A Route to Abyssinia

August 28, 2008

The spectacular Janjira fort, a chip of India’s African history, stands in the Arabian Sea, a few kilometers below Mumbai. It is literally referred to as the Island Fort. Covered with trees and roots, it is tall and majestic – proud of the fact that it remained the only unconquered fort in the region.

Unconquered, by the several rival rulers who cast covetous eyes on its strategic position.

It is a beautiful urban ruin. Overgrown with trees that have roots going all the way to Africa. A place that is physically surprisingly close, but has been made distant through forgetfulness and a lack of perspective.

Its airoots thrive in open air, sniffing for a whiff of the past.

They remember the days when it was a compact city full of the several industries that armies generate, industries that brought in families and made communities. The 22 acres of black stonewalls are littered with cave-like rooms and shelters, water bodies and the remains of a mosque. They are lined with heavy iron cannons and elegantly designed archways that look like framed pictures of the sea and the coast. The island fort was once full of urban intensity. It belonged to a liminal world in between continents and was multi racial and cosmopolitan.

The sea links between Africa and India have been alive and kicking for a thousand years. There was trade, trafficking, wars, and this African kingdom that ruled parts of western India for a few hundred years. A kingdom that ruled through the seas, from coast to coast, harnessing the energy of a thousand exchanges, of goods, services, ideas, cultural artifacts, music, flora, fauna, and people. The Siddhis, descendents of this African legacy on the Konkan, still live along the coast from Gujarat to Karnataka speaking local languages, living as an indigenous people with a vague memory of an African origin. Like the Bene Israel – an ancient Jewish community who lived on the same coast, riding the same historical wave and getting absorbed as a local caste – the Siddhis too bring to surface their African past only when history makes it come willfully alive.

The small coastal towns of this old globally cosmopolitan belt have homes that reflect its hybrid architectural legacy. Structures that could have existed on the eastern African coast, for all practical purposes.

An old customs house, a colonial leftover of the millennial old trade practices still stands in Murud. It was responsible for transforming the ancient sea-exchanges from traditional trading activities into an underground smuggling network. Like many colonial judgments – this too became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts – or at least kept alive prejudices and suspicions.

At the northern edge of Murud is an ornamental palace – private property of the descendent of the Abyssinian King. Referred to as Nawab Khan, the royal man, often comes here, when he is not with his family in Bombay or visiting another palace of his in Indore – Madhya Pradesh. He graciously meets visitors on prior appointment.

Africa for Nawab Khan is a hazy memory. Today, home is where history and destiny have bought him.

Tales of Lucid Sleep

August 26, 2008


(This is a forthcoming graphic novel to be published in 2009)

The pre-history of our story is connected to an island far away from Mumbai. It starts during a time when the city itself was nothing more than a lazy collection of seven water circled spits of land, inhabited by a fishing community, birds, beasts, insects, some bored goddesses living in makeshift shrines and a handful of forgotten ancient monuments.

The island in our story still exists, around ninety kilometers south of Mumbai. It is overgrown with trees that have airoots sniffing for a whiff from the past. Remembering the days when it was literally a compact city. It’s twenty two acres of black stonewalls are littered with cave-like rooms and shelters, water bodies and the remains of an ancient, unknown shrine of a religion that does not resemble any of the known faiths that have known to have settled down in this part of the country; neither Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.

Historians surmise that the unknown faith must have flaked off the thriving sea trade connecting Africa and India. They talk of trade, trafficking, wars, and even an African kingdom that ruled parts of western India for a few hundred years. A kingdom that controlled the seas, from one continental coast to another, harnessing the energy of a thousand exchanges, of goods, services, ideas, music, flora, fauna, and people. Near our island, there still exists a palace that belongs to that old African kingdom. We even know that its royal descendent still lives; in a large south – Mumbai flat.

Our story is half connected to his kingdom, and only partially connected to the region’s African history. Most scholars simply gave up trying to decipher the remains of what is known of that hazy period. No one could logically trace the trading routes that must have given rise to that mysterious faith, no one managed to trace the place they must have come from.

No one even knows that the neighbouring flat of the African king (who still lives in South Mumbai) is owned by a descendent of this lost kingdom.

No one knows that the children playing below the table in this image are supposed to carry on an old legacy, connected to the city’s hidden past.

Our story begins from under the table.

Urban Fables

01: The Query of the Sunset Peacock
(Inspired by Marc Reisner’s ‘Cadillac Desert’)

The great bath was full. Fashionably dressed men and women jostled with each other to undress, take a quick dip and hurry to feast at the temple. The brick-lined floor just outside the enormous reservoir of water was still warm with the evening sun.

That is when the sunset peacock chose to make its first appearance in town*. Right in front of the chief of the council of town elders who was hurriedly drying himself, thinking hungrily of the food laid out in the temple courtyard.

‘Why do you hurry – o chief?’ said the strange creature startling the elderly man enough for his robe to slip – and make a beautiful courtesan standing next to him, to first giggle and then convert it elegantly into a cough.

The voice of the sunset peacock was expectedly harsh and unmelodic.

‘Who the hell are you?’ asked the chief of the man who was dressed as if he had escaped from the theatre troupe that had arrived last week from a primitive kingdom** in the south-east, and performed noisily for slaves and poor courtesans at street corners, wearing the most garish of clothes.

On a closer look, he saw that the man had a human form only up till his waist, after which he really was a peacock.

‘And what is a creature like you – not fully human as yet – doing in the great bath where the waters are meant only for the most evolved, even among the fully human?’

‘I, the sunset peacock, come as a harbinger of bad times o chief. Us peacocks – even if we are not fully formed birds as yet – always arrive to celebrate the arrival of rains before they come, so you can enjoy our dance and fill your reservoirs in time as a bonus. But I come with sad news. This year you won’t be able to see our dance in time. Incidentally, you may have to cut down a bit on your baths too. I think you may need to keep some of it for drinking. But that’s nothing compared to the real tragedy – the inordinately long wait before you get to see our dance.’

The chief continued to take his ritual dip and even winked at the courtesan who winked back, slipping into her bronze jewels, smiling to herself.

The peacock man bristled with anger at their disdainful response.

‘Do you mock me with your silences and half-smiles?’ he asked and proceeded to unfurl his tail into a gigantic fan of feathers that had a thousand eyes in hues of silken blue and resplendent green. They reflected the flickering light of the torch-lights hung on the brick walls and made his rich black skin shine with those very shades.

The whole bath turned at once into the most festive space you could ever imagine. And even though there was no actual thundering of drums you could hear the beats.

‘No – we don’t mock you with our half-smiles’, said the chief, still smiling. ‘We are a bit worried about the water though. Do you feel the rain gods are angry? Do we need to propitiate them in some way? Maybe make a sacrifice? I was told that in the days of yore our ancestors actually sacrificed a peacock to make the rain-gods happy.’

‘No,’ said the sunset peacock hurriedly, ‘that’s all superstition. Just answer my question. If you get it right then I shall ensure that the rain gods actually hasten their journey and arrive on time.’

‘Go ahead – shoot,’ said the chief, still half-smiling, already making his way towards the temple courtyard, thinking of the buffalo meat that would have been garnished with exotic herbs brought from a faraway land beyond the oceans.

‘I’ll give you three chances. What marks the boundary of your great city?’ asked the sunset peacock in his loudest and croakiest of voices.

The chief stopped short at once – turned back to face him and said –

‘Where the last brick-house gaze at the fields beyond and our neat brick-lined roads become dirt paths?’

‘Wrong! Next Try’.

‘Where the last port of our great ships dock their sails?’

‘Wrong again! Last try.’

‘Let me guess’ said the courtesan unexpectedly.

The two looked at her with quizzical eyes.

‘The fields beyond our towns that fill our granaries, the river that feeds them and the forests that nourish them in which the peacocks – who really love to live in dry arid city boundaries – occasionally like to feast? Or should I say the city has no boundaries at all?’

The sunset peacock smiled.

‘You are a wise woman. But since the question was not directed at you, I am afraid this time the rains won’t be on time and you will be deprived of our dance. But next time around I hope the chief of the council is a wiser man.’

So saying the sunset peacock gave a loud croak and flew off.

