The Times of India, January 25, 2001

A space mission for Mumbai

By Salil Tripathi

MUMBAI: When I stepped out of Moorgate Station in London and walked towards Liverpool Street, I had to pass through Finsbury Circus. London is so vast that there are large parts whose existence catches you by surprise, unless you make an effort. That January morning, with the air crisp and the sky a merciful shade of clear blue, a wave of nostalgia hit me as I entered orderly Finsbury Circus.

There were four buildings around me, all forming a neat arc, like disciplined schoolchildren. The pillars holding up the solid buildings bore the faces of dead Greek men and women, and that image, as well as the quiet, manicured lawns of the park in the middle of the busy city transported me instantly to Horniman Circle and Ballard Pier in Bombay. For when I lived there, it was still a cosmopolitan Bombay and hadn't retreated to the narrower identity of Mumbai.

There were, however, some noticeable differences at Finsbury Park--it was not crowded, it was clean, the buildings were not plastered with slogans or posters and in the covered footpath between the pillars and the buildings, hawkers had not taken over every available inch of space.

I should have kept walking. I was getting late for a conference at the Great Eastern Hotel. But the public space--the park--in the middle of the city had such a soothing influence that I sat down on a bench, half-imagining the imposing steps of the Asiatic Society in front of me. I hope it is still called that, and not renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maha Pustakalaya.

I sat sipping coffee, thinking back to what had become of Horniman Circle before the private sector rescued it. From being a haven of tranquillity, it had degenerated into a paradise for lost souls on a trip to nowhere. When the complaints grew, the authorities responded in the way they knew best--they banished the seekers of that parallel universe and locked the gates, thus robbing the public of an opportunity to be alone in a crowded place, which is, of course, the USP of open spaces.

In the last few years, Horniman Circle has been gentrified, what with numerous poetry readings and experimental plays. All to the good. But what's getting impossible is to find that spot of individual space without being intruded upon by a peanut seller (Nariman Point), yuppies discussing share prices (Hanging Gardens), noisy collegians ogling at lithe girls in track suits (the Race Course), or matchmakers conducting complicated negotiations for prospective marriages (Priyadarshini Park).

Those parks were meant to allow you a degree of anonymity--being alone in a crowd, lost in one's private universe, untroubled by the surroundings, din and chaos. Big cities are meant to offer that individual space which allows one to live one's life the way one wants to, away from the gaze of neighbours, relatives and colleagues. Manhattan, with which Mumbai likes to compare itself the most, still has its Central Park.

But in the last decade, just as people are crowding to occupy every square inch of the city's terra firma, something else has happened. Most people once enjoyed a degree of autonomy over their lives which enabled them to retain their individuality, but that seems to be vanishing. Conformity seems to have stepped in. There is no escape. You can't go to a park today and be yourself, even momentarily.

It is only going to get worse. In another 20 years, the city's population will be mind-bogglingly big. Twenty-seven million people is one estimate, says my friend Suketu Mehta, who is writing a book about Bombay. That's almost one-and-a-half times the population of Australia. Will there be any open spaces left when the city has 27 million people? And will that kind of crowd allow anonymity or force conformity? I'd prefer the former, but fear that it will be otherwise. The inexorable pressure of people will push city planners into swallowing up every available inch of land.

Open spaces are important not only because they make good postcards, but also because they make the city attractive to the bright and the young from elsewhere. Without that infusion of energy, the city will have lost its meaning, because it is that verve, that buzz, that powers the engine which has made Mumbai the Urbs Prima in Indes. Take away that allure, and the city stands diminished.