Sunday, 30 August 2009

Money down the sea?

It's a bit scary to write about the great Maratha king, Shivaji. Those who do normally make it to TV. With news of their being stoned and beaten up.

But the fact remains that Shivaji is, what one would could these days, a 'rockstar'. And this is not just in his native state of Maharashtra. I remember that we were big fans of Shivaji in school in the last century. We'd often play Shivaji and the Mughals those days instead of cops and robbers. Everyone wanted to be Shivaji. And this was in Calcutta at the other end of the country.

The Government has recently sanctioned plans to build a statue of Shivaji in the sea. The aim is to make this taller than the Statue of Liberty. Reports peg the cost of the project at Rs 350. The aim is to honour his memory and make a tourist attraction too.

Rs 350 crores is a lot of money. Especially for a state which is going through tough times and where there is a high incidence of farmer suicides due to economic depravity.

Could this money have been used better?

In fact there is a lot which can be done even in the tourism front.

The other day I had wandered into the old by lanes of Kalbadevi, Mumbadevi and Gamdevi near South Mumbai by mistake. There is so much vibrancy and life there. Each lane has its own character. You could be walking by imposing Muslim mosques and minarets in one with dry fruit shops beside you. And then by ornate Hindu temples in the next lane with hardware shops around you. I was so tempted to jump out of the car and hit the streets with my camera to capture the riot of colours. These lanes are a treasure trove in a world where many are trying to hold on to the liveliness of the past as we move on to a mechanised robotic future.

And India is the new black with the world looking to India to see how we have held our ground in the times of recession.

Yet Singapore sells 'Little India' to tourists while we have not thought of making tourist attractions of our heritage.

Once you have had your fill of the India in the crowded lanes, you can head South to areas such as Colaba, Fort and Fountain to feast on a well preserved slice of 19th century England. These areas have some astonishingly beautiful Gothic buildings from the times of the British Raj. Walking down these lanes take you to another era where life was slower, the world was still being discovered and the air was unpolluted. A world where aesthetics, style and grace counted for something.

If you have had enough of history and want to clear your mind and let new ideas come in then you can head to the Marine Drive nearby. You can sit by the sea and let your thoughts wander as you unwind the way nature wanted you to.

Go down North and you hit the grimier mill districts of Parel and Dadar with its flower, vegetable and clothes bazars. The squishy markets make you cringe? A lot of Far Eastern countries sell walks through these markets to sanitised Westerners. Just check Bobby Chi walk the markets of Malacca and Bangkok in his programme on Asian food. And Istanbul's Istiklal Cadesi has a very fancy food dome with well heeled restaurants serving Turkish food inside. The dome is decorated with flowers and chandeliers. It used to be a squishy wholesale flower market earlier!

And if you need a breather from this pre-modern Indian stuff then you can head to Bandra and celebrate the free spiritedness of modern India. This is the youngest, liveliest, trendiest and most welcoming suburb of Mumbai. And within its hip and happening spots you will find idyllic lanes which smacks of a village in the most modern spot of Mumbai.

My heart bleeds when I see cities like Singapore and KL making tourist attractions out of a thirty year old heritage. When I see the transformation that Istanbul has had since the times of Orhan Pamuk's post Ottoman melancholy to its post Euro Cup glory.

There is so much which can be done at Mumbai to harvest our potential for tourism. You will rarely get a city so rich in its past and so open in its thinking. But this needs good airports, clean roads, proper taxis and public transports, maps, affordable hotel rooms, facelifts and restorations and most importantly a desire to welcome guests. Something which made Turkey so wonderful for us.

Does anyone have the will to do this?

Coming back to the statue ... that is relatively easy to do. But how about restoring Shivaji's forts. Building trails, train rides along the hills where Shivaji used to charge down at the Mughals could be an idea. Entire tours could be built around siginificant events in his life. This would grow the legend of Shivaji. AND develop the economy through business and employment opportunities across the state.

There are icons in modern history such as Shakespeare, Tagore, Marx, Einstein, Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Emperor Akbar to name a few who don't need statues to be remembered and revered.

I would dare say that Chhatrapati Shivaji would be part of that August group.

