Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sloppy City: Mathur and da Cunha's SOAK

On days like this, I am especially glad I didn't complete my doctorate. Had I done so, I would have been tempted to settle down in a teaching job at some university in England or the United States. In which case, I'd constantly have had to read books like Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha's SOAK, books by very smart people written in language so dense, only people familiar with the jargon might comprehend the flimsiness of the arguments. Since most of those trained in the jargon have bought into the academic system, they are about as likely to harm their careers in the name of intellectual honesty as Shia clerics in Iran are to say, "Hold on, this whole Islamic republic idea is bollocks, isn't it?"
SOAK is a book presenting Bombay from a novel perspective, and is also an exhibition currently on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art. The bulk of the show consists of text, maps and diagrams, but two boring installations have been created to forestall criticism that the show has nothing to do with art and should, therefore, find no place in NGMA.
Mathur and da Cunha's argument, paraphrased, is this: The British created modern Bombay based on a belief that sea had to be divided from land. Early European maps which vary in their representation of the city's boundaries do so because, in reality, these boundaries were fluid rather than fixed. Locals did not necessarily view land and sea in the same cut and dry, adversarial fashion as Europeans. Their traditional ways of harvesting and draining rain water, namely talaos (ponds) and nullahs (drains), are preferable to the underground sewers and the dam-created reservoirs favoured by colonial administrators and expanded after India gained independence. If we had retained our earlier notion of the land-sea relationship, we'd have been saved catastrophes like the flood of 2005. To reinvigorate the city, it is helpful to use the idea of an estuary, which is neither fresh nor salt water, neither sea nor river, but something in-between. Bombay is an estuary rather than an island.

I take issue with Mathur and da Cunha for the following reasons:

1) The authors have not quoted one single local source to back up their belief that non-Europeans had a different take on the Bombay mix of land, sea and fresh water. It's all very well to complain about the city's history being dominated by colonial accounts, but the complaint falls flat when the people doing the complaining show no evidence of having read any non-colonial writings on the city.
2) There is plenty of evidence that traditional Indian thought divided land and sea very firmly. Islands make an appearance early in the Indian literary canon, the Sanskrit word for them is 'dvipa'. In the colonial era, there are Maratha maps which depict Bombay as an island or a series of islands, proving that it wasn't only the Brits and Portuguese who thought in this fashion.
The foundational dogma of modern critical theory is that everything is a social construct. However, normal humans outside the academic echo chamber know that the difference between earth and water is not something constructed by nasty imperialists.
3) It is incorrect to say colonialists made an absolute distinction between land and sea. They knew about tracts which sometimes appear to be land and at other times are covered with water. The current word for them is, simply, wetlands, and they include marshes, swamps, bogs, sloughs and mires. Wetlands are great for biodiversity, but rarely congenial to human habitation. That's probably why, when we talk of being mired or bogged down or swamped, we aren't speaking of happy experiences.
What is now central Bombay was once marshland. Not only could nobody live in the marsh itself, it made everything in the vicinity inhospitable for humans. The rate of deaths from malaria in the 15th century has not been recorded, but we can guess it was catastrophically high. Which is one reason why, while the mainland immediately to the north and east flourished for millennia, Bombay remained sparsely populated and impoverished.
4) Which leads to the next bone of contention: reclamation. Mathur and da Cunha condemn reclamation as a kind of crime against nature, an emblem of the imperialist desire to fight nature and conquer it. The fact is, however, that Bombay could became a proper city only because of reclamation, particularly the transformation of its wetlands into dry land. One might object to further reclamation today, but to make a general case against it would be to argue that Bombay ought never have become an urban centre.
5) There are towns in India which do not have massive water reservoirs or underground sewers. They retain their faith in talaos and nullahs. The ones I have visited are, without exception, filthy and water deficient. I see no empirical reasoning behind the notion that talaos and nullahs are superior to large reservoirs and underground sewers. In fact I find it hard to imagine the demands for water of a city of 15 million being adequately served by traditional talaos or variants thereof.
6) The flood of 2005 was not exacerbated by planning in and of itself, but by bad planning, or the failure to plan. Illegal construction, and construction legalised where it should not have been, were the primary reasons why water remained standing for days in some areas. It is perfectly possible for a city to reclaim land and build on it on a grand scale while protecting itself from natural disasters; a case in point is Hong Kong, which faces storms regularly without seeing the sort of damage that the July 2005 flood visited upon Bombay. The point is to plan and execute efficiently.

I will write more on this issue in a day or two, connecting it with past posts of mine, and providing a taste of the Mathur / da Cunha style by quoting directly from their book. It costs 2000 rupees, and I am not prepared to shell out that amount, so the quotes will have to wait till I can borrow a copy or return to NGMA to transcribe a few passages. For the moment, MTNL has provided me a window of opportunity to upload, who knows when I'll get it again?


as any fule kno said...

Exactly what difference does it make- changing the semantic from 'penninsula' to 'estuary'. There has almost never been a proper assessement of the city's edge, long and useful though it is. Flaunting the so called CRZ laws is just another excuse not to talk about the land/water interface.

as any fule know said...

The more than 400 or so skyscrapers that will, willy-nilly, come up in Bombay in the next two to three years may well redefine the reclaimed city, what with their 5+ FSI and their sheer weight- pushing down on reclaimed soil. I imagine Bombay as a kind of reverse Bheeshma- on his deathbed, being pushed into the sea, a life snuffed out slowly by drowning, not just acupuncture.

adrian mckinty said...

What is it about the academy that encourages people to write that way? Are they hoping that if they sound clever no one will notice how shallow they actually are?

Girish Shahane said...

I guess every group develops its own vocabulary and reference points, and prospective entrants have to demonstrate their mastery of this terminology to be allowed entry.

arjun said...

i just went to see soak yesterday and both my friend and i ( we are both architects from ucl and columbia respectively) were suitably impressed with the organisation, execution and graphic quality of the installation. we were mildly vexed by some of the layered drawings and could not guage where clever vector representations ended and content began. i have encountered this sort of obfuscation during my school days and i tend to agree with your premise that overconvolution and discombobulation are the favoured modes of getting ones message across in academic circles. it almost seems to me that it is designed to intimidate rather than inform.
another school of thought is that the situation is too complex to be either conventionally mapped or simplistically represented.
i need to make a second and possibly a 3rd visit to soak to try and go over it with a microscope but i will admit that i was seduced by some of the drawings.

Girish Shahane said...

Arjun, I agree that from a designer's eye the exhibition if very impressive. My take after a second look at SOAK was written just two posts after this one. Mathur and da Cunha's drawings are a result of their distrust in conventional map-making. I came away with the same impression as you: impressed by the look, but not certain precisely what was being represented and how profound and workable the underlying ideas were.