Heritage Conservation

What Mumbai has that Bengaluru doesn’t

There is an anecdote that is the stuff of legend. When queen Victoria took over the administration of India from the British East India Company in the 1860s, she gathered a group of cultural big shots to figure out urban planning and aesthetics. The group came up with a plan. They would give Bombay a Gothic style of architecture; Calcutta, a Colonial style; and Madras, an Indo-Saracenic style. As for Delhi, they would give it to a young architect called Edwin Landseer Lutyens, who was becoming known for his syncretic approach to building. The question then is, what is the Indian style of building; and when we talk about heritage conservation, aren’t we mostly referring to buildings built in the British time?
Should we preserve the British aesthetic that was handed down to us; or should we define an Indian one that is suited to the time and place we live in? The question is in some senses moot (or irrelevant) because the real-estate titans who are defining our skylines are adopting an approach that is more global than local—building glass and steel high-rises that look no different from the ones in Shanghai, New York or London. The buildings that are being constructed in any urban city in India today have largely no character or sense of place and serve a utilitarian purpose of maximizing space and economic returns without any real panache—all of which bolsters the argument for heritage preservation, such as it is. Can there be an Indian model for heritage preservation?
Shikha Jain, director of Dronah (Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization working in the field of preservation and community design, has described one model that could be useful to many of our Indian cities. In her paper, Jaipur As A Recurring Renaissance, Jain makes a case for viewing city planning as a process rather than a product; marrying current city needs such as solid waste management and parking spaces with existing heritage structures. The rub for Bangaloreans, who are new to this game, is that a number of Indian cities have thought about this and implemented heritage conservation acts, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Panaji. The reason is obvious, even to someone who makes her home and loves the city of Bengaluru, as I do. Bangaloreans aren’t united, passionate, or driven enough to make a case for its heritage structures. That may change with the victory civic activists have had with saving the Balabrooie Guest House. Mumbai, in contrast, has whole clusters of civic activists who are passionate about preserving its buildings and streetscapes.
When I called conservation architect and activist Abha Narain Lambah, she was at a government office, trying to get the paperwork for a heritage project moving. “In Bombay, we realized early on that we could not rely on the government for help,” she said. “We also realized that we had to be more innovative with respect to what constituted heritage. Is it streetscapes? Is it urban clusters?”
When I asked about Mumbai’s successes with heritage conservation, Lambah promptly listed what her fellow citizens had done. Three women took Mumbai’s municipal corporation to court to get custody of the badly maintained Oval Maidan and won. To this day, Ocra, or the Oval Cooperage Residents Association, maintains the premises. Anahita Pundole filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court, stating that the visual sanctity of the city was being spoilt by hoardings. She too won. Lambah convinced 70 shopkeepers on Dadabai Naoroji Road to accept redesigned signage that was in keeping with the area’s visual history. The shopkeepers not only agreed, they funded the project. Recently, the residents of Bandra Bandstand reclaimed its seafront. The list goes on.
Mumbai seems to inspire this sort of loyalty and activism among its citizens. Does it say something about the quality of its residents? Is it because Mumbai is a wealthy city?
Heritage conservation is an elitist, high GDP (gross domestic product) activity. This is not to say that the average driver, cobbler, waiter or flower seller does not appreciate the graceful proportions of old buildings. It is that this busy segment of the population either has no access to these spaces or sees no value in them. The Balabrooie Guest House is off limits to most Bangaloreans. I have never entered it. So are many old buildings. How then to get the general public to care? How to get them to protest to save a building or tree? Or is it not important to involve all segments of the population? Is heritage conservation a rich person’s game? More specifically, is it a niche in which women do well? If “his-tory” is written around men, does “her-itage” centre around “her” or women? Okay, I just said that for wordplay.
The truth is that heritage conservation is not a costly exercise. In 2001, the facade of Elphinstone College was restored for `15 lakh, according to Lambah. In the late 1990s, the Kala Ghoda Association restored Horniman Circle for `6 lakh. “It just takes one municipal commissioner with will and a group of dedicated citizens,” says Lambah.
Sounds simple but hard to duplicate in other Indian cities. It takes visionaries like architects K.T. Ravindran and A.G.K. Menon, who can combine urban planning, heritage conservation and development. It takes urbanists like Prasad Shetty and multifaceted personalities such as poet-translator-architect-teacher Mustansir Dalvi to come up with nuanced yet implementable approaches to heritage conservation. It requires collaboration and consensus-building on what constitutes heritage and how to conserve it. So far, in Bengaluru , I cannot think of a single person who has the will, the wiles and the chutzpah to take it forward.