The chief lost his appetite for the feast and walked away from the courtesan who gave a giggle again, before elegantly converting it into a cough.

* A town that would be located – on a contemporary map – in modern day Afghanistan. But this story is set in an ancient era when the moderate whispers of the Buddha had not been heard and the rational wisdom of Islam hadn’t yet made its appearance.

** Primitive only from the standards of the town in which the story is set. It was, after all, a town that was part of an urban civilization so advanced for its times that it would make modern day LA envious with its stunning vistas of grid streets, roads at right angles and miles of uniformly built habitats.

02: The Dancing City

When Vatsayana finished compiling the Kamasutra, a goddess visited him.

She saw him lying exhausted across his wooden desk, legs stretched on either side.
Her ethereal eyes glided over the room. The oil in the lamp was nearly extinguished, making the room blink occasionally, with its few last minute bursts of flaming energy. The room was quiet, except for the sound of crickets and the hoot of an owl immediately outside the window. Palm leaf scrolls lay around untidily – with Vatsayana’s passionate scribbles, scratches, and sensual drawings.

As was her habit, the voluptuous goddess – wearing little else but jewelry as was the fashion of those times – walked into the dream Vatsayana was dreaming. She became immediately embarrassed to see it heavy with memories of his research. Embarrassed not in a coy manner, but out of politeness. The way you do when you step into someone else’s intimate moment. She was far too urbane and sophisticated for coyness. After all, she was the patron goddess of Ujjain – the city in which Vatsayana lived – in the year 400 B.C. She had seen far too much, felt far too much, and desired far too much to be shy about anything.

She quickly transformed her embarrassed gaze into a mildly contemptuous look. After all, she told herself, she was in his dream now and may as well play her part.

She saw explicit images from his book. They looked as if they belonged to different worlds. There were basic drawings he had sketched while doing his research. Then there were images from the future. Temple engravings, miniatures, and scrolls – in a hundred different unknown languages and mysterious scripts. She saw books and films, videos and even websites.

Then she saw Vatsayana’s staring face, looking confused.

‘What troubles you good man?’ she asked him, giving one of her effortless smiles.

Vatsayana looked up at her, bowed his head, folded his hands and said, ‘I do not quite understand this dream. What do you think will happen to my stories and drawings great goddess?’

The goddess smiled, ‘Those are images from the future. Your book is going to be read for a thousand years and more, and in many different ways. There is something about it that will be loved and valued for a long time.’

Vatsayana turned to the images for a closer look.

The goddess continued to speak. ‘You are destined to become a famous man. You will hold the torch of pleasure in this land for centuries – even when the land has forgotten to value pleasure.’

Vatsayana beamed.

‘But I have a request great sage,’ the goddess looked at him with cautious eyes.

‘What is it?’ asked Vatsayana suspiciously.

‘I would like to be known as the co-author of the book. After all, if it was not for the city of Ujjain the book would not have been written.’ She turned her gaze away from him even as she spoke. She knew what she wanted was not going to be granted so easily.

She was right. Vatsayana scowled.

‘Hello,’ he said, his turning loud, ‘I was the one who went from house to house, peeping into bedrooms and kitchens, prayer rooms and drawing rooms. I was the one who interviewed courtesans and householders. I spent time with women, men and eunuchs asking them intimate details of their lives. I was the one who read the sacred scriptures about fashion, history, food and sex. Here I am lying exhausted after years of research. And now you come around asking to be a co-author? How fair is that?’

The goddess breathed in deeply before giving out a long sigh.

‘Yes, yes, I understand. But believe me, learned one, this book could not have been written on the banks of a great river, or in a monastery in the great mountains or in the peaceful environs of a rural hamlet. It could only have been written in a city – such as mine. Where courtesans roam freely, with their head held high. Where pleasure and dancing is still seen to be as natural as eating delicious food. Where the gaze of a spiritual master, a gourmet cook, a musician and a pleasure giver are not arranged in any hierarchy. Where the bustle of the market place sits comfortably with the warmth of homes. Where you can trade in anything you wish or belong permanently to anyone or anything you wish to belong to. It is this world of a city, where dancing is allowed till late into the night – that made it possible for you to write the book in the first place. I should be known as the co-author. I am saying this for the good of the future.’

‘And what if I refuse?’ said Vatsayana, with a mutinous expression.

‘Seeing the future, I know that you already have,’ replied the goddess sadly. ‘I can see it is going to be known as your book. It will seen to have emerged from a vague hoary past of this land. From some vaguely defined idea of tradition and spirituality. It will contribute to the archive of sexual and spiritual literature – without of course – any connection with me. It will thrive in expensive bookshops in its cities even when dancing, pleasure and music get frowned upon. However, it will always be known as your book.’

‘Then that is what I desire. I should be its sole author.’ Vatsayana said with finality and opened his eyes.

The goddess is said to have cried in anger before leaving Ujjain forever.

Since then, cities on this land soon lost their status as fountainheads of culture and a dynamic tradition and became stern places where dancing, music, and pleasure were curtailed or outlawed.

The bookshops in those cities, however, still stock copies of Vatsayana’s Kamasutra since it is difficult for them not to see it as part of their tradition. However, they frown upon pleasure, music and dancing as being outside the purview of that very tradition.

If you roam these cities at night, after the curfew hour and when everybody is supposed to have returned home – it is said that you can still occasionally hear the angry cry of the goddess.

03: Buddha of the Urbs

It was just another evening in Pataliputra, four hundred odd years BC. Cloth merchants from a province in China had arrived with bundles of the finest silks that aristocratic families had been eagerly awaiting for months. The river ports were bustling with ships that had come all the way from towns that mushroomed off the banks of the River Ganga. Greek soldiers walked the streets watching appreciatively the latest fashions adorned by women selling spices in the bazaar.

In a drinking saloon, off the main street, next to a bull-fighting ring sat a disillusioned young man with a glass of flower-beer in his hand. His name was Athan and he was an architect employed by the richest courtesan in the province. He was to design her ‘Special Chamber for Festive Nights’ and he was depressed because he also happened to be in love with her. The thought of designing a chamber that would not necessarily be used by him was devastating. He was contemplating giving up his profession and returning to his village on the outskirts of the kingdom to grow mahua flowers so he could produce more beer and drown his sorrows and extinguish his love once and for all.

Then he saw a middle-aged man with the most enlightened face he had ever seen appear at the door with a begging bowl. The saloon owner poured him a drink and the man thanked him and started to leave. Even through his drunken haze, something about the man drew Athan to him and he called out ‘Come in good sir and I shall treat you to a meal.’

The man with the most enlightened face joined Athan and they began a conversation.

Athan discovered that the man was a king’s son and had become a wandering monk out of choice. He was on the verge of discovering deep spiritual truths but for now had only managed a few half-formed insights on the nature of cities. He was happy to share it with Athan, who looked delighted and informed him that he was an architect and any knowledge about cities was most welcome.

‘I am still working at it’ said the enlightened one, ‘My spiritual quest is really ultimately about making better cities. I am now quite convinced that the way of the wandering monk is what the city can learn the most from.’

Athan frowned – ‘Please explain?’

‘The real wealth of this city comes through various acts of wandering. Trading wealth comes from the traveling traders who come from China or from other kingdoms from down the river. Quite a bit of the food and the flower-beer comes from the nomadic fishermen, food-gatherers and hunters living in the forests around. It is the pleasure provided by the wandering woman which provides the greatest joy to most men. It is this spirit of the wanderer that must become the inspiration of all future cities’.

Since Athan still looked a bit distracted, the enlightened one said, ‘The matters of your heart and knowledge of the city are all connected good man. Listen carefully to me and you will be able to help shape a new vision for the future of humanity at large. Besides, you will be able to solve the problem of your heart as well.’

Athan smiled enthusiastically when he heard this. ‘Okay, shoot’ he said, ‘Go on…what are these words of wisdom?’

The man paused and continued, ‘I am still working things out, but basically I follow the middle path. All that lies in between interpreting something and over interpreting it. If you get that balance, you will be able to produce that great urban vision. So here goes;

Over-Interpreting food security can paradoxically create droughts.
Don’t force farmers to produce grains only to fill granaries. The poor will still manage to die of hunger. Instead, allow the freshest of food to come and go everyday and make sure that the food of the forest and the rivers play as much importance in your daily diet as do grains from a farmers field.

