Gate keepers

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.

The first afternoon in Shanghai

By the time we ventured out of our hotel in Shanghai it was almost 5 in the afternoon. We were tired from the lack of sleep. I could feel a migraine about to come on. Tourism would have to be light and we would need to retire early. From our hotel off East Nanjing Road it was about a kilometer to the Bund. We could do that.

East Nanjing road is fun in a very commercial kind of way. There are big stores lining the street, and a large number of well-dressed young people hanging around, especially around the apple store. In search of something local, we wandered into a bustling food shop. It was full of food we didn’t quite recognize. The Family picked up a packet of a local sweet. As we were paying for it we noticed that next to the cashier there was a container of hot water with skewers of boiled meat. Now that was local! There was also a counter of local ice creams doing brisk business.

We continued to the Bund. This was really full of life: local and tourists. The sun was going down behind us, so the skyscrapers of Pudong (East of Pu) were in bright sunlight. The golden hour had brought out an incredible number of photographers, so the edge of the Bund was crowded with tripods. Behind that phalanx other people walked, played or sat. I watched a couple of children playing as their grandmother looked on happily (photo on top). We walked on to see the everyday life of a Chinese city unfolding before us: so very much like ordinary life in India. We watched Pudong come alight as the sun set behind us. When the sky had turned a deep blue and Pudong was bright with lights we came down from the Bund.

David Sassoon’s is a famous name in Mumbai. This 19th century trader has left his mark on the urban geography of Mumbai. At the junction of the East Nanjing Road and the Bund is the house he built for himself. This grand structure is now the Fairmont Peace Hotel. As we wandered past we saw this brace of photographers intent on capturing a piece of this history. They’d brought along a ladder: equipment that no photographer should be without. They saw me taking their photo, and had a laugh: a good way to connect with photographers with whom you do not share a language.


Dinner? The Family was wary. So we went into a mall which had two restaurants per floor for 6 floors. Two floors up we saw a restaurant called something like the Local Taste of Shanghai. Curious, we walked in. It was full of local couples. Very reassuring, we thought. We got the English menu, and decided to start with a beer and three things which looked innocuous: an abalone pancake, steamed dumplings, and a pumpkin pie. The pancake was like an Indian stuffed puri, the sesame covered pumpkin pies had a bean-paste filling, and the dumplings were like the Chinese dumplings we were used to. The Family decided that China was good. We were still hungry, so we ordered a plate of mushrooms, a plate of fried green beans and a bowl of rice (mifan). Our waitress helped by making a face when we ordered things that she thought wouldn’t go well with the rice. This was nice dinner to start our trip with, and it cost us only around INR 500 per head, with beer. It’ll be fun if we continue to eat like this.

After dinner we strolled down the road, people-watching again. This part of the town is full of lovely 19th and early 20th-century architecture covered with the glitter of the newly commercial 21st-century China. The combination can be somewhat startling (as in the photo above), but lively, and much fun. My migraine had receded after dinner, but both of were drooping. We returned to our hotel and turned in early. We had complicated plans for the next day.