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‘Commoners here by thousands float

And jostle one another down

Each paddling in his leaky boat

And here they fish for gold; or drown.’

                                                                Jonathan Swift


‘Bombay is a great city – but a terrible place!’ Charles Correa’s famous remark encapsulates the difficulty of defining the essential spirit of Bombay. No simple description of the city is adequate – the place is just too complex, too diverse. For the last 50 years, this island city has suffered an explosion of growth and change, spurred on not by the singular vision or actions of a great leader but by a messy organic expansion, where every assumption of the city’s planners is overtaken by events, and most reserved spaces for public amenities are giving way to encroachments, squatters colonies for the poor or illegal buildings for the better off.

Writers, film-makers and poets have all struggled to describe this phenomenon. Pico Iyer, in his evocative account of Bombay (called ‘Hobson-Jobson on the Streets’) saw the city as ‘some mythical monster on the move, at dawn and dusk at the same time.’ It is impossible not to feel the sizzle of our Wall Street, the stench of urine and garbage, the glitter of Bollywood whose beautiful faces oversee the city from cinema hoardings everywhere, the new Shanghai rising in the Bandra-Kurla Banking District, the 13 feet by 13 feet regulation kholis in the textile mill chawls, even smaller living spaces in the innumerable slums, hawkers on every busy street, having displaced customers from shops on the very same pavement now displacing each other in raucous defiance of every authority.

But, everywhere, you see in this city that ‘as with its horrors, so are its wonders beyond reason.’ That, everywhere, in all but the most wretched situations, ‘good cheer is in constant collision with enterprise.’

A city that is so noisy day and night, whose new buildings are so drab, which looks so dreary during the rains, which inflicts so much hardship on its people – has still captured their souls in some inexplicable way. This adversity seems to have fuelled extraordinary energy among the people. To an outsider, the city often seems a ‘kaleidoscope of colours, sounds and images’ – a constant carnival parade – a chaotic ‘jostling of clangorous, technicolour profusion.’

But Bombay is truly a city of paradoxes, where every description, and its opposite, find a place. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s Salmaan, returned from Rawalpindi to Bombay, is excited by ‘the rainbow riot of the city.’ Yet Rohinton Mistry’s anti-hero finds the same Bombay ‘brown and weary and unhappy.’ Even Satyajit Ray could not help himself from comparing Bombay to a highly painted courtesan ‘…at once seductive and revolting.’



Languages, too, reflect the bitter-sweet hybrids of their speakers (Cross Maidan, Apollo Bunder, Mahalaxmi Race Course, Mahatma Gandhi Road, meeting Wellington Circle on the way to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). The cohabitation of so many communities (in which city in the world can you go to the theatre in four or five languages?) and their festivals, their cuisine (Jain, Chinese or Mexican bhel puri at Vithal’s; dosas with Goa prawn curry filling at Dosa Diner; kesar pista masala cassata at Dinshaw’s Ice Cream Parlors) – all making it clear that we should now avoid the cliché that Bombay is a ‘melting pot’ of so many different cultures.

Far from its different communities getting melted down into one brown stew, so many pots can be seen simmering away separately on their respective choolahs flavouring our atmosphere with a unique blend of scents and odours. Gieve Patel, a poet from Bombay, described these on a visit to one of our railway stations in his poem ‘Bombay Central’:

‘the odour does not offend…

an amalgam of diesel oil, hot steel, cool rails,

lights and shadow, human sweat,

metallic distillations, dung;

newspaper ink, Parle’s gluco biscuits

all hitting the nostrils as one singular, atmospheric thing

seeping into your clothing.’



Bombay is not an ancient city. Its frenetic growth has been crammed into just the last three centuries, one influx of persons, one wave of change following swiftly upon the other. The earliest Koli fisher bastis and mangrove marshes were first imprinted by armed European traders. Then came waves of immigrants from Gujarat and the Deccan, all the while reclamation filling in the interstices between the many fingers of its low lying islands, so that, in just 200 years (a mere blink of Lord Shiva’s eye), that great monster of a land-mass seemed to emerge from the sea like a giant Tyrannosaurus Mumbaikar. On its surface, there was teeming activity, with Imperial governors and Indian civil servants attempting to bring order into this activity; marine, railway and PWD engineers, cotton mill owners, philanthropists, financiers, upcountry politicians and property developers, all appearing and putting down roots.