Over-interpreting what is a city and a forest will create degraded habitats.
Don’t look at homes only in the form of extremes – as forests on one hand and villages and cities on the other. They are connected by the world of movement all the time. In fact nomads and wanderers still provide the most important services to kingdoms. Wanderers and nomads can still camp anywhere they wish. If the cities of the future value their life, they will produce lighter homes and more wholesome cities, full of excitement and colour. Besides, villages and huts will be valid urban homes and the forest will become the pride of place within all cities.

Over-interpreting joy only in terms of owning things or sacrificing all that you have will both cause bitterness.
Cities attract goods like magnets do iron fillings. And yet the neat arrangement of goods in the market place and their convenient availability should not make you forget that the biggest joy one gets is actually walking to the market, enjoying meeting people and bargaining. That is the sediment of the wanderer still in you. On the other hand giving up taste and pleasures altogether because the goods in the market don’t satisfy you will also make you bitter. The trick is to have some things in the market and some things that can only be got when you travel, move into another town or forage for yourself. This will prevent you from extremes of cluttering your life or and giving up everything.

And finally something specially for you.

Over-interpreting relationships only in terms of permanency and possession will cause unhappiness.

Don’t look at relationships as if they are only about settling down. Nurture the wandering lovers soul in you as well. Enjoy the moments of togetherness without trying to possess her. Your love will become only joy and you will carry forth the most cherished memories through your own wanderings. The fact that she may have more than one lover will cease to agonize you.

It was the last bit that really got Athan’s attention. He thanked the enlightened man profusely and returned to his courtesan. He spent a wonderful night with her, built her a light traveling chamber that could move with her as she wished and returned to his village to regenerate a mahua orchard so that he could produce beer. With that money he planned to build a wandering city-camp that could move through the kingdom, embodying the ideals of the enlightened man.

Unfortunately, the young man was murdered on his way home. The contractor who was supposed to supply him large chunks of stone to build the ‘Special Chamber of Festive Nights’ wasn’t happy with his change of heart. The stone was used to cover up Athan’s body and still stands on the banks of the river in the guise of a temple.

04: The Battle of the Firewall – The First Announcement:

The flea-market of the Agoma forest was the largest in the region. The thick wilderness was really a node of inter-continental trade routes and nomadic meeting points. It spawned temporary cities – complete with movie groves, courtesan-gardens and wild sport-dens – that got dismantled soon after business transactions were completed. Even though, occasionally, the dismantling happened spontaneously with a good fight that followed particularly harsh disagreements and counter-accusations of cheating. There could be blood-shed, though no one really got killed. You never wanted to really kill a potential customer – bad for profits.

The forest had the most elaborate network of underground cables – made up of roots that belonged to a distant cousin of the mangroves – that connected all the great forests of the region. This web was a huge bonus for trading communities and individual mavericks, mystics, programmers and magicians who were keen on getting the best possible deals for their goods – mainly forest food and medicines, spells, images, stories, music, movies and knowledge software. They always knew that the flea-market of Agoma would get them the best customers and prices, thanks to this underground web of knowledge flows.

Animals and birds kept away from the melee, even sacrificing a trip to the lake that lay nearby, for their evening drink. Why one earth would you want to come in the way of thousands of human beings shouting at each other, their faces painted in ludicrous colours and most of them drunk on mahia juice?

They kept their distance. But the Nogas – half human, half-beasts – had no such compunctions – most of them could speak as loudly as the ‘fully humans’ and give them a piece of their beastly mind.

That evening – Naliya – her long hair conditioned by rice beer, her beautiful human face polished by a special venom-based spell her mother had given her and a firm resolve in her heart, slid through the grass with her maroon snake-body glistening with the reflected light of the flea-market. Her stomach was fattened by the prophecy she had consumed last evening and she was determined to find the recepient to convey the message from the future, or suffer from constipation that night.

She headed straight for the section of programmer-wizards and knowledge-software dealers, who hung around together behind a thick cluster of Mahia trees. It was always easy to find them. You just had to follow the smell of the lucid-sleep spell – a special spell made up from mahia flowers – that this tribe loved. It helped them with their job – which needed constant movement between worlds without really moving their butts. Something that this particular spell facilitated with unsettling ease. And there – below the tamarind tree, looking intensely at his magic cube, his fingers dancing away on a wooden keyboard was the recepient of the prophecy. Ornest was a knowledge-software dealer – specializing in image-spells.

She coiled herself into a seated position and stared at him defiantly. She was going to say what she had come to say.

‘The end of the Age of Agoma is round the corner. The Kingdom of Aan is spreading its tentacles through minds, souls, bodies and forests. Get ready for the Battle of the Firewall – Get ready for a New Age – of Truth, Beauty and Purity and of A Grand Urban Revival. And Get Ready for the End of Lucid Sleep.’

The Tokyo “default” model

This photo, taken on higher ground and looking across a valley, gives an idea of the extent of Tokyo’s destruction caused by the Allied B-29 fire bombing of the city. Ohio State University – Archives

Tokyo represents a default model of development for developing cities around the world. An alternative vision can be generated by the study of the “shadow history” of Tokyo’s urban development. That is, by looking not at the history of urban planning in Tokyo, but rather at what developed outside the plan.

Greater Tokyo developed gradually from the Edo period onwards. The central area of Tokyo was very much planned from the start. The periphery however largely grew spontaneously. Villages surrounding the city were swallowed up by the sprawling city and small lots of farming land were gradually converted to residential, commercial and industrial uses.

Tokyo hut dwellers 1955, photo by Horace Bristol/Three Lions/Getty Images

During the Second World War firebombs dropped by the Allied air force destroyed most of Tokyo. The Ministry of City Planning had been producing ambitious urban plans based on modern planning theory since the 1920s. However, for a number of reasons, including the pressing needs for economic redevelopment and shelter, the lack of financial resources, and the absence of legal mechanisms for land acquisition by the state, the plans were never implemented . The government focused instead on industrial and infrastructure development to support the economy, leaving the reconstruction of residential and commercial areas to local actors, who rebuilt the city from scratch.

In the suburbs therefore planning was usually limited to water supply and railway transport system. For a long time “traditional Japanese urban development and management strategies were still wide still practiced and quite effective” (Sorensen 2002, p.149). Moreover, the government relied extensively on local self-reliance before and particularly during the war, and to a lesser extends afterwards. All these factors contributed to create strong neighborhood organizations and a sense of community and local identity.

Shibuya: The shoppers wear the wartime period heavy winter garments. The seated lady is selling lottery tickets, a device encouraged by the Occupation as a stimulus to the domestic economy. Ohio State University – Archives

This pattern of development has basically been maintained even till today. This explains why Tokyo has both; one of the best infrastructures in the world and a housing stock of great variety. The residential urbanism of Tokyo is characterized by low rise buildings and high population density. “In spite of some deliberate planning attempts to widen major streets and introduce reinforce concrete buildings the majority of neighborhoods were characterized by flimsy wooden constructions, and slum-type housing dominated many areas until the 1960s” (Carola Hein et al 2003, p. 26).

While the architecture has incrementally been upgraded, the urban typology is still very much informal and messy-looking, with extremely narrow and labyrinthine streets, shack type structures built with metal sheets and wood. What can be mistaken for urban mess by the casual observer (especially if that observer happens to be a classically trained planner or architect), is actually a highly efficient and complex urban organization. As Ryue Nishizawa of Sanaa put it in a recent interview, “this is not master planning in a Western way. The city is developing without a master plan, in a natural way… Tokyo appears to be very much disorganized but actually it is a city which works really well. There is no train delay. Every morning huge crowds are moved in a very orderly way from one point to the other. Very few crimes are committed in Tokyo. It is actually very orderly, even if the landscape looks disorderly. Some Westerners come to Tokyo and say this is chaos! Maybe it is true but people manage it very well.” (Nishizawa [SANAA] 2007).

Neighborhood retailer in Shimokitazawa. Photo by Save the Shimokitazawa.

