A City Without Its Sea

“The one thing you can count on in Bombay is the plot twists.”

Hello and welcome to the 45th issue of Place! Today we are walking along the parks and coast of South Bombay, rare places of peace in a city that can be cruel to its own. For playwright Pooja Sivaraman, these paths were a portal to her family’s history and her own hope of a legacy in a city she long romanticised from afar. But as a highly contested highway project slices the city and the sea apart, she comes face to face with what it means to live life even in a city that wants so desperately to take it away.

And don’t forget! For the price of a cup of coffee per month, you can become a part of our brand new membership program, and help us commission work by emerging writers and artists, while continuing to receive thoughtful reflection each week in your inbox. A thousands thank-yous everyone who has already become a member, we see you and we are overwhelmed by your support! It truly, truly means the world to us. 

At Place, we believe that the experiences, sensations and conversations we have as we move about the world stay with us, stacking up as the years go by, forming who we are and the way we view the world. Do you have a letter to share? Send it to us at placeletter@protonmail.com. If you are interested in writing for Place you can find our pitch guide here. If you’re the social type, follow us on Twitter (@place_letter) where you can share your favourite pieces and Instagram (@placenewsletter) for a visual feast. Yours, The Place editorial team.

Bombay Fading

I’d like to take you with me on a long walk through South Bombay’s lanes, through sticky sticky air, along paths cleared for me by my mother and hers. 

It began when my grandfather first migrated from Babra, a small village in Gujarat, at age 14. He swept and slept on the floors of a tiny jewellery store in Mahim for years before he could find himself a small flat above Chandralok, a fabric market off Nepeansea Road, now one of Bombay’s most elite neighbourhoods. My grandfather built his humble home into a family of seven and a bustling yarn business, one that would allow for spare change to accumulate into small joys: Sunday cinema trips to the Royal Opera House and Kulfi Ice Cream on Chowpatty Beach. The nostalgia of it all still hangs in the humidity of this Chandralok flat, above afternoon cups of chai and chats about a golden past. 

Just up the road from Chandralok is Hanging Gardens, a gated park with lush patches of coral bougainvillea and bright red hibiscus. It is one of Bombay’s few public parks and was built upon an elevated section of Malabar Hill, amidst apartment complexes and high rise buildings. If you knew where to look, you’d find a freshly painted green bench at the park’s central gazebo with a placard reading Jitendra Shah. It stands in respect for my uncle who donated twenty years of mornings to teach yoga to senior citizens. Like his bench are many others, clustered within the various gazebos and placed along the walking, living paths of the park. 

Across the road is the garden’s sister space, Kamala Nehru Park, a children's park filled with cartoon paintings and a two-story playhouse shaped like a boot. My grandfather took me there every hot summer that I can remember, always taking a pause at the park’s spectacular view of the Queen’s Necklace (Bombay’s crescent bayside boulevard). I still feel the ever-grounding sensation of growing taller next to his white linen pants as they ruffled in the sea breeze. Even in his older, alzheimic years, Kamla Nehru Park became one of the few places his body could remember returning to. 

If you take a right outside this park, you’ll walk through a road canopied in banyan trees. You’ll pass three vegetable mandis and a very fat stray dog, a steep hill and a crowded bridge—and that’s where you’d usually find me, standing outside the gate of Priyadarshini Park (PDP). This palm-tree filled oasis juts out against the Bombay coast and has a breathtaking 180˚ view of the sea from its running track. Every day at 6 p.m. sharp, I tread my way through crunchy red soil, building patterns with my feet that only faintly resemble those left behind for me. And every day at 6:30, you’ll hear me whisper to myself as the sun descends into the steely waves in the distance: Breathe easy baby, this life is yours is yours, is no one else’s. 

I first moved to Bombay in 2017 after having spent a lifetime romanticizing it— most potently through the vibrant words of Sadat Hussain Manto’s short stories, and most intimately through tales passed through the various branches of my family tree. For three years I tried desperately to make the city my own, moving frantically to match its consuming pace. “The one thing you can count on in Bombay is the plot twists” my friend would always say. However, it wasn’t until a year ago and over many hours of uninterrupted walks across the city that its rhythm met my own. 

Bombay is by no means a pedestrian city—the streets are usually cluttered with honking trucks and frazzled stray dogs. However, the sudden lockdown of one of the busiest cities in the world meant a consequent welcome to travelling on foot. The roads were eerily empty, the soundscape unfamiliar—quiet. I found myself wandering aimlessly for three to four hours a day, acutely aware of the routes I was taking and the many ghosts scattered along its ways. 

It was there where I heard the sound of my own footsteps for the first time, it was there I saw the shape of each print I left behind. It was there where I realized in the attempt to make it mine, I hadn’t noticed that the Bombay I knew was already beginning to fade away and no matter how fast I moved, there was little I could do about it. 

My welcome to the city was far from sweet. A week after my arrival, on 29 September, 2017, the city met with particularly ravaging rains that flooded the local train that carries 7.5 million passengers daily. A stampede broke out at the Elphinstone railway station killing 23 people. Headlines reading “Bombay Dying” (a play on the ubiquitous textile brand, Bombay Dyeing) flooded my newsfeed.

