads and the feel of whizzing by when the rest of the world is in slumber. Mumbai never sleeps though, and at five thirty a.m., we saw many joggers and walkers and even gossipers on Worli Sea Face and BEST buses doing their rounds. I had never been on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link before and to do so in the dark, driving under all that fantastic lighting, was a treat indeed! With Rachna at the wheel, we exited Mumbai with the least fuss. By the time dawn was breaking, we were on the highway and excited by all the possibilities of adventure on Day 1 of our fantastic girly road trip! The blurry white figures of Jain munis, sometimes being escorted by marshalls and at other times being carried in palkis by attendants, added an interesting visual element to this maiden drive.

The Sea Link, I loved it!


#GirlyRoadTrip Day 0: Madness, bonding and nostalgia

After a crazy dash to the Delhi airport thanks to a truck turned turtle on NH8. Nupur and me took the flight to Mumbai with a distinct feeling that adventure was waiting for us with a vengeance!

Friday afternoon in Mumbai was dedicated to winding up Rachna’s house. After all, the trigger for the road trip was her big move back to Gurgaon. The three of us reached Juhi’s place one by one, after completing the errands that had fallen in our kitty. Juhidi as well call her is Nupur’s cousin, but also our buddy from the good old school days in Lucknow. Loads of nostalgia to fall back on, but also a genuine bonding. From sharing life experiences to politics and finally, just plain old giggle-fest, the stopover at Juhi’s was a perfect launch pad for the Girly Road Trip.

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!


While the last few cartons were being packed!

Rachna and Nupur- While the last few cartons were being packed!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she's thinking! All that packing must have done her in!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she’s thinking! All that packing must have done her in!



Eat ‘n Read fun at Kitab Khana, Bombay

The second of my posts on Mumbai’s eating out experiences, this lunch was very different from the afternoon spent at LPQ. It’s right next to Flora Fountain, this treasure called Kitab Khana, a bookshop and cafe, the best of both worlds of reading and eating, housed inside a 150 year old heritage building._DSC8254

Run by the Somaiyas, who own the building as well, the shop was a treat to walk into. As an architect, I was fascinated and proceeded to ask a zillion questions and take many pictures. I learnt about the seepage problems the building has, the problems of renting out heritage spaces and the sheer amount of money and effort it takes to maintain a shop like this. Yet, in the manager’s eyes I saw the pride and the sheer love for what he does. The staff is old-world and affectionate, as I found out from the little chit-chats they had with the kiddos.

The bookshop has a gallery upstairs as well to browse in. Lovely!

The bookshop has a gallery upstairs as well to browse in. Lovely!

Catching up amidst heaps of books...

Catching up amidst heaps of books…

Column close up

Column close up

The girls got those little books with quotes....thrilled and comparing notes!

The girls got those little books with quotes….thrilled and comparing notes!

The cafe is small, but served an excellent selection of pastas, sandwiches, salads and desserts (couscous salad and blueberry cheesecake recommended). We were catching up with dear family friends and Aadyaa had spent the entire morning with them. Though the lunch was planned so that we could get Aadyaa back with us, she had had so much fun with her new-found friend Radha that she went right back home with them! The cafe at Kitab Khana seemed like an extension of home and the two girls danced, sang and chatted their way through the meal. For the rest of us, it was catch-up time as well. For Udai, it was  serious food time and he also had the opportunity to buy the next book in the Percy Jackson series. That one needs his reading fuel to be uninterrupted, or else we are in trouble!

Dancing, singing, eating all at the same time..

Dancing, singing, eating all at the same time..

Color me yellow!! Me, Juhi, Rachna.. photo credit: Udai

Color me yellow!! Me, Juhi, Rachna and the superb aam panna.. photo credit: Udai

The bookshop seem through the cafe not ask me what Udai is doing here!

The bookshop seem through the cafe openings…do not ask me what Udai is doing here!

Hands up for dessert!

Hands up for dessert!

