By Sarover Zaidi
Anthropologist, architecture obsessed, studied philosophy, worked in rural India ten years.
[This text was commissioned as a guest column in The Funambulist Magazine 4 (March-April 2016): Carceral Environments. The issue is available in printed and digital versions on The Funambulist’s website.]
The JJ flyover was built in record time with pre-fabricated concrete blocks in 2002 over what is known as the ‘native’ ‘Muslim’ town of Bombay. The narrative dominating its quick construction was explained as ‘decongestion’, an easy freeway over the old Muslim town, leading one to the financial centre of south Bombay with ease. Seen as an architectural feat the flyover running at 2.4 kilometres in length asserted what Eyal Weizman terms as a ‘sovereign verticality’ over the area below it. Covering all of Muhammad Ali road, the spatial aorta of the native town of Bombay, the JJ flyover set a new horizon of surveillance over the Muslim ‘ghetto’ of the city. What else did it do in a city already entrenched with vegetarian buildings, arbitrary arrests of Muslim boys, firing and rioting in Muslim areas and mosques, and a generally discriminatory everyday life for the Muslim populace? A swift bureaucratic decision solved not just the issue of congestion, but also provided a bypass to the ‘Muslim problems’ of Bombay.
The area below the flyover, historically dominated by different Muslim trading communities, was strongly reconstituted as a ‘problem zone’ after the Bombay riots (1992-93) spread across the