A few months back, while this journalist was taking a few visiting friends for an impromptu stroll in the Fort area and its neighbourhood, one of them, a historian from an overseas university, asked: “Can we go there…?” pointing at the University Building complex that also houses the Rajabai Tower. “A view of the city from the clock tower would be fabulous…” he prodded, his excitement palpable. The group was savouring the thought of spending time inside this fine architectural triumph, a treasure trove of history, culture, art and literature.
Having been at the receiving end of denied permissions and wasted hours to enter this space while on many assignments, one had to play spoilsport and reply in the negative that the idea would have to be scrapped – unless, of course, we had prior permission, were members, had ‘official’ work or were students. We didn’t fall under any of the categories, and the sullen group had to be content with outer-façade viewing of this fine Victorian Gothic architecture ensemble from a distance, inviting curious, if not unfriendly, stares from the security guards positioned at the main gate. A similar scene ensued as we moved towards the Kala Ghoda sub precinct. By the end of our walking tour, the ‘members only’ tag became a joke within the group.
Barring the CST, Gateway of India, General Post Office, our museums and a few commercial buildings on DN Road (desperate for a thorough facelift) and Ballard Estate, interested Mumbaikars cannot access its public heritage. While global cities open up this segment of their heritage and ensure that they are part of walking maps and tours, out there; our version is a mix of washing ghats, crowded waterfronts, Dharavi’s slums and, of course, the homes of our cine gods. It is unfortunate how these pre-defined ideas of what constitutes the heart, soul and pride of Mumbai remains a skewed and myopic picture. One fails to understand why some of its real treasures of progress as Indian’s leading city — not just from a commercial and entertainment perspective but also from a cultural and architectural standpoint — fail to be showcased by the powers that be. City forums and associations are doing their bit to change this disturbing frame, against the odds, but it remains a distant prospect.
Imagine how much the opening up of these wonderful buildings will benefit the area? Imagine the revenue it would generate for its own betterment? The possibilities are immense. As momentum gathers to push for the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble along with the Oval Maidan as Mumbai’s proposal for the revered UNESCO World Heritage Site status, one hopes it gets the nod as India’s nomination, and, eventually, its richly deserved place of pride on a global platform by making it to the elusive list. Our citizens ought to see what they have been blessed with, in their own city. It will go a long way in appreciating this living, breathing heritage.
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— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY