‘Sassoon Dock Art Project’ Photo Essay: A ‘Dock side Reading’

Indian Ocean Bombay come alive. The Sassoon Docks, a reminder of an Imperial Bombay- a Port Trust Area thankfully away from the gaze of the real estate sector have been brought into the spotlight of the Insta generation through art, which has converted the derelict dock into a reimagination through the art of the city, opening registers and invigorating commerce in the Colaba area, as the art set flock to the shores over the weekend. The title of this photo essay draws from Scholar Isabel Hofmeyr’s book of the same name that thinks with hydrocolonialism as a lens that lies the Indian Ocean from Bombay to Natal.

The politics of resistance is subtle in the gentrified global veneer. Water centers Bombay and the curators bring it out well. Hydropolitics as has been written by Nikhil Anand in the context of politics in Mumbai in particular the leaking pipes exhibit depicted a Mumbai which relies on time-based water supplies for sustenance. The exhibits on waves and the relationships of the coast with the city, the artwork and the video montages spoke to an imaginary of the city that has been often lost in the territorial linguistic stasis of politics. A reclaiming of the hydro frontier through art, even of the elitist sort is a relief. The ‘East Indian’ coastal communities of the city, the ‘orang asli’ of the place- have found a register through the art spaces in a roundabout manner. The politics behind art is well layered in the curation. Dalit poetry finds a stage on the walls of the art spaces, to give voice to erased actors.

Curation has a scale and ambition with decay and life sitting together. The writing on the exhibits is sometimes better than the exhibit itself. The writing describing the installations is exquisite and appeals to my sensibilities as an ethnographer.

The festival has an Art Jameel Dubai Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanism aesthetic show cases a Mumbai which rises above its retail politics.


Conversations with Cabbies: Social Policy Insights

Cabbies or Auto rickshaw drivers from Mumbai to Singapore are the most politically aware and erudite socio-political commentators that one can find as they truly have their ears to the heartbeat of the communities they drive in and unfortunately they are the most undervalued group in the urban ecosystem.

The point of contact/interface between infrastructure and transport policy, local law and order and the community, the entrepreneurial cabbie is a business on wheels. The chatty cabbie is usually interested in a good conversation and passing on his contact details (old school business development ) at least in India and the Gulf, in order to source for a long term ‘Bhada’ or a ride-rent in Mumbai Taxi wala lingo so that he does not have to seek out the retail costumer.

The well informed cabbie with tabs on the pulse on the ground is usually the person with the accurate grapevine regarding illicit activities, election trends or everyday activities in an area. I wonder sometimes, why does not the transport and urban planners of the world, not elicit feedback from these smart men regarding traffic density and other cues while designing, evaluating and planning urban infrastructure. Well, they are a tribe that are highly adaptable as any transport policy change and business model disruption (Think Uber and Radio Cabs) impacts these folks the hardest. The radio cabs have crippled the traditional Black and Yellow Cab (the legendary Kala-Peela) service that is unionized to a former shadow of past, a past where they ruled the roads of Mumbai. Or maybe the Mumbai Taxi wala did not change to the wind of the times. The newer radio cabs are more comfortable than the older ones.

About two years back, I had written two inspiring conversations with two cabbies and one auto rickshaw driver in Mumbai, regarding developmental politics and education as a social elevator. One of the Taxi Uncles I interviewed had a son who went to IIT Kanpur and then IIM Ahmedabad, and ran a private cab service, in addition to driving one himself.

Entrepreneurial cabbies cab earn more than hand to mouth as one Taxi Uncle in Singapore quipped because of the various peak hour, midnight and city area surcharges, but for that a cabbie has to drive for twelve to fourteen hours a day. Older cabbies can’t earn that much as it does not physically permit them to drive that long hours. In Singapore, driving a cab is often a post retirement job (or when you are out of work to pay the bills), and it takes time for the Uncle to learn the ropes, as I recently met a Taxi Uncle who retired a few months back.  Recently, a wise 62 year old ex-business owner Taxi Uncle a few days back discussed Singaporean resilience over the next 50 years in the ride back to Clementi from the central part of the island city:

“Singapore money very strong; Hospitals also run like company. All Indonesian Chinese go to Mount Elizabeth Hospital. Got lot of money. Mount Elizabeth Hospital aka MEH is also called the ‘Most Expensive Hospital’. Singapore General Hospital or Super Good Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital as ‘Ticket to Heaven’ Hospital.”