It is no secret to Bombay’s privileged that the city functions on the backs of many less so. The tightly packed urban landscape is structured so that some can live above it, and so that the rest only survive on their ability to prop it up. Take Antilia -- a $2.2 billion, 27-floor residence complete with a 168 car garage and a room with perpetual fake snowfall, belonging to billionaire Mukesh Ambani. It towers above streets where migrant labourers unpack vegetables, dabbawalas sprint to deliver tiffins to office workers, and auto-drivers race through gridlock traffic to maximize their fares. 

The survival of Bombay was strained under this unsustainable inequality even before the pandemic, but when the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown it left Bombay’s migrant labour population, a city in itself, stuck with no guarantee for food, water, or a roof over their heads. Thousands gathered at the Bandra and Thane station in protest and demanded to go home, but they were stopped, gassed, and callously beaten under the guise of strict lockdown laws. Even worse is that many made the sweltering journey on foot, some were sprayed with chemical disinfectant upon their arrival, and others died along the way. 

The public parks around Bombay became waiting rooms for those lucky enough to find a ride home. People shared biscuits and mango juice as they sat around for large buses to transport them out of a city they’d given their lives to build. Standing outside the Priyadarshini Park gate in 2020, I was reminded, just as I was in 2017, that Bombay was not designed for most of its living. In its present state, it was set up to kill its own, accept the churn and do it gladly.

Still, there were pockets of solace. There were the parks and there was the  sea. With 22.2 kilometers of coastline, from Bombay’s richest to its most deprived, the sea is a shared commodity and a collective source of energy. Her thrashing waves reflect the relentless rhythm that carries people through their harshest days.  

However, this is now also under threat due to the The Great Mumbai Coastal Road Freeway: an 8-line, 22 kilometer highway that will sprawl across the entire western coastline, cutting through the sea—all of our seas. 

The road promises to take its passengers from the northernmost point of Kandivalli to the southernmost point of Bombay’s Marine Lines in 40 minutes— a generous cut-down from what now takes over two hours. It is a welcome sign to anyone who has suffered through Bombay traffic, but a jarring concept to those who understand the impact it could have to an  already delicate ecosystem. Environmental activists claim that the project lacks environmental clearance and courts have skirted regulations. Fishermen have petitioned for construction concessions to preserve their livelihood.  There are fears that the relocation of 11 different species of endangered coral could result in unavoidable environmental damage.

Further, the  highway will line the coast with entry points that cut through most of Bombay’s public parks. Our parks, already few and far between, will be a valley under thousands of moving cars and will be the ports of entry for unsurmountable traffic. We are about to lose something of utmost importance: the very specific sensation of looking out into a continuous horizon, gulping down the sea breeze, and momentarily leaving the city behind.

Under lockdown, the highway construction took on a rapid speed. Unobstructed by protestors and regulations, the BMC clanged on against our shoreline with vigour. As I worked through the locked down nights by my window, which stands just a few buildings away from Priyadarshini Park, I could hear the faint sounds of a lone crane working in solitude against daybreak. 

There have been too many moments recently where I want to scream, arms to the sky, hot tears on my face, asking why the people in charge of this country want to see it bleed. We have had to watch the farmers who cultivate our crop, who put food on our tables be beaten with wooden sticks. We have seen pogroms and protests, fire and fury—we have witnessed this country descend into something it is not. The Great Mumbai Coastal road feels like a sharp, unnecessary wound on a body already battered: another decision designed to disrespect our land, its people, and the ability for some to call it home. 

From my window above the city, the highway is only a dent in my already crisp view. But when running barefoot in rubble, holding my grandfather’s wrinkly hand, or taking a breath for my uncle on his fresh green bench, the midnight clangs of the lone crane are an ever looming threat to the collective legacies that make Bombay what I’ve always known. 

Bombay is a resilient city—she will live on, she will live strong. My Bombay, though, is dying. Just as my eyes and ears hang heavy, greedy for the golden past of my mothers and hers, I imagine my future children with the same yearnings. I pray against the day I have to tell them of a sweet time when the sea was still ours, the city was sometimes calm, and I could walk for hours in quiet parks full of stories. 

I imagine I’d tell them about a monsoon-y day in July of 2020, one I now remember so vividly. I made my way down the rocks and towards the sea at Priyadarshini Park. I moved quickly, knowing that the guard would start to blow his whistle at 6:45 and at 6:46 begin to lecture anyone who failed to respect his adamance at the park’s closing. 

It was a breathtaking sunset that day. The clouds reflected hints of gold and magenta, the birds moved in a slow, sensual, swirl against the sky. The tide was calm. Scattered within the rocks were couples entwined—making kisses in the only place they were allowed. When the whistles began to sound, they peered up towards the park—knowing fully well they could not be seen. They giggled and retreated further back into the rocks. I smiled and inhaled deeply, so I could hold forever the warmth of their small acts of defiance, their little claims to live life even in a city that wants so desperately to take it away. The second whistle screeched through the air and I turned away from the sea, pausing only for one last glance at the ephemeral spectacle of a fiery Bombay sunset. 

- Pooja Sivaraman is a playwright, theatre-maker, and scholar from Bombay. She is currently walking her way through the state of Goa, searching for stories.

Place Recommends:

The phone of the wind,

Missing airports,

Looted artifacts and modern Afghanistan.

Join us next week for an exploration of absence.