Photograph by Naomi Shah
When I first traversed the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, it was also the first time I had come so close to the Arabian Sea. Although it had been within reach all my life, I had never been surrounded by it so, while still staying on land. For those who live in and love Mumbai, as I do, the rippling, muddy, grey waters of the Arabian Sea are the only constant among the changes in the city, natural or man-made. The sweeping arc of Marine Drive and the celebrity-lined Bandra promenade kiss the waters we are so grateful for but continue to neglect. Joggers on Worli Sea Face, keeping time with the ebb and flow of the tides, probably think of it as no more than a familiar shoreline which they reflexively follow as if it is an athletic track.
When the Sea Link was first built, I never imagined that this huge construction in the middle of the ocean would actually fill me with such awe about living in a coastal city. It was one of our first steps towards building a modern, 21st-century infrastructure that normally gives nature a hard punch, but there I was atop a man-made road — and not a boat — marvelling at the horizon, the open sky and waters.
For the fishing community, living just off the Worli Sea Face with unobstructed views, this must be a major eyesore. But commuting is the lifeline of bustling Bombay, whatever the livelihood, and so we have the coastal road to look forward to in May 2024, and with that the sea will be remoulded one more time. It will mean the fisherfolk will have no choice but to tune in to the combined sounds of speeding cars and lapping waves along longer stretches of the coastline than they have been used to thus far. Their shoals of fish are also likely to migrate differently, and so they would perhaps need to cast their nets wider, into uncharted territory. Let’s hope that in the name of survival (they are the city’s oldest inhabitants), they will once again rise to the occasion and develop new skill sets to sail through the changing water currents, to say the least. Perhaps, the Gen Next of the Koli community are already employing ChatGPT to figure out the best areas for their local catch. And who knows if Bombay duck will conspire with scientifically generated algae transplants and multiply in numbers to keep the stomachs and souls of Mumbai alive.
The alteration, of not only their fishing ecological system but also their living conditions, due to the ongoing infrastructural work, has probably led to unprecedented occurrences in their families and homes. The colourfully painted canoe-shaped boats we spot on dry dock could have been abandoned even before the expectation of rain showers. Optimum fishing has, in any case, taken a hit with shrinking water due to pollution and climate change, and now fisherfolk must skirt the coastal road to get to the fishing waters and breeding areas. Perhaps ChatGPT came up with ominous predictions for marine life, and so many of the younger Kolis have already sought greener pastures, on terra firma instead. This marks a shift — in spite of weathering changing rulers, from the Portuguese and the British to the Hindu and the Muslim for two centuries — the seafarers had previously always managed to keep their heads above water.
For those who don’t depend on the sea for their daily brun maska (crunchy bread and butter), the effect of the changes is likely to be more psychological, ranging from disorientation and nostalgia to a sense of deep loss. Our familiar sightings of the Haji Ali Dargah — a lone island mosque — Mahim Creek and Sewri’s wetlands will take on new shapes thanks to the flyovers and overpasses being built for commuters crossing from one tip of the metropolis to the other. The sea and I will become the sea and man’s intervention to overcome limitations created by progress and, in turn or conversely, hopefully create further progress and development. As the coastal road project inches to completion, life in Mumbai will move at the speed of sound, with the easing of traffic jams, and multiple highways lengthening across our elongated land mass. And the effervescent rocking of the waves will only linger in our subconscious as if they were sounds in an old half-forgotten dream.
Neighbourhoods that we regularly used to cross in vehicles will be bypassed, by new fast-paced routes, and that corner vada-pav stall or the slowly disappearing Irani cafe we always spotted, while waiting at signals, will no longer be part of the daily scenery.
There is much anticipation of this moment: when Mumbai too begins to resemble New York, Sydney or Shanghai, long overdue since Big Mac made its entry into the city a few decades ago, in the mid-1990s. We have our malls, restaurants, our ritzy hotels and plush skyscrapers, but what about the lack of infrastructure that has been our lament? Now that day is nigh, with the breakthrough of the second tunnel under the seabed having been completed and the BMC officials announcing a D-Day. But the sea is not our sea anymore; we have watched the coastline being barricaded and overtaken with ominous-looking cranes and blinding halogen lights that allow work to continue through the night.
