What Mumbai’s Common Man Stands to Lose As the Worli Promenade Makes Way for the Coastal Road Project

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What Mumbai’s Common Man Stands to Lose As the Worli Promenade Makes Way for the Coastal Road Project

Illustration: Akshita Monga

 

I

n a bid to appease the rain gods about two decades ago, I rewound the cassette in my walkman and played Rhythm of the Rain by The Cascades. It was a sultry June morning and I was brisk-walking on the Worli Sea Face boulevard. Then just like that, there was baarish and it turned around a pallid day. There was a deep-celled delight in ducking a splash or two from the waves bouncing off the shoreline and squinting at the horizon through grey gossamer haze. The sultan of sentiment in me then, had imbued the coincidence with too much meaning. But years later, on a dismal, muggy evening when I heard the song again on my phone here, rain it did. I guess it was the Pygmalion effect or another random act of kindness of the universe. But it was also a moment of grace, my little city secret. If I were to design a personalised postcard of this city, it would be a snapshot of the windswept, drenched promenade of Worli Sea Face on the first rainy day of the year. 

I have lived in the vicinity of this esplanade for over 20 years and it is the place where I would go to feel things – the rush of the onset of monsoon, throbbing heartbreaks, numbing disenchantments, or the delirious joy of watching festive fireworks with friends. I can’t do that for much longer. Now, we are all set to lose this 83-year-old Worli Sea Face promenade to the Mumbai Coastal Road Project. The yellow barricades have slowly and steadily started blocking the hitherto unhindered sea views. And even though, the larger implications of the project and its fate merit another piece, this loss also feels personal; like an erasure of a pin on my intimate map of this city.

Somewhere between lacing up my running shoes here during my angsty teens to slowing down and watching sunsets while surrendering my woes to the billowing sea, I grew up. 

On mellow evenings, there is a frisson of optimism in the air at the promenade; a slackening of restraint. Years ago, my father chose this boardwalk and some handpicked delicate words to deliver a Call Me By Your Name-style dad monologue that effectively translated to “It gets better”. Over the years, it has gotten better. But my affection for the boardwalk remains unchanged. Be it a longer stride to avoid a loose tile of the walkway or using the storied benches with its inscriptions as landmarks – I have at some point unwittingly memorised the boardwalk’s intimate details. Perhaps, home is this subconscious familiarity with a space.

This boardwalk is serene but not in a quiet way. The reassuring soundtrack of an assortment of noises lends it a calm timbre. There are people you hear before they appear – the distinct nasal call of kulfi vendors, the bell of tea-coffee-bournvita-cigarette selling cycles, the clink of the Ayurvedic metal bowl against glass oil bottles carried by massage-wallahs patrolling the stretch after sundown and seaside chatters, rounded off by the barks of happy hounds. 

From protests to Koli food festivals and modest Valentines’ Day celebrations with masala toast and Energee from the lone Mafco stall across the street, this stretch has always fuelled a variety of appetites. 

Be it a longer stride to avoid a loose tile of the walkway or using the storied benches with its inscriptions as landmarks – I have at some point unwittingly memorised the boardwalk’s intimate details.

Flanked on one side by swish apartments and yet cut off from the swanky swath by a life-size sculpture of RK Laxman, beset by selfie-seekers, the boardwalk exemplifies a democratic public space. I once met a man here, all suited up. He had set up his foldable outdoor picnic table. The bio on his visiting card read, “Future Prime Minister of India” and this was his fleeting open-air office. For me, this space is where my relationship with solitude firmed up. A place of provisional peace, this is where I come to clear my head. I seldom go back with explicit answers but find a comfort zone around the questions, my desolation peopled by a welcoming cacophony of excited voices on this large, communal front porch of the metropolis. You see, spaces shape us in agreeably stealthy ways. 

Nowadays as I walk the length and breadth of this promenade, the rain song has replaced podcasts. I listen to them on my phone as I lament the forfeiture of a tangible piece of my personal history. The BMC promises that it will be replaced with a ritzy seaside walkway but for me, its quiet death would mark the end of an era. One of my favourite authors, Orhan Pamuk had unintentionally ended up articulating my kinship with this space, when he wrote about the affection he felt for Istanbul. “What gives a city its special character is not just its topography or its buildings but rather the sum total of every chance encounter, every memory, letter, colour and image jostling in its inhabitants’ crowded memories after they have been living like me on the same streets for 50 years…”

Istanbul is defined by “huzun” – melancholy or a deep spiritual loss. Is there a word for Mumbai that captures a sincere gratitude for a past plenitude arising out of an imminent loss?

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