An important characteristic of the “Tokyo default model” is mixed-used zoning. This was, again, not a planning choice, in fact, it could happen only because there was no central plan. Many positive outcomes mixed-use have been observed – such as safety and continuing liveliness of central city areas. In spite of being the largest metropolitan area in the world (32 million people), Tokyo is also one of the safest cities in the world. (This is clearly the case in Dharavi as well as many writers – including Kalpana Sharma in ‘Re-discovering Dharavi’ – have pointed out). Small-scale industrial activity, such as printing, wood work, textile manufacturing, and so on can been seen all over Tokyo’s neighborhoods. This leniency towards mixed-use has permitted to preserve small-scale family type businesses in one of the most advanced economy in the world. It also prevent the high degree of residential segregation along income lines that one finds in the US.

The Tokyo model suggests that it is possible to upgrade informal settlements in situ, by focusing on infrastructure development and relying on community self-determination. Master plans are needed for infrastructure development (roads, water, electricity, sewage), but local urban development is better determined at community level, with the help of experts and the technical and financial assistance of the government and the private sector.

Low-rise high density in Shimokitazawa. Photo by Save the Shimokitazawa.

The accidental Tokyo model for the organic city can liberate thousands of urban neighborhoods in Asia, Africa and Latin America from otherwise being condemned to being referred to and treated as slums. It can break through Mike Davis’s apocalyptic vision that weighs under its own predictions because of a weak conceptualizing of the category ‘slum’ itself, which reflects a devastatingly circular logic that traps millions of the urban poor into a situation of forced victimization.

Tokyo challenges this. It connects the raw material of traditional urbanism (resident-authored, socially and economically enmeshed in local contexts) to the most high-tech, almost futuristic experience of urban life. Its railway network inter-weaves thousands of neighborhoods into a large metropolis without violating inner-urban worlds too much. While its high-rise pockets and neon-lights may blind one into believing that it is an evolution of Manhattan and Singapore, a deeper look at Tokyo (escaping the large avenues and getting lost in the narrow streets hiding behind) reveals a city that is gloriously untidy and medieval in its essence. This untidiness is really an expression of its human scale, fidelity to low-rise high-density structures and dynamic neighborhoods that are experienced as organized spaces even if they do not look it.

However, Tokyo too has long being victimized by a “global urban design style”, that we could refer to as the generic city, which completely dominates the mind of city planners and developers in cities all over the world. The resistance underway in Shimokitazawa epitomizes the struggle between that vision and the desire of local communities to preserve the urban character of their neighborhoods. After all, before we decide otherwise for the future, Tokyo is only a “default” model born as much out of the capacity of central planners to develop an outstanding infrastructure as by their incapability of master planning the biggest megacity in the world and the consequent necessity to defer urban development to local actors.

Local actors taking over in Shimokitazawa. Photo by Save the Shimokitazawa.

Tokyo to Mumbai and Back

Presentation for the Urban Age Conference Mumbai, November 2 2007 (speech)

Tokyo slum during the US occupation years from Ohio University State Archive

1. Our research focuses on the informal, unplanned areas in Tokyo and Mumbai. These have developed organically and gradually over time. This incremental development has contributed to the economic success of Japan. This story is about this incremental development – which is both simultaneously urban and economic. A story that unfolds in the shadow of the skyscrapers that have come to symbolize Japan’s economic miracle. A shadow that actually stretches over a 100 kilometers around Tokyo’s historical core and largely dominates its landscape just as the informal settlements largely dominate the urbanscape of Mumbai.

2. After the Second World War, Tokyo was totally destroyed. Millions returned to the city to find their homes razed to the ground. They had to begin rebuilding their lives from scratch. In this process local neighbourhoods became the stage of the rise of Japan’s middle-class. The roots of Japan’s economic development are the bazaar economy, the informal street-markets, the family retails, local service economies, local construction industry etc. These still are very much part of Tokyo’s urbanscape and its economy, and more importantly, are processes completely interconnected with Tokyo’s urban typology.

3. Low-rise, high density, mixed use, small-scale neighbourhoods constantly changed and evolved to become what is today uncontestably a modern, high-tech city – that continues to grow and evolve in newer ways. It’s history provides an alternative model of urban development – a default model.

4. We find striking similarities – in terms of the visual landscape – between Tokyo and Dharavi (Mumbai’s biggest informal settlement). There are many sections within Dharavi, which are consolidated, neighbourhoods that have spontaneously evolved much like Tokyo. Below is a photoshop montage of Dharavi and Tokyo – which brings to life some of these similarities.

Collage: on the left Dharavi in Mumbai and on the right Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. More here.

5. Behind the typological similarity between unplanned areas of Tokyo and Dharavi lies a complex story of economic organization – involving the informal sector, mixed use of land and space, the presence of street-level shops, pedestrian path networks and the use of the house itself as a tool of production and commerce. In Dharavi, almost every house doubles up as a productive space. In Tokyo, the older and traditional pattern of urban organization too reflected a similar experience. The pre-industrial use of the house as a space of production (live/work) makes a huge come-back in the post-industrial context, responding to the needs of the “creative class”.

6. What allowed Tokyo to develop in this incremental way was the fact that this form, this urban typology was not seen to be illegitimate or economically dysfunctional – in fact quite to the contrary. What has been overlooked in the story of Japan’s economic success with its egalitarian income distribution is the essential role of incremental development in making this possible. Incremental urban development and economic development are completely interconnected. It is not because you move poor people into middle-class type mass housing that they become middle-class. Oftentimes they are unable to afford the maintenance cost of the buildings they get relocated to. In reality you break the process of urban and economic development. Redevelopment – as in the ‘Dharavi Redevelopment Plan’ – is not development.

7. In conclusion we would like to mention one point with particular relevance to Dharavi. It is about understanding the economic organization that ordinary people evolve for their livelihood and survival. The apparent mess of Dharavi is actually the complexity of Dharavi – this should not be overlooked. Dharavi is an economic powerhouse that has evolved an urban typology that ensures the survival of small studios, factories, residences, shops in a mosaic of urban forms. To ignore this enmeshing between its form and economic life and use the notion of urban planning in an ideological way that segregates uses and functions would violate the space and the lives of its citizens in a destructive manner. What is needed is a process in which planners and administrators incorporate the voices of the residents, encourage debate and discussion with the residents and help, understand and support the process from within. And this is what we will try to do next march in Koliwada, Dharavi in the context of a week-long workshop organized with PUKAR and the residents to which we would like to invite you all.

Koliwada, the fishermen community in Dharavi

The Urban Age airoots presentation is available here in PDF format along with videos of the presentation and discussion (disclaimer: the guy speaking after Rahul is NOT associated with airoots).

Tokyo Future Slum

Half of Tokyo was flattened during World War II. It was then rebuilt in haste to accommodate people’s need for shelter and livelihood. There were big master plans for Tokyo, but because of budgetary and time constraints the central government instead focused on infrastructure, leaving residential and commercial development to local actors.

This pattern of development has basically been maintained even till today and explains why Tokyo has both; one of the best infrastructures in the world and a housing stock of great variety. Typical low rent flats in Tokyo, such as mine, get very cold in the winter and very hot in the Summer

The residential urbanism of Tokyo is characterized by low rise buildings and high density. “In spite of some deliberate planning attempts to widen major streets and introduce reinforce concrete buildings the majority of neighborhoods were characterized by flimsy wooden constructions, and slum-type housing dominated many areas until the 1960s” (Carola Hein 2003).

While the architecture has incrementally been upgraded, the urban typology is still very much informal and slummy-looking, with extremely narrow and labyrinthine streets, self-made looking houses, often with parts added-on, made of material such as metal sheets and wood. Moreover most neighborhoods are very much mixed-use. Walking through the countless residential streets of Tokyo always leads to fascinating findings. Below are some shots of a recent walk in the historical streets of Yanaka.

What I find fascinating is that we can clearly see the past of Tokyo as a slum. How much of a good thing it was that these slummy areas were not master planned and “redeveloped” but rather left to develop on their own and retrofitted with modern infrastructure. Tokyo is a model of development for developing cities which are so often ashamed of their slums and dream of vertical modernity. Slum is vernacular architecture. This is history and culture. Don’t destroy it, develop it!

What a beautiful shack, even the electric pole is bent.

Step inside and it is a wonderful mess.

This is NOT Brazil. This Tokyo!