The cost of Healthcare and Living is an undercurrent in the conversations here. A lot of educated folks drive cabs in both cities, which give an insight in to the kind of elitism which excludes people from white collared work.  A similar emotion is articulated even in Mumbai. Human experiences have a universal connect concerning survival and aspirations. The same socio-economic strata often migrate overseas to do blue collared labour in the Middle East and South East Asia. A fortunate few drive cabs in Dubai and New York, if they can find visa sponsorship.

I have had the most interesting conversations about the September 11th Singapore Elections with Taxi Uncles. I am always asked where I am from and what do I do here, and do I plan to settle down here. An important concern of the times we reside in, I understand.

Someone should do an ethnographic study of the taxi driver community. It will surely lead to some interesting insights. I love the music they play in the cab. Once a taxi driver Punjabi aunty was playing the latest Bollywood tracks, and I felt emotionally transported as if I was in Delhi.

With the era of driverless cars dawning in the next few years, will a huge swathe of people already disenfranchised by the service economy lose their jobs? A point to ponder upon indeed.


Subaltern India: un-ideal urbanism





Pic : Neo-Buddhist Imagery in Satpur Village, Nashik District, Maharashtra

Urban spaces are melting pots. These places are objects of survival; an aspiration for the future is nuanced in everyday existence. The sights, sounds and the stark reality is surreal is every way, that one might confront the naked brutality of these interstial voids amongst lattices looking down on them.  Jean Braudillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ and its characterisation of the proverbial ‘Desert of The Real’ is the primary intellectual imagery which comes to my mind. The poverty and its depravation-destitution is numbing although there might be a satellite TV desktop box in the box. No clean water but a Dish TV, the reality of everyday living in subaltern urban India it’s paradoxical at best- aspiration and destitution co-exist on both sides of the page.

Bhimnagar-Bhatpada is urban slum areas in Mumbai; nested between Saki Naka and Ghatkoper East in Mumbai. On top of a hill, easily visible to the airplane landing at the international terminal via its characteristic blue tarpaulins.  These communities are characterised by its neo Buddhist symbolism- the shrine dedicated to Ambedkar and Buddha as differentiators from their marginalised history.  The motor-cycle is as much taken care of as the sacred cow. Capitalism is a great social leveller as caste melts away in the face of cash, as Dalit Scholar Chandrabhan would quip. Public Toilets are social intersecting areas for building social capital. The early morning loo call is a social event as much as an intimate one.  The mainstream political parties such as the Republican Party of India and the Bahujan Samaj Party; who claim to represent subaltern voices in the power structures of democracy have made their presence felt by the signages. I am not very sure if representation in democratic structures makes for real empowerment on the ground. It does on the other hand certainly present an opportunity as a social insurance against caste based discrimination. Often as the case in democracy it’s often the choice between the devil and the deep sea.

The Satpur Village adjacent to Satpur MIDC (an Industrial Zone) in the Nashik District of Maharashtra State in India is another example of the subaltern, social have-nots being collectivized and forging an alternate identity as a tool of resistance. Again out here Neo-Buddhist Imagery dominates the social mindscape. Subaltern communities are a crucial underbelly of urban capitalism as a manpower provider and a ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ consumer base.  That is the salvation of the market as when the politics does not deliver, the invisible hand does.

‘Tapri’ Tales: Conversations over Cutting Chai

Tapri can be identified as a humble rambled neighborhood corner tea stall which sells you a smoke, biscuits and snacks. Its significance as a locus of community engagement goes beyond the unimpressive physical confines which it depicts.  This urban street corner joint is a great social leveler in which the office boy interacts with the MD as both share a crackle over a smoke, whether it is a chota gold flake or Rothmans (brands are insignificant as it is the nicotine kick that counts, right?). In aping the west, the Glitzy office blocks are non smoking zones, and even the overseas educated snobs are compelled to share the space with mundane workforce cousins of the office complex.  I do not have a negative bias against smoking as I understand that it is a lifestyle choice as much as a drink at a pub on a Saturday evening.

