"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


something about sunset
in Mumbai captures a feeling particular to this city, as it is both tragic and relieving. the sun sets into dirt-thick smog, disappearing long before it hits the horizon. the smog actually parts, like water, accepting the candy-colored (like the Robitussin-hued ‘jam’ I eat every morning) orb as it sinks. the air becomes cool, the sky bruised – and I know that’s a clichéd descriptor of dusk -- but here it is accurate. the sky DOES feel bruised – choaked with pollution, fragile after another days’ beating. on the flip side, at dusk the promise of a cooler evening makes people walk a little more slowly as they head home. at dusk, I also must start thinking about where I am going to position myself in the city when it is dark. like in any large city, I cannot wander freely alone after nightfall.

1.23 bus 123 to Malabar Hill
but here the ominousness feels even more stark: descending Malabar hill, one of Mumbai’s wealthiest neighborhoods, a jogger told me : “this looks pretty during the day but make sure you are not here after nightfall.” Malabar’s swaying trees and fancy cars belie a tense existence with its lower surroundings, which are seedy and greedy, perhaps rubbed raw by the enclave above its head. this, and the more hectic pace of traffic over in this section of the city, made tuesday a hard day. with every horn I felt brittle, realizing more clearly that the cars DO rule – one is expected to scramble out of the way, the wheels won’t slow. but horns honk even without reason, the blaring is incessant, and can be like a slow torture-drip. granted, driving here must be very frustrating as there are pedestrians EVERYWHERE…but, due to a lack of an organized grid with predictable crosswalks, walking is too. still, there were moments of savior: a jain temple caved out of marble, under renovation, the stone carvers’ tink-tink-tink revealing new, milk-white marble beneath the gray-colored grime of what had been. there is no sensation like warm marble on bare feet. a tiny alley, roofs 4 or 5 feet high, which led to a grass-covered basin beneath a high rise, the hillside covered with hundreds of shirts pants shorts: a neighborhood dhobi-wallah (laundry send-away). curious kids wanted to chat and were thrilled to have their picture taken, which they gawked at in pleasing amazement. later, exhausted and despondent, looking at the picture was a simple dose of perspective.

1.24 Western Line to Virar
a physically dramatic day that started early when a European woman attempted to jump off the train, which was going too fast now, and ended up skidding stomach down on the platform at Churchgate. there was a furor, everyone looking to see if she was all right and mumbling to themselves. later, on the return from Virar (end of the main line) it was Mission Impossible: a vendor with a bundle of goods actually scaled the outside of the speeding train to reach the adjacent car. shortly thereafter a group of young teenage boys showing off for me by leaning far far out of the train, one came within an inch, literally, of having his torso ripped off as the train sped by a pole, unusually close to the train compartment. even he was terrified, wide-eyed and laughing in that young-macho way that only teenage boys do, the world over, as far as I can tell.

the Western Line – definitely the busiest of the three. platforms are being expanded, evidenced by the naked metal trusses, still without roof or even platform beneath. this is the line that goes through the heart of north mumbai’s CBD’s and wealthy residential areas, such as Bandra East, Santa Cruz, Andheri. around these stations the crowds swell and going north they pretty much stay that way for an hour. on the return it’s a different story; after these stations the train empties until Churchgate, again stark evidence of the southern CBD’s limitations as a viable residence for most urban dwellers. also around Santa Cruz one notices the implementation of partitions between the rail lines, to avoid track jumping. [whimsy: the tops of the metal rails are rubbed shiny by riders who stick out their feet and run their toes along the fence. it makes a pleasing rhythmic thump that increases in speed against the bottom of the foot, and the temptation to do this is beyond mere copying: it was night, hard to see,
and I only noticed the shine after I had put my own foot out. it made me feel like a kitten among kittens – that our physical urges are so predictable and uniform...] further north in Borivali, which is generally accepted to be the end of Mumbai city proper, there were a handful of ‘established’ tent homes between the tracks. this was the one and only place where I have seen this level of entrenchment on the tracks proper. still further north as the city gave way to rail-station towns (separated by expanses of green), evidence of organized development is everywhere: a concrete tower still wet in patches, replete with decorative formwork on the façade; thick concrete fences lining the tracks in an attempt to keep the town more ‘planned’ and prevent informal trackside growth (Mira Rd. an especially striking example of this block planning); and billboards at every station showing a smiling white family in front of a pool, the proud new owners of a unit in a building development that is part of a suburban station-centered real-estate chain.