The city, meanwhile, metamorphoses from south to north. In its mouth, a rough-hewn set of dentures appears in the form of the Marine Drive buildings, later showing the polish and sparkle of the flashy windows of Nariman Point’s towers; two deep furrows running northwards across its back – the Central and Western Railway lines – eruptions appear like blisters on its hide in the form of a rash of building construction, some rugged as cement, others flimsy enough to be blown away in a monsoon wind, spreading virulently across the eastern and western suburbs; the only constant feature being the green and furry down covering its broader, upper quarters to the north, crawling with the plant and insect life of the Borivili Park.

Charles Correa laments that the ‘great’ city Bombay – a world city of three million in the 1950s – has now sunk into a provincial agglomeration of 14 million, where living conditions, despite the glamour of its many tall buildings, have deteriorated steadily for the last 50 years. The most striking aspect of Bombay is that a city that generates more wealth than any other metropolis in India, should have done so little to provide decent housing to more than half its residents. Some seven million people don’t have access to a toilet or taps with running water in their ‘homes’, a cruel euphemism for the 200 square feet space which a family of five or six, on average, occupies.



I therefore held my breath when a wealthy estate-developer friend told me, over dinner last year, that he was going to do something on a grand scale – a big ‘gesture’ – to make Bombay a better place! His project: to build two 60-storey residential towers as part of a slum clearance scheme in the Tardeo district. This is an old locality where hundreds of three and four storey buildings receive municipal water for just a few hours each day and where, when the rains come, the ancient choked sewers overflow and turn the streets into rivers of floating shit and dead rats. In this area would now rise two of the country’s tallest buildings. They would incorporate all the latest features in earthquake proof design, internal fire fighting, eight stories of podium car parking and, of course, high speed lifts, health clubs, a swimming pool, and so on, all now amenities to be taken for granted by the affluent middle class.

I was immediately reminded of how Professor Henri-Claude de Bettignies, an INSEAD professor, begins his annual five-day retreat at Pebble Beach, California, for global CEOs who have come for a ‘refresher’ on how to cope with the challenges of managing the world’s largest corporations. His first slide seems innocuous enough. A couple of glistening skyscrapers, with a helicopter coming in to land atop one of them, finding a place in between the telecom antennae and dishes, beaming no doubt to the far corners of the globe, the instructions of those powerful men, alighting from their large black limousines at the lobby below. A familiar scene to the viewers.



But just below the embankment on which these towering symbols of power stand, are steps that lead down to the edge of an open sewer, where another teeming world resides. A mass of street dwellers’ shacks, balanced on the edge of a drain, children squatting in the muck, a bunch of ragpickers sharing a snort of ‘coke’, all under the watchful eye of a policeman collecting his ‘protective’ take from the street hawkers. Again, nothing unusual, for his well-travelled audience.

Yet, according to de Bettignies, this is the key issue for global CEOs to ponder. Big corporations need growing markets. What is the future of global business if the steel and glass edifices are being corroded at their foundations by overwhelming numbers of the underprivileged? It’s not much different in the countryside, where overwhelming numbers of marginal farmers are dispossessed. Yet these high rise buildings, far from being the solution, seem to increase the gulf between their lofty residents and those condemned to live at ground level.

The 24th anniversary issue of Bombay’s Mid-day had a touching series on ‘How it feels…’ (…to have climbed Everest; to have escaped death). The euphoric builder who lives atop his 42-storey creation at Nana Chowk, tells us ‘how it feels’ to live in Bombay’s just built, tallest building: ‘The best part is to see the city below, at my feet; even better when it rains and I see the ground through the clouds, as if I am flying.’



