LIVING ON THE EDGE:
In Mumbai, the kaali-peeli taxis ply up to Bandra and Sion. The local trains halt at Virar, Khopoli, Kasara and Panvel. Greater Mumbai’s limits end at Dahisar and Mulund. The MMRDA includes Thane district, Uran and Pen – satellite towns and villages whose economy is inextricably linked to Mumbai’s. And depending on which real-estate ads you’re reading, the centre of Mumbai is Wadala, Bandra, Sion, Kurla, Ghatkopar or Goregaon,
So at what point does Mumbai end? What happens when people outside the borders start coming in, or when people within the limits start to venture out, or when the edges themselves start to stretch? Can connectivity to the big city also make a resident of a distant neighbourhood feel like a Mumbaikar?
There was, for a while, a very popular online meme called Obnoxious Townie Lemur. The illustration of the animal would accompany hilarious, en-pointe captions that reinforced the stereotype of the snobbish, privileged South Mumbai resident for whom the world ended at Worli. “Malad? Actually, I visit Malaysia more often.” “As soon as I crossed the sea-link to Bandra, my 3G stopped working.”
It wasn’t long before a counter meme was born: the Righteous Burbie Raccoon, who saw the bright side of life on the wrong side of the Mahim Causeway. In Raccoon’s world, “Suburbs are cool because…” Aksa Beach is cleaner than Marine Drive, there are fewer naaka bandis, all the cool malls are here, and so on.
No one remembers the Raccoon. The Lemur’s genius didn’t come from glamorising a wealthy citizenry with a higher standard of living and better access to resources. It came from its self-assured, insular view that south Mumbai was the only Mumbai, and consequently de-legitimising the experiences of anyone who lived outside the bubble. Raccoon, who fought condescension with community spirit, didn’t stand a chance.
Both memes have now run through the lifecycle of internet fame, and the characters are now friends. But south and north are hardly the only turf wars playing out in the city.
In Vikhroli, the lines are drawn, obviously, between those who live on the gated Godrej properties, and outside it. But crucially, they’re also between old and new inhabitants of those Godrej towers. Longtime residents can’t fathom why the upstarts would want on-site shopping and a supermarket when they could have 1700 acres of mangroves. The new residents can’t imagine why their four-crore home can’t keep out mosquitoes.
On Bandra’s Waroda Road, the alleys are too narrow for garbage trucks. So for decades, collection has been manual. A van comes around twice a day, with a municipal collector ringing a gong indicating his arrival. Every other night is a fight. Residents of the new high-rises, mostly renters who fell for the neighbourhood’s higgledy-piggledy homeliness (which includes the narrow alleys), will complain of the noise, park their cars at the van’s designated spots and prevent the collector from doing his job.
Even in faraway Kasara the sparks are starting to fly. The last stop on the Central Railway north arm is fast emerging as a destination for spacious second homes, weekend villas and clusters of holiday homes. The plots come with swimming pools, golf courses, in-house catering, staff that organises bonfire parties, two-car parking and other frills that Kasara has never seen before. Older residents, those who’ve been here since the 1980s when train connectivity to Mumbai was improved, on the other hand, live a different life. There’s six hours of load shedding, water cuts, unmetered rickshaws, and no hospitals. They have no access to the villas’ rainwater reservoirs, golf carts and backup electricity generators. Naturally, there’s friction.
It’s the opposite in Karjat, where the onetime weekend retreat is now a buzzing market for cheap apartment housing. Those who moved here in the 1980s and 1990s seeking peace and a place to unwind are now up against new locals who’ve moved into their primary homes. Weekend evenings are particularly tricky. How might one family hold a well-deserved party at their farmhouse, with barbecue, music and loud laughter, knowing their new neighbours in the adjacent plot need equally well-deserved night’s rest because they’re catching the 6.45am train to work in Mumbai the next morning?
Money talks in Mumbai; in Navi Mumbai it sloganeers. Non-resident Indians sank $63 billion in real-estate in India’s metros in 2018, over $20 billion in Mumbai alone, and Nerul’s Seawoods enclave is purpose-built for them. But the dollar-colony residents are being scuttled by very systems designed for them. Seawoods Estate NRI Complex, the largest in the area, with 46 buildings spread across 52 acres isn’t managed by a cooperative society like housing complexes in Mumbai. Instead, each flat-owner is a shareholder in the company run by a board of directors, who elect a chairman. And instead of maintenance dues, residents pay quarterly fees, which are the company’s income. But unlike regular housing societies, residents have no idea how the money is used and there are constant squabbles over transparency. The society’s board members hire bouncers for AGM meetings.
Mumbai’s fastest growing satellite towns are Mira-Bhayander and Navi Mumbai, where entire blocks of apartments stay locked all day, and reports of residential break-ins and thefts of just-bought smart TVs make the news every day.
But you don’t even have to go that far to find clashes. In old neighbourhoods on the island city –Mahim, Parel, Lalbaug, Byculla and Charni Road – chawls and modest tenements are being clustered and redeveloped to accommodate old and new residents in bigger, roomier towers. Here’s where old habits, old ways of life, old rituals of neighbourliness and old ideas of community are tested. And new dynamics must be forged. The first year typically brings the same problems. The housing society takes time to elect a head. The water typically runs out as old residents learn how to budget.
It takes a whole generation before ‘Them v/s Us’ turns to ‘This Is It’. Where does the city end? Perhaps it ends at the point at which we stop being accommodating or believing we belong.