Nupur, amused

Nupur, amused

Contemplation time

Contemplation time

A little nook above the cafe for the little ones

A little nook above the cafe for the little ones

Blueberry cheescake, Rachna bossy's awesome nail colour...things that fascinate Udai?

Blueberry cheescake, Rachna bossy’s awesome nail colour…things that fascinate Udai?

Mumbai eating! The communal dining experience at LPQ

I cannot stop gushing about my weekend trip to Mumbai with the kids and I truly apologize for those who are getting sick of it. But there are a couple of more fun things that are share-worthy, so bear with me!

After the Elephanta trudge, Rachna introduced us to this really neat place Bombay-ites speak of fondly. LPQ is La Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain started by Alain Coumont with the simple objective of serving healthy, tasty, fresh bread. The food was delicious indeed, supposedly locally sourced and organic, superbly put together and subtle in its flavours. We ate tartines, grilled fish and lots of bread plus the delectable apple crumb, entrenched in the memory of my taste buds!

But what really stood out was the experience of communal dining that LPQ offers. They asked us if we wanted to sit at the communal table when we entered and it seemed like a fun idea. I didn’t expect much, however. Perhaps being a Dilliwali I thought it would just be a formality with people continuing to interact within their own groups. Boy, was I wrong!

Within the first few minutes, I had made my first eye contact with a dignified lady who was eating alone near our seats. I think she was amused by my smart-alecy reply to Aadyaa’s smart-alecy question, I forget what it was. Many smiles flew back and forth.

After a bit, a young mother and her cute son moved from a separate table onto the communal one. Soon enough, the kiddo was commenting on what we were doing and saying. Then he threw some question at Aadyaa, she answered back with some help from me on how to frame sentences in English, Hindi being her first language. Soon, the two kids were chattering away and strolling through the space and they had successfully broken the ice for the grown-ups to chat. An elderly couple (European, I thought) across from the young mommy wanted to know what she was drinking, and a lively discussion on drinks ensued with us listening in.

We must have spent two hours plus there, nibbling away at our food, chatting, laughing, just being. Got me thinking about how insular we are usually, going out to eat and only talking to the people we already know really well. Sometimes even hesitating to smile at strangers, avoiding eye contact even; or rather, not bothering to seek out contact. I am always having fun smiling at strangers and seeing how they will react. Some return surprised hesitant smiles, some broad ones and others just stare back. It’s entertaining. At LPG, however, things are set up so you broaden your social world and it’s a great thing! I found this article about communal dining that lists its pros and cons, for those of you who want to know more (there is an entire coffee table book on Alan Coumont’s philosophy at LPQ, fascinating!). Personally, I quite enjoyed the experience and would be excited to try out other communal dining restaurants in my future travels.

Udai, engrossed in getting his lemonade just right!

Udai, engrossed in getting his lemonade just right!

Nupur watches

Nupur watches

Noses inside the menu...Boy, were we hungry!

Noses inside the menu…Boy, were we hungry!

The communal dining table

The communal dining table

Aadyaa's friend

Aadyaa’s friend

Two imps with a slate, having a great time on the steps....

Two imps with a slate, having a great time on the steps….


Day trip to Elephanta caves, Mumbai: Blast from the past!

Seeing as we had missed going there last time we visited Mumbai thanks to the rains and because Udai had heard of my childhood visits to these caves, he was raring to go. He had put down his demand to visit Elephanta on Day 1 of his solo Mumbai trip to stay with Rachna, who my kids fondly call Bossy (Bausi actually, which is half bua and half mausi, for those of you interested in the etymology of this strange term). It also sort of fits with her, we joke, but in reality she is a softy and a sweetheart.

