Walking, waking

When The Family told me I was looking like a couch potato, sprawled across a sofa, remote in hand, binge watching Network, I realized it was true, and I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I’d stopped going out in the wave of omicron infections which swept the neighbourhood. But that had passed in two weeks. It was time for a walk again. So, after finishing my meetings in the afternoon I went out for a walk from Kala Ghoda to VT through the small lanes that thread the old business area of Mumbai. Right at the start I realized that the city was recovering well from the pandemic. The stock exchange and the high court must have just closed for the day, and the streets were filled with brokers and lawyers having a small celebratory snack.

Business was starting up again. The numbness after the horrendous second wave seems to have disappeared after third. The city is almost fully vaccinated, and the lesson that vaccines protect effectively has been learnt. A new shop was being built in this road behind the stock exchange. I looked at the moon gates under construction. They looked incongruous in the four-storeyed Art Deco building called Seksaria Chambers. As soon as you look up you see the clean sweeping lines, the beautiful geometric detailing, the simple but elegant rectangular windows of this 1930s era style. Some changes have accumulated on the upper floors: box grills around windows, ugly air conditioning units, but unlike the street level, the architecture is still visible. Just across the road is a building in which the grand sweep of the Arts Moderne style of Surya Mahal is hidden behind boxy windows tacked on later. Interestingly, the architects in Mumbai often used corrugated metal to protect against rain. That feature is still visible at the top of the buildings.

I went around the stock exchange on a road which is lined with more Art Deco on one side and the old style traditional architecture on the other. Fort Chambers C has a delightful terrace grille just above the street level. Just across from it is a nameless but wonderful old building. I often stop to admire the structure: cast iron beams and pillars bear the load of a superstructure made from wood and sheet metal. The metal has been worked to reproduce the look of traditional wooden fretwork. I wish this modernization of the traditional style had been worked out fully. But, like its contemporary cousin, Art Nouveau in the west, it was arrested by the new construction techniques that were invented in the next decade. Just before the style died, it began to take on the more minimal looks that you see in the balconies just across from it (the last photo in the set above). This T-junction in the road is one of my favourite places to stand and muse about the turns that architecture never took.

This area is deserted enough in the evenings for guerilla artists to constantly try something new. The last months have been quiet, though I did find one piece of street art which I hadn’t seen before.

I stopped to pick up a coffee before walking on. Some months ago I’d photographed a restaurant which I thought had closed forever (photo on the left above). Now it has opened again. The place has a new signboard, and every surface has been repainted. I take it to be a hopeful sign. The city seems to be coming back to life.

Walking on I came to an older part of town, perhaps half a century older. The two parts are separated by a Parsi memorial in the center of a cross road. On Sundays the junction becomes a cricket ground. Now it was a place full of hawkers and scooter repairmen. I threaded between them to take a photo of one of the Parsi sphinxes around it. I’d never noticed before that its flowing moustache and beard hide a receding chin.

This the older part is Bora Bazaar, an area built before the spaces around it were cleared for the new construction during the cotton boom caused by the American civil war. Today I was not interested in the monumental offices and government buildings that came with the boom. Instead I looked at the homes built by the newly rich. In the 1880s, as F. W. Stevens and his ilk were developing the Indo-Saracenic style (you can see a bit of it in a dome of the GPO in a photo below), the native Indian architecture had already started on the upward expansion that Mumbai still retains. Four and five stories became more common as the traditional stone was replaced by lighter brick. These brick walls still carried the lovely ornate wooden box balconies that you see across western India. Notice the beautiful traditional roof line in the photo, raised high above the street. The regular rows of simple rectangular windows on the side face are innovations adopted in the city from the British. This was a lovely new style, which I wish had developed into the 21st century. The wooden window frames migrated for a while into Mumbai’s Art Deco style, but eventually disappeared as pre-fab elements became available.

The roads were beginning to empty out. The pandemic mentality is not completely gone. People still go home early. A last chai, a vada pav before the commute, and then cross the road to CST to catch a train; that’s the to-do list for most people. I could just walk back home. This had been better than binge watching an inane serial.

Urban Jungle

It is hardly possible to walk far in south Mumbai without passing by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This example of Victorian Gothic was designed by the architectural firm of F. W. Stevens, and completed in 1888 CE. The mosses and algae covering it have been cleared off in recent years, lights installed, and the carvings restored. As we walked past, The Family asked “Have you noticed that cat before?” I hadn’t, nor did I recall meeting its unfortunate prey, the rat.

When you pause to look at the building it is hard to tear your eyes away. I looked at the dressed stone, checking whether each piece in an arch was different, and it seemed that it was. There’s such a profusion of detail in and around the sandstone pillars and Gothic arches: animals peer out from the stone foliage dense with leaves, flowers and fruit. This is as good a jungle as a city can get