Alt/Urban: Power to the pedestrian

Wishful thinking or leap of faith? Take a walk with Mustansir Dalvi as he reimagines a beloved part of his city—the central spine from Crawford Market to Gateway of India—as a pedestrian precinct

The Taj Mahal Hotel (Getty Images)
The Taj Mahal Hotel (Getty Images)

Mustansir Dalvi

You get off at the corner where P. D’Mello Road meets Carnac Bridge. The taxi driver has no choice but to reverse the way he came. He grumbles: “Yeh purana Bambai hai. Yahaan gaadi ghusaneka chanceich nahin” and drives off. You turn right onto the new bridge that was designed for but has never felt the skid of rubber tyres, thanks to the new ‘Sonyachi Mumbai’ initiative. The deck has been paved over with coloured tiles like a Baroque carpet. It’s early evening and families are settling on the terracotta florets for food and revelry.

Street sensors rule this edge, and deduct a heavy toll automatically from every motorised vehicle moving south towards Colaba. These levies have succeeded as a deterrent and public transport is booming. Electric buses, trams, solar-powered jinrikshas and bicycles-for-hire have more takers than ever.

‘Nagrik’, 2019, 48x72”, oil on canvas by Sudhir Patwardhan
‘Nagrik’, 2019, 48x72”, oil on canvas by Sudhir Patwardhan
Sudhir Patwardhan

The space outside Crawford Market has been hardscaped, and extends to the police headquarters. John Lockwood Kipling’s marble murals in the tympanums of the entrance portals glisten in the late afternoon sun. His fountain has been relocated from inside the market and now presides over a new plaza, lined with benches and champa trees. Street markets pop up from time to time outside Emerson’s neo-Gothic edifice, especially when hapus is in season.

A new state-of-the-art tram system has its terminus here. You could hop on and it would take you all the way to Sassoon Dock. But you prefer to walk.

As you pass the J.J. School of Art, you see another space in the making. The J.J. flyover is being dismantled. The success of the Eastern Freeway has made it redundant. You are quietly pleased as you know this will bring urban life back onto Mohammed Ali Road, choked for many decades by the concrete python that ran from the J.J. School to the J.J. Hospital.

You choose the arcade leading to CSMT for its shade, looking forward to a walk through a forest. All is green. Urban woodland has been cultivated using the Miyawaki technique, a method of dense forestation using native plants. The canopy brings down the temperature, and you are awash in the scents of kadamba, karanja, banyan, bakul and guava. For a few brief moments, birdsong drowns out traffic sound. The woods clear, enough for a panoramic view of CSMT and BMC, Frederick William Stevens’ two masterpieces. Outside the Capitol Cinema, Aram Hotel has organised outdoor seating, where waiters ply punters with kothimbir wadi and thali peeth. Capitol has transformed into an arthouse cinema, tying up with MUBI to screen the best of world and avant-garde fare, reminding you of the glory days of the now-defunct Akashvani theatre.

You come out into the sun again and take the grand boulevard that is D.N. Road going south towards Flora Fountain. Cyclists in dedicated lanes whiz past. You step aside in response to the urgent dinging of a tram driver. You never heard it coming. These shiny new caterpillars are Autonomous Rapid Transit (ART) and run on rubber tyres, not rails. ART is the centrepiece of the initiative to pedestrianise this part of the city. Our urban planners have taken lessons from Barcelona’s Las Ramblas and New Orleans’s Bourbon Street.

The avenue still carries the bulk of office-goers from the terminus to their workplaces in the south. With centres of employment shifting northwards to BKC and erstwhile mill lands, the crowds have thinned. What teems is culture.

The neo-classical and art deco buildings lining the boulevard are now in the safe hands of the city’s growing cohort of conservation architects. Stone façades are cleaned, loose and hanging wires of every hue removed and shop signs are rationalised. All this is done in partnership with shopkeepers and offices, stakeholders and end-users.

There is still flash, especially at night, but you can appreciate the bright harmonies of neon and LEDs. The arcades, Bartle Frere’s gift to the city, are freed of the stalls. Shopfronts display their wares without encumbrance. New restaurants line both street fronts and have brought their seating out from under the arcades.

You stop for a quick coffee at your favour ite new barista, under Fine Mansion that faces off with Hurrem’s on the other side. There’s a bit of European laissez-faire here. You pay more to sit outside than in.