Anyway, on a super hot summer day, the kids and us- Rachna, Nupur (mausi to the kids) and me- boarded the ferry boat to Elephanta which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an experience pulling out into the sea, seeing the majestic Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel getting smaller and smaller as we headed out. Yes, I’ve been here as a child with my cousins and the ferry ride was the most thrilling part of it. This time, I noticed how many locals there were on board carrying vegetables, corn, coconuts and other goods to the island. These sea-people, for whom now tourism was a lifeline, intrigued me and I wanted to know more…

Anyway, many ship-sightings, lifebuoy-countings and sunburns later, we approached the densely forested island, locally known as Gharapuri but named Elephanta after the stone carved elephant that was discovered here and now stands in the Bombay Zoo, or the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the zoo premises to be precise.

Pulling away watching the beautiful Gateway and iconic Taj hotel get smaller and smaller...

Pulling away watching the beautiful Gateway and iconic Taj hotel get smaller and smaller…


Mumbai skyline on a hot hot day

Mumbai skyline on a hot hot day

It’s a hot walk and climb to the caves (you can also take a cute chugging train till the steps), but all worth the effort. Sweat streaming, we enter the dark caves to be utterly fascinated by the sculpture, the architecture, the sheer monumentality of these caves, built between 450 and 750 AD. The trimurti- Brahma,Vishnu, Mahesh is exquisite and so are the several sculptures of dwarpals, shiva, shiva-parvatu, ardhnarishwar, etc that adorn the first large cave.

Chair, anyone? Was hot enough to tempt anyone, yet we saw only one brave old lady actually climb into one!

Chair, anyone? Was hot enough to tempt anyone, yet we saw only one brave old lady actually climb into one!

Cave No 1 here we come!

Cave No 1 here we come!

Inside Cave No 1

Inside Cave No 1

Standing before the magnificent trimurti

Standing before the magnificent trimurti

Udai, Nupur, Rachna

Udai, Nupur, Rachna


Posing on the steps before entering the cave...

Posing on the steps before entering the cave…

Photo mania!

Photo mania!


bat hunting!

bat hunting!

For Udai and Aadyaa (and perhaps for all who visit), the fact that someone (in this case Portuguese traders) had shot at and maimed the sculptures was the main concern. they had read the Amar Chitra Katha comic about the caves and knew some of the history. So are those who did it bad? No? Then why did they do it? A long discussion on intolerance and how it is routinely practised, to the detriment of the human race, followed. An excellent opportunity for me to drill in my own philosophy of liberalism and tolerance, and appreciation of all cultures. I was to get the opportunity again, with much more impact, up in Mcleodganj in the context of Tibet, but more about that later.

The caves offer many photo opportunities and we took them all! On the way back, we decided to wait for the mini train to go back to the ferry. Sitting there, eating corn, I got the opportunity to converse in Marathi with the locals who run all the touristy knick-knack and food shops on the island. They were farmers and fisherfolk before, but now the monkeys have devastated all the crops and they rely on supplies from the mainland. They still fish and bit, do boat repair work etc, but are largely dependent on tourism fir income. The young do not stay here, leaving the island to study and work. I got the sense of despondency, rather than excitement. Would like to know more. When we declare something of heritage value, how does that change the loves of the people who have lived there for generations? Do they have links with the dynasty that carved the caves or are they later settlers? Is there any other way they can be involved to contribute to and benefit from the tourism that the island attracts? Is there any other way the trip the island can be enhanced? Through cultural interpretation centres, art displays, some non-invasive development around the island’s natural lakes and lagoons?

These were the thoughts going around my head on the ferry ride back. As the magnificent city of Mumbai came back into view, these thoughts faded and the excitement of walking around South Mumbai became more palpable!

snacking on bhutta! roasted corn, a super healthy, super tasty meal

Snacking on bhutta! roasted corn, a super healthy, super tasty meal

Heading back, Mumbai beckons!

Heading back, Mumbai beckons!