 Office Gossips and petty plans are concocted over a cutting chai in the five minute post lunch walkabout downstairs.  A node of interactions with peers beyond your office floor; a quick eye to eye  glance with the latest eye candy in the block, adds those microseconds of joy to ones dreaded cubicle slavery.

I do not smoke but I have been a passive smoker over the last few years of my life due to my friends who enjoy a drag. I can sense the kick which esteemed bosses have when they substitute their Cappuccino at Costa for a 6 rupees wala cutting chai. 8% of the cost, 8 times more kick with a chota gold flake.  Tapri as they call the significant social institution in Mumbai sells you poha or samosa for breakfast or a quick bite in 15-20 rupees where a normal meal at a registered eatery will set you back by at least 50-70 bucks (kindly excuse the hygiene levels please). For the invisible urban underbelly that keeps our homes, offices and communities functioning at equilibrium- the tapris are a lifeline in these times of inflation and economic uncertainty.

In Delhi and in general the NCR, Tapris offer a lot more on the plate (pun intended) in terms of the fare they serve. It is cold currently in the height of the winter in Delhi, it serves one eggs, maggi and sometimes steamed chicken dumplings (momos) that makes one warm.  It is a mini eatery on wheels in a way.  The tapri owner is a walking talking yellow pages of the services available in the area. Well, sometimes all kinds of services, which a decent boy next door really does not need to know off.

The pulse of a community can be gauged from frequenting the tapri, whether it is the sentiment over Arvind Kejriwal dharna at Rail Bhawan or Katrina Kaif in Malang.  I was pleasantly shocked that the tapri next door sells the Indonesian cigarette Godam Garam and it pretty popular I have unscientifically observed during winter. Although the barely literate tapri owner is aware that it is an ‘imported’ cigarette, it is the embodiment of how globalization has reached the urban classes in India.

The joy of a cutting chai, pani kum or strong tea cannot be equated with the inorganic finesse of a CCD.  Truly a lot more happens over a chai 🙂


The Post ‘Sickularism’ Age is finally here

Today Modi rocked Mumbai. Being a Mumbaikar I felt the energy of Bandra Kurla Complex through the airwaves in far away cold Gurgaon. I felt the gap in Left of Centre Politics in India as well. The syntax can be termed as Leadership which is not aloof. The High Command Culture of Lutyens Delhi was breached earlier this month by a civil society activist Kejriwal. Kejriwal’s politics is very much left of centre especially its economic populism. But there is a difference- Kejriwal’s vocabulary consists of a connect with the urban poor. He won the trophy constituency of New Delhi beating Sheila Aunty by a large margin.  The Aam Admi Party is scripting a new narrative for urban metropolitan politics in this country. Accountability, Inclusive Governance, Proactive Leadership are adjective-verbs that are currently appropriated by the Right in India and now by the Aam Admi Party. The ethos of a strong technocratic Developmental State is the edifice of Modi’s Politics. Raman Singh’s Chhattisgarh uses Welfare very effectively too. The core plank of Congress’s Politics is Welfare centric. I am a supporter of Entitlement Legislations as it is often the last resort of the extreme poor.  But Welfare needs a robust infrastructure to deliver value to the costumers. We live in the era of a Client-State Relationship. The legislations have to deliver on the ground. Ofcourse the lessons of governance are iterative, they take time for the results to emerge on the central dashboard of the media monitors.  The loss in Rajasthan has shown that Welfare is not a magic bullet. Strong Leadership matters in the atmosphere of policy paralysis.

Congress’s other political Killer App is secularism. Unfortunately, this is a pejorative word with a negative connotation. This means minority-ism and vote bank politics. The introduction of the communal violence bill is not the reform legislation that’s top priority anyways. The Lok Pal Act is a victory for the civil society and not for Rahul ji as it was a reactive measure. 

Secularism isn’t panacea. The Politics of Pluralism has a wider appeal. Arun Shourie should take a workshop for the friends from the Left. Regional Leaders are strong leaders. A Nitish and a Jayalalitha ji are perceived as leaders who have a mass base unlike a Scindia.

The Liberal Left has to realise that Developmentalism and Strong Leadership is the need of the hour rather  rhetoric on communalism. Modi and Kejriwal are metaphors for clean and development based politics. The Congress needs more Jairam and Pilot than Gehlot and Jogi.

