Two views of Mumbai

Hokusai could take a perfectly symmetric cone and find thirty six wonderful and different views of it. Lesser mortals like us take more complex subjects and are happy if we can coax one or two nice shots from it. When it comes to Mumbai, I’m a bad judge. I love even the ordinary everyday views.

Whether it is photo of monsoon clouds over Malabar Hill taken from a speeding taxi, or a blurry photo of the central city taken from a plane as it circles in for a landing, I’m happy to have my mobile phone on hand to capture yet another view of home. To think that in a century from now the haphazard mess of towers built in the last fifty years might be under the sea!


When you travel in the hills and mountains of India it is not uncommon to find the ruins from the late colonial era. The British tended to gravitate to the cooler regions of these higher elevations when possible. Often that meant that the administrative apparatus would go into very long breaks in the two warm seasons (summer and Indian summer). When the Raj collapsed, they sold what they could and moved back to the Old Blighty. What they couldn’t, slowly fell into ruin as the country reverted to its normal way of life.

Just past the bazaar in Mukteshwar I came to one such set of buildings: a late colonial barracks. Mukteshwar was perhaps at its bustling busiest in the 1920s. There had been continuous growth since the beginning of the 20th century until the Black Tuesday market crash in New York. Arguably, the punitive taxes imposed by Britain on its colonies in the aftermath of the crash led to the invigoration of the independence movement, and Britain’s eventual exit from India. But this past is a prologue to the sunny day on which I took these photos and wondered what could happen to this row of two-room apartments, each separated from its neighbour by just one wall. I suppose it will be torn down, and the stones reused to build something more suited to today.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of these old barracks was the miserly view they gave of the beautiful vistas behind them: the high Himalayas on one side, this lovely forest on the other. I left the ruins behind and followed the road, under the deodars and the firs, into a land full of the sounds of insects and birds.

No tiger in Mukteshwar

The tiny village of Mukteshwar (called Muktesar before 1947) has not changed substantially since Jim Corbett visited about a hundred years ago and met the brave little girl with the buffalo, before shooting the man eating tiger of Muktesar. You can do worse than follow his description of the place.

“Eighteen miles to the north-north-east of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west. The western end of the hill rises steeply and near this end is the Muktesar Veterinary Research Institute, where lymph and vaccines are produced to fight India’s cattle diseases. The laboratory and staff quarters are situated on the northern face of the hill and command one of the best views to be had anywhere of the Himalayan snowy range.” The beginning of the story sets the scene. The Institute was relocated to this place in 1893. The population of the village remains small, but standing at 812 in 2011, has probably quadrupled since Corbett’s days. The number of resorts has increased substantially as word of the views have spread, but they are strung out along the road without crowding the bazaar.

“Accompanied by a servant and two men carrying a roll of bedding and a suitcase, I left Naini Tal at midday and walked ten miles to the Ramgarh Dak Bungalow, where I spent the night. The Dak Bungalow khansama (cook, bottle-washer, and general factotum) was a friend of mine, and when he learnt that I was on my way to shoot the man-eater, he warned me to be very careful while negotiating the last two miles into Muktesar for, he said, several people had recently been killed on that stretch of the road.” Corbett continued on foot the next morning, and reached Muktesar by early morning. Our drive took us a little more than two hours, allowing for a halt for chai. The road is good enough to do bettter.

“This was the first time I had ever climbed that hill, and I was very interested to see the caves, hollowed out by wind, in the sandstone cliffs overhanging the road. In a gale I imagine these caves must produce some very weird sounds, for they are of different sizes and, while some are shallow, others appear to penetrate deep into the sandstone.” I’d kept a look out for these formations described by Corbett, but nothing we passed seemed to fit. It is possible that the caves were dynamited to widen the roads. The only similar formation today is Chauli ki Jali, which is a steep rock face used by rapellers, and could not possibly have been an alternative route up.

“Where the road comes out on a saddle of the hill there is a small area of flat ground flanked on the far side by the Muktesar Post Office, and a small bazaar.” This description is still true, and corroborates my conclusion that the road is the same as in Corbett’s time, but without the caves he described. The flat ground is where we parked the car. Beyond the bazaar are the two famous guest houses of the place. By not taking the upper path I missed out on Chauli ki Jali and went instead to where Corbett has his breakfast. “[T]he khansama in charge of the bungalow, and I, incurred the displeasure of the red tape brigade, the khansama by providing me with breakfast, and I by partaking of it.” In the century since the Muktesar man-eater raged here, the Dak Bungalow has become a State Tourism (KMVN) guest house, accreted a number of cooks and waiters, and, as I found, is still so tied up in red tape that it takes a long time to fill in the paper work needed to serve a cuppa chai.

