Art projects sprouted across Mumbai during the pandemic like moss during monsoon. At the same time architects who were talking about reuse of buildings began to write about revitalization of neighbourhoods. The creep of the revitalizing moss continues with new areas in the city’s decaying core being “discovered”. The latest is the Sassoon docks, built in 1875 on land reclaimed and paid for by David Sassoon. This is a place where many fishermen land their catch, and large retailers and wholesale dealers make their early morning deals. Around it are the usual ice factory, cold storage, a large fish market, and boat-related businesses, and even a couple of small restaurants. Now one warehouse has become an art gallery.
My gentrification alert system started flashing red lights as I saw that the door to the gallery space was controlled by uniformed guards with metal detectors. A detector beeped madly when I walked in, but nobody said anything. In a place like this your clothes matter more than a machine’s chatter. Outside a lift truck backed towards a whitewashed wall with two people on a raised platform ready to sketch out a new mural. Fish trucks and trolleys came to a halt as it created a small traffic jam. A fisherman stopped his scooter outside the gallery space to ask a guard what was going on. Further down the road, fish was being loaded on to a cold truck. Rubble from a dilapidated building was neatly packed into sacks, presaging another reclamation and reuse project.
When stock prices soared in the early 90s, small fish restaurants around the stock exchange suddenly became fancy. One made enough money to grow from a single establishment into a chain. Others sold out to fancier establishments. A kind of equilibrium was reached where you could still find the old regional food in small holes in the wall next to the fine-dining restaurants which could seat walk-ins in the magic moments between happy hours and the late-night sitting. I wonder whether the future of Sassoon docks will be like that, or will it be the contentious route of gentrification that other countries have seen? The equilibrium of the stock exchange neighbourhood is again under threat because the pandemic wiped out many businesses.
But visually there was much to enjoy on my walk around the old dockyard. In my first days in the city I had to hold my nose against the stench of a day old fish when I passed Sassoon dock at night. There is much improvement today. We have N95 masks. With all the talk of reuse and improvement, I wonder whether there is a solution that keeps the fresh catch in the heart of the town but banishes the smell forever.