Metal sheets, the characteristic material of slums around the world…

Informal add-on to the house. Incrementally developing.

What about building a deck on the roof?

And if you need wood or a ladder you can get it from the neighbor

Below a sento, traditional Japanese public bath.

Below, my favorite wood house. Is it traditional architecture or a slum-type house? And what’s the difference anyways?

For more on the Tokyo model of urban development, from slum to future city, you can take a look at a memo Rahul and I prepared for the “Slum Rehabilitation Authority” (SRA) in Mumbai. This is the government agency in charge of the “Dharavi Redevelopment Project”.

Memo: The Tokyo Model of Urban Development

Khotachiwadi Graphic

August 25, 2008

Mumbai, like many colonial cities is full of lost, invisible streets and forgotten neighbourhoods. Some of them are completely reinvented, a few get improvised upon and most simply destroyed.

When the Khotachiwadi neighbourhood project was in full swing (2004 – 2005), this small Portuguese flavoured village in Girgaum, South Mumbai, yielded many arguments. Mainly about questions of urban density and growth, about the need to understand that villages have a valid place in cities and that more often than not, a village, a slum or a low rise habitat are considered synonymous, without good reason.

During the project, lead mostly by the residents, we began by evoking ‘heritage rhetoric’, locating Khotachiwadi within the debates about the city’s past. But that was only to subvert the discourse of heritage altogether. At the end of the day, the project insisted that the neighbourhood story should be primarily written into the city’s future. It consciously rode on fake nostalgia to push forth a sheer activist agenda. It talked of Mumbai’s diversity of built forms and the need to acknowledge the variety of architectural styles that make up its neighbourhoods.

The arguments were articulated with confidence mainly because they were accompanied by the imaginative beats of fictional and non fictional stories that circulated in Khotachiwadi. These stories brought to light the virtual neighbourhood, made up from the imagination of its inhabitants, that overlay on its twisting, narrow streets and its ornate bungalows. They emerged from the memories of those who grew up there, merged with the fresh perceptions of those who are still growing up there to eventually become prophecies of sorts.

Either way, they underlined the anachronism and the naturalness of Khotachiwadi.

Something that became really vivid only by drawings and graphics.

The comic story, forever young, the perfect accompaniment to urban legends, best encapsulates the subversive impulses of the project. Impulses that seem to be ostensibly concerned with the past, but in reality are looking straight ahead.

Graphic Credits:
Abhijit Khanvilkar and Prashant Prakash Jadhav

Pondicherry Black City Revisited

August 18, 2008

Digital mashup.

Pondicherry Black City  Pondicherry is well known throughout the world for its historical French Quarters and more recently for the amazingly successful community of Auroville, which is gaining global attention for the new greening, farming and redistribution models it is experimenting with. Somewhere between these grandiose realizations lies the Black city, which was named in opposition to the pristine French Quarters. The street manages to hold its own against the elegant white-washed art deco structures and the quaint and cosy streets that a colonial legacy has bestowed on this slice of what was once Francophone India.

The Black city responds at once to the frozen elegance of the White city and the elitist utopianism of Auroville.  It absorbs these models along with a many others and regurgitates everything cheerfully in a unique mix of styles. This article explores Pondicherry’s Black City brand of mashup architecture.

Futura mashup.

The streets of the Black city are in turn creative, imitative, beautiful, kitschy or ugly but at all given points of time they are highly personal and expressive. Yet – just as each individual is as much a holistic entity as a confluence of varied histories and backgrounds, influences and experiences – their individual self-expressions inevitably produce complex archetypes.

What makes the Black city stand out is the diversity of idiosyncratic architectural styles that it features. Individually and collectively, the homes are a riot of colour and shapes, making unexpected references to decontextualized histories and sentimental nods to nostalgic memories. They take the flourishes of the white city and mold them into something quite extraordinary – at once building on the principles of art-deco’s plasticity and running away with it. Like many aspects of popular culture they do not claim to be original and in fact deliberately use a copy-pasting strategy, building up the new out of the old.

Art Deco mashups.

These structures use and abuse every possible existing architectural style to the point that one can even wonder if it is not a new architectural gender of its own, one that could be called “mashup” in reference to the rapidly spreading Web practice of integrating various systems and languages to create new features and modes of operation.

This remix culture is eminently contemporary. Celebrated today as postmodern it has always been the driving principle behind most collective creative productions. For example, Indian popular cinema is nothing but a collusion of styles and an open-ended pursuit of originality constrained only by the ever-changing tastes of the public. Our street is popular culture at its best. An explosive expression of the Indian vernacular that provides a fantastically graphic illustration of the way traditions, colonial architecture and global influences have been digested and processed by a segment of the population.

Neo-classic mashups.

In many parts of India colonial enclaves have similarly inspired desi architectural versions. So-called Portuguese villas in Goa have spawned a thick-set, local variant that litters the lush country-side. The British Bungalow from the cantonment has inspired a variety of architectural responses all over small town India.

Each house in the Black city seems to have a unique history, which as difficult to map as it is to recollect a dream – the very same dream that may have allowed the house to be constructed in the first place. A piece of a fragmented fantasy, seen on travels to Asia or the Middle East, could have got grafted onto a memory of a childhood home, which in turn must have been spiked by the fire of social aspiration to produce a genuine South Indian streetscape.

Disneyland mashups.

While one debates whether desi variants of dominant trends can be referred to as styles of their own – one cannot deny that there is a process in place which guarantees constant creative output. A process that is expressed by the main initiator, conceiver or the inhabitant of the house. The ordinariness of constructing each home is balanced by the ability of each builder-inhabitant to play out his fantasy. Global influences, local histories, familial obligations, available technology and skills come together in the singularity of the moment. The subsequent crystallization produces a dynamic architectural flow that connects this street to millions of others on the sub-continent while at the same time being absolutely unique. The quality of its uniqueness is a testimony to the coming together of all these forces in a special way. What connects it to its other country cousins is the fact that similar forces operate everywhere to produce these unique expressions.

Islamic mashups.

The aesthetic component of the production process is very similar to those of other popular cultural artifacts. Take Indian movies for example. Whether Bollywood can be called a “style” or not in view of what it produces, is open to debate. However, one cannot deny that there is a certain process in the Indian movie industry that at the very least allows the production of Bollywood movies to happen in a special way, especially through the willingness to surprise the spectator or through a profound disregard for stylistic categories. If we had to say what thing is common to all Bollywood productions, we would have to say that none of them tries to consciously fit in the genre except through broad nods to inherited conventions. With the ever present possibility of finding a movie that denies those conventions as well – or at least attempts to do so. The same is true for Black City. Seen by itself, each home may not have much to project outside of loud melodramatic statements, but as a street, each home consolidates with the other to garner all the power and force of an energetic popular text.

New Pakistan mashup.

These homes are interesting only thanks to the fact that they exist next to each other, encouraging each other’s wilderness. They explode in your face with a loud bang that seems to come straight out of a comic strip completely exaggerated, but never embarrassed by their shrillness. Just as in the comic book each frame competes with the previous one to call the attention of the reader, in the Black city each home seems to rejoice in its palatial projections. At the same time it only seems to take itself half-seriously, as if a hint of irony had been tastefully added to the mix.

Romantic mashup.

At one level one could simply call these homes kitsch and join in their celebration of diversity of form. It would reflect the democratic mood of the times. But they do not allow such simple projections either. For tomorrow – they may just auto-destruct with the next inhabitant, a new dream and flow down another stream in some other direction.

Smurf mashup.

Boat mashup.

Louisiana mashups.

After all their collective diversity simply emerged as a result of creative freedom from architectural conservatism. Black city is to us a celebration of self-expression and collective identity – a true resolution of  global influences into localaesthetic.

Article published in The Indian Architect & Builder, Summer 2008.

Mumbai’s Eastern Waterfront and The Necessity of Evoking Social Histories

August 9, 2008

The future of Mumbai’s Eastern Water Front is currently being envisaged in diverse ways. The discussions and debates being provoked by the port authorities, the media and the city’s urban planners reveal a lot about the political and economic choices that the docklands – as well as the city at large – have to make.

