Where do you chill out?

Updated: Sep 21, 2019, 05:21 IST | lindsay pereira | Mumbai

The casual destruction of Aarey for what some call development is a sign that we have long lost respect for the city we call home

Thousands of Bombayites have come out in protest against the Metro car shed at Aarey, recorded objections, and asked the government to reconsider. None of them have been listened to.  File pic/Sameer Markande
Thousands of Bombayites have come out in protest against the Metro car shed at Aarey, recorded objections, and asked the government to reconsider. None of them have been listened to. File pic/Sameer Markande

Lindsay PereiraWhat is your idea of a picnic spot? I like the simplicity of that question, because it reveals not just a lot about the person answering, but how our idea of time off has changed. Responses that tend to crop up these days range from cynicism about the word 'picnic' itself to comments about how they make sense in Europe or North America alone. It's an important question though, because, once upon a time, we really did go on them.

It wasn't very long ago either. These gatherings involved packed lunches and snacks, mats and disposable cutlery. I have memories of many, all vivid, all beautiful. They dotted my childhood and adolescent years like diamonds sparkling in acres of coal. I remember picnic spots scattered across Bombay, from beaches to parks, and although those places may remain unspoiled in my imagination alone, it always amazes me that they are never mentioned by those I speak to these days.

When in school, our annual picnics were always day-long excursions to Vihar Lake, Kamala Nehru Park, Gorai, or one of the many beaches that lined the coast off Malad. Our parents would all sign waivers, the snacks would be safely stacked away at the back of school buses, and we would recount exploits — of classmates who rolled down hills and hurt themselves, some who crossed barriers to play in the waters of Vihar Lake, or others who saw a crocodile at Powai — for months after.

And then there was Aarey. For people residing in South Bombay, this marvellous piece of land in the heart of Bombay is still as mysterious as cities outside, a place their cars skirt on the way to resorts out of town. For residents of the suburbs though, it was once the kind of spot that made you forget the rest of the city. This probably explains why one of the water bodies here has long been called Chhota Kashmir. It's where filmmakers on a budget once shot scenes meant to be set in that real paradise at the foothills of the Himalayas. It's also where thousands of families and schools visited regularly, during summer vacations or on long weekends, for rides on two or four-seater boats long before the skyscrapers of Goregaon began to loom in the distance.

It still boggles my mind that biologists have documented over 76 birdlife species, 90 types of spiders, 86 species of butterflies, six species of scorpions and venomous snakes, five species of tarantula, and a number of leopards at Aarey. I can't think of any city on Earth that wouldn't be proud of a place like this, set in the midst of a raucous metropolis. Unfortunately for us though, our politicians have no respect or time for any species. This isn't surprising, given how our governments barely respect human beings, but the lack of interest in protecting Aarey still ought to come as a shock even to jaded Bombayites.

Maybe we don't go on as many picnics as our parents used to because there aren't that many places to go. A cursory look at any of Bombay's beaches tells you everything you need to know about conservation, cleanliness, and whether we care about nature. The parks of my youth have long run to seed, some handed over to private organisations, others ignored like so many forgotten decrepit corners. Our picnic spots now involve long drives to the hills of Khandala or the sands of Tarkarli, places that those belonging to low-income groups simply have no access to. It's all a far cry from the democratic spaces that once welcomed us all.

A year or two from now, Aarey won't be the same either. It has been losing its sheen for decades, but the rise of a Metro car shed will destroy any hope of it retaining even the ghost of what it once was. The colony is set to lose over 2,000 trees to make way for dubious claims of development. Apparently, 2,185 trees will be cut, and around 461 transplanted. Thousands of Bombayites have come out in protest, recorded objections, and asked the government to reconsider. None of them have been listened to.

What we refer to as development is now a flawed, narrow idea restricted to what looks good on a hoarding or election manifesto. It involves steel, concrete and artificial lighting, with no place for the natural world or those who live in it. It's probably why we end up gaining a lot, and still losing everything.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira

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