The city of malls was once a city of mills. Mumbai, home to Bollywood, financial capital of the country and one of the most populous cities in the world also lays claim to being a key vertex of the textile boom of the last century. The mill redevelopment was big news for a few years the start of this decade. In my own adult lifetime, I’ve seen the grey industrial belt of Parel-Curry Road-Cotton Green metamorphose into the glitzy gaudiness of malls, pubs and fancy retail outlets.
Walk into High Street Phoenix and the disposable income of this city is all around you. It’s grabbing a beer at one of the pubs or flashing a credit card at the latest ‘it’ designer’s collection or checking out the coolest entertainment that money can buy. Subway, MacDonald’s and Big Bazaar are only for those who’re slumming it.
But stop for a minute and let your eyes drift a few feet upwards. Over the neon hoardings, the new glass-and-metal construction and the mega-parking lot, you just might catch a glimpse of an old soot-stained chimney. The next time you’re at Hard Rock Cafe or Zenzi Mill or Blue Frog, let those same eyes catch the massive overhead pipes. They’re not a fashion statement by an eccentric interior designer. They’re the last remnants of a bygone era.
I’m not just being nostalgic. I worked in this belt for most of my career. My first job, an internship with a marketing agency required me to travel around in this area. My first memory of Lower Parel is a filthy place full of muddy lanes, zero rain shelter and depressing buildings. In the past ten years, I’ve seen each of those spaces get cordoned off and then re-emerge with fresh paint, a new construction or two and a fancy (very fancy) price tag attached to whatever is being sold there. It’s literally an Eliza Dolittle on this city.
I think spaces hold memories, of people who’ve lived in them and what they’ve felt and said and been. These glossy new addresses are the new avatars of what used to be the salt of the earth of this city. Standing in the middle of the hottest nightspot, sipping a fashionable cocktail, I’m suddenly struck by the contrast.
Who were the people who spent their lives in these places? Who called this home or a place that provided employment for them and sustenance for their families? The mill belt carries memories of places no one else remembers. Mumbai’s success story is an epitaph to the forgotten workers whose toil made this city.
Tread respectfully the next time you’re here. Mumbai’s history lies beneath you.
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