After a chai and toast, I picked up my camera, and followed Corbett, who continues, “Then, picking up my rifle, I went up to the post office to send a telegram to my mother to let her know I had arrived safely.” Meeting up with The Family, back from her jaunt to the ridge, we found that the sturdy colonial era house has changed in many ways in the century since Corbett was here. I am sure the paved forecourt is no more than a decade old, the solar panels are substantially more recent, the sign over the gate perhaps a couple of decades old, and the gate itself is half a century old if it is a day. Telegrams no longer exist; I had sent The Family one of the last, but that is another story. Nevertheless, the post-office is still one that Corbett might recognize if he were to reappear here.

“In rural India, the post office and bania’s shop are to village folk what taverns and clubs are to people of other lands, and if information on any particular subject is sought, the post office and the bania’s shop are the best places to seek it.” The shops have been remade in the last century, and the post office has probably lost its social standing. But the bania’s shop is still a place where people gather. I was amazed at how much sense Corbett’s description of Mukteshwar still made.

Stopping by the woods on a smoky morning

The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Robert Frost

During the drive to Mukteshwar I began to suspect that big data is only as good as the data. The drive took a little over two hours, just twenty per cent more than what the Mapapp told us it should. I thought it was slower than it should have been, but you can’t win if you argue against Google. Our slower than Google-average trip timing was now backed by all the phones in the car. When these numbers were crunched by Google’s hammer, it would increase the next prediction just slightly. Since the drivers are mostly locals for hire, and the phones mostly belong to tourists they ferry, the data is suspect. The charges for the hire are by hour, and the longer the drivers spend on a route, the better their profit margins. So it gives them a motive to drive slower than normal. I talked to someone who drives between Naini Tal and Devasthal quite often, and he confirmed that his next drive, which was done at his normal driving speed, took about fifteen per cent less time than Google’s prediction. This means that our driver took about forty percent longer than he might have.

That’s all to set the scene for the fact that by the time we were close to Mukteshwar, it was well past mid morning, and we needed our elevenses. A little cafe by the wayside presented itself. Nice wooden deck, elegant bare brick walls, possible view over a valley, space enough next to the road to squeeze in the car. We stopped. The main space was a large room with pinewood furniture. Warm colours, lots of light. There was a smaller side room for private parties. We opted to sit on the deck overlooking the valley. On a less smoky day we would have had a view of the high Himalayas from here, the kind of view that Mukteshwar is known for. Today, there was only a blue haze.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.

Robert Frost

I’d noticed an espresso machine on our way in, so I asked for a shot. “Not possible. No electricity today,” the waiter replied. We got a masala chai instead. Some cakes. Not so bad. We were ready for a short walk. On the way out we met the owner, a red haired woman in her early 40s. It turned out that she had first come to Mukteshwar as a tourist, fallen in love with the place, and had pulled up her roots from Pune and moved here a few years ago. She’d built the place. Electricity? “Not so bad. It comes and goes.” About the same as Pune, then? “Not so predictable.” Does it rain a lot? “Not a lot. Not as much as Mumbai.” Maintenance? “Some. But the brick and wood holds up well.” I wondered about bare brick. It’s not so strong when it is soaked in water. While I totted up the reasons for not moving there, others were coming to the opposite conclusion.

Old houses in Kumaon

A wooden box of an upper story rests on thick stone walls which make up the ground floor. That is a rather common older style of building from Uttarakhand. There are little variations. Sometimes the shutters on the upper floor look out on all four sides. At other times, as in the example above, there are one or two walls made of stone. I suspect that the older houses use more wood, and as wood became scarcer in this region, you could say that there was less of it to go around.

I could find little written about the traditional domestic architecture of the Kumaon region. Most accessible books and articles concentrate on the temple architecture of the region. Edwin T. Atkinson’s multi-volume tome, The Himalayan Gazetteer, the usual source of information on matters Kumaoni, is pretty silent about vernacular styles of architecture. In the true imperial manner, government buildings and new churches are deemed more worthy of comment. Nor did later official sources bother to record the variety of vernacular expressions. The state Tourism Department’s website references one rather ornate style, hard to see examples of, as the only one worth a comment. I suppose there are detailed studies locked away in architects’ theses, or in architectural journals, which I have no access to.

