Mumbai- an overview

Each and every time when the plane begins its descent into Mumbai I feel excited about it. Coming back to the city I live in is always exciting, whether I’m back from a weekend in the deep jungles of Central India, a holiday in a big city in some other part of the world, a relaxing time in the middle heights of the Himalayas watching the sun rise over the world’s highest peaks, or the fussiest week of work away from home. Not for me the ennui that comes from the realization that I can have only four hours of sleep before I have to get in for a meeting. On the first day back in Mumbai even that work seems exciting.

As the plane glides over the densely packed apartments in the suburbs, the vast stretches of high density housing clutching desperately to hillsides (only to slide off sometimes in the monsoon) I realize that I am in a minority here. For some the four hours of sleep are a part of their daily routine. But even so, there is something miraculous about an enormous mass of people so focused on work that everything goes like clockwork. You don’t find this in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru. So, as the plane slides over the blue tarp covered roofs on hillsides, the multi-storied acres of the suburbs, as a taxi speeds past the stalled development in mid-town, I love coming home.

But which part do I love? The calm oases of gardens, full of flowers and trees, birds and insects? Or dense crowds, sometimes a crush? Everything, I suppose. I started carrying a camera in my backpack years ago to capture every mood of the city. I’m glad that over the years that equipment has shrunk to a little phone in my pocket. Mumbai offers an unending cascade of images, if that’s what you are after.

Or, if you want, there are lovely restaurants and specialty food shops. Once upon a time, word of mouth was the uncertain means of getting to know them. Now, of course, the right new is just a thumb swipe away on your phone. There are foods, fusion of India and the world (Lebanese influenced on the left, Norwegian inspired on the right), which you cannot get elsewhere. I see a touch of this in Bengaluru too, a smidgen in Delhi, but the taste for the new is definitely more widespread in this city. It gives odd hybrids, but some really good stuff.

I know a few people who visit once a year, and love to walk the streets of Mumbai, looking for the odd and zany. One of them told me of a street vendor selling used dentures. I haven’t seen something that crazy. But the oddest of graffiti (why would you even bother to write down that particular stray thought?) or odd evidence of constant hustle (not exactly a Lincoln Lawyer, yet) can come your way even when you aren’t looking. That’s why a camera in your pocket is useful.

Hustle is the way of life in the city. The guy around the corner from your workplace, the chap who serves you the best vada-pav in town, or the bhel-puri guy setting up his stall there, they are all in the city seeking fortune. They are totally focused on it, like the cabbies who take the late night shift and have time to talk to you. They come here, thinking of making money and going back to their failing farms. But they stay. Their wives come to the city a few years later, they raise their children, who, sometimes, get the kind of job they want. But they never go back to the dust bowl they left behind. If you really look, under the blue tarp roofs you will find the Indian middle class. Everyone else in the city is the one percent, even if they spend two hours commuting to work, or think hard before buying their first phone in five years.

That’s Mumbai for you, the Mumbai of an old film song in the voice of Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. That’s the Mumbai that doesn’t stop even when terrorists attack. Hustle drives Mumbai. Everyone came here to find fortune, the Portuguese, the British East India Company, the Scotsmen who followed, the Armenians, the Baghdadi Jews, the Parsis, the Chinese traders. And it will remain the happy hunting ground of fortune seekers until the sea reclaims the city that was raised on the sea bed. It’s this transient place that I love coming back to.

Living on water

Behind Ujani Dam is a huge shallow lake, named after the biggest town on its shores: Bhigwan. It is a birder’s paradise, especially in winter, when migrants flock here. All year round there are cormorants, ospreys and fisherfolk. I kept one eye on the fisherfolk as we boated over the surface looking at the visiting birds. The lone man whom you see in the featured photo sits on a raft which is simply a large slab of styrofoam. His fishing line and his simple paddle, two steel dinner plates nailed to a pole, show that his is a small operation.

There are more elaborate operations. This boat is one of them. It was piled with fishing nets and three people were deploying them across the lake. The boat listed heavily to one side as two men played out the net, and a third laid it down. We’d seen the same trio the previous evening, laying down traps for shrimp and crabs (photo below). Theirs was a big operation. I suppose people claim parts of the lake for their own. I wonder whether this leads to conflict, and whether there are rules and adjudicators for these rights. The lake is a commons, and there must be some governance over it.

[Analytic philosophy explores a world in which] people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus, not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.

The Borders of Analytic Philosophy, Iris Murdoch

Then there are the operations in-between. I saw a few couples working together: a family at work feeding themselves and earning a living. Here the woman rows while the man plays out a net. We’d seen a farmer couple the previous evening returning home from a day in the field, the man rowing a boat loaded with fodder as the woman sat at the stern.