But what life do those below enjoy as they contemplate this towering monster whose needs for water will dry up their mains and water hydrants, whose sewage will burst through their manhole covers when it rains heavily, and whose cars keep adding to the gridlock on the roads?

If our estate ‘developer’ chose to take a morning walk below, perhaps the lines of Nissim Ezekiel might come alive to him:

‘Barbaric city, sick with slums,

Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains,

Its hawkers, beggars, iron-lunged,

Processions led by frantic drums’

A million purgatorial lanes,

And child-like masses, many tongued,

Whose wages are in words and crumbs.’1

It’s sad that a pessimism has now taken deep root in some of Bombay’s most creative people. In a February 2002 issue of Outlook featuring an article by Darryl D’Monte ‘Bye Bye Bombay,’ Naushad the Music Director laments; ‘…the city is in irreversible decline.’ ‘No hope till we drive out the immigrants,’ says Pramod Navalkar. ‘City of gold has become city of dross,’ says Darryl himself. ‘Mumbai is now Slum-bai; it’s too late for Mumbai to be saved’ complains Vijay Tendulkar. And even Gerson da Cunha, who has launched a courageous public crusade against corrupt candidates in the city’s municipal elections, surprises us by his statement: ‘Intellectually, the city has blown out its brain!’



For the brightest in Bombay to be so negative is not only a result of the usual dismay with the state of the courts, the police, conservancy and utilities. In Bombay, the deeper concern is that we have lost control of the processes that now drive the city’s physical development. For example, the planning regulations have been freed from any ceiling on FSI when re-development of cessed (over 50 years old) buildings is undertaken. That is how just a few old five storey buildings in Nana Chowk, Tardeo, were transmuted into a forty-plus storey tower. Never mind that it needs considerable sleight of hand to create the paper work to make this possible.

In the case of slum redevelopment, a grossly ill-conceived strategy incentivises builders to rehabilitate slum dwellers free of cost, in return for permission to build and sell (at market prices) real estate, the area of which is related to the slum families re-housed. A Slum Re-development Authority was created and given extraordinary powers to give effect to this scheme. No wonder that it has created enormous incentives to inflate the number of slum dwellers so as to increase the amount of free-sale upmarket space; to encourage criminals to substitute genuine slum dwellers by those prepared to pay for the re-hab quarters.

Imagine the outcome of such a sham socialist enactment: the forcible removal of slum dwellers, the appropriation of land including green areas reserved for the city at large, the forcible introduction of persons not entitled to accommodation into slum rehab buildings; the inflation of free FSI for sale at the top end of market prices, the further densification of the most densely occupied parts of the city and the infliction of further pressure on crumbling utilities, without paying a paisa directly to strengthen the city’s infrastructure.

One wonders at the audacity of such shameless and rapacious city governance. Ministers, bureaucrats, builders and the municipality have collaborated in this conspiracy to share the spoils of a development process that continues to dispossess volatile city dwellers. The irony is that as they erect their modern edifices in the name of the poor on a murky foundation of land appropriated from the poor and sustained by fraud, these city developers want to live in these very towers! They do not recognise their obligations to repair the much abused infrastructure in their locality, now to be further strained by these new buildings. The two 60-storey towers in the Tardeo slums are the first in a series of perhaps ten more.

Like Marie Antoinette, the new penthouse royalty of the city perhaps feel that if the poor can’t have infrastructure, let them at least have skyscrapers.

Can this situation persist? Not likely. Public interest litigation is being planned, as a last shot at bringing some sanity to bear in the city’s planning process. Will those twin towers further the divide between the two cities? Perhaps, the twin-towers of Tardeo will mark a turning point for this great city whose energetic poor are humiliated whenever they enter those miniscule living spaces they call their homes.

An Irish proverb says ‘It is in the shelter of each other that people live.’ Bombay’s builders and their rich clients may forget this only at their own peril.



1. From: ‘A Morning Walk’, in Collected Poems 1952-1988 by Nissim Ezekiel. Oxford University Press, 1989.