Unable to fathom the level of transformation behind those corrugated sheets, we have watched this sci-fication of our city. The unveiling will definitely create shock, and aftershock, like the sudden tremors of an imminent earthquake, following the one that has just passed. With the emphasis on zooming from one destination to the other, will any of us stop at the kerbside to marvel at the daily catch and pick up a pomfret or two for our evening repast? Fiercely protective about keeping the Mumbaikar well-fed with his favourite fish fry and prawn Koliwada, the Koli elders managed to intervene and negotiated a wider gap between the coastal-road pillars, to allow their boats to navigate the waters more easily. While our menus and tables might not be immediately deprived of fish curry and other sea-food favourites, their net has to be cast deeper and with diminishing returns.
For the land-faring locals, the pit stops, or “paan stops”, might become an anachronism, since the signs will now read, “Detours not allowed” or “No blocking traffic”. Used to the mayhem of an omnipresent yet vanishing street life — the smiling street urchin, the stray dog or the gajra (flower garland) seller — we will need to reorient our rhythms of mobility, now geared toward reaching the goalpost. The sea’s horizontal orientation, with the wideness of continuous movement from horizon to shore with waves lashing forwards and backwards, will be in opposition to our linear tectonic movements on concrete arterial roadways and interchanges. The twin tunnels will heave with our urgency to meet appointments and meetings, creating a new tide of life that is unrelated to the gravitational flow of the ocean’s tides.
Environmentalists have been outvoted and outnumbered by local civic bodies, as this is the need of the hour; otherwise, we will be doomed to overtake Bangkok as one of the cities with the worst traffic in Asia. Right as they might have been in their outcries, the more practical ideologues have also helped to find new homes for the displaced flora and fauna, with the heavy heart of parents leaving their offspring at a new boarding school.
At the inauguration speech, the powers that be will surely claim that they have saved Aamchi Mumbai from the brink of disaster. The transplanted coconut trees and rare peacock sightings at Raj Bhavan notwithstanding, this is the year of introducing a new sense of time and place. But according to tradition, perhaps a coconut will be offered as the first car is flagged off on the newly minted highway.
And this August, as the fisherfolk observe the annual Narali Purnima (a ceremonial day observed by fishing communities in Maharashtra) and prepare to go out at sea after the monsoon, they will offer a special prayer with coconuts and flowers to the god of oceans and waters, Lord Varuna, to seek his blessing to keep the Arabian Sea calm and free from natural calamities. A simple paean that has also held these original settlers of the city in good stead through the tsunami of invaders and settlers who have continuously reoriented Bombay’s compass and coastline, and hence marine ecosystem and life.
As their coconuts bob along the banks of Worli and Juhu or the Chimbai fishing village in Bandra (West) or Versova’s piers, it will be difficult to tell where the waters merged, blurring the boundaries between one 200-year-old habitat and the next.
Bombay it was, until its patron goddess, Mumba Devi, was resurrected to give birth to “Mumbai”. Now, there is a new tension, as the name rings in the native, and the island city, reclaimed over and over again, hurtles headlong into the sameness and monotony of the global with this major and dramatic urban redevelopment exercise. The polemics against development will only grow stronger with the burgeoning aspirations of a nearly 76-year-old Independent India, even as we continue to preserve and beautify our Queen’s Necklace at Marine Drive — whose name had been proposed for the UNESCO World Heritage site tag.
The zillion specks of cement spewing out of the barrels and the machinery will irrevocably alter that familiar — if fishy — scent of the Arabian Sea.
Yet only yesterday, during a North to South Mumbai run, as I marvelled once more at the seamless sky-to-sea view on the Sea Link — like a celestial canvas for my reveries — a few triangular multicoloured flags fluttering atop the coastal homes of Worli’s fishing village caught the periphery of my eye. They reminded me of palimpsests of a lost civilisation.
And I wondered whether the butterfly gardens that are being promised as part of the Coastal Road Project attractions will signal an unprecedented renewal of our beloved city of dreams.