This is the second in a two-part series on heritage conservation. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.


Why does Mumbai inspire so much activism, writing, and imagination?

Urbs Primus in Indus: the enduring appeal of Mumbai, India

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. Trains play an important part of daily social life in the Indian city, as do the battered black-and-yellow taxis. Frederic Soltan / Corbis
Primary cause in India’s most enduring city, Mumbai
Shoba Narayan

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014 05:24 PM

The best way to enter Mumbai is through its battered black-and-yellow taxis. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon a chatty taxi driver who will apprise you of the goings-on in this most populous and wealthiest of Indian cities: the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement; the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s third child; the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s son. India’s edgiest art galleries and theatres are here, as is the second surviving original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy – under wraps in the Asiatic Library. Mumbai is a city of superlatives that well fits its “Maximum City” moniker, as coined by the author Suketu Mehta. The city has nurtured India’s best-known author, Salman Rushdie; its best orchestra conductor, Zubin Mehta; and the late, great lead singer of Queen – Freddie Mercury, aka Farrokh Balsara, a Parsee boy whose parents were from Mumbai.

I visit Mumbai often. It nearly always overwhelms me. The numbers are mind-boggling: 20 million people contributing 6 per cent of India’s GDP, 33 per cent of its income-tax collections, and 60 per cent of its customs-duty collections. Delhi may be India’s capital and seat of power, but the money that makes the Indian economy churn comes from this slim island that has spread its tentacles deep into the Arabian Sea.

In 1996, the city then known as Bombay divested its colonial but beloved name to revert to Mumbai. Locals use both interchangeably. I like the name Bombay, even though I believe that the name change was a necessary step in India’s emergence from the chrysalis of ­colonialism.

“Bombay is incredibly accommodating towards immigrants,” says Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, as he walks me through the art galleries of Colaba. “It allows individuals to drop anchor and flourish on their own terms.”

“Half the Indians on the Forbes billionaires list live in Bombay,” says a dour cab driver named Shinde. I could have predicted what followed. “You’d think they’d want to do something about the garbage.”

Nearly every Mumbaikar I know has a love-hate relationship with the city. They complain about it constantly, but cannot bear to leave. Naresh Fernandes, the author of City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay, is no different. He loathes the housing societies of Malabar Hill that allow only vegetarian residents; bemoans the rising inequality, which he says is so unlike the city of “shared spaces” that he grew up in. But he cannot bear to give up on it. “I have a stake in this city,” he says. “Bombay used to represent a certain egalitarianism, you know. This was the place where you could come and make your fortune.”

From the time it was discovered by Koli fisherfolk who rowed on Arab dhow boats towards Heptanesia or the City of Seven Isles in 1138 and named it after their patron goddess Mumba Devi, Mumbai attracted prospectors, bounty hunters and traders with a nose for opportunity and a stomach for risk. Arab spice traders called one of the islands Al Omani, later corrupted into Old Woman’s Island by the British. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, originally from Iran, escaped persecution by seeking its shores. When the Englishman Gerald Aungier became Bombay’s governor, he invited Goan Catholics, Bohra Muslims and the Marwari and Sindhi traders to come and grow his city. Mumbai is a city of immigrants – earlier, from foreign shores and, more recently, from other parts of north India. A plaque on the Gateway of India describes its status – both perceived and felt – perfectly: “Urbs Primus in Indus.” The primary city in India.

The city’s geography dictated its history. Its location at the western edge of India, its naturally deep harbour – Bom Bahia, or “beautiful harbour”, as the Portuguese called it – and its narrow width that forced people to live literally on top of each other, have influenced its destiny. The Chinese call this feng shui; the Indians call it vastu shastra. Mumbai’s vastu, its kismet if you will, has to do with maal – goods and their trading, previously textiles; today, pretty much anything money can buy.

