Monday, May 25, 2015

Public space and a sense of community - Growing up in Mumbai

- by Deepa Krishnan

Yesterday I explored Mumbai with a group of 6 urban planning experts from around the world. In the morning we visited south and central Mumbai, seeing how the city gradually expanded northwards from its small beginnings in the Fort area. After lunch, we went to Navi Mumbai, taking in all the changes that have happened in Airoli, Turbhe, Belapur, Kharghar and Vashi. I saw 500 years of Mumbai's growth, all compressed into a single day.

By the end of the day, I had developed an acute awareness of "public spaces" in Mumbai.

By public spaces, I don't only mean places like the huge Oval Maidan or the popular Marine Drive. I mean space for activities at the neighbourhood level, such as small gardens, places for people to walk or jog, areas for holding community meetings, etc. 

As a child growing up in Sion and Matunga, I had access to many such public spaces. 

Our home in Sion was right next to Sion Fort, and we spent many happy evenings running around there with friends and cousins. There was an "aeroplane garden" there, where we clambered in and out of a concrete art-deco mock-aeroplane. There was a "waterfall" which came cascading down the side of the hill, and we loved climbing it when it was dry. 
With my cousins at Sion Fort
Because of the specifications mandated by the City Improvement Trust, our building stood in a compound of its own. All the buildings in our neighbourhood similarly stood in their own compounds, and each compound had a maximum of only 12 apartments. These compounds formed another type of public space, where everyone knew each other.

There were no cars parked inside our compound, so we had space to play hide-and-seek, marbles, cricket and lagori. We plucked flowers and leaves, and played "ghar ghar".  (A couple of years ago, I came across a building in Matunga, where these girls were running around plucking flowers in the compound; it reminded me of my childhood).
Each building is set in its own compound
Our compound was larger than the one in the photo above. We could string up a net and play badminton. We hosted fun-fairs in the compound. We had a 'club' in the building, where we played carrom in the evenings. We flew kites on our building terrace, gathered there with friends to dry fatakadas for Diwali, and eagerly bombarded each other with balloons on Holi.

But the compound could not really meet all the recreational needs of its children. Older children played cricket on the streets. We were in a quiet lane. There were very few cars in those days, so cricket could be played all day long, with only the occasional interruption by a passing Fiat or Ambassador. In fact, even today, cricket is played in our lane on Sundays.

In Sion, there were many venues for cultural events nearby. We went to dance and music performances at Shanmukhananda Hall and Mysore Association. Children learnt musical instruments, singing and dancing at the Tamil Sangam and various dance schools. We celebrated Ganesh festival and Navratri in small building pandals in the neighbourhood. We enacted skits and dance-dramas for Rama Navami at the temples in Matunga. Because of all these cultural activities, we met many other kids from our neighbourhood.

In fact, when I think about my childhood in the city, I now realise how much public space was available to me! I spent a lot of time outside the home, in the neighbourhood. I now realise how these public spaces influenced my experience of the city. They helped me form friendships and community bonds, and they created in me, a sense of civic and cultural identity.

In the last 8 years or so, I have been exploring the older residential areas in south Mumbai. The more I ventured into the older districts - Dongri, Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar - the more I felt the lack of  public spaces. The biggest difference I felt was the lack of the "compound". In the older districts, there are houses and shops, all touching each other, with shop wares spilling out on already narrow streets. These older districts have no spacious pavements. They have very few trees. There are no gardens; and there are no places for children to bicycle or to play. 
Jagannath Shankar Seth Road, going from Metro to Kalbadevi. See how the buildings are all stuck together.
Bhuleshwar Road. Shops and residences on both sides, stalls spilling over on the street, no access to pavements.
Although there are no major public spaces for leisure, these older districts do have a distinct sense of shared community and culture. Since people from each religious community cluster together, there is a cultural identity. The community somehow manages to create shared experiences, especially during festivals. Mosques and temples offer physical space for people to come together. Places like the Jain panjrapole offer not just peace and quiet but also the chance to feed and care for animals.

Here is a peep into a quiet temple at Bhuleshwar. In the compound, I often see Gujarati women chatting.
Community space seen through temple door
Here is another example: the local residents have pooled money to decorate this lane in the Chor Bazaar area for a festival. There is a mosque inside the lane.
Mutton Street all decked up
Here's another photo, this one is from Girgaon's now famous Padwa celebrations. The processions begin at the Phadke Mandir (Ganesh temple) and continue through the streets of area. 
Families watching Gudi Padwa processions at Girgaon
In Navi Mumbai, a very different sort of development has taken place. Everything is very large-scale and spread out when compared to Mumbai. The stations are huge. The distances between stations are also significant. But the most striking feature of Navi Mumbai is that there are very few people around, compared to Mumbai.

Among the most impressive places I visited was Central Park in Khargar. It has 300 acres of green space, lots of trees, open areas, a water body, etc. What a boon to the residents. So much open space, and that too, available to the common man. In a city that doesn't have good ratio of public spaces per person, this is really a welcome development.
But will a sense of community form? Will these places - with wide open streets and modern amenities produce a shared sense of civic belonging? Will people form fond attachments to their neighbourhood? It is too soon to tell.

