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Monday, November 26, 2012

The Roads of Artist Village

I came to live in Artist Village somewhere in the beginning of the eighties. At that time it was conceived as a commune for artists, writers, actors and, well, anyone of an artistic persuasion. The chief attraction of living in Artist Village, to me, was that it was set in a valley and was surrounded by hills. The houses were designed by the renowned architected Charles Correa and had tiled roofs. The rafters were made of rough unpolished wood and the eaves were fashioned out of similarly unpolished planks. There was a pond from which an artificial stream coursed through the Village giving it the proper look of an Indian village. The village was created on the model of clusters of huts opening on to a central courtyard as was the custom in Indian rural areas. The houses were so positioned that residents couldn’t see inside each others’ homes. It later became an embarrassment when sound couldn’t be similarly banished. Due to some strange acoustics and, may be, because Artist Village was situated in a valley, what was spoken in homes could be heard by the neighbours.

The design was good from an architect’s point of view. However, when the harsh rain hit the valley like a deluge of hail, the tiled roof started leaking and the rafters became wet and soggy. The eaves all but disappeared, falling down by bits. Moisture hung in the air like a thick blanket cordoned by the hills on either side and rain fell like sleet. Swarms of mosquitoes converged on the village from somewhere and people fell sick including me. The months of monsoon were feared in Artist Village. After all, nobody wants to live in a house that has a leaky roof. I realized I will have to make changes to the house to protect my family and reconstructed a two-storey structure, after obtaining the requisite permissions from the Corporation.

I particularly like walking and hiking and perambulating every morning in the open. It keeps me alert and in good health. My preferred time for walking is early morning and late evenings. On weekdays before going to work I would walk around the pond and return home invigorated by breathing the fresh air. The Village offered immense hope for exploring the nearby hills, which became my preoccupation on holidays and Sundays. However, the roads of Artist Village were not laid when I came to live there when my son Ronnie was aged one.

As was my habit I wrote letters to the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (I will call it the Corporation from now on) detailing the state of the roads. This was the only letter to which I received a reply. It was typed on cheap government stationery and had the signature of an Assistant Engineer of the Corporation. As a consequence, so I believe, the Corporation laid the roads and fixed the paths between houses with rough tiles of what provenance, I don’t know. They are popularly known as Dholpuri stones, may be, because they are mined in a place called Dholpur.


Then came the elections to the Corporation when my son was in Class I of the local school. The roads were now cratered by four rains and were resurfaced. A lot of the aggregate were left behind and weren’t cleared. The Dholpuri tiles also became crooked and broken. The new Corporator in his enthusiasm raised the level of the paths and relaid the tiles. However, the debris was not cleared and it lay there along with the aggregate left behind by the road resurfacing. I wrote to the Corporation about this, as it was becoming an impediment in my daily walking. My shoes became coated with dust and walking had become arduous and not at all a pleasure. I explained all this in my letter, but received no reply. I contented that all was being done in the name of progress and dismissed it as such.


When my son was in class III the roads were dug again to lay storm water rains. Overnight multi-armed JCBs converged on our roads and tore them up day and night with monster-like whining and screaming. The persistent sound of the mighty machine echoed in the hills and I became disoriented with its insistent caterwauling. I sighed in relief when the work was over. But more travails were to follow. The roads lay devastated as if a giant leviathan had run his fingers through it. Again, I wrote letters to the Corporation. After three months the roads were laid again.


The second Corporation election came when my son was in Class V. By now I knew the Corporator. He was a genial and rather pudgy-looking individual who dressed as the occasion demanded. If Id-ul-fitr was being celebrated he would wear a skull cap and white kurta and pyjama. If Ganesh Utsav, the festival wherein idols of Ganesha were worshipped, was being celebrated he would wear a white garrison cap and white clothes according to the local tradition. When I met him one evening – dressed in a garrison cap and local traditional dress – I told him that the debris left during the digging for storm water drains was not cleared. These were creating unseemly mounds on the road and I had lost all hope of seeing an Artist Village that had nicely laid out roads and pathways.

