July 2019

………………………………..as the sound leaves, follows the seizing tooook-rook-toooook-
rook-toooook-a-rook-toooo-roook or tuuu-kee-tuuu-kee koo-turr-koo-turr of the
barbet…… in my mind the blue-throated barbet, and if obsessing with its
continuing trill then it’s a nudge from the blue and arcane throat of how
sounds can rush and in its rapid, release the cryptic babel and the buzz of
the thick foliage (of the Bokul (Spanish cherry) and the Amara tree (Spondias mombin/ hog
plum) and in turn throw a voice full of drifting intent to un-listening, un-
earthy ears without wanting to be visible even once but fleet in its green
and medieval blue…………..
This is what this Space is all about, to be heard by obscuring the visual sounds
of Life.


A Sci-Fi Perspective On Mumbai’s Coastal Road

I’m reading the “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” for about the fifth or sixth time. I love this book. The insights it sparks off  are incredible. Each time I read it, it seems almost like the first, and I end up being astonished in spite of having read the story countless times before. This time round I’ve been thinking, hey this is about my life! To begin with, how did a guy called Douglas Adams (born in Cambridge, “not married, has no children and does not live in Surrey)” – how did a guy living in England, who wrote a sci-fi book in 1979,  about intergalactic travels and with names like the “seas of Damogran” or “Zaphod Beeblebrox”  happen to predict things happening in the city I live in today, that is in the Mumbai of 2019?

“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

And it is not just Mumbai  that Adams is talking about – what he is describing is the situation in my own backyard. The book opens with this scene in which Arthur Dent wakes up one Thursday morning at 8 o’clock to discover his house is about to be torn down by bulldozers to make way for a bypass. Why does a bypass have to be built at all? Arthur wants to know.  And why precisely in a place which will require his house to be knocked down? Because, according to the “fat carbon based life form” in charge of the demolition squad (an item which goes by the name of Prosser) “it has got to be built and is going to be built.”

Adams then goes on to describe what bypasses are about. They are devices, he says, which allow some people to drive from point A to point B very fast whilst other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, Adams says, “are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people of point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people of point A are so keen to get there.”

There you are. Some things in life apparently, just are important and you  don’t have to understand why, only to believe it, because it’s what you’ve been told. By whom? By all the important people in the world of course. Government, big business, heads of religious institutions. They’re always thinking about the good of the people and if you don’t put your faith in them you’re going to end up being either extremely unhappy, or end up spending a lot of money and rather a lot of your time fighting whatever it is that the government believes  in which  you don’t.

We, members of the anti-coastal road group in Mumbai that is, have chosen the latter course. What we started off fighting for was our own backyard pretty much in the manner that Arthur Dent attempted to fight for his house. As much as Arthur Dent was loathe to lose his little house, we were horrified at the thought of having to meditate each morning on an eight lane highway with its rather grotesque looking loops and  arabesques along the coastline instead of on the open sea.  Not many of the planners had stopped to think about it but the process was one which involved wholesale destruction of the city including its atmosphere and coastline. In a very short space of time we came to realise that the fight was not just for our personal backyard but for pretty much everything valuable to everyone in the city, including access to the seafront and to clean air which would be irreversibly fouled up by an increase in the number of cars resulting from the construction of a coastal road. It became a fight to preserve the precious marine life, including sea sponge and varieties of crab, coral and oyster beds hidden among the rocks and tidal pools. It became a struggle to protect the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen, considered more or less dispensable by a fraction of the car owning population hellbent on dashing from points A to B and vice versa.

In the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” the story takes an unexpected turn which somehow leaves one with the vague satisfaction of a feeling of cosmic retribution and makes me almost wish out of pure spite, that something similar would happen to us today. Even as the local council wraps up the demolition of Arthur Dent’s house, the earth itself is pulverized in a matter of minutes by a bunch of galactic bulldozers to make way for a hyperspatial express route which necessitates the demolition of Planet Earth. The squad in charge of the demolition sternly warns Earthlings not to act surprised since, as it points out, the plans have been on display in the local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty earth years, enough time for Earthlings to have lodged a formal complaint. Which is not much different from the council rep Prosser, wagging his finger at Arthur Dent. If he wanted to complain he should have done so at “the appropriate time”, says Prosser. The plans had been available in the local planning office for the last nine months. Like all municipal and government officials he is deaf to Dent’s argument that Dent himself  had heard about the development the previous day for the first time following which he had gone round to the office and found the plans on display in the cellar, which one had to descend by torchlight down a flight of crumbling steps.

Which doesn’t sound any different from the argument offered us by our very own Bombay Municipal Corporation when confronted by a host of angry citizens. Why did we not protest when the plans were shared with the public several months ago? (When? Where? Who saw it exactly?) One of the things that occurs to you, is how very British our thinking still is. Or is it global thinking I mean? Because could things be different in any part of the world? Is there any place left at all where residents are actually informed in advance and consulted on the stuff that various councils and local governments are planning for the “good of the people”? Back home is it too unreasonable for citizens to decide whether a bulk of their city’s resources should be spent on installing towering figures of local or national heroes that will make the Statue of Liberty look like a Lilliputian girl guide, or if they would prefer that  money to be invested in meaningful projects involving schools, farming, agricultural support, or improving health and hygiene?

Does the BMC want to find out whether the people of Mumbai want upward of Rs. 12,000 crores to be spent on a coastal road benefiting just a fraction of the city’s car owning population or on public transport in the city which will help millions more to commute with ease every day? Ah, what a stupid question! Of course those poor sods crowded onto the roofs of trains or hanging out of the rattling doorways and occasionally tumbling under the merciless wheels, are longing for a coastal road and don’t mind at all if a few limbs and lives are lost in the process of restoring the nation’s lost glory.

“Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

It so happened that while mulling over the first few paras of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” I also came across a video interview with a Warli tribal living in the Aarey colony in Mumbai where trees are being chopped down to construct a Metro shed. Prakash Bhoir is one of ten thousand members of the Warli tribe, fighting the displacement which the tribe is threatened with.

Asked to explain his resistance to shifting to a nice apartment where everything would be provided, like electricity, running water and other facilities, Prakash Bhoir says that he and his family could only be happy in a place where  they could live comfortably, along with their trees, animals and snakes. He waves in the direction of the spacious hut in which he lives at present, to the journalist interviewing him and the equally roomy shed a few feet away,  constructed for his chickens. What frightens us, Bhoir concludes, are not the snakes or leopards in the forest where we live, it is the policies of the government which uproot us from the land. It is their talk of progress.

This is how modern government machinery apparently works. It is no longer about the people. Was it ever! But then whose fault is it? Is it to do with karma? Is it the fault of the government and those in charge of the administration? Or does it have to do with us? Have we abdicated our responsibility as citizens for too long and willingly left our fate to men and women who no longer have the faintest clue as to what their own lives, let alone ours, are about?

If this is how it is then maybe we do deserve all that we are dished out. The hodge-podge arrangements, the destruction of nature and everything worthwhile in our lives. Maybe we do deserve that inter-galactic highway after all, tearing through the space which our planet currently occupies. Then the richest, most posh of us Earthlings will have turned into the Adivasis of the universe.

And if it  is not what we want or deserve, isn’t it time for us to retrieve our energy from the useless and petty battles we get stuck in, in our lives and start fighting battles we’ve been avoiding all along which actually are about life and death? Isn’t it time to bring back an awareness of what we are living for as well as of how to win back all that we are in danger of losing? Or have we lost the will and the capacity to think that far?

Uma Ranganathan
Uma is interested in bringing the lost spirit of community back into our world. Weaving the different colours and elements of society into a unified whole.