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Mere pass space hai

That could be Mumbai’s tagline, punchline and faultline. For, nothing drives or drags, unites or divides voters in this great city as the endless struggle for space.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: April 23, 2014 10:24 am
That could be Mumbai’s tagline, punchline and faultline. For, nothing drives or drags, unites or divides voters in this great city as the endless struggle for space. You see it in Milind Deora’s campaign as he peddles his premium product — himself. And in Medha Patkar’s anger as she talks of inequality in a slum under a forest of branded air-conditioners That could be Mumbai’s tagline, punchline and faultline. For, nothing drives or drags, unites or divides voters in this great city as the endless struggle for space.

That could be Mumbai’s tagline, punchline and faultline. For, nothing drives or drags, unites or divides voters in this great city as the endless struggle for space. You see it in Milind Deora’s campaign as he peddles his premium product — himself. And in Medha Patkar’s anger as she talks of inequality in a slum under a forest of branded air-conditioners.

It’s been a decade since Kolkata ceded to Mumbai its pre-eminence in globalising popular culture and serious literature. From Suketu Mehta (Maximum City) to Katherine Boo (Behind the Beautiful Forevers) through Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai is our most studied, psychoanalysed, romanticised and feared city. Interludes of scams (Adarsh) and terror (26/11, besides the many serial bombings) haven’t helped. Yet, for all the literature that you could borrow wisdom from, and all the movies for stereotypes to lean on, Mumbai is a political journalist’s nightmare. Particularly when in the throes of its most intensely fought election ever.

Send me out to read the writings on the wall in the Hindi heartland, and I promise you a quick turnaround and a head full of stories. You think that cowbelt politics is complex. But it has its short-cuts and set algebra, geometry and patterns. “Brahmin, Thakur, Bhumihar, eastern UP-western Bihar, and throw in some Scheduled Castes and Muslims,” said a teachers’ union leader at Banaras Hindu University, where I had gone to cover a strike in 1983, and got, instead, a tutorial in UP-Bihar politics, delivered at the speed of today’s FM radio jockeys.

Try applying any of that to Mumbai at election time. You can add the Marathi Manoos, the south Indians, even the Parsis for diversity. But any conventional political calculus won’t work here. Because it defies every set convention, even for complex cities. I shout at Milind Deora, trying to catch his attention on top of his campaign truck as it travels from Geeta Nagar to Ganesh Murti Nagar, in the sprawling slum abutting the mangroves on the Cuffe Parade seafront on one side, a naval residential colony — high walls, barbed wire fences, watch-towers, armed guards — on the other, and overlooked by the most infamous abandoned building in India’s recent history: Adarsh. “What is the voter mix here,” I want to know. “How many Muslims, bhaiyyas (as UP-Bihar wallahs are called) and Maharashtrians?”

Impossible to tell,” he says, “Mumbai cannot be understood like that.” He says he is appealing to no category of voters in particular. “These are smart voters,” he says, “they will vote for the best product on offer… they are not like voters in other places, uncle.” Which gives me the excuse to bring out of the closet an old story shared between his family and mine. I have said for years that I can never figure out his father, Murli, because my son addressed him by his first name when he first met him as a 9-year-old, and my chairman (Viveck Goenka) calls him uncle. Young Milind has never suffered from any such confusion at his end.

The “product” he puts on offer is himself as a double-incumbent MP. In Maharashtra, as in Delhi or Haryana, this isn’t an election where Congress people seek votes for their party’s achievements. Milind knows that he is the party’s most winnable candidate in Mumbai, particularly with the BJP having conceded the seat to the Shiv Sena, which means that there is also an MNS candidate to divide those against him.

Besides, he has to contend with the AAP’s Meera Sanyal. But even his rivals acknowledge that he offers a good product. He has worked hard in the undercity of his constituency and his parents’ old network of goodwill, friendship and IOUs have left the South Mumbai upper crust in a dilemma: they so desperately want Narendrabhai as prime minister but cannot bear the thought of voting against Milind beta. “Milind wasn’t entirely honest in declaring his assets,” said one prominent corporate leader, illustrating his own dharamsankat. “He did not mention the number and names of influential South Mumbai notables his father counts among his bridge partners.”