Interestingly the Statue of Liberty was gifted to the US by France.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A good book doesn't need a bookmark

Well this heading sounded more profane than a good film doesn't need a popcorn break.

I first saw The Scent of a Woman at The Nandan Cinema at Calcutta.

This was way back in 92. I was on my way to college and it was raining heavily. I had just started college and couldn't bear to stay at home. I had pimples... those who have watched the film will know that this didn't count for much.

I had to get off the bus at the Rabindra Sadan stop as the roads were flooded. I thought I'll go and check out what was running at Nandan rather than go back home. The Nandan compound was flooded. I had to wade through water to go to the back gate where the ticket counter used to be. The irony was that I wouldn't have got wet if I went straight to the theatre.

So I watched the movie alone with my pimples, soaked trousers, no intermission, no toilet break, no snack break. And I didn't realise any of that till the movie ended.

Need I say more?

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Just another day in India

I went to Hearsch Bakery near Holy Family Hospital after ages to pick up a burger for breakfast this morning.

I saw an elderly gentleman, possibly in his mid sixties, standing opposite Holy Family in the alley. He was simply dressed like middle class folks of his genre, white bush shirt tucked out, grey trouser. He had a red and white jhola, the sling bag favoured by folks of his generation. He had round glasses, was slim and probably looked the way my grandfather would have looked twenty years back. A typical, middle class gent in the early years of his retirement.

And he had his hand stretched out asking for alms.

I remembered seeing him when I had come to Hearsch's months back. I was very puzzled even then.

I wondered what his story would be. Was he abandoned by his children? Was he laid off? He did look in good health. Didn't look particularly poor. Yet, there was a strange mix of serene desperation on his face. What would have driven him to beg? Should I offer him some money? That's what he was standing there for. But he looked so professorial and dignified. How could one go and offer cash to someone like that? Should I get something for him from Hearsch. Was he a vegetarian? Should I offer to take him to Hearsch and buy him something.

And then I found myself in my car, driving off with my burger.

Poverty and deprivation is so in our face in Mumbai. Even if you leave the slums and people defecating on the roads because they have no option, you have an incessant stream of beggars of all sizes and genders knocking on your car windows. Amputed people lying outside train stations, trying to get your attention by flicking some body part.

Most of us have developed an immune system. We have learnt to move on to the next traffic signal without thinking twice. Common arguments would be that you are doing the kid a disservice by giving him money. And we know that most are run by Ganglords and begging syndicates. We cringed when Danny Boyle showed this to the world. But we knew it was true.

I know folks who have their soft spots. The other day I was with a colleague in a car who took out some coins for a listless boy who knocked at our window. He is a father.

Then there is someone who opens her heart and purse to elderly women. She misses her grandmother.

Rolling the car window up is an option too.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Be afraid... very afraid

I saw the scaffolding come up for Ganpati Puja and I shuddered.

I work a stone's throw away from Mumbai's biggest Ganpati Puja at Lalbagh. Seeing the workmen awakened horrific memories of insane traffic and fighting for every inch on the way to work.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Ganpati Utsav. I love festivals and I think that they are a wonderful outlet for pent up energy. I used to live in Kolkata which used to come to a standstill thanks to do a Goddess. And I am not talking of Mamata Banerjee.

The thing about Durga Puja in Kolkata is that it is a holiday for everyone. Pretty much like Chinese New Year in the Orient and Christmas in the West. So those who want to celebrate it do so with unbridled passion. The rest stay home and chill without worrying about work.

No such luck with the Ganpati Puja here. Offices are open so you have to navigate through some pretty insane traffic situations to get to work. Those who celebrate it have to balance work and festivity. And that's no fun. Or they have to take an off day for a festival celebrated ironically by the largest community of the city. And those who don't celebrate it are pressed through the oil mills of tortuous traffic for no fault of theirs.

Add to this the Wednesday jams because of the Mahim Church, the Dargah jam for a week in December, the Mount Mary Fair blockades in Bandra and you will soon pray for freedom from religion.

It's sad that in India religious festivity is coupled with civic frustration.

A really sorry state of affairs. And I hope that it's not coming soon to a street near you.