Room with the view: Looking out at the Bombay docks from Sewri

The best part about my friend Rachna’s apartment in Mumbai is the view. It looks out at sea past the endearing clutter of Sewri and you see these enormous ships like little dots in the distance. The less I say the better, for here are the various moods of the sea from Rachna’s living room balcony! Udai, who spent a week with her all by himself is vouching for the restorative powers of this view, which he clearly enjoyed to the fullest!ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Informed and inspired by the SSA Workshop on Urban Poverty in Mumbai

Of the 40-odd people who attended this workshop on the 11th of December in Mumbai, most came in not knowing what to expect. Urban poverty is a term that confuses and confounds many, even among those of us who work in the development sector. Lina Sonne from Intellecap, which brings out the Searchlight South Asia newsletter for the Rockefeller Foundation and had organized the event, pointed out that there is still an overwhelming focus on rural poverty and a need to move away from thinking of urban poverty as a problem that stems from a failure to address rural issues. Urbanization is clearly a force by itself, the urban poor face issues that are distinct and overwhelming, and there needs to be a focus on resolving these if cities are to truly be the engines of economic growth that India is pinning its hopes on.

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

As the first presenter, I struggled a little bit to gauge the mood, the interest areas and the expectations of the audience, which came from diverse backgrounds. Some were here to listen and learn, and there were others with a fire in their belly who were already doing really interesting things on the ground with poor communities as well as corporations that were striving to drive change through more sensitive leadership.

So I decided to focus on mHS’ vision for housing solutions that envisages a portfolio of housing options ranging from dormitories and shelters for the homeless and pavement dwellers, all the way up to ownership housing. The idea is that the urban poor are a heterogeneous bunch, every bit ambitious and enterprising as any other citizen if not more, and they should be able to self-select what sort of housing they want to live in. (Within this portfolio, mHS is currently focused on catalyzing self-construction in informal settlements through providing technical assistance in the form of engineering and architectural services to homeowners). To make this portfolio of housing possible, not only do we need policy changes and involvement from the government, but essentially there is a need to look at urban problems from an interdisciplinary perspective with the goal to make cities more inclusive and provide better opportunities for everyone.

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

The other presentations were also very interesting and a lot of the content was new to me. Abhishek Bhardwaj from Alternative Realities spoke eloquently about the homeless in Mumbai and his proposal for “housing in continuum” aligns closely with mHS’ vision. Baby Mohite and Vishnu from Swach in Pune presented the pioneering work that an association of 2200 wastepickers has done in association with Pune Municipal Corporation in being able to bring solid waste management to about 4 lakh households in the city.  This happens through door-to-door garbage collection. The wastepickers then segregate the waste, utilizing the ‘wet’ waste to produce manure and biogas and recyclable materials of all sorts are picked out of the ‘dry’ waste. The results are dramatic and the high level of innovation impressive, like the ST Dispo Bag that allows women to dispose sanitary napkins in a distinct bag so wastepickers don’t have to directly handle soiled napkins! They sell about 50,000 bags per month and all because the wastepicker women had conversations with the middle class women in the households they serve and connected on a woman-to-woman level.

I was quite touched by the presentation by young Shweta from Kranti, which is an NGO run by two spunky women to rehabilitate young girls who have grown up in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district. Shweta, one of the ‘girls’, spoke in an endearing pseudo-accent and told us about how her confidence has grown, how she doesn’t care about what society thinks, how she is influencing her sisters to stand up for themselves back home in the red light district and how she wants to change the world. Shweta and other “krantikaris” (revolutionists) are actively involved in teaching and holding workshops with marginalized girls and children across India. Two other presentations discussed initiatives in education (Doorstep School) and health.

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

The presentations spun off some interesting discussions. One was the conflict between being innovative in addressing urban poverty through grant-funded initiatives and the need to go to scale and impact a larger number. The future of social enterprises was a concern and some felt acutely the need for social entrepreneurs to get real and find sustainable business models. Some exciting sparring happened on that one!

Another takeaway for many of us was the need for more interaction among those working in the development sector among the urban poor. There is considerable convergence in how different grassroots organizations are beginning to think about the huge problem of how to provide better quality of life for urban residents and much can be learned through sharing and collaborations.

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