But Milind has the ballast of his own performance as well. Point to any corner of his constituency and he can tell you a story about it, mostly what he has done for it. “This road,” he says, pointing to the approximately 300 metres of thin tar trail that we drive on, “was built by me.” Until then, there was no road here and people had to trudge for an hour through rocks to connect with the rest of the city, and that too mostly during low tide hours. And the road couldn’t be built because the navy had to give permission, and you know how tough that is. So he arm-twisted (my expression, not his) A.K. Antony into giving the clearances and then even got BEST to start a bus service to Geeta Nagar. It is too good a cheap shot for me to resist, even when I, in his wake, am plied with marigold garlands by his supporters. “You are indeed a great product, Milind, you even got Mr Antony to take a decision,” I say. It seems like Milind never heard me.

And then, just as I hop off his truck, I figure out what he meant by Mumbai’s peculiar voter mix. At the little slum trijunction called Ganesh Murti, a Hanuman temple, the Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Shuttering Store, a bhaiyya’s shop selling assorted sachets of shampoos and paan masala but also serving as an Airtel agency to transfer money and pay bills, and then a Muslim butcher shop exist in the same little dwelling, across, maybe, a 25-metre frontage. Which community’s votes do you seek, and how, in this city? And what do you do with it? In front of the temple is that most familiar Indian urban landmark, a garbage dump, the open-air kudedaan. I often like to say that the best way to give somebody directions in one of our cities is to follow the KSKT (kudedaan-se-kudedaan-tak) grid.

The difference here is, this dump reaches the sea and sweeps through a thick clump of mangroves. It was to protect these that a succession of our activist environment ministers, from Maneka Gandhi to Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan, blocked all development along our coastlines, which meant taking away a third of all useful land in Mumbai. And yet the coast is thickly populated, spewing thousands of tonnes of garbage, and you can trust plastic bags to do to the mangroves what you feared builders would have. Though, of course, choking them gently, rather than just slash and bulldoze.

Caste, religion, ethnicity, ideology do not paint the political walls in Mumbai. None of these determines its politics, voter choices, ambitions, fears and prejudices. Or maybe this is too sweeping. Each one of these factors does play a role. But none of them, not even all of them together, decides what drives or drags, unites or divides, angers or pleases, fulfils or frustrates this great city and persuades its voters to choose their six representatives to the Lok Sabha. Nor is that determinant purely economic, even though it is tempting to steal Katherine Boo’s brilliant idea of a megapolis divided between an overcity and an undercity. Because the two are not clearly demarcated in any sense. They overlap and coexist organically, and symbiotically. But I do find a very helpful clue from her description of Annawadi slum, far in northern, suburban Mumbai. It is miserable, stinky, sub-human, Danny Boyle-ish, and yet its inhabitants, she says, would not qualify to be poor people according to India’s norms. It is a cruel thing to admit, but she is right.

Which is easy to check out as I join Medha Patkar, Mumbai’s most powerful and committed activist for the slum dwellers’ cause, as she sees it. She is now the AAP’s candidate in Mumbai North East against the BJP’s Kirit Somaiya and the NCP’s Sanjay Dina Patil (sitting MP). With the help of The Indian Express assistant editor Shalini Nair, who has just returned from a sabbatical at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) with a master’s dissertation on Marxist spatial theory as it applies to struggles in Mumbai’s slums, we catch up with Medha in suburban Vikhroli’s Tagore Nagar-Hariyali Village slums. Conceded that this isn’t quite Annawadi.

This is one of the older, established and sort of semi-regularised slums, with streetlights. But it is still a slum. Open drains with overflowing deep black muck scooped out and piled at street corners, hundreds of homes around an open air dairy with more than a hundred buffaloes, run by who else but Yadavs from the heartland, who sit in watch on top of a temporary contraption rigged with ropes and sticks that you could possibly call a giant beach swing, except it hangs atop a sea of dung, urine and slush cocktail. Municipal authorities have pasted posters all over on how to avoid dengue or being bitten by Aedes mosquitoes. But it is no use.