I have been unable to find articles or books which trace influences across the Himalayan region, or the development of building techniques. It should be a fascinating study. The neighbouring Garhwal region has been important to Hinduism for a long time. Pollen records show that agriculture started in the Kumaon region 500-600 years ago, when it was still part of a Nepali empire. There may have been travellers and pilgrim here before that, but not settlements. The region became independent about two hundred years ago, and was assimilated into British India about a hundred and fifty years ago. The connection with Nepal, and the trans-Himalayan cultural sphere which filtered through it would have created the vernacular style, which would later have been modified by contact with the plains-based cross-oceanic empire of Britain.

I stopped the car when I saw this old building outside of Kausani. The driver informed me that this is a style which used to be common once. A paper by a group of engineers at CSIR documents the style, but dismisses it as “lacking proper light and ventilation”. The Pestalozzis, a Swiss couple, who visited Kumaon a decade ago, became interested in the architecture and documented it, call this style a row house. To my eyes it resembled Mumbai’s chawls. The lower part of the house is given over to storage here, but in villages they were meant to hold cattle. The upper floor has a row of independent flats.

Which way did the influence go? From Kumaon to the rest of India, or the other way around? Notice that the doors to individual flats are not recessed and protected from the weather, unlike the doors of other traditional houses. Based on this, my guess is that the style is imported from the plains. But this is a guess, and direct work on dating these houses will be needed before the question can be settled. Such a wealth of questions exist here, and they connect to the deeper history of the region.

Ornate is a matter of choice

A mental lament that I’ve got used to calling on when walking through narrow streets in small towns and villages is about the doors. In modern buildings they are so often drab and plain. There is hardly any effort spent on customizing them. If they are wooden, then so often they are just machined pieces joined together with minimum fuss. More often they are metal frames with plain board and glass fitted into slots. But now and then you find a street where each house is carefully distinguished from the next.

Tamil Nadu is a place where every house is a different bright colour. Some of the colourful aesthetics you can extrapolate from the Kanjeevaram silk sarees you may have been. Others, like this wonderful purple, you will have to experience to understand. This example comes from a potters’ village outside Madurai. Embedded into these colourful walls are industrially produced doors and windows, which carry some individuality. You can weld decorations on to the grilles, and you can paint them as you wish. Drab or bright? The choice is yours, after all.

Curios and curioser

I stood in front of a door with the intricately carved hardwood lintel which you see in the featured photo. The figure is possibly a variant of Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth in her most royal aspect. In the usual iconography she would have four hands, two in the mudras of abhaya and varada, and two holding lotuses. Here only the pairof hands with the lotuses is seen. The dark wood had certainly been carved more than a century ago, perhaps some time in the middle of the 19th century CE. Once this kind of door lintel was common across Kerala. There was a master carver who served a small group of villages. The large number of master carvers puzzled me. In a pre-consumer economy, you would not expect door lintels to be such hot items. It turns out that the reason has to do with a churn in the Kerala agricultural economy in the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century the economy of Kerala had come to depend heavily on the export of pepper. It was originally grown only in two districts, but the possibility of trade made pepper the primary crop across the Malabar region. Then, in the first decades of the 19th century, the pepper market crashed and the local economy shifted first to byproducts of coconut, and then to coffee. Land belonged to a few, and was worked by a larger number of tenants who would bid for the right to cultivate. In this speculative agrarian economy there was a quick turnover of tenants, and at each turnover the newly prosperous tenants built their own family home. This required extensive woodwork and metalwork (see the ornate handle and lock in the door above).

In the Kochi area you’ll find shops full of old bric-a-brac hiding a few gems. The wooden carvings that you see in this photo also come from that time. It is interesting to see that about eight centuries of cross-ocean trade had already made Kerala a very cosmopolitan place. Local artists drew not only on old Hindu traditions, but also the deep historical connections with the west, the Levant and Arabia, the far west, Europe, and the east, Java, Vietnam, and, mostly at a remove, China. As an amateur I find it interesting to try to trace artistic influences in these everyday decorations from a century ago. I’m sure art historians have been over this territory in great detail.

Post-Delhi Durbar architecture

Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.

The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.

Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.