Recently, the region has generated a particularly intense argument about its development as part of an integrated vision for Mumbai’s future. The argument pushes for the use of allegedly surplus land in custody of the port authorities. This has, in turn been countered by the controlling authorities, who believe they are a functioning space, in need of every inch of their land and in no mood to relinquish control.

Both these positions avoid a negotiation with the region’s social histories. The Eastern Water Front – or the Docklands – of Mumbai are also a cluster of localities, with distinct historical experiences. The conflicting positions mentioned above do not take into account the abilities of the people living in the region – as well as of Mumbai’s citizens as a whole– to contribute to the future use of that space in creative ways.

It is important to see the docklands as more than the question of formal proprietorship that the Port Trust has over it. Even, for that matter, as something beyond the untidy network of tenancy relationships that the trust is tied with other large organizations, including industrial houses that operate from its premises.

It becomes perhaps, important to locate a space where the inhabitants and the workers of the docklands find a legitimate space for contributing to these discussions. Most of them belong to communities that have traditionally been marginalized and can easily be recognized to be the dominant faces of Mumbai’s poor populations.

In this context, maybe we have to locate the drama unfolding over the Eastern waterfront within the larger politics of urban transformation occurring in the city – a transformation that should not be allowed to ignore its impact on the inhabitants that occupy the space as workers and residents. More importantly, it cannot be allowed to ignore the social location of these inhabitants within the larger fabric of citizenry of the city.

In addition, an examination of the debates on the use of the waterfront reveals that the biggest obstacles to any intended rearrangement comes from heavy institutions that control the area. Most of these are government agencies like the Urban Development Ministry, Defense Ministry, Surface Transport Ministry, The Port Trust itself, The Customs, The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, the Environment Ministry, and other players that push and pull the political tides of the waterfront.

In this light, it can suggested that if there is any force that has the potential to bond with those interested in the re-development of the region, and get these agencies to respond positively, it is the inhabitants themselves. As a political force, they are the only ones that can prod inert institutional agencies into productive action.

However, this can only happen if serious attention is paid to mobilizing the people and integrating their needs into the plans being envisaged. So far, though, there seems to be little indication of a move in this direction.

It becomes crucial to foreground the fact that the majority of inhabitants of the docklands include scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, upper and backward caste Hindus and Muslims from the impoverished districts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Maharashtra. Other communities include the Kamatis (traditional labourers from Andhra Pradesh) South Indians, Bangladeshis, and Muslim communities from the South.

They work as unskilled construction labourers, drivers, domestic servants, scrap collectors, loaders and unloaders, factory workers, service industry labourers, domestic servants, stone breakers, vegetable and other commodity sellers, drivers, gutter cleaners, shop owners, bus conductors, restaurant owners, mechanics and clerks (ibid.).


Most of them belong to the informal working class populations working on daily wages. Their homes may have access to shared water supplies and metered electricity but a majority of them do not have access to schools for their children and appropriate medical facilities. Many of them were once part of dock-unions that existed (and in some cases still do) in the region. However, the larger political changes in the city – from the 1980’s onwards completely transformed the trade union movement in every work sphere – staring from the mills and the universities and moving all the way to the docklands. Since then it has been even more difficult to mobilize the disparate workers of the space into any organized political formation.

Discussions with some of them indicated that the intended transformations of the docklands could become a rallying point for the workers to come together – and these could well be stimulated by the planning agencies – provided of course the interests of the workers and inhabitants were duly safeguarded.

One observes that the socio-political forces that influence the rest of the city also shape the docklands. Conversely, the footprint of the docklands also spills way beyond the official boundary that is usually used to mark it off. The influence of the docklands has always seeped into many aspects of the city’s history and structures – especially of the development of its mills and industries. Moreover, it is also evident in its middle-class imagination – especially amongst the older neighbourhoods as well as the habitats that exist along the periphery of the docklands. Interestingly, all these neighbourhoods are connected in intimate ways.

If one examines the bus routes that were started over the years, between ‘Ferry Wharf’ – the most public of sites in the heart of the docklands – and different localities in the city, one can see these interconnections very clearly. There are routes that line the entire eastern waterfront, besides some unexpected connections into the oldest middle-class trader dominated neighbourhoods. Expectedly, there are routes that connect the diverse neighbourhoods of the docklands with those of the mill lands in central Mumbai. The connecting neighbourhoods include: Chor Bazaar (that treasure trove of fake and real antiques that embody many hidden stories of the docklands), the Dalit neighbourhoods of Wadala, the fishing communities along the coast, the working class residential enclaves of the mill lands, the nineteenth century middle-class neighbourhoods of Kalbadevi, Mohammadali Road, Mazagaon and Girgaum, the working class neighbourhoods of Antop Hill and Sewri, the tourist lanes of Colaba and the footpath slums of P.D’Mello Road.


Mumbai, like most cities, has always embodied many layers of social histories, histories that express themselves through different ways of imagining the city and realigning its geographical orientation. In this context, the docklands of Bombay have always been part of the city’s public imagination – even if physical access to all parts of the eastern waterfront has been a restricted affair. Visits to the Ferry Wharf (for recreational trips to Elephanta caves or Uran islands), the iconic Gateway of India, touristy Colaba Causeway and the elevated dock parks of Mazagaon hill are as integral to the city’s recreational past-times as the better-known Juhu Beach and Chowpatty situated on the west coast. For the millions of residents who actually live on the eastern side – including the ‘government servants’ living in the official buildings and colonies and the commuters of the Harbour Line Railways- the docklands are an integral way of experiencing the city.

A well known Marathi humorist Pu La Deshpande, has an evocative essay in his travelogue, ‘Apoorvai’ written in the seventies, in which he describes the bustle at Ferry Wharf on Saturdays when migrants from Alibaug – a coastal district of mainland Maharshtra – would arrive in boats and stay on for a few days to work in the docks. Even Hindi movies like ‘Deewar’ (1970s) and ‘Hum’ (1980s) have built narratives around tales of dockland underworld dons.

Unfortunately, recent narratives around the docklands – including those by urban planners – tend to represent the docklands as an isolated, decrepit space, a relic of a bygone era, a pre-industrial past, and ultimately, a space at once anachronistic to the city’s present day status as a global financial centre and one ready for new urban interventions.

Such narratives use the examples of other port cities from around the globe and idealize the ways in which those cities have reinvented similar spaces to create new resources for urban plans, designs and stimulation of real-estate prices.

It is vital to question such narratives since they ignore the peculiar manifestation of the docklands in cities like Mumbai. With its special history of surplus informal labour, the social composition of its poor communities and the unpredictable influences of electoral politics, Mumbai’s political impulses push for a different paradigm for urban planning. One in which there is a greater participation from the ground and more agency for the current inhabitants, besides of course, making provisions for the concerned authoritative official bodies. These impulses can be frequently found in the rhetoric of citizen-activists and political actors who are part of the city’s public sphere. Unfortunately, they have more often than not been quashed. The most recent example – and one that continues to haunt those interested in working in the docklands – is the failed attempt of the activists to protect the mill lands of the city.

If one ignores these impulses altogether, one can land in a situation in which the firing lines of opposing parties (in this case the port authorities and the civic planners) become hardened and rigid. Already the MpBT (the port authority in the city) is taking a position that restricts a productive conversation for an imaginative re-use of the docklands. It uses its colonial heritage of controlling the land to assert its first right of use and behave like a feudal proprietor. The civic planners, on their part, continue to evoke apocalyptic visions and use media pressure to push their own agendas.

Both, however, ignore the rich resource that exists right in front of their eyes – the people who live and work in the docklands.

They also ignore the potential of harnessing the social imagination of the docklands – that has been integral to the way the city evokes its history – as a force of negotiation and bargaining. After all, informed citizens are aware that the history of the city and the port overlap considerably. Unfortunately, whatever few narratives that are produced about the architectural and official histories of the port areas (mostly in the form of coffee-table books) and the docklands, tend to ignore the social histories embedded in the region. Instead, they encourage a nostalgic, colonial imagery that does not get much empathy from the political actors looking for populist issues nor does it excite the establishment.

What is needed is an approach that incorporates people’s histories of the region, the political energies that flow through it and need to use the social imagination of the docklands as a tool to negotiate with the port authorities. However, this is not just about strategy. This is also about pushing for creative ways of imagining the re-use of docklands in cities like Mumbai – cities, which have a strong presence of informal economic and habitat systems. There is a strong case being made by planners and activists in many parts of the world to integrate these systems into plans for urban futures.