They haven’t taught mosquitoes,

Aedes or good-old malarial Anopheles, to read the warnings, in Hindi, English — or Marathi.

You are condemned to this quality of life, like the extreme poor anywhere in the world, even if you have the money to buy every other comfort, every gadget and motor vehicle in Mumbai. That is the economic contradiction of Mumbai. Medhatai, as she is called by lakhs of her affectionate loyalists in Mumbai’s slums, stands, delivering a short speech, with lines you can pretty much anticipate: the system is corrupt, anti-poor, builders hold our cities to ransom and of course the jhadoo now gives the poor an opportunity to fight back.

But which poor is she talking to? She stands at a narrow “trijunction” that can hold no more than 30 persons, next to miserable slums, but also right underneath a split air-conditioner. And before you raise the obvious questions, let me record two facts: this isn’t the only dwelling with a split AC. A very large number of them do have one. In fact, I am told, you can only use the more expensive split ACs here because a window AC requires, obviously, something called a window, which is a rarity in a slum. And second, please do not think we are looking at the backs of cheap, garage-made or second-hand air-conditioners. The one behind Medha is a Panasonic, the three dwellings in front have Godrej, Voltas and LG.

And in between, somebody is selling a cantilever-shelf full of lovely doves, another running a dance academy (Mehul Dance Academy) for hip-hop, Bollywood, popping, locking and b-boying, whatever all that means, and a White Rose Beauty Academy. As Medha’s small and committed procession moves, breathless scouts report in advance on the kind of population mix at the next stop. Didi, thoda sa Malayalam mein bol sakti hain yahan? Aur yahan Marathi chalegi… yahan Hindi, lekin thoda Urdu bhi daal dena.

It is a campaign padyatra across some of our most miserable urban lanes. But a reporter is nothing if not a peeping Tom and a voyeur — of what makes his story, of writings on the wall. So I note that almost every home is a 10×12 room with a tinier, 6-ft deep section set back and divided into a kitchenette and a bathroom where a two-chamber washing machine is standard fitting. Two chambers, because where are the open spaces in Mumbai, and it rains for half the year. So you need a drier for your clothes, too. You also see television sets, PCs, even children’s toy bikes (usually secured with padlocked chains to the railings) and smart phones. A teenager shames me by asking, what’s your Twitter handle, sir? And when I tell him I have none, he looks apologetically at his smartphone and says, oh, I was searching. And then, you see an aquarium, a bunch of well-fed cats with metal-buckled pet-shop collars, even a colourful turtle — all inside one of these “homes”.

Actually, the standard home here is the shape of a cargo container. Or rather, as if you had piled two or three containers on top of each other. Medha takes a short break in the home of Zabhi Issa Sheikh. You can see he is a man of means, and it is not just because of his menagerie of exotic pets. His entire home, the floor, the walls are lined with sparkling tiles, there is a large, framed picture of the Ka’aba, Medinah and many of the well known Sufi shrines in India.

Sheikh saab is in the transport business and is now fully committed to the AAP. And before you think he merely drives a truck and earns just enough to survive in this miserable, stinking slum, listen to him. He owns four trucks, all contracted to big companies, one Mahindra Xylo, also on contract, and an Innova that “I have given Medha behen for her campaign.” He has everything you can ask for. A wonderful family, talented, well-behaved children, pets as pampered as you’d find anywhere on Carmichael or
Pedder Road. Then what is it that he doesn’t have?
It’s called space.

Is this the election diarist’s eureka, gotcha moment? Maybe, looking for writings on the wall, I’ve been searching in the wrong places. Surely, cosmopolitan Mumbai has all the determinants of political division and distinction that other parts of the country have. But the most important of these in Mumbai, the commodity, the asset or the luxury that tells rich from poor, successful from failed, struggling from having arrived, frustrated and angry from aspirational and lazily smug, is a five-letter word: space. Life in Mumbai is an endless struggle for space, or a celebration of having some of your own.

The richest are not spared this. Even the topmost tycoons with the biggest homes, even if they are able to take a helicopter from the airport to the helipad at Mahalaxmi Race Course, sort of midtown, can still be hanging for an impotent hour in their Bentleys and Porsches just fighting their way past the Mahalaxmi/Haji Ali junction. Mumbai also has an utterly secular traffic gridlock.