There are numerous hotels for tourists to drop anchor into. The Four Seasons, located near the Worli Sea Link, has small rooms but superb service. The flagship hotel of the Taj group – the Taj Mahal Palace – was founded here near the Gateway of India, where the British entered and left India. It was bombed during the 2008 attacks on the city, killing the hotel’s general manager and numerous guests. Today, the renovated hotel welcomes guests once more, albeit after numerous security checks. The Oberoi group, too, has a couple of properties here in Nariman Point, the financial district. Boutique hotels such as Abode, Le Sutra and Bentley also thrive in the hip neighbourhoods of Bandra and Pali Hill.

“Even though the centre of gravity, at least in terms of ­real-estate prices, has moved north, towards Bandra and Khar, south Mumbai still remains vibrant,” says Arvind Sethi, a twice-returned local. South Mumbai is where the ­National Centre for the Performing Arts hosts visiting orchestras; where the Asia Society invites speakers; and where the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and Literature Live ­occur.

The big change in Mumbai, however, is the flourishing of an “indie culture” in Bandra, Khar and beyond, according to Nayantara Kilachand, the founder of Mumbai Boss, a vibrant website dedicated to local news, views and events. “You’ll find cafes and salons often doubling up as viewing spaces, gigs taking place in offbeat venues and stores that are multipurpose – they’ll host a food market one day and a jazz performance the next,” she says.

Some things, however, remain unchanged. The crowded local trains; the entrepreneurial culture; the 5,000 dabbawallahs who deliver about 200,000 hot packed lunches – come mucky monsoon or stifling summer heat – from homes in the suburbs to office workers in the city. Studied by Harvard Business School, feted by Prince Charles who invited them to his second wedding, the dabbawallahs work perfectly in Mumbai, with its narrow, north-south topography, somewhat akin to Manhattan. Delhi, in comparison, is too spread out. “As long as people are hungry and enjoy their mothers’ cooking, we will be in business,” says one wizened dabbawallah named Telekar, who is eating his own lunch on a train after delivering 300 other meals.

“Ma ya biwi bol,” adds his friend with a knowing grin. Say “mother or wife’s cooking” – it’s more politically correct.

“Why aren’t people depressed in a city like Bombay?” muses the New York transplant Asha Ranganathan, who has instructed her driver to meet her at Churchgate station while she took the “Dadar Fast” (the city’s most popular and populous local train) into town one day. “This city is full of stress. But for Mumbaikars, train rides are like group therapy. We Indians don’t hesitate in saying what is wrong with our lives. We don’t say everything’s fine like the Americans when our lives suck. We ride the trains and share our woes.”

I think of this as I enter Chowpatty Beach with Vijaya Pastala, who sells monofloral honey to luxury hotels and boutiques through her company, Under the Mango Tree. A third generation Mumbaikar with a farm in Alibaug, Pastala meets me for a sunset drink at the pricey Dome lounge atop the ­InterContinental hotel. Then we drive to Chowpatty Beach, where families have gathered for “hawa-khana” (to eat the air). Egalitarian Mumbai is very much in evidence on the beach, as well as in the Wankhede Stadium, where I watch a cricket match with Anand Merchant, a dentist who tends to the rich and famous. One of Merchant’s clients has given him US$150 (Dh551) tickets. “I don’t know what to do,” says Merchant about his bounty of box seats. “I mean, should I stop charging him for teeth cleaning?”

I treat Merchant to dinner at the famous Indigo cafe as a thank you. I invite him to visit Bangalore, my hometown. He demurs. Don’t the bars close in Bangalore at 11.30pm or some such ridiculously early hour, he asked? I nod. “Your city is a morgue, yaar,” he says. “Here, I can party all night and go to Zaffran’s at 4am if I am hungry. What would I do in Bangalore?”

Mumbai too is grappling with many of the problems facing global cities today: astronomical affluence surrounded by abject poverty; a bigger divide among the classes; political tensions wrought by immigrants, between “us” and “them”. The famous Dharavi slum is in the throes of “redevelopment”, a defective strategy according to the urbanologist Matias Echanove. “Bombay should develop incrementally with infrastructure ­retrofitting – like Tokyo has for decades. The government should realise that Dharavi is the solution not the problem.”

