THE SEMINAR ON Mumbai’s rivers flows erratically. Aslam Saiyad’s tone is conversational, but under the influence of the microphone and within an auditorium built for high school exaltations, his voice is comprehensible only to the attentive. While his presentation skills might be questionable, Aslam’s content most certainly isn’t.
“I will tell you five stories about Mumbai’s rivers. This is the first one,” he says, as the projector pauses on a young Shabana Azmi, in a song from the 1977 film Swami. (The song begins before the video does, and plays out with this comical lag.) Conspicuous in the backdrop are a Portuguese-style bridge, quaint and European; a shimmering water body — clear and unsullied by plastic; and the bizarre choreography of the time. “That is the Dahisar river,” Aslam says, “and that Lonavala-Khandala type place is Dahisar [sic]. The bridge was built by Portuguese settlers. It was 400 years old”.
That 400-year-old bridge — the only one of its kind within city limits — was demolished in 2007.
“They spent Rs 35 lakh to break it. Modern bridges collapse for free,” Aslam chuckles, when we meet the next morning, at the entrance of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Aslam moves horizontally past the gate, beyond a concrete parking lot that has room for a skateboard park but at the moment, has all of three old men doing pranayama. “This is new, just a few years old” Aslam says, indicating the floor on which we walk, leading to the grey wall we’re heading towards. He doesn’t need to be asked to tell you what it used to be: “The Dahisar river bed”.
As we climb and look over the grey wall, the ‘river’ bears an awful resemblance to a sewage line: “Such a simple thing to do. Wall the sides and you forget that it’s a river. How can you feel for something which you can't see?”
Within 20 metres of this place, beyond the walls of the SGNP, the Dahisar river flows crystal clear, under the boughs of Casuarina and Gulmohar trees. The glades are illuminated by shafts of white light, and deer roam here, chewing on tufts of dusty grass, unaffected by romancing couples seeking privacy. Within a hundred steps, vibrant life gives way to concrete inertness. A river becomes septic.
Aslam has a safa feta tied around his head at all times, like a tourniquet that keeps riverine truths securely fastened. With a friend, Fahim, he has started a photography studio. While he struggles with the constraints and woes of a middle class existence, he crusades for the city’s rivers, at a pace that is best described by the name of the sole (barely) money-generating venture he has built around the rivers — “Hallu Hallu”. That’s how he’d have the world walk, if he could: “When you walk slowly, you see more.” How can you feel for something you can't see?
Outside SGNP’s Nature Information Centre is a weathered, 3D scale rendering of the National Park. It inadvertently does a fine job of conveying just how ancient the hills of Borivali and Kanheri are. On these hills grow the 87 sq km of jungle land, nourished by rains that still serve a prehistoric pact the city has forfeit.
The average annual rainfall of over 3,000 mm in these parts exceeds the city’s average by at least 500 mm. On 26 July 2005 — the day Mumbai came to a standstill because of monsoon floods — Colaba saw 74 mm of rainfall. The Vihar Lake, inside SGNP, received 1,045 mm.
“This model is so good, that during the monsoons, the Tulsi and the Vihar fill up and flow out from here, just like the Dahisar, Poisar, Mithi and Oshiwara rivers. You’ll see the Tasso [Mumbai’s fifth river, which flows into Vihar Lake] as well,” Aslam says, indicating the various points on the mural.
The Vihar and Tulsi lakes were both built by the British between 1860 and 1897 to furnish the water needs of the newly transformed city of Bombay. And thus, the complicated relationship between the city, the sea and the river began.
History is an omnipresent and invisible companion in these parts. Like the dust that Aslam wipes off a plaque to lets passersby know they are walking next to the Dahisar river. “This is new,” he tells us. The plaque has a sacred relevance to him: a long-due acknowledgement that a river runs through here.
Under the winter sun, the Dahisar runs dry then pools in small pockets again, nourished by little streams that unspool with little secrets from the wilderness nearby. The biggest and flattest of the boulders wear shiny medals of bright coloured clothes, kept out to dry. A snake drops by for a sip of the water.
The pool we sit at has few fish. Aslam explains: “[The locals] drop reetha (a soapnut) into the water. The fish feed on it, and it makes them high.” This makes it easy for locals to catch the fish. “They only do this when the pool is drying out, and shallow…when the fish would die in any case.”
We reach a pada, a village with no name, that has drifted over time to the periphery of the woods.
Here we find Anandi Bai — who we first heard of during Aslam’s presentation — seated ramrod straight, outside her house, in the sun. She complains to Aslam in a frail-but-endearing-grandmother-whine about receiving an electricity bill of Rs 1,000, for the single tubelight and the television set in her home. Her posture conveys a certain ease natural to those who live in a world where chairs aren’t needed, her eyes hold wisdom and softness. She is, according to Aslam, at the end of a very long life.
The interior of Anandi Bai’s house is spotlessly clean — a lifetime condensed into a neat corner of belongings; a few pots and pans; a flashy golden purse for special occasions. Three steps into her home, and the reason for her inclusion in Aslam’s seminar becomes clear: Behind a wall, one half of her house shelters a cluster of termite hills (enough for it to be called a termite range). “They build around life,” Aslam says. “When she goes and this village is relocated by the SRA, we all know what will happen.”
The Dahisar river sheltered the pada and the pada sheltered all kinds of life in and around it. A baby hare popped onto our path and turned back, quite sure it had taken a wrong turn two streets ago. Ducks and cats and pups and goats all made their presence known, by sight, sound, smell or a visitor’s errant step into their excrement.
A freshly felled toddy palm next to the river bank sends us tailing after those who fled with the bounty: a pair of kids with faux hawks and coloured hair, fastidiously at work cleaving the toddy palm’s shoot. Its white stalk they separated into perfectly rectangular slides that they reluctantly let Aslam sample. It tastes a lot like a coconut. Its sheaves formed a simple curtain of intersections; this they plan to cook into a curry. Aslam slides his hand over the faux hawk of one of the boys, and says: “They cut and colour each other’s hair. They don't visit salons”.
The river and her children are slowly becoming more distinguishable from each other.
Aslam enquires about a friend in a Warli pada. The answer places him near Mithi river. “For the tribals, every river that flows next to them is a Mithi river. The water is sweet. It’s mithi. So Mithi river,” he explains.
Rivers wounded by decades of chemical and organic damage were abused even further during the era of the cotton mills. And then came plastic. Over the past few years, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has set up several sewage treatment plants across the rivers. Unauthorised settlements have been demolished to widen the river bed. Fines are levied on cattle sheds. Several hundred tons of filth have been dredged up from the river. Citizen-led initiatives have seeded activated charcoal and vetiver grass to neutralise industrial pollutants. But Aslam is unimpressed.
“The basics are still being ignored. Sewage channels and storm water drains are still intertwined entities. They put up a grey wall and say flooding is solved, now we will solve pollution… But they don’t realise that by putting up these walls they are making it easier for the river to be polluted.”
Seasonal floods continue to cripple Mumbai — a stroke caused by blocked veins. “And this is the city’s heart,” Aslam says, indicating the farmlands that grew into the woods all around. There is hope yet, for on the trees, Aslam points to a vine that curls like a thick wooden ribbon: “This is the entada. If it’s around, it’s a sign that the forest is still healthy,” he says.
“In a city built around the sea, it took a cruel monsoon in which the Mithi overflowed for Mumbai to realise that the river even existed,” Aslam says. There, beside the Dahisar, he remarks of the audience at the previous day’s seminar: “I spoke for an hour about rivers. And the question they asked had nothing to do with it.”
Aslan is referring to the end of his seminar, when he’d opened the floor for questions. A boy asked him about the evils of the coastal road. The answer Aslam gave seemed to be drawn from the same generic article the boy had sourced his query from. It was the only question Aslam was asked before the seminar ended, and everyone rushed to the toilets.
— All images courtesy Kunal Kampani