A Pluralism+Development+StrongLeadership approach. Is it that difficult Rahulji?

One Year@Maximum City, Maximum Experiences

Pretty much one year back, I dropped out of my second grad program in Sociology at NTU to rejoin the real world. I was not enjoying the program and knew intrinsically in my third semester in the last leg of my doctoral coursework that a course correction was needed. I love Singapore and everything about it and would like to move back if GOD presents me an opportunity. I took the leap of faith, and all thanks to the present organization I work for I moved back to the organized chaos of the city of my birth, janmabhoomi was to transform into my karmabhoomi. I have had a love-hate relationship with the city, never really felt comfortable here but knew that the city has had a valuable part to play in my manufactured psyche. The thing I appreciate about the place is the ‘Dhando-Wado’ spirit, a ‘can-do’ business type attitude, which makes this heart-less city function.

This city has made a man out of a boy. I have also had the opportunity to travel to some incredible places from Alwar to Anantapur thanks to work engagements.  These have been opportunities to re-explore India, meet some incredible people, make friends and mentors and this experience has enriched me totally.  But, somehow I feel, the time to explore is dwindling by the day and time to make a call for the long term has arrived.  

To be really honest, I never had the faith that I will survive the rough and tumble of Mumbai after a decade overseas of learning and growing up.  I landed up into an empty apartment, with a very global mindset and also took time to bear the emotional distance of being away from friends who are as close as family to me.  This time here has made me realize how much of a ‘Singaporean’ I am ; inspite of not even having a PR.  Education in a particular ethos and culture certainly leaves it signature imprint on ones values.  I long to go back all the time, and I visit the place as often as I can lah. I miss my Kopio at the Food Court at Sunset Way, Clementi.

Time has just flown by, for good or for bad, made me mature for tackling the difficulties of life.  I thank all my friends and mentors for guiding me through this journey so far.

I have cultivated an acquired taste for cutting chai now days, call it Singaporean Pragmatism at work.




A conversation on urban politics with an ‘Autowalla’

Mumbai is a melting pot of cultures and i happen to meet a great diversity of folks every single day among the invisible spine of the transportation network of this megapolis; the three tire Autorickshaw driver and of course cabbies. I have written a couple of posts on my interesting conversations with cabbies earlier; one with a UP migrant and another Son of the Soil individual with differing takes on Maharashtra and UP Politics . They are more the eyes of the city and they keep a pulse of the developments on the ground. More real time than Mumbai Mirror anyday. I would suggest any urban transportation planner to speak to this real community of practitioners rather than exclusively refer to planning formulae that fail to be real more often than not. Cabbies and Autowallas are quite a cool repository of oral social history of a city and they give you a sense of where the wheels of a society’s wagon are heading towards.

I took an auto ride from Saki Naka Junction, which is of the busiest intersections of the city to Powai recently and the auto was driven by a gentleman called as Mr. ‘Bappa’ . He is a former Shiv Sena Political Activist from rural Pune area who started the conversation with a mouthful of colorful expletives regarding migrants due to whom congestion in the City is increasing. Our short 30 minute conversation cum ride was sprinkled with the genesis of the anti congress movement in Mumbai in the late 1970’s with the Janata Party to its transition with a saffron color with the Sena. The thing which really caught my attention was his zest for development and good governance. ‘Bappa’ Saheb spoke with the fire of an evangelist about the need for a new leader to lead the opposition in the State. His Faith in Raj Saheb was unshakable and spoke like a true Sena Man when he wanted to know about my origins. He also dissected the irrigation scam by understanding of masonry and poor construction of dams and how much money is siphoned off infrastructure projects which are meant for the poor. He said ” In Maharashtra, development takes place with a price and that price is the corruption, and that development often occurs with the relevance of the project long gone”.

This is surely a man who understands developmental politics better than many an academic.

His experience with Anna Hazare’s model village concept was interesting to hear as well. His nationalistic sentiment was palpable in every statement he uttered while navigating the  chaotic traffic. We need more folks like him who think about functioning of the City and the Nation.

The conversation was abruptly cut short while I arrived at my destination at Powai to have a drink to celebrate V Day eve with my loneliness. I handed over the fare to him with a ‘Jai Maharashtra’ Bhau (Brother), i took leave.

Mumbai certainly has many untold stories to unravel.