In the case of Mumbai this may express itself in ways in which the portly duties of the docklands can continue to function to optimum levels. At the same time the space can still become part of the larger planning process of the city, and can also be claimed by the citizens of the city as a whole but in a manner in which the current inhabitants and workers are allowed to be important stakeholders – as important as the port authorities themselves.

In the few instances when the port authorities and planners do use the spirit of political participation, it is usually through NGOs who aid them in clearing the space of infrastructure-deprived habitats – disparagingly referred to as slums. To facilitate this they represent the space as being overcrowded and derelict – as if this is unique to the docklands and does not affect the city as a whole. The point is that the docklands and the city at large are connected in deep ways and the processes at work in one affect those in another. If one isolates the eastern waterfront as a distinct geographical region and proceeds to highlight a certain kind of visual imagery and narrative for it in distinct terms – one does not get a complete picture.

To reiterate; it is necessary to bring to light the social histories of the neighbourhoods that are part of the docklands footprint (and, as mentioned above, the footprint is much larger than the physical boundaries that have been officially designated as the Eastern Waterfront). This is one important way through which the actors who live in the region may be able to play an important role in the future development of the region. They would also be able to pressurize the port authorities to be more yielding to this process, without imposing an apocalyptic vision of a total economic failure – a vision, if it is allowed to go out of hand, can actually contribute to the evacuation of the people who live there. Of course, this process would need to be accompanied by the city envisioning itself as a more accommodating entity – where it would look at the history of its informal labour as productive and dynamic. More importantly, it would have to be less suspicious of the electoral political process and the noise create by citizen-activists that are unfairly represented as painful hurdles to wholesale, momentous architectural transformations of the region.

An examination of the ongoing debates around the future of the Eastern Water Front reveals that the language being used is one of governance, administration, and political control. There is a certain kind of political rhetoric that is being evoked to justify the choices being made. In this light, to understand the processes of the political imagination of the city, its peculiar relationship with the region and the historical background of its social composition, it would be useful to make a brief detour into the region’s history. This detour may also provide insights into the reasons why the port authorities of the city tend to be so imperial in their attitude towards the city – especially when it stakes a claim on the precious estate.

The presidency cities of colonial India – Calcutta, Madras and Bombay – were shaped by a combination of political forces, economic compulsions and social constraints that were peculiar to their status as administrative arms of an imperial government. They were centers of power within their own sub – empires. They created circles of influence that connected with their hinterlands and other international centers within easy reach. For Bombay, this included inland Maharashtra, the Konkan coast, Gujarat, all the way to Karachi in Pakistan and – via sea routes – West Asia. The connection of the city to these regions, could be traced through the history of migration into the city during the colonial period: Parsee and Bohri businessmen, Jain merchants, Surati and Kutchi traders from Gujarat, labour from the Konkan coast, service providers – including cooks and educated domestic help – from Goa, migrants from Iran and Afghanistan or Sindhi dealers from Pakistan. There were also connections between the presidency cities themselves. These facilitated leapfrogging over the dozens of kingdoms in the hinterland to allow the entry of skilled communities directly from Madras and Calcutta – especially during the time of the cotton boom in the early nineteenth century. Like these two cities, Bombay’s growth was directly connected to its port-activities, mostly to do with trade of cotton, but in the case of Bombay also, opium.

The city in the early nineteenth century centered entirely on the port. However, it also supported the development of an administrative and social infrastructure that helped in connecting to the region as a whole. The city rarely imagined itself as a distinct territorial space. It was always part of an expansive spread into the region.

The East India Company was disbanded in the middle of the nineteenth century. The colonies in South Asia began to be governed directly by the crown. Very soon, judicial systems, systems of administrations, governance, economic, educational, cultural, and financial institutions were set-up. They too however, did not necessarily locate their center of gravity within the municipal limits of the city in question. The city of Bombay became the capital of the Bombay Presidency that connected Karachi in modern-day Pakistan to Sawantwadi, a town that bordered Portuguese Goa and moved all the way into the hinterland up to the state of Hyderabad.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Bombay had become a larger than life space within the region. It’s influence spilled over imperial firewalls into Portuguese Goa to attract thousands of skilled migrants. They moved to the city for jobs involved in shipping and clerical work in the ports. Dock labourers moved in from the Konkan coast and State of Hyderabad. Most of these migrants occupied that special enclave within – and often indistinguishable from the city at that time – the docklands.

In the early twentieth century, the port grew civic and social tentacles from the dockyards all over the island – especially through its contribution to the development of industrialization in the city. However, most of the older neighbourhoods that had emerged with the development of the docks a century earlier, continued to thrive. The traders of Kalbadevi, Girgaum and Mohammadali Road, the clerks and secretaries from Mazagaon and Byculla and the prosperous trading families from Malabar hill emerged as the city’s new middle classes. The more prosperous amongst them were the ones to invest in mills and industries.

Even during these years of industrialization, the city’s economic and cultural identity continued to be shaped by trading activities centered on the port. While industries had their own social base – predominantly an organized working class and its industrial elite, a large chunk of the city continued to reflect the social profile linked to the port.

This was mainly reflected in the middle-class world of traders and shopkeepers, the huge working-class presence of dockworkers and the equally numerous presence of hawkers and small traders that roamed the streets of the city to provide services and sell goods of all kinds – especially those brought through the port.

This world is often not represented in the official working class history of the city that concentrates rather single-mindedly, on industrial labour. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, the middle-classes that had grown around the port-related trading activities began to be dominated by the educated, service-classes – especially the administrative staff linked to banking and financial institutions and the new industrial elite. Even so, the trading middle-classes, with their fuzzy working-class origins that had grown around the port areas – were still visible in the older neighbourhoods of South Mumbai.

Today, you can still see the vestiges of this social history in present day habitats – even as they rapidly give way to newer structures, mostly multi-storied luxury apartments. You can still see a handful of Goan villages, Maharashtrian coastal towns, dense Gujarathi urban enclaves, Benares style Ghats in the heart of the city – most vividly still seen in the neighbourhoods of Banganga, Kalbadevi, Girgaum and Mohammadli Road

This continuity from the past to the present is still possible to trace – even though the neighbourhoods are rapidly changing through rapid real estate development.

The contemporary scenario of the Eastern waterfront neighbourhoods however, tells a slightly different story. It facilitates an entry into a discussion on informal economic systems that dominate the world of work and livelihood in the docklands.

The Eastern Waterfront proper includes the residential neighbourhoods of Antop Hill, Mazagaon, Colaba, and Wadala. These comprise a complex mix of communities, including Parsees, Goan Catholics, East Indians and Hindus and Muslims from Gujarat that make-up its middle and upper – middle classes. The habitats in these areas comprise mainly of four to eight story apartment blocks.
The working classes in these areas are of the same social composition as described earlier in the essay – though they are present in smaller numbers. Their proportion increases near the docks where many of them live in infrastructure-deprived habitats – mostly in and around the Prince’s docks, Bhau Cha Dhakka, Darukhana and Sewree Fort. There is a large Dalit neighbourhood in Wadala that comprises of mainly scheduled caste communities. There are sharp inequalities in terms of civic infrastructure between the middle-classes and poorer neighbourhoods within the entire region. To develop an accurate profile of the working classes of the docklands, most of whom are part of an unorganized workforce functioning in an informal economic set-up, it would be useful to perspectivize them against the larger story of informal labour in the city. The informal sector accounts for 68% of total employment in Mumbai and workers engaged in the urban informal sector form the bulk of the urban poor.