But, as Iris Murdoch says, not everything is so clear. I saw a man beating the water with a pole, while a boy sat at the horsehead bow that all these boats have. Why? There were coots swimming around him. Was it happenstance, or were the two connected?

Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

Evening on the lake

As evening fell the activity on Bhigwan lake changed. Work began to wind down. I noticed a boat low in the water with a couple in it, the man rowing. I waited until I could take a silhouette of the boat against the setting sun. They could be farmers returning from the field. This is Baramati district. The large farmers here grow sugarcane. So, if they are farmers at all, then perhaps they are small-holders, they could have been reaping the winter’s produce. All around the lake we’d seen small patches of various grains ripening.

Just a little earlier we’d seen herds of cows being driven home. They walked out into over a long finger of land into shallows on the lake to take a last drink of water in the evening. Around the muddy banks of the lake, in the shallows where no agriculture was done, we’d noticed grass growing. The lake in this season is a good place for cows and buffalos. It yields both grass and water in the commons, no need to buy expensive fodder.

But herding and agriculture are fringe activities, so to say. Fishing is the work that we’d watched all day. At lunch we’d eaten fresh tilapia from the lake. I was surprised; tilapia is not a native species. It seems to have been introduced to the lake after Ujani Dam was built. The presence of herons, gulls, terns, and flamingos on the lake was a clue that there were other fish, as well as crustaceans, here. The traps that the fishermen were laying were for shrimps. The catch of tilapia is so large that, in the day I spent there, I couldn’t figure what other fish is found in the river and lake.

Doors of Kumbharwada

A day and a half of bird watching took us to a site well known to local birders: the backwater of a Ujani dam next to the village of Bhigwan. We stayed at a farmhouse in the nearby village of Kumbharwada. Just before we left in the morning today, I walked around the yard clicking photos. In the morning light the old doors of a wing of the main house looked grand.

I stepped closer for details. The texture of the weather beaten paint, the sunburnt wood below it, the rusted iron handle, kept smooth and polished by the touch of many hands, the old-style lock hanging from it, all looked wonderful in the morning’s light. Do notice the loop of thread from which the key to the lock hangs.

From the road you see little of the house. What was most noticeable was the number of means of transport parked in the entrance area: one of several SUVs, with the supplementary means of transport being the numerous motor bikes. I would also count the cow in the background as an emergency means of transport, should it be needed.

I walked back to our car which was parked in a new block around the yard. This was clearly extremely new. The paint on the walls looked like it may have been a year old. Two green patches of lawn were startling in this yard which was otherwise bone dry. The farmer had created an enclosed garden to one side of this block, and planted rushes around the ditch which carried away the waste water of the farmhouse. All this was well thought out. As an enthusiastic birder, he had created little environments which attracted different birds. We saw sunbirds, bulbuls and mynas in the garden. The rushes were full of warblers and pipits. But for today I will star the doors of the rooms in this block: wonderful designs obtained by crossing 1920s vintage futurism with the op art of the 1960s.

But I could not leave the farmyard without a tribute to the intrepid mouser who kept away the freeloaders who would otherwise venture in from the fields. I felt some respect for him, not the animosity I felt when I saw the rooster strutting around the yard. That guy had woken me up at three in the morning, practicing his monotonous call for two hours. Seeing him as I had my breakfast, I felt again a desire to wring his neck. Rooster soup for breakfast would perhaps save others from my fate, I thought.

Nobody’s roadside

We pulled up for a chai at a very clean little dhaba between the highway and the open desert. Halfway between the dhaba and a temple an abandoned car was rusting away in front of a poster for a gym. An unlikely place for both, I thought.

That was an interesting way to close off February. I wonder why the left half of the photo is so blurred. Did I get some water on the lens?

The previous thing I had done with my phone was to take a video of an overloaded tractor that we passed on the road. The slow tractor was pulling a bulky load of chaff from the wheat fields of Punjab. It serves as cattle feed, but it can really block the road as it is transported. This had no issue with focus. I must have got a drop of water on the lens after this.

Zeenat Aman, the Baronet of Bombay, and Lady Hamilton

I walked past the Mackinnon Mackenzie building, turned left and there it was. The famous studio named after Lady Margaret Elizabeth Hamilton, opened in 1928 by the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, Sir Ellice Victor Elias Sassoon, in a Renaissance revival style building designed by George Wittet for the Baronet to live in. This was the year before Victor Sassoon built a house for himself in Shanghai, where he eventually relocated after fueling a real estate frenzy at the Bund. Lady Hamilton’s husband, Sir Daniel Hamilton had been chief of Mackinnon Mackenzie before he became a reformist, developed a close relationship with Rabindranath Tagore, and his village development project was written up by Mahadev Desai, secretary to Mahatma Gandhi in his newspaper, Harijan. George Wittet was by then the pre-eminent architect in the city, having designed the neo-classical Institute of Science, the Indo-Saracenic Museum, and the Renaissance revival Port Trust Building and many of the buildings in this place, Ballard Estate.

And the connection to Zeenat Aman, a model and a beauty queen, before she became India’s sweetheart? All in good time. First the studio had to establish itself as the fashion destination for the ladies and the lords, the maharanis and rajas, the shakers and the salt of Mumbai. Then, thirty years later, it had to pass on to Ranjit Madhavji, a young and upcoming portraitist from Dadisett Lane in Girgaum, along with the archive, which is now being digitized and archived by the British Library.

Ranjit Madhavji is now regarded as one of the great masters of portraits, “the Yousuf Karsh of Bombay” according to some. But he was still regarded as merely a fashionable society photographer when the teenaged Zeenat Aman came to have her photo taken by him. Madhavji would take his time getting acquainted with clients, chatting with them in a parlour hung with his older works. It was in such a conversation that he urged the young woman to take up a career in modeling.

I couldn’t see the parlour because I was there on a weekend, when the studio shuts its doors. The building was bought up by the National Textile Corporation, which initiated a long litigation to evict the famous tenant. I understand that the case has been settled in favour of Hamilton Studio, as long as it remains a studio. Now, as it nears its centenary as the second oldest studio in Mumbai, it still works as one.

Setting up

When you eat street food, your attention is on the food. You hardly ever notice the architecture of the street food stall. In Mumbai food trucks is a pandemic innovation. A truck requires investment, and is not likely to catch on. Most small vendors on the street set up a table and start serving out food. I was caught by the architecture of a stall because of the drama involved in it. I came upon one young man after he had set up a stand for the sunshade and started setting up his table.

The table has to be unfolded, and he needs to make sure that everything has clicked into place properly when he sets it up. It has to be big enough to take all the supplies that he needs for a day’s work. The parasol plugs into its stand. He has a bucketful of water, which he moves into place. The vendor will usually take his station, and when the customers arrive he won’t have time to move. There is competition, and if he is slow in serving out the food, people will go elsewhere. I saw a large plastic trashcan behind him. I wished I’d seen him arrive. How did he bring everything here? Unfortunately I had gathered a crowd, and had to leave before he was ready.

I hadn’t thought of what a long process there is in setting up one of these stalls. And I don’t even know what he serves for lunch. I have to go back again and look.

An odd thing happened on the way to the forum

Can’t you even go out to buy a loaf of bread without being waylaid by something odd? Two lanes across from the High Court, this notary public has come to public places. The sun shade over the car is reassuring. At least you know that the chap is not ready for a quick get away.

I wonder whether he gets the same parking spot every day? I should take this route to the baker again and check.

Retro fit

Most of city life consists of retro-fitting lifestyles into historical spaces. Whether you are trying to manoeuvre a sofa into an unwieldy space, a modern office into a Victorian era building, or threading an underground Metro through a city, the problem is always that your newly imagined lifestyle is in sudden conflict with an already built up space. The featured photo was an example I came across in my walk. Rows of air conditioning units line the windows of a late-Victorian cast iron and brick structure. Large windows which should have been open were closed off. Now some building work is on to provide better ventilation in this pandemic era.

I passed two impressive gates. The one which was in better shape turns out to be older. The cast iron grilles could have been installed any time between the 1880s and 1960s, but the name of the establishment welded into it dates from the end of the last century. The more rusted and picturesque gate was surprisingly recent. It looked like an electrical substation had been retrofitted into an open space between buildings.

Here was part of the pandemic churn. For decades a little eatery in this building provided cheap food to those who worked in poky little offices in the neighbourhood. Rows of banana leaves were laid out on narrow tables. You would take the first free space after it had been cleaned out. Servers would walk in the aisles between tables serving out food rapidly. The unlimited refills sometimes attracted students. Now the eatery has turned into a “heritage hotel” across the upper floors, and the little offices below are being renovated into large airy spaces.

A cul-de-sac has been created by the temporary closing-off of the main road for the digging of the Metro. The space has been filled by street food vendors. It was lunch time. Most customers were office goers, but among them was an uniformed schoolboy. I wonder whether the street food will remain once the road opens up again. Nearby a shoe-repairman has set up a kiosk right next to the space where a watchman keeps guard at the back entrance of a building. In this area he’ll probably do as much business as the street food wallahs. In a neighbouring lane a boy works at his maths and chemistry on part of what looks like a tailor’s table. What would a tailor be doing in this area full of government offices, schools, small eateries, and a couple of movie theaters?

For all the changes at the ground level, the look and feel of the area still has some of the late Victorian quietness that I’ve always seen in this little island in the city. Khan Bahadur Muncherjee Murzban chose to live in one of these lanes. I can see why.

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