one gleaming white building high up on a steep hill in Virar caught my eye, and I wondered if it wasn’t one such promised paradise, which I wanted to see. after a redeeming glass of hand-pressed orange juice I took an auto-rickshaw through the town to the base of the mountain only to realize it was a hindi temple. the climb steep & hot, stone steps smeared with the crimson powder of hindi ritual, stalls on either side like a vertical market, selling baskets of offerings and juices and waters, and almost all with TV’s, even 1000ft above the town. once at the temple and out of breath the simple pleasure of sitting on the floor with a friendly family and chatting for 15 minutes, sharing a banana. further up I had a spot to myself on a stone, and looked out at the smog covered valley below, the town of Virar spread erratically, with gaping holes the ground on the outskirts of town to accommodate what I guess will be the foundations for more concrete towers. the pinnacle was windy; in addition to the fluttering gold and red ribbons there was the gentle whir of a single windmill, which belongs to a power agency who is sharing the mountaintop with the temple. wires, temples, ribbons, goats, rocks, boy-on-roof-breaking-coconut, mini-playground for small children ... and somehow there was still something close to…silence.

it’s impossible to wrap your mind around this city without making some generalizations, but once you do, you fail to understand the city. I have been reading some more official planning documents today, which lament the chaos of the transportation infrastructure, and call for making the system’s roads and rails more cohesively organized, and public transport more appealing to the driving classes (although the rails do have a hefty %80 user rate). the descriptions of a newly envisioned Mumbai, with clean, air conditioned railcars to entice the upper-middle class away from their cars, elevated crosswalks, dedicated sidewalks, and overhead expressways seems to be a reasonable enough solution but in part seems fails to acknowledge day to day issues of why people move through the city the way they do. people walk on roads not because there is not room on the sidewalk, where sidewalks do exist, but because the sidewalk is the domain of the vital informal economy, saturated with stalls. upper-middle class folks perhaps stay away from the rails not because the cars are dirty, but because the train interchanges are physically brutal…even when there is no rush-hour, and the cars are empty. if the city wants to resolve some of THIS madness, the trains will need to stop for longer than 17 seconds per station. even then it will take more than air conditioning and bigger platforms to change the fundamental nature of the Mumbaikers commute and entice the wealthy out of their cars, which hardly clog the roads in comparison to the cabs (and which provide a necessary and relatively accessible means of point-to-point road transport, as inexpensive as they are). speaking to a woman on the train yesterday, she put it succinctly: “living here, everything is a struggle. for one job there are 1000 applicants.” it is grab as grab can, a mentality that seems to be embedded beyond the reality of whether a particular situation demands it. regardless of what the solution is to the snarl of daily congestion – on trains, on roads, for pedestrians (movement is lugubrious everywhere, except on the train where it is ferocious) – I (perhaps naively) wonder if the only way to make everything work like clockwork is to make the city look and work like a clock. it is hard to imagine this city’s energy without its messiness, but then too, the effort to become a ‘global city’ is just that: there will be a standard of function and form that is accepted as acceptable to those whose lives are bound not by just this singular place.

otherwise…a pretty low-key day that has still left me wiped. spent a little time up in the Taj tower around the corner, adjacent to the original palatial edifice. it is perfect de Certeau: twenty stories tall it is the highest thing around, and a stone’s throw from the Gateway to India. windows in the halls are miniscule, making the semi-private space of the hallway feel like a fortress both from within and without. a staff person let me enter a recently vacated room where a near-full window wall of glass gives a picture-perfect vision of south Mumbai below. the particular room I was in faced the monolithic form of the Gateway, with its hawkers and tourists and taxis sitting eerily silent and frozen from the air conditioned perch of the room’s breakfast table. this was Mumbai reduced to a comfortable 65 degree vision and nothing more. and yet I found myself wondering, if one did have the luxury of staying here, but the curiosity to go out and ride the train into a grotty neighborhood that escapes the tourist book, only to come back to this palace at night, wouldn’t there be something valuable in this? to NOT normalize the dirt and the poverty, but to be reminded, constantly, of two coexisting, utterly contrasting worlds? not that one should need the Taj in order to not normalize – wearing Tevas should be enough. I often find my position here to be morally dumbfounding, and quite humbly, confusing -- that I am looking, seeing, recording, thinking, and more and more I feel the need to do something in kind for my consumption of this city besides the occasional ‘tip’ to child. moreover, the whole hassle of bargaining – I begin to wonder what the point is. for the sake of fairness and not being ‘ripped off’ when the truth is, even with a branner budget i DO have more money than the average person on the street? the ‘principle’ of it becomes ridiculously foggy and stupid feeling. but so too is it maddening to walk down the street wearing a big ‘wealthy consumer’ on one’s forehead, when you’re not here to shop at all. at some point it ceases to feel like shopping, however, and to feel more like giving someone their daily income for something as ridiculous as a kitschy sticker of ganesha with rupees around his head. I “don’t-need-that” less than “you-need-this”: a bizarre inversion of consumer desire.


Ben said...

It is ncredible what you are experiencing right now Yuki.

Be well out there!

ben said...

incredible :)

Ivan Valin said...

yuki, you are setting the bar very high. well done.