Jewel in the crowd

Updated: Jan 06, 2020, 07:21 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

The keepers of Gateway of India, the city's most iconic landmark, ought to spruce up their act and give it a much-needed upgrade

Gateway of India
Gateway of India

FionaEach year on December 31, hordes throng the Gateway of India to ring in the New Year. Mumbai doesn't have a Times Square like New York or the spectacular setting of Sydney's Harbour Bridge, so the Gateway along with the Queen's Necklace tend to make up for this dearth of glitzy squares or promenades to gather at when the clock strikes 12.

And, thanks to social media, many, like yours truly, who preferred a house party instead, also got to experience that moment on the prominent waterfront. We got thinking that day, about how Bombaywallahs hold this site so close to their hearts. But there seems to be a general lack of interest in keeping it in good shape as a sparkling jewel along the city's coastline.

The history buff in me decided to jog my memory to re-look at how the Gateway came to be. In 1911, when King George V and Queen Mary had to attend the Delhi Durbar, they passed through a temporary pavilion made from white Plaster of Paris. This came up to replace an iron shed that earlier stood at this vantage point of entry and exit. The King and Queen departed from the same temporary structure on January 10, 1912.

Soon after they left India's shores, the then Governor Sydenham initiated a scheme to commence work on a permanent structure. This reclaimed frontage to the north of the Taj Mahal Hotel was meant to be an imposing stone-landing stage, unique in design. The inaugural stone was laid in 1913, and work began to level the promenade around the plaza. The impressive archway was eventually complete by 1927. Scottish architect George Wittet designed it such that it represented a cross between the Parisian Arc de Triomphe, a Moorish mansion with inspiration from traditional Gujarati architecture. The familiar main large arch reaches a maximum height of 83 feet and is flanked by two smaller arches. After poring over a few dusty notes, I also learnt that Wittet had proposed a grand avenue beside the Gateway that was never implemented.

Cut to the present. I happened to play guide to two American desis who were keen to retrace their roots, and walk back along the same roads and attractions that they did as schoolchildren. After a leisurely amble along Colaba's leafy back alleys and roads, they came face to face with an aberration. The same Gateway of which they had fond memories looked like a Bombay-fied version of the Kumbh Mela. Despite trying our best to avoid the crowds, we somehow got entangled in a mad melee; I took a mental check and had to quickly abort plans of getting them anywhere closer to the serpentine queues for a dekko of Wittet's fine creation. With very little security staff to man the crowds, it would have been suicidal to step into this snakepit.

The poor crowd and waste management was there for all to see. Litter and plastic bottles were strewn all around us. Banana peels greeted many unsuspecting tourists. It was a jamboree, and nobody seemed to really care about the mess that graced our 'city's pride.' I could see the alarm on their faces as they scanned the scene in front of them. A shame really, that such sights scare genuine folk away from marvelling at the historic and architectural splendour of the Gateway.

It wasn't a moment I felt proud of. As we moved further away, the two young enthusiasts had to be consoled by their uncle that they could try to revisit on a weekday perhaps, when things were calmer. I am not sure if that happened. But it left me thinking, and with a sour aftertaste. The area has been sliding into neglect for a while now, and despite the best efforts of a few, there seems to be no sustained, concerted effort to give it the upgrade that it truly deserves, especially keeping in mind the high footfall it receives on a daily basis.

It's bad enough that the city hasn't done anything to showcase its seafronts but it would help if it at least preserves the existing ones, and especially the marquee landmark that ought to be the jewel in Bombay's crown.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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