Hawkers and vendors are relocated in streets running perpendicular to the boulevard. These cross-streets are known for the wares they sell, flowers, second-hand books, bric-a-brac, or as khau gullies. Charles Correa’s 1968 ‘hawkers pavements’ proposal to the BMC has been repurposed here. Equitable platforms and water taps line both sides of the streets. There is no lack of business, as pedestrians flood in from Bora Bazaar on one side and Somani Road on the other. By midnight, you can hear the aeolian hum of snores emanating from the daytime vendors and their helpers, sleeping the sleep of the just. No streets in the city are safer than these.

You sip your mocha and you contemplate the sea-change. What courage it took on the part of the BMC and its bureaucratic arms to allow you to sit in such peace! Alternate vehicular corridors on both eastern and western edges of the peninsula required an overhaul to free the centre for Mumbai’s citizens. Plans were displayed on the steps of the Asiatic for a full six months while opinions were solicited. Citizens were taken into confidence. Debates were held in the Darbar Hall. Contrary to expectation, even intuition, support for the ‘Sonyachi Mumbai’ initiative was overwhelming. Enough to bring an incumbent back into public office.

Now here you are. The coffee is overpriced but the place and time afforded are well worth it. Flowing under your feet is the now iconic four-kilometer-long chevron pavement, made of permeable tiles that allow rainwater to soak through. The white zigzags alternate with colours taken from the building façades—grey basalt, yellow Malad stone, beige limestone. You finish your coffee and rise to see a vast stainless steel bucket floating off the paving blocks, emptying all manner of pots and pans on D.N. Road. An even stranger sight—it ejects (or ingests) people from time to time. This Subodh Gupta installation is the entrance to the Hutatma Chowk Metro Station on Line 3 from Colaba to SEEPZ.

Hutatma Chowk, the erstwhile heart of the city, is decluttered and rejuvenated. Flora Fountain has returned to its original place of pride. The Smarak and Amar Jyoti are not only restored but expanded into a city park with flowering trees planted in the memory of each martyr. Several of these full-grown trees have been successfully transplanted from their original sites, where they once obscured architectural façades.

Half a kilometre on, you see the tail of the riderless horse first, now at ground level and occupying the same spot as Edward VII’s equestrian statue once did. Uncle Ted still languishes in Jijamata Udyan. The lone horse is liberated of its ungainly pedestal and barricade, and children delight in clambering all over it. Some smart aleck decided to name the horse Trigger and the name has stuck.

On the former parking lot, there now rises a variation on Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree & the Eye, a rising stack of chrome spheres that breaks the skyline above Jehangir Art Gallery. Its orbs cast kaleidoscopic patterns on the space below at different times of the day. The Urban Arts Commission has taken its role seriously, inviting the best talent from India and abroad to make interventions in the public realm. Street plays and hip-hop rend the evening air—Rampart Row is a performance space around the year. All along its pavement, Sameer Kulavoor’s architectural vignettes, having melted off the walls of the Max Mueller Bhavan, add colour and whimsy right down to Yellow Gate. You smile as you walk past, nod to David Sassoon gazing out of his roundel and wonder what Arun Kolatkar would have made of all this.

Cars and other four-wheelers finally cross your path at Wellington Fountain. They turn into Colaba Causeway from both Shahid Bhagat Singh and Madame Cama Road. AI-enabled traffic monitoring removes all conflict points between vehicles and those on foot. The Fountain itself is restored and flows. This spot is now a UNESCO-certified heritage panorama. Every architectural style from the last 200 years is represented here and care is taken to disallow intrusions into this cherished skyline.

Your walk culminates at the Gateway of India. Every barricade has been taken down. Surveillance and security are still in place, but quiet, unintrusive. Even the fencing around the Gateway Plaza Garden next to the Taj Palace Hotel has gone, allowing access from all directions.

The vast sea-fronting space is now a site for ‘eating the air’, loitering and mutter-gashti. Write-ups appear in The Guardian and The Washington Post, lauding the sense of community, trust, and the near absence of vandalism.

You meet a friend under one of the concrete domes of the Gateway. As echoing footsteps fade, you find a place on the steps leading to the Arabian Sea to immerse yourselves in the flamingo hues of dusk. No words are spoken. You sit shoulder to shoulder, turning momentarily away from the city that you love, knowing that it’s always got your back.

MUSTANSIR DALVI is a poet and professor at Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai

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