No off-limits for Mumbai

By Mumbai: | 24 Dec 2001

"Its cruel. Its mean. Lacking as much in space as in courtesy; either you prosper or perish, take your pick!"

Ominous words those. Especially coming, with fuming breath, from ones own sister when this writer chose to wind up his secure life in Delhi to make his uncertain way to the frenetic megapolis that was then called Bombay.

The year was 1992, and Bal Thackeray had not yet let loose his saffron louts on the minorities of Bhiwandi or Jogeshwari, and the city was swarming with more than ten million denizens on a Darwinian adventure.

Why speak of that riotous period as a thing of the past? Isnt todays Mumbai the same as 1992, or for that matter, 1982 Bombay? Think again. This is one city that has defied conventional wisdom; indeed it has made it stand on its head. It swelled and it is not as if you have seen the last of the trainloads of new migrants yet like every other urban agglomeration, but surprisingly, the unceasing, unstoppable, inexorable dribble of human flotsam from elsewhere hasnt quite choked Mumbai.

In fact, far from it. In the early 90s, the city seemingly reached the pinnacle of its growth not necessarily financially, but physically. Every morning people from the northern suburbs and much beyond, even from Pune, packed themselves like sardines in that great lifeline called local trains to reach downtown south. And the evenings saw the reverse flow.

The citys population had been on the rise over the years, and there was no place to stay, squat or even stand in one of the worlds costliest metropolises. The nerve-centre was Nariman Point and the adjoining Fort area, and the whole economy of the city, the state, and indeed of the country, revolved around this district.

Anything that expands beyond the limits of its potential, except perhaps the universe as envisioned by the Big Bang theory, has to burst. When Mumbai (as it is now called) inevitably reached that bursting point, there was no sign of the civic apocalypse one would have expected. The phenomenon unfolded more like the Universal Big Bang in seamless, soundless, freeze-by-freeze slow motion.

Paradoxically, the clasp of tightening bodies on suburban trains (the best parameter to judge Mumbais population density) slowly started easing. In due course, realisation dawned that the city is not over-crowded anymore.

This may sound ludicrous to many a Bombaiite-turned-Mumbaikar. But if you just step out of the workaday crowd and spare a minute of your choking schedule, you will realise that the Great Human Juggernaut is not rolling with the same frenzy and claustrophobia that was its quintessence, say, five or ten years back.

Definitely not. Ergo, the city has changed. So, you might ask, how did it all happen? Obviously, no thanks to the efforts of the city fathers or the powerful BMC, paradoxically the richest and most corrupt corporation in the country. Hand it to the enterprising denizens themselves they started branching out to the suburbs, to neighbouring boroughs in the Thane district, to the well-planned township of New Mumbaiand magically the crowds started thinning.

Instead of the north-south-north daily grind, a whole range of new directions and reverse flows ensued. Instead of people massed like refugees and waiting for the predictable trains at particular hours of the day, the crowds got dispersed. The modes of transport, too, have changed: BEST buses, cabs, autos and even private vehicles the last being an unthinkable and non-practical mode of transport until the recent past have become more visible and bumper-to-bumper traffic is now more the exception than the rule.

Several offices and small-scale factories have sprung up in even residential areas of boroughs. And with the exurbia coming to life, as it were, downtown Mumbai is not quite the same anymore. Come 6.30 pm on Monday (forget Saturday) and the swanky Nariman Point wears a deserted look even cases of the highway robbery kind have been reported recently, with the hapless victims being those who had chosen to work late on that particular day.

Save for an HSBC or two, the fabled Fort area doesnt have snazzy offices anymore. Most offices that could not afford exorbitant rentals at these places have since moved to places like Parel, in central Mumbai, where they have set up spacious and affordable shop in what were once mill areas, the bread and butter of the city till a decade ago.

So, is it a welcome trend? The answer is yes, whichever way you slice it (except for the fact, perhaps, that there is a new pattern of unemployment becoming increasingly visible. But then, that is not restricted to Mumbai, is it?).

Just last week, this writer called up his Delhi sibling and assured her she had been proved wrong, eventually. And nobody knocked the caller down, as it used to happen. Once.

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