Wednesday, April 9, 2008


By Freny Manecksha

A great city is nothing more than a portrait of itself, and yet when all is said and done its arsenals of scenes and images are part of a deeply moving plan…

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

The high-pitched whine of the lathe machine cutting through marble and the roar of a cement mixer is now a familiar cadence in the Central Bombay suburbs. Suddenly, over the past four years, Cinderella is being wooed as never before. With the Western suburbs reaching saturation point, builders have cast their eyes on the vast tracts of industrial land in the Bhandup-Mulund-Thane belt. If they can have their way, even the saltpans will be reclaimed, albeit under the guise of providing houses to the slum-dwellers.

As property prices soar along with the concrete spires and glass and chrome structures that thrust skywards so do the consumerist dreams and aspirations of this once essentially middle-class and workers’ belt. The arrivistas’ new-found swagger manifests itself in the swathe of malls along LBS Marg and in the hypermarkets. Men in fashionably baggy shorts and t-shirts sporting their slight paunches of prosperity push shopping trolleys laden with pastas and tacos. Children ride atop, just like the US counterparts, screaming out their demands for colas, coolers and chocolates. Women in kurtis and pants peer through shelves desperately seeking hing while examining the Havartis with unabashed curiosity.

An excessively polite staff wishes you good day, happy new year or whatever, as they desperately grope with unfamiliar bar codes or items that defy tagging.

The kiranas or smalltime grocers shrug in resilience and turn their attention on the mass of daily labourers at construction sites, offering them the single cigarette or STD facilities for remote towns in Orissa, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.

In the multiplexes, booking tickets becomes something of a jugglery act as one tries to decipher which movie is showing in which theatre and at which time, since all seem to change without any appropriate notice. But no matter, the usher is bound to seek you at the end of the film and ask you solicitously, “How did you like the film, Madame?”

And, it’s not just a question of the new speak but of Accents. Not just the drawl of the BPO boppers but the wheels they choose.

Whilst the rickshaws edged out tongas in a once-leisurely paced Thane, today it is the turn of the UVs and SUVs. These behemoths hurtle down the expressway and the roads with a brash belligerence demonstrated by a cacophony of high-decibel horns or the dhoom dhoom thud of remixes.

In the metamorphosis the din mutes out earlier voices. Tenants of older buildings find their taps running dry even as the townships opposite the road boast of manicured lawns, swimming pools and gymnasiums. In a bizarre case, the civic garbage dump mysteriously crosses the road as the divide gets pronounced. If the schizoid is worrying to older residents they are immediately reminded of how their own single-room flat has appreciated considerably thanks to the proximity of the new towers hyperbolically called Spaces, Gardens, Estates, Meadows and Woods. But the panthers are wiser. They know the real forest and trees are fast disappearing. They have beaten a quiet retreat and only occasionally wander into human habitat to let them know that they are still around.

Some of the more vocal residents make angry noises when the trees are cut but no such elegies were sung when the factories were shut down and the lands sold or handed over to developers. A recalcitrant bunch may have staged a lone dharna under blue tarpaulin shelters or, in some cases, moved the court but eventually they could not hold out against the clout of the builder lobby.

One evening, two years ago, when the city trembled under the onslaught of days of crippling rains, a sympathetic rickshaw driver agreed to drive me home. As we neared my neighbourhood, he said softly, “I know this area so well. This is where I worked for twenty years. Here are the factory premises where the buildings are coming up. The malik, in a sentimental gesture, refuses to allow the real-estate developers to demolish the main office. He says one day he will call us back. But I know it is all over. A chapter of my life has ended. I now drive the rickshaw.”

The forlorn building with rusty almirahs and broken air-conditioners stands amid the hectic activity of foundations being dug for the new skyscrapers. An old skyline fades away giving way to a brasher new one.

History and the future seem to run side by side in shock and disorder.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

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