July 17, 2009


Yesterday (July 15), I was asked to be on a panel at the National Gallery of Modern Art, to discuss the current exhibition there, SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary. There is a book that goes with the exhibition, and the publishers sent me a copy only two days earlier, so I didn't have a lot of time to get thoroughly acquainted. (Incidentally, the book is priced at Rs 2500).

But I did the best I could, and there were about 60 people (!) to listen to the discussion, which turned out pretty lively. I was critical, and that led to some spirited back and forth with the authors of the book and the exhibition, the architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. I'd like to commend them for being willing to listen and react to criticism. In particular, they corrected a misunderstanding I had about the "lens of resilience", mentioned below: da Cunha explained that it applied to the land, not people.

Here's what I said as a prelude to the freewheeling discussion.


It's been raining heavily in Bombay over the last few days. Not as heavily as on that day four years ago, but heavily enough that it's got folks scared. Should I send my child to school? Should I go to work? Will the flooding happen again?

And sure, enough people take the cautious answer to those questions, enough that in taking my son to school yesterday morning -- clearly, I'm not as cautious as I should be -- there was noticeably less traffic on the roads than on "normal" days. They are right to be cautious: the papers are filled with stories and pictures of flooded roads, stopped trains, walking commuters. I don't know if there has been substantial change to anything in the city since four years ago, to cope with heavy rains, but the scenes look familiar indeed.

People talk about the anger at the government after last November's terrorist attacks. They describe it as "unprecedented." How quickly we forget: the anger at the government after the July 2005 flood was just as fiercely felt. So many people got together to say they were fed up, to resolve to do something -- and yet, almost naturally, that anger dissipates and we are left with an unresponsive, unaccountable government. Like always.

And so we are reduced -- I use that word deliberately -- to circulating the email I am sure all of you got in May -- a list of the five especially high tides expected in June and July. Three of them next week. The BMC plans to close school on July 24th, the day of the highest high tide, and the message says we must "restrict our movements" and "certainly not take vehicles out"; we should tell people outside the city not to come here on those days.

Note that this is just a high tide warning, not a storm warning. For there is no forecaster who can predict rainfall, let alone two months ahead.

Yet this is a reminder of two things:

First, our pathetic state of mind. We are now running scared of, of all things, high tides. Which, even if they are record high tides, this city, this country, this world has known about for billions of years. What does it say for us that in 2009, our strategy to live with high tides during the monsoon is to "restrict our movements"?

Second, and yet, the utter simplicity, directness and approachability of this strategy. Here are the dates and times, says the email, so please take note, please take care. It may not be ideal, but it works, it will work next week, it will work every time.

The whole point of all this -- the memories of anger, the tide warnings, the apparent lack of any substantial change in our situation -- is that we are all ultimately looking for strategies to cope during heavy monsoon rains. Things we can do, things our government can do, things we can demand that our government to -- so that we feel safer and indeed drier in the monsoon.

And that's the spirit in which I started looking at SOAK. Yet I'm left baffled, and on various counts. Here's just a sample:

* What do colonial perceptions or misperceptions of Bombay as an island have to do with anything much? We are what we are, today and now. How do we live here?

* I understand the point that the boundary between sea and land might have been a fluid one once. Or indeed still: the line that's apparent in a satellite photograph from outer space is quite different when you zoom in and find greater detail, greater grain. Yet even so, we've had fishermen going out to fish from this area for centuries. Surely they know land from sea?

* The "lens of resilience" vs "lens of flood" cuts too close to a phrase I and many others are thoroughly sick of: the "spirit of the city". It only seems to cover up for monumental failures by those we charge to administer this city. It suggest that instead of demanding accountability, we live with mediocrity -- and celebrate that every now and then.

* There are just too many nice looking prettily patterned pages in this book, or panels in this exhibition, that tell me nothing. For an apparently serious look at this city and its development, that's inexcusable.

The best writing about this city shares a certain simplicity, a directness, a readability. Sort of like the city itself. But I try to read Soak and I'm, yes, baffled.

No comments: