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Spooked by the Suburbs

Mumbai – whatever you think of it – can never be described as sterile. Most of it has all the life and hustle of a city bursting at the edges, and is almost overwhelming.
But then one visits the district of 'Hiranandani Gardens'. By contrast, it can seem spooky… and a little discomfiting.

It was when I went to Powai, one of the Mumbai’s northernmost suburbs that I came across the elite district of Hiranandani Gardens, which lies off the main highway there.
At first, it was hard to believe my eyes. Hiranandani Gardens is about a mile square: a square mile of pristine urban development. It looked like a huge wedding cake made of marzipan straight out of the shop; or like a combination of ancient Rome and a modern shopping mall.

There were huge, pastel-coloured buildings adorned with neo-classical pillars or Grecian pediments. There were wide, clean uncluttered roads (with no potholes!). There were luxury shops. There were road signs requesting that motorists desist from using their car-horns (and people were obeying…). There were landscaped, tidy public gardens. There were street-names like “Central Avenue” and “High Street”, and, behind imperial gates, there were dazzlingly bright apartment blocks called “Olympia” and “Tivoli”.
I have seen something like this before. But it was in the gated communities of super-rich America.

Though HGs is in Greater Mumbai, it does not seem like Mumbai. There were no rubbish piles. There were no pavement dwellers. There was no one sleeping on a wall. There were no street-side vegetable vendors. The roadside drains (four feet deep!) were unblocked and empty of debris. I didn’t see a rickshaw, or a rat.
At night, the happy inhabitants can sally out to spend their money in the numerous international shops and restaurants, and at the well-heeled entertainment centre.

Where on Earth was I? This was surely not Mumbai.
Mumbai, love it or loathe it, is filthy, squashed, vibrant, decaying, noisy, diverse and, above all, chaotic.
You can guess at my amazement.

The internet tells me that this district was created by the Hiranandani brothers, who are both very rich indeed. They flattened the hills that dot this area, and then built this impressive small-town to cater to their fellow rich.
I learned, not to my surprise, that they are also involved in building in the huge 23-Marina building in Dubai.

It was also they who brought in India’s hardest-working architect, Hafeez Contractor, who brought with him his trademark faux-Italian arches, cornices and domes. (Poor Hafeez is in that strange position of being incredibly popular with his clients, but despised by some of his more sniffy peers, who compare him to the deadhead populist architects in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.)
But even if you think Hafeez is the best thing ever, you do have to ask the questions - why do the buildings have almost no relation to the shape of the lands around them? And why are they so un-Indian?

A man who was walking round with me hissed his displeasure. “Look at this! The people who live here are lots of NRIs and Americans who don’t want to know they are in India… They want to pretend they are in London or Milan!”

And then, even more bitterly, he said: “Why are the street-names in English? Where are the Hindi or Marathi street-names?”
He carried on: “And Where are the mosques, the temples, the roadside shrines… the cinemas?!!”
I suddenly realized he was right. No matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find any religious institutions or film-houses. In a country where religion and Bollywood are second nature to the vast majority, it was spooky to observe a complete absence of them.

But the poor are still there. My companion took me to the edge of the district, where suddenly, round a corner, you hit a jhopadpatti. The black liquid of untreated sewage spreads along its alleyways, and the ragged children play in the dust.
Now, it’s not unusual in Bombay to find this contrast of rich and poor – in fact it is common – but having seen what I had already seen I had assumed the poor here had been “moved on”, as they often are in this city.
I was told that a legal battle to resist eviction by the slum-dwellers had turned into a political contest, so – for now – they were staying. But its clear the facilities of the town do not extend to them.

What is one to make of all this? I wandered some more.

I went into the public garden (called “Nirvana Park”), which is a copy of a Japanese-style space with pools full of carp, little half-moon bridges across the water feature and ultra-tidy lawns. The young courting-couples were obviously at home; they seemed happy. And yet, as I looked around, I saw nothing Indian at all in the features of the place, not even the face of a Ganesh or a swastik.

A hundred yards away, there is a tall black obelisk - in HGs’ “Central Square”. Now I must admit I didn’t quite understand all the images at its base, which are not explained, but I could make out the gist of one. It shows a contented paterfamilias who sits and reads the paper as his children play ball behind him. I guess it was trying to sum up the area: reinforcing the idea that this is a Happy Community.


That night I watched that spooky movie ‘Stepford Wives’ on the TV – that’s the one where the “perfect” community is created by the men there, who also turn their beautiful wives into absolutely submissive robots.
And it rang a bell for me. The fake classical architecture of Stepford, the “happy community”, its disturbingly spotless streets – all reminded me of… Hiranandani Gardens.
But – that’s a film.

Maybe the Hiranandanis are right?
After all, what’s wrong with cleanliness and order? On their website, the brothers even list one of their achievements as being the first builders to bring copper plumbing to India. You feel that they are trying to clean up India, which is worthy enough.
And, you know, Mumbai has had enough of inter-communal tension and strife – maybe their brand of money-led secularism is the way forward instead? Will their new-rich make India Shining?
And, following that line of thought - why shouldn’t therefore their new India look more international than Hindustani?

I’m still thinking about this.

Links: Hiranandani Gardens, and Hafeez Contractor’s website, plus Stepford Wives

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Spooked by the Suburbs


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