The scale of things in Navi Mumbai is huge. This sort of scale is ideal if you have private cars to go from one place to another; but it can be intimidating when you have to walk long distances just to get home from the train station. Deserted streets with no street-stalls or hawkers de-humanise the place, and stop you from connecting emotionally with it. It especially makes things very difficult for women. A certain scale has to be achieved; yes, but it has to be the right scale, so that small communities form easily.

My personal belief is that our religious spaces - temples, derasars, mosques, churches and gurudwaras - form the cultural core of a new settlement. We are still a very religiously oriented people. Our food and dietary habits are very community-specific and we want markets which can cater to those special requirements. If an area offers the right combination of prayer house + bazaars, it will attract new residents who will form a close-knit community, rather than just a culture-less homogenous urban mass of people. Such people will celebrate festivals, set up cultural associations, and provide a sense of identity to the area. People who live there will develop an attachment to that area.

I'm not sure where Navi Mumbai's new large-scale settlements are heading, or what sort of communities are forming. I really don't know the area well enough. But I am very keen to see how it all plays out. I will be going back there, to check it out more.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Lots of food options in BKC these days

- by Deepa Krishnan

I wrote earlier about how the food scene in BKC is changing, with more options coming up. Recently I went to The Capital, and was happy to see a very smart-looking Theobroma there. A nice option for a weekday breakfast. Or a quick stop with friends over the weekend.
They have a soup and salad offering on all weekdays; which is popular with people working in BKC. There's a Lunch Box for Rs 250, which is also delivered to offices. And of course, there's all the usual stuff - breads, lavash, muffins, tarts etc. I took home their olive tapenade, which was good.
The dining scene in BKC is improving day by day. Lots of new options have come up in The Capital itself. The Good Wife and Cafe Sabrosa are around 5-6 months old; both are stylish places where the 'finance types' from BKC hang out in the evenings. This photo below is from The Good Wife: a typical BKC weeknight, people relaxing over drinks after the working day.
The Capital building also has a Starbucks, which is good if you want a place with wifi. But the most exciting thing in The Capital, for those who love Chinese food, is Wok in the Box. After a successful innings at Carter Road, they opened their second outlet at The Capital in Sep 2014. They let you pick and choose ingredients, sauces and the type of noodles (or white rice) that you want. It is stir fried immediately and handed over.
Wok in the Box even offers a Jain version of its sweet and sour sauce. It's on the 3rd floor of The Capital, so they have to shut at 6:00 p.m. But it's a great option for lunch, they make deliveries to all the offices in BKC. If you go at lunch, you'll have wait times. But if you go a little earlier or a little late, then you'll have a smooth experience.

Speaking of food deliveries, there's also Box8 near the Trident BKC. It has Indian food, which works better for me at lunch time than Chinese. I must confess that anything and everything in plastic dabbas tends to put me off, but if I don't take food from home, I'd rather order this no-fuss delivery than anything else.
Masala Library at the Citibank building in BKC (the official name of this building is First International Finance Centre) is still going strong. For the past couple of years, Masala Library has been showing Mumbai what stylish, innovative Indian cuisine is all about. It's super tasty too, not just some poncy stuff that you wonder why you put in your mouth. The staff is well-trained, and enjoys presenting and explaining the food. Which is a big asset.
The same Citibank building also has a Smokehouse Deli, and a Pizza Express and another Starbucks. I've always liked Smokehouse Deli. The Pizza Express is pretty decent, always has a couple of free tables, so I go there when I don't feel like hanging around waiting for tables.

There are lots of other places also in BKC that I should write about, especially Tiffin Box, and lots more takeaways, including some more in The Capital. But maybe another time! Off to work now.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Spotted: Alibaug Che Gaavti Kadve Vaal

- By Deepa Krishnan

I was walking in BB Dadar today, when I spotted this stall opposite Girgaon Panche Depot. A temporary shop had been set up for the evening, using an upturned fruit crate.
The board says: Alibaug che gaavti kadwe vaal yethey milteel. Bitter field beans, from Alibaug, sold here. The word 'gavti' means rustic. Alibaug is known for these beans.

Vaal are soaked overnight, sprouted, and then the brown covering is peeled to reveal a white inner bean that is slightly bitter. A long-winded process, but there are whole armies of Maharashtrian people who love vaal and think nothing of the effort.

Vaal is used to make various dishes, but one of the most popular ones is valache birde. It's a sort of gravy curry with garlic, chillies, coconut, kokum and spices. Super yummy with hot chappatis. The CKP-style vaalache birde is well known; so if you know someone who is from the CKP community, try and get an invitation for a home-cooked meal :)

My friend Shekhar owns a farm, and they have a tradition of "popti", which is a sort of village style barbecue in an earthern pot. A fire is made with dry coconut fronds, placed upside down. Vaal and various other leguminous pods, pieces of chicken or meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and special edible leaves are placed in an earthern pot. The mouth of the pot is blocked with a set of leaves, from the almond tree, and the pot is placed upside down on the fire. Shekhar says "Its a heady meal goes down very well with beer deep into the cold night on a farm" :)