Mumbai’s saving grace is its practicality. Its people are not given to hyperbole, unless they’re getting paid for it. A typical Mumbai greeting is “Bol” – literally “talk”. Why waste time with niceties? “Yaar” means friend, but is used universally. “Mamu” or uncle is used both in affection and scorn. In spite of all its contradictions – its ­Parsees-only housing colonies and vegetarian buildings – Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city. It balances the illusion of Bollywood with the gritty realities of its slums; it’s India’s most aspirational city, whetting the appetite of countless workers who commute using the celebrated Mumbai trains. Its people are both irreverent and welcoming, embracing newcomers into the collective fold with gruff practicality. Mumbai contains, as Walt Whitman would say, “multitudes”. It is indeed, Urbs Primus in Indus.


The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,045 return, including taxes.

The hotel The J W Marriott Hotel Mumbai (www.marriott.com) at Juhu Beach offers double rooms from 12,117 Indian rupees (Dh724) per night, including taxes.

Delhi Nightlife for Mint

Mint came up with a great headline for this piece.  Reminds me of Gerald Durrell’s books. Read it below or click the link.

A Phantom and Other Nocturnal Animals

  • Columns
  • Posted: Thu, Aug 25 2011. 9:58 PM IST
A Phantom and other nocturnal animals
There is one thing that we Bangaloreans mourn: the 11.30pm curfew by which the bars and restaurants close. To watch Delhiites revel way past our curfew time gave me Delhi-envy

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

I got Delhi-envy at 1.43am on a soft summer night when I met a man called Honey. The evening began at 10pm at an art gallery opening. Hotelier Priya Paul (whom I had first met a week ago) and her friends, Vivek Sahni and Nikhil Khanna, were going out with a group of friends and they invited me to come along. The group included a contemporary artist-couple, a gallery owner, some expat curators, a design guru and some advertising folk. Some 15 of them debated about where to go and ended up choosing Boombox Café, a bar in Khan Market.


Feel the pulse:At Lap, a lounge bar in New Delhi owned by actor Arjun Rampal. Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Feel the pulse:At Lap, a lounge bar in New Delhi owned by actor Arjun Rampal. Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint


Delhi, I discovered, dines at 11pm. Boombox was full of people. We all squeezed into a corner booth and spent the next couple of hours smoking fragrant sheesha and drinking everything that was on offer. Sahni, I learned, owned an eponymous design firm and was co-founder of Kama Ayurveda, whose products I use on my head in the hope of growing hair. I complained that his products were not fragrant enough. We debated the merits of fragrance versus benefits in massage oils; and the metaphysical question: Why do things that are good for you, such as Dead Sea mud and Ayurvedic potions, smell so bad? I am sure both of us made valid points—if only I could remember them. I was concentrating on grabbing the sheesha pipe that kept disappearing. “Do you realize that it is all the ex-smokers who want the sheesha-fix?” asked the lady-sculptor with a British accent. 

Two hours later, there was another spirited debate about where to go. We ended up outside Cibo at Janpath and were told that nobody would be allowed in. “Gudda” (fashion designer Rohit Bal) was in the house, said the bouncer, and they were turning people away. Sahni walked up and whispered something to him. The doors opened. Paul and I seemed to be the only two women in the compound. Bal, who co-owns the place, held court in the open courtyard, offering drinks, discussing his fashion show and introducing the male models who surrounded him. One particularly handsome man introduced himself as Honey.


The old-world charm of Hard Rock Café attracts many Bangaloreans. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The old-world charm of Hard Rock Café attracts many Bangaloreans. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint


Everyone around chuckled. Unbelievable, said Paul. Can’t be your real name. 

It is, insisted Honey. “His full name is Honey Makhni,” said Bal amid much laughter.

Then it struck me. It was 2am on a Saturday night. Cibo was full of men enjoying “boy’s night out”. Vodka shots were being downed; techno music that sounded like a heartbeat on steroids was being pumped through the sound system. The ladies room was taken over by men making out behind the partitions. An editor from GQ walked by, clad in a white kurta-pyjama, air-kissing everyone in sight. Toto, I told myself. I have a feeling we aren’t in Bangalore any more.

There are two kinds of people in the world. Some are rabid city patriots. Listen to south Mumbai types talk about their city and you’ll know what I mean. Others are oblivious to place. They can be happy anywhere. I used to be rabid. I once refused to date a man because he made the mistake of dissing my hometown. I am different now. After living in Bangalore for the last five years and learning to love this city, after exploring Mumbai and Delhi in a fairly intense way and learning to love their quirks, I’ve morphed into the kind of person who, I think, could be as happy—or unhappy—in any metro.