According to sociologist Jan Breman the informal sector can be defined as work on one’s own account, which generates income but is not regulated by an explicit employment contract and enjoys no protection. This includes people who work in the street, in homes, small-scale enterprises, power loom workshops etc. The informal sector workers work for as long as their employers require them to. Sometimes, these workers may be working in the context of a secure, organised workplace but their relationship is contractual and therefore classified as informal. According to him, the move from formality to informality in the work context almost immediately means a fall in the standard of living. The lower-income classes are mainly visible in these new neighbourhoods as domestic servants, street vendors, repair and odd-job men, cleaners, day or night guards. The realities of the informal sector are vividly expressed in the existence of slums.
In the context of Mumbai, the informal economy also refers to the survival economy of the poor who occupy a grey zone of commercial exchange, by providing skilled or semi-skilled labour. The privileged within poorer economies and polities find informal economic transactions very profitable, mainly since it keeps labour costs low. It also allows corrupt municipalities to exploit physical space for commercial gain rather than for the welfare of the poor and extort bribes from the poor entrepreneurs who are never given full status as valid citizens earning their livelihood. The only reason why the informal economy continues to grow is because it subsidizes the economy by keeping labour costs low.

This scenario is clearly evident in the ship breaking, construction, scrap collection, stone breaking, loading-unloading, iron and steel workshops and restaurant-related activities that exist in the docklands. These activities make significant profits for the employers mainly due to this existence of an unregulated labour market that facilitates subsidies.

The workers have low wages and the self-employed have tiny incomes. The working conditions are unregulated and most of the workers are exposed to high level of toxic substances given the nature of the activities in the area – especially in the ship breaking yards.

Most of the workers have been around for more than twenty years. They had migrated from rural areas and small towns where their social and economic location was already marginal. Their move to Mumbai represented a freedom from social restrictions and bondage and a marginal improvement in economic relations. On the whole, though, their migration to the city is not accompanied by significant social mobility. Their children still do not have access to good quality education and basic medical facilities.

At this point it becomes mandatory to underline how traditional social stratification that is the foundation of India’s social histories, epitomized by the caste system, gets reflected in the city’s socio-economic arrangements. The fact of the matter is that most of the urban poor belong to traditionally marginal communities like the Dalits and what are termed, other backward communities. The city absorbs the poor migrant into its economic system, which is dominated by informal arrangements. These do little to weaken the traditional modes of social stratification in which the migrants are embedded. The absence of basic educational infrastructure only ensures the entry of a new generation of informal, unskilled, or semi-skilled workers that continues to perpetuate the system. Illiteracy levels in cities such as Mumbai remain extraordinarily high in its slums– even when compared to rural contexts. The only mode of livelihood available for the urban poor is in informal economic spaces, which have their own limits to facilitating social mobility. In addition, since the context in which the informal economy operates is really the slum, this completes a vicious circle of social, historical, and economic equations that trap the urban poor. The poverty that is visible in the docklands is very much an illustration of this story. However, it must be noted that it only builds on what is happening in other parts of the city as well. This story is in no way peculiar to the docklands lands.

Today, globalization in Mumbai is very clearly being identified with physical transformations of neighbourhoods, transformations that accommodate post-industrial, service based economic activities and attempt to push out manufacturing and informal trading and service-based activities towards the periphery of the city. Infrastructure deprived habitats – or slums and shantytowns are seen to be an expression of these dated urban activities and much energy is invested in erasing these spaces.

The docklands are seen to be a huge potential space for such a pot-industrial transformation. The NGOs that operate there are already playing a major role in the resettlement and rehabilitation of slum-dwellers. There is hardly any discussion with regard to an improvement of the civic infrastructure of the poorer neighbourhoods. There is even little discussion on investing in education to upgrade the skills of the next generation of the city’s poor citizens. Except for an NGO like Akaansha that concentrates on education for street children, there is negligible investment in this sphere.

Such a restricted approach to social space is not only a reflection of the impatience of global capital that is eternally on the quest for new, comfortable places to nest its aspirations, but also of the insidious way in which the system of caste continues to hold social formations in its clutches within such urban supposedly globalized spaces.

One can see the disinterest to tackle these issues writ large on the faces of all the social actors involved in the docklands story.

The port authorities rely extensively on subsidies provided by informal economic arrangements and are more interested in maintaining their stranglehold on the property. They prefer dealing with the presence of informality – symbolized by the presence of infrastructure-deprived habitats. After all, more directed transformations on the social front will mean taking greater risks about their control over the territory. The planners and architects view the space as being part of a larger story of the metropolitan region’s revival (with their elaborate plans of bridging the island to the mainland, opening up the eastern waterfront for the public at large etc.). They find it difficult to incorporate social concerns with regard to mobility, education, and transformation of economic relationships into these plans.

The most drastic expression of this disinterest is the silence maintained with regard to the erasure of the habitats that house the region’s informal arrangements. That the infrastructure habitats have to be erased is a fact accepted by all – that is why there is little resistance even from activists and NGOs. At present, the moves of erasure are restricted to habitats that create obstacles for public transport projects – mainly the railways – but there is little reason to believe that the process will not be employed for other, less pressing and more profit – oriented projects in the future – especially if the urban planners have their way in the docklands.

The reason why homes of the urban poor are seen to be the most obvious signs of dereliction – when in fact their ability of subsidizing through informal arrangements should signal economic dynamism – is easy to understand. Urban transformation is as much about aesthetics as it is about efficient and profitable use of space. Moreover, the erasure of spaces of the poor, allows for both these ideals to be expressed at once. Of course, the additional price that the poor have to pay is traveling great distances, (after they have been rehabilitated and relocated) at extra cost, to continue to subsidize the profit-oriented economic transactions, which still prefer to use their cheap services.

No wonder there is little interest in understanding the social histories that are part of the docklands space – even amongst the more progressive votaries of its transformation. They are simply not considered to be important voices or stakeholders in the planning process. They can be empathized with or dealt in the plans as objects worthy of assistance and help, but they can never ever dream of becoming the agents of the ongoing transformation.

Nevertheless, it would be facetious to blame the specific actors in the docklands as being the sole proponents of such thought. The city as a whole treats its poor this way. The modus operandi being employed by the actors in the docklands only reflects the larger choices that the city regularly makes. Take for example – the attitudes reflected in Dharavi. The following is a quote from a paper written by an urban studies scholar and activist Matias Echnaove;

Some people, by ignorance or political calculation, picture Dharavi as a wasteland full of tent-like temporary structures; an immense inhabited junkyard crowded with undernourished people hopelessly disconnected from the rest of the world, surviving on charity and pulling the whole city’s economy backward. The reality could hardly be more different: Dharavi is a highly developed urban area composed of very distinct neighborhoods with a bustling economic activity integrated socially, economically, and culturally at the metropolitan, regional and global level.

This is as true of the docklands as it is of Dharavi.

It may seem like a far-fetched dream to visualize a forum in which activists and NGOs come together to mobilize the inhabitants and workers of the docklands. But it is one worth imagining.

Such a mobilization can express itself as a political force. One that negotiates with the port trust authorities about flexible usage about the space by keeping in mind the needs of the port, the inhabitants and workers and the city at large – necessarily in that order. However, to do this, it would also be important to examine the many social histories that are embedded in this rich historical space and use these to evoke an interest in the city as a whole about this space.

In a small initiative in a village in Girgaum, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai, PUKAR – Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research, Mumbai engaged in opening up the discourse on habitats and heritage activism by focusing on a small hamlet – dear to the city’s heritage activists – called Khotachiwadi. The initiative attempted to get the whole city engaged with the neighbourhood so that it could and see how its story was linked to that of the whole city. The overwhelming participation of the city’s residents at the festival organized by the residents of the village, was a testimony to the success of the strategy. It was not difficult to understand how the village won so many enthusiasts who lived scattered all over the city. The idea was simple; convince them that Khotachiwadi was about the city as well.

With regard to the docklands – one does not even have to try so hard. The social histories and the narratives are relatively well known. Activists and concerned citizens simply need to get engaged with these stories and with the lives of the inhabitants and then circulate them in the city through the media and other channels of communication.

It is only when such mainstream enthusiasm gets generated – combined with grassroots support from the poor inhabitants themselves – can one unleash enough energy to bring about transformations in a desirable direction – in the direction of a truly global, modernized metropolis. One in which issues of equity are addressed honestly and in which the process of planning is genuinely participatory.

It would be significant if the docklands of Mumbai became the space for evolving a new form of activism, and envisaging new forms of planning processes. Considering how much the city has traditionally depended on the docklands space for its survival – it would only be befitting that the docklands once more rise to the occasion to show the city a new way of dealing with issues of urban poverty and urban futures in a global world.

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