The rest, which is the vast, vast majority of Mumbaikars, spend their lives fighting for space. In offices where rentals for a workstation space may cost more than the employee’s salary, in the trains which turn the packed-like-sardines cliche on its head: delicate sardines, in fact, would be minced into a fine paste if packed like commuters on a rush-hour Mumbai train. The HR head at a large MNC still headquartered in Nariman Point tells me she has made it a practice to add a bottle of deodorant spray to the induction kits and goody bags of her new executives. Even they take the same trains, and by the time they get to work, they smell like, what else, but the great unwashed. You can’t allow that in a corporate headquarters. It’s not a slum. But however well you pay your young executives, they can’t afford more space to live in, or to commute, unless their parents had been relatively successful and farsighted. The next day, I ask Sharad Pawar for what TV anchors would call his “take” on the space issue. His eyes light up. Yes, it is the biggest problem in Mumbai, but nobody wants to touch it. Anything you try will become a scandal. Given how valuable space is, how much of it is available illegally and the arbitrage it involves, four of the fabled 5 Cs that govern Mumbai’s life: Corporates, Crime, Culture (popular), Corruption, and even Cricket, are governed by it. The deals in Mumbai are all in terms of FSI (floor space index), or how much you can construct on a piece of land. The law allows too little FSI and creates huge arbitrage for mafias of various kinds as builders believe that land may belong to man but heavens belong to gods and you can happily steal from them. FSI is Mumbai’s convertible currency and the builder-politician partnership runs the mint where it is printed.

It feeds Mumbai’s politics, underworld, often Bollywood, denies young Mumbaikars playgrounds (it is no longer the home of Indian cricket now, so what if Mumbai Indians won the last IPL with Malinga, Bravo and Mitchell Johnson), keeps afloat old business families who have already starved their employees, vacuumed their shareholders and outsmarted their bankers but can simply keep leveraging the land under the shells of their abandoned factories to keep De Beers and Versace in good humour. Builders buy land and then steal space upwards in the name of building floors for parking, flower beds — in one case, in fact, in a perpetually under-construction building that is now a central landmark, something like 20 full floors on the pretext of providing fire and disaster shelter.

I am not sure if these floors are fitted with parachutes on the parapets, as ferry boats come sporting life-belts. This desperation for more and more space is also producing, even in the most premium buildings, some of the worst, most unaesthetic modern architecture in the world. He is a wonderful man to meet, but architect Hafeez Contractor should account for some of this. Buildings that would look to you like inverted test tubes or phallic fantasies, depending on whether you have a sick body or mind. Apologies, Hafeez, and surely you are not the only one, just the most celebrated. Mumbai’s aesthetically disastrous construction boom should establish beyond any doubt that architecture is the least evolved profession in India. Ok, the second least evolved. After journalism.

Since space is the currency of Mumbai and in such short, finite supply, it has many other collateral implications. A household like Zabhi Issa Sheikh’s can have ACs, AC cars, can even travel by air occasionally. But his family, or that of anybody else’s in Mumbai, does not have a single — not even one — air-conditioned seat in a commuter train in their city. Delhi provides two to three million now on its Metro. Here you are, then. You can be successful, even moderately rich. But you do not have space for self-respect at home or outside. Next to Sheikh’s house is a tailoring shop, for example. It’s 6×8 ft, but has workstations for four tailors and even half a loft to store fabric and thread. In fact, the quality of your life falls further the moment you have to leave home for work, school or college.

Our Sheikh saab is rather good-humoured about this. As we settle down to bragging about our respective pets and somebody pulls our leg with “apni apni billi pe sab ko guroor hai” (parodying Amitabh Bachchan’s apni apni biwi), I ask him how come he doesn’t have a dog. He is foxed. I can’t resist another cheap shot, and unleash that old Mumbai cliche: achcha hai na, Sheikh saab, if you had a dog, you would have had to train the poor thing to wag its tail vertically, as there’d be no space left to right. We both gulp our oversized shots of chilled Sprite. And laugh. For once, Medhatai joins in too, even if just.


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