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Bombay, the city that was

Journalist and author Naresh Fernandes’ new book, City Adrift, begins with the paradoxical dreams builders sell home-buyers in Mumbai — a retreat away from the chaos of Mumbai, built in Mumbai — which seldom fails to flummox him.

To get away from the ridiculousness of it all, Fernandes spends his weekends trying to guess the city’s future by visiting its past — he frequents changing neighbourhoods and structures crumbling and renewed. It is through these experiences that the book truly acquires a sense of urgency — City Adrift is a biography of a Bombay under change, a shape-shifter of a city.


Naresh Fernandes, author of City Adrift, says he is preoccupied with the construction and fragmentation of the city he insists on calling ‘Bombay’. Pic/Nimish Dave

The first half takes one through Fernandes’ journeys through space and time, succinctly told through impeccable research into how the city and its communities came into their own. The second half charts transformations in politics and real estate which have made the city what it largely is today — the rise of the Shiv Sena, religious ghettos, effects of the Development Control Regulations and the engineering and civic mockery — the Bandra-Worli Sealink. It is here that Fernandes’ exasperated, vehement voice refuses to let the city’s veneer glaze over its many shortcomings.

For those who’ve lived in Bombay long enough to see both its blemishes and graceful laugh lines, City Adrift is an honest account of how Bombay steadily lost its egalitarianism. And if you’ve seen the city from afar, here’s a chance to know what it looks like up close. Uncomfortably close.

Excerpts from the interview:

What makes City Adrift a comprehensive biography of Bombay, a city which has been chronicled time and again?
I am preoccupied with the physical aspects of the city, its society, the way Bombay has been assembled — literally and metaphorically — over time. More so, I’ve been interested in the idea of its fragmentation.

I left out two topics out of the book, which may seem sacrilegious given that this is a book on Bombay — Bollywood and cricket. I chose not to touch upon these because they aren’t my areas of interest or expertise. Over the past 25 years, in course of my work as a journalist, I’ve seen how the city has been constructed and fragmented in turns, so it was natural that I set out to document it. It is the dynamics of land and real estate that really interested me most when I began researching for City Adrift.

The two previous books in the series chose to tell the stories of the authors’ cities (A Matter of Rats and Degree Coffee By The Yard) through historians, the architects and the man on the street. You chose not to do that — why?
I think enough has been said about Bombay by speaking to people. Besides that, I didn’t think I could chart the broad dynamics of the real estate lobby, the regulatory framework — or the lack of it — by speaking to people. The changes brought about by the Development Control rules, the stories of the mill lands would not have been efficiently told through people, so I preferred to rant about them myself.

Bombay cannot claim to have philanthropists anymore. Has the city lost out on something ineffable due to this?
At a point in time, the city owed a lot — and in ways it still does — to the benevolence of Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy, for instance. There were groups of wealthy citizens who made remarkable contributions to Bombay’s cultural and infrastructural growth.

But post liberalisation, there have been clans of wealthy citizens with rather blinkered vision. We’ve become richer without letting our benefit from it — which I find rather stupid. At the most, the rich in Bombay invest in temples. To give you an example, the Mahim Causeway was built by Lady Jamshetji. But today, the sealink does little other than fleece its users.

Today, some older families still give it back to the city, but most other do not. The only exception in India is Bangalore, where the new tech money comes from its wealthy families. Then, again, money in industries does not. The notion of egalitarianism is gone. Earlier, people who built mills also built the chawls for the workers to live in with dignity. But now, the middle class and the affluent are getting richer at the expense of the poor. It reflects on Bombay’s physical landscape, too — 52 per cent of our population lives in slums and services those who are better off. And now, people have found ways to celebrate the slums, even rationalise them, by using terms such as ‘special economic zones’ and ‘city systems’.

How do you see Bombay’s eliticism playing out in the future?
I see it playing out rather violently in the future. Crime rates will only hit the roof, the way they now have in cities such as Sao Paolo and Johannesburg. It saddens me that the city is so atomised. Services are not for all. This invisibility for certain classes is also in the way we speak about them, or read about them. We, the media, are no longer the mirror, but a window to reality. 

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