That said, there is one thing that we Bangaloreans mourn: the 11.30pm curfew. Bars and restaurants close before Cinderella got home. They kick us out. To watch Delhiites revel way past our curfew time gave me Delhi-envy.

Around 2am the police came. The bar could stay open, they said. But the music had to stop. I watched a Delhi version of what we Bangaloreans complain about every weekend. “What’s the point of keeping open a bar without music?” said Bal, wringing his hands. I felt a twinge of perverse and juvenile joy. Take that, Delhi. Now you know how we feel.


If you want to listen to live music, Blue Frog is the place to head to in Mumbai. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

If you want to listen to live music, Blue Frog is the place to head to in Mumbai. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint


Cities have rhythms. Chennai comes alive at 6am, Bangalore at 11am, Mumbai at 8pm and Delhi at midnight. For a visitor, Mumbai’s vibe is casual. Whether you are quaffing beer at Leopold Café along with a room full of delirious tourists, enjoying the view atop the Dome at the Intercontinental Marine Drive with your sweetheart and a Cosmopolitan, listening to live music at Blue Frog, doing the—what’s it called—dubstep at Bonobo, drinking Suleimani chai with the intellectuals at Prithvi Theatre’s café, or ending the night at Zafran, Mumbaikars have the worldly sophistication of having seen everything and been everywhere. They are glad you are visiting their fair city but you know what, they get immigrants every day, so have a great night, amigo. But get caught without a cab on your way home and the same Mumbaikar who appeared nonchalant, almost offhand, will insist on dropping you home with an equally casual, “Don’t be silly. Get in the car.” 

The best of Chennai’s nightlife happens in the farmhouses lining ECR (East Coast Road). The setting is magical—swaying coconut palms, the Arabian Sea, water that has been warmed by the blistering daytime heat to encourage skinny dipping, and lots of hard liquor. Chennai folks hold their drinks either very well or very badly. You sweat out your hangover the next day and build tolerance.

Bangalore has some great places. Take 5 in Indiranagar has live acts by musicians Radha Thomas and Amit Heri, who are very good, perhaps because Take 5 is co-owned by singer Arati Rao. Although I despise franchises, Hard Rock Café in Bangalore is housed in a lovely building. Opus, owned by Carlton and the late, great Gina Braganza, is an old favourite. Newer outlets such as Sky Bar, Bacchus, F Bar and Cloud 9 are popular with college students. But none of them have the sprawling spaces that I saw in Delhi.

The next stop in Delhi was Lap, where actor Arjun Rampal—still handsome—was spinning discs when we entered. In the VIP area, fashion designer Suneet Verma and co-owner A.D. Singh chatted with Paul and exchanged hugs and Delhi gossip. Vineet Jain of The Times of India group came by to chat. More gossip. People thronged the outside garden and everyone seemed to know each other. That’s the other thing. Both Cibo and Lap have lovely outdoor spaces, something I haven’t seen in space-starved Bangalore.

Close to dawn, we stumbled out. There was a line of pretty young things, clad in miniskirts, waiting for their cars. One 20-something said hello to Paul, who didn’t recognize her. A minute later, her car rolled up. It was a Rolls-Royce Phantom. The girl’s escort got into the driver’s side beside her and they pulled away, waving at us. How can you not remember a girl who owns a Phantom, I asked.

Who’s that girl, asked Paul. And then I had my only-in-Delhi moment of the night. “Oh that,” said the bouncer in Hindi. “That’s Pooja bhabhi.”

Apparently the girl got the Phantom as a wedding present. Only in Delhi.

I have never seen a Rolls-Royce in Bangalore, and you know what? I am kind of proud of it. We have our nouveau riche in Bangalore too, but the new rich play it quiet in Maruti Swifts.

The next weekend, I was at Kyra, a bar in Bangalore, where the Nathaniel School of Music’s students played a gig. Grey-haired grandmothers in Parsi-embroidered saris sat around tables eating chilli chicken. Bindi-sporting mothers held up video cameras to record their children’s performances. Square fathers shook their hips and tried to act cool. Children ran around. The only thing missing was a wailing baby. It was a world away from the edgy hipness of Lap but it felt like home.

Shoba Narayan loved her Delhi noir experience. She cannot wait to go back. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com