The Weekly Dose: The Anatomy Of A Dying Mumbai
If Mumbai was a human body, what would its organs be?
If Mumbai is The City That Never Sleeps, it stands to reason that this megalopolis can be compared to a living human giant - far too colossal to be seen all at once, but whose parts, and parcels of land can be individually discerned. So if Mumbai was a human body, what would its organs be?
Its bare bones are seven major islands, which our founding fathers fleshed out with reclamation to form a single great landmass. This skeleton is all that will survive when the city perishes in a Great Flood, that won’t be long in the coming. Its beating heart - at its heart - is Dadar Railway Station - thudding, pulsing, and a rite of passage to lose oneself to, and in.
Its lips take the fulsome form of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus - a mouthful - whose willing jaws swallow fresh migrants arriving from a smorgasbord of hometowns with stars in their eyes or debt on their minds. Behind this are the teeth - vacuum-packed train carriages which cut them to size and begin the process of urban digestion that renders them indistinguishable from the multitudes which occupy the bottomless stomach that is Mumbai.
Its metaphorical and literal spine consists of the three railway lines that form the cliched backbone of the city, up and down which thousands of suburban local trains thunder with nervous urgency. When this rail spine is dealt a blow, the city enters a state of spinal shock - a slowing down of all activity beyond the site of injury, and an inability to respond reflexively to the million small stimuli generated every second across India’s economic capital. The city’s new, solitary rib - the East-West Metro - is already struggling to contain and absorb the twice-daily stress exerted on this backbone by the madding, commuting crowds.
The ragged nerves of Mumbai are the roads through which public buses struggle to pass like once-reliable impulses, inhibited by a trifecta of poisons - encroachment, arbitrary parking and an illegal rickshaw cartel that blocks the nerve-junctions we used to call bus-stops. The adrenal glands, which can whip the body into action, are perched on the tips of kidneys, ready for a fight; the navy is based at the apex of the city, ditto.
The kidneys we call sewage pumping stations void their waste directly into the sea that washes our shores - a case of peeing into one’s bathwater. Mumbai’s rectum is halfway down its body, at Deonar, where the landfill collects solid waste. The mouth of the Mithi - once a river, now a moderately wide drain - used to function as a urinary bladder that slowly expelled its contents; rampant construction on its shores has constrained its elasticity, and it now bursts its walls every monsoon.
Do not look for anatomical accuracy in this city that doesn’t always make sense; its bladder is next to its brain. The glass-and-chrome towers of Bandra-Kurla Complex were a figment of the imagination until a couple of decades ago, when the land on which they stand was usurped from the Mithi to germinate Mumbai’s newest business district. This was the brainchild of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, a numbskull of an organisation which protects hare-brained development schemes just like a human skull cushions the brain, and is almost as difficult to inject sense into. But more on that later.
Soaked in alcohol, Mumbai’s liver lies in the pub precinct of Parel. The sea-side hangouts of Bandra, Madh and Manori project like fingers probing the ocean. The latter chokes the city’s throat in a vice-grip called the Vasai Creek. Mumbai protects itself from natural calamities with its tiny nails - the increasingly clipped patches of mangroves that the government pretends aren’t being ripped off to paint a nail polish it likes to call the Coastal Road. The eyes are the municipal corporation, which sees everything and does nothing. It is seduced by the city’s testes and ovaries - politicians and builders who spawn fertile plans for even more construction, while the milk-producing breasts of Jogeshwari and Goregaon - once full of milch cowsheds - wither and die. The municipality’s Tree Authority is like the human appendix - once of some use, but we won’t miss it if it’s gone.
It is this Tree Authority that is culpable for allowing the government to introduce an infection into the critical organ that allows Mumbai to live and breathe - its lung, the Aarey Forest. The blind mandarins in the eye of the currently raging storm against felling thousands of trees to build a Metro car depot here would like us to believe that the city can do without a segment of its lung. They would like to convince us that this lobe of land within city limits - which is home to hundreds of species of trees, shrubs, herbs, birds and animals (including leopards), which entraps the city’s carbon emissions like nostrils filter out dust, which is always several degrees cooler than the rest of the city - is not a green lung.
Over the years, this forest has been encircled by construction around its periphery, and cannot expand like a normal lung. Tumours in the form of film studios and commercial spaces have already infiltrated it; cars coming to and from the latter have already started obstructing its roads, while their occupants choke on a miasma of fumes.
The authorities say they will plant saplings to replace the cut trees; this is like expecting a newborn baby’s lungs to breathe for an adult human being. They say the Metro will decongest the city’s roads and will help Mumbai breathe better; this is true, but is akin to taking away a part of someone’s lungs, then giving them an asthma inhaler.
Unlike a human lung, however, Aarey isn’t connected to a voice-box and has no voice. But the body adapts.
Like a usually dormant immune system that rises in fury when it discovers the body is under attack, Mumbai’s usually passive citizens have shaken off their inaction and joined forces to defeat this ill-conceived plan of felling forests. Inflamed by a passion to protect their own, they have metamorphosed into anti-government-body activists striving to ensure something both a city and a body need - a life and a future.