He told me that ‘the needful will be done.’ Indeed, it was done. The roads of Artist Village were cleared of debris and as a bonus a playground was leveled and given to the children of the Village. This was good news! Ronnie now had a place to play football and cricket with his friends. Children created a big racket in the evenings when they played on this ground. I didn’t mind that as long as my son was one of the people who was enjoying himself.


When Ronnie reached Class VIII, the Corporation, out of the blue, decided via ducts had to be created to empty the water collecting in the residential areas into the artificial stream. Again, the JCBs got into action and a barrage of sounds started offending me at all times of the day. On my daily walks I had to skirt many mounds of dirt and stones. The tar and aggregate would lie around as if no one was responsible for them. I wrote letters to the Corporation, received no reply, and was, in general, disappointed by the way things were going. I decided that the Corporator, though an amiably man, wouldn’t get my vote in the next Corporation election.

This seemed of no consequence because a slum sprang up on a strip of forest land on one of the hills. Apparently the sponsor, or, guardian, of this slum colony was the Corporator himself. On my morning walk I would see this ugly outcropping of huts on the slope of the hill through the early morning mist as the sun cast blue shadows on the massed trees of the hills. Men and women in a vivid spectrum of coloured clothes would be walking to their places of work most of them carrying their tools like mallets, trowels and planers with them. I had nothing against them but they were occupying the land illegally and paying no taxes. This chagrined me. I wrote a letter to the Corporation with a copy to the Corporator pointing out that the rubble from digging for the storm water drain was still not cleared and that a slum had come up in Artist Village, which had to be uprooted without delay. Slums have a habit of proliferating and this slum was growing day by day into around forty hutments.


In the Corporation election I didn’t vote for the Corporator. I didn’t vote for anybody. Still the Corporator won because he had the vote of the people living in the slum sponsored by him. Soon after he was elected the Corporation decided the storm water drains were not big enough and set about removing the old pipes and replacing them with newer and bigger ones. Rumour was that the Corporator had spent ten million rupees to entertain the slum-livers with liquor and food to gain their votes and had to regain this amount as soon as possible. The new contract was a means towards this purpose.

One day, I met the Corporator as I was coming back from my evening walk and, somehow, all my complaints poured out in one litany of grouses. At that time he was wearing a Mundu and shirt as he was returning from a function of the Ayyappa temple. I had harboured my complaints for long and I wanted to be rid of them and who better than the Corporator himself? He listened patiently to my spiel, smiled, and assured me that ‘the needful will be done.’

Days later, during the Christmas season, a man came and delivered a cake at my residence. This was the Corporator’s way of buying peace. A bribe! I returned the cake to the man and said I didn’t want it. I also pointed out that I had bought enough cakes for Christmas to want his measly offering.

Now my son is in Class XII. Several heaps debris mar the road leading to my house. The playground has been dug up for laying some new set of drainage pipes for the people living in the slums. They pay no taxes to the Corporation, use stolen electricity, and now, are given drainage pipes too. At my cost! My tax money paid for all these! My umbrage didn’t find a suitable outlet so I shut up.

The Dholpuri stone tiles that were laid when my son was aged one had disappeared beneath these mounds. In places where it showed it was chipped and broken. The dirt that was dug up to lay the storm water drains still lay and obliterated the stone dividers on the side of the roads. There was aggregate and stone lying around everywhere. By now my dream of seeing a serene, foliated, debris-free Artist Village had faded and I began taking life as it comes, without much expectation, without any preconceived notion. Garishly constructed concrete bungalows were replacing the old tiled-roofed huts. I was becoming old and my health didn’t permit me to write long-complaining missives to the Corporation. I had decided that writing letters to the Corporation was of no use and stopped that habit. After all, why waste money on stamps and stationery when ‘no action was being taken’? What I had thought of as progress hasn’t been progress at all because, I think, progress also means a betterment of the quality of life.

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