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Words: Matthew Parker | Images: Zubin Pastakia
“Beneath the discourses that ideologize the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer.” – Michel De Certeau
Mumbai can drive you crazy. And because (or, perhaps, despite) of this, you want to make sense of it. You want to make some kind of order out of it. And more often than not, in trying to create order, you succumb to the same thing that almost everyone succumbs to, the same trap: you fall for the idea of the “Maximum City”, the chaos, the speed, the heat, the shit, the poor, the rich, all at once, the grand narrative of 17 million people forced to live on top of one another in a city held together by ingenuity, momentum and sheer force of will. You succumb to this because it’s true, to a degree, and because it’s intoxicating, and also because it’s easy. In the overwhelming face of everything it’s easy to say, “all life is here, it’s messy, and it works!” and turn a blind eye to everything else. But it gets kind of boring. And it means that other interpretations are lost.
If you’ve lived or worked in Mumbai in the last five or ten years you’ll have seen the beanbag graffiti: Beanbags 26407383. I saw it once and then, like a new word you learn, I saw it everywhere, on walls, houses, pipelines, metal sheets, flyovers, construction sites, waste-ground. Everywhere: Beanbags 26407383. It was, it is, the work of a beanbag salesman, who had the genius to go out and spray the city with the name of his product and a phone number, at one stroke bypassing the legal, unaffordable marketing mechanisms of the ‘official’ city springing up around him. In the city of commerce, the very fabric of the city became an advertising hoarding. And this is how he made his fortune.
It’s a nice story, but we were interested in something else too. We were interested in the opportunity the repeated motif provided us to look at the city with different eyes, in a different light, away from the “Maximum” view.
We followed the graffiti from south to north, from the southern peninsular tip, the very oldest of old Bombay, up north through the manufacturing heartland, up into the new suburbs and then further, further north and east, out to where Mumbai spreads and falters into nothingness, becoming mainland India. Two stories came out of this. The first, more prosaic but no less important, is the Mumbai of specifics, of facts and dates and figures. Living behind and within the graffiti are the details: the moss covered walls of the long dead United Mills reminding us of the city’s industrial past; the Sea Link, connecting two congested pieces of land, providing us with an immense symbol of “progress” with an equally immense cost (Rs 1600 Crore). Further north, the Bandra-Kurla Complex, a riposte to the mills, with its plastic 21st century fantasy of corporate Mumbai, sitting metaphorically and literally on the shaky foundations of the river Mithi, a natural drain for the city’s rainwater, which has been dangerously filled and narrowed to construct this financial dream zone. We get other details too: the pipes, carrying water, slowly running dry; the new luxury tower blocks in the far north, half finished, painfully and proudly devoid of history; a dirt road with a blue fence on the edge of town, leading us to a ruined fort that is older than everything that comes before. These are the details that are forgotten in the big noise and this is the first story.
What of the second? The second is something entirely different, entirely personal and unexpected. It’s a Mumbai that I try to speak of to others but find I have no voice for. The city, through these images, is one that is soaked with silence and longing. It is curiously emptied of people, evoking a loneliness I feel but rarely see. I still don’t know where it comes from. Partly it comes from the photographer’s eye. Curiously, I recognise these people and things in the images, and I recognise myself in them too. The man standing on the sea wall, the girl looking out onto the train tracks, the lovers who scribble their names under the flyover… I recognise them. Not personally, not individually, but as types that I see passing through every day, locked in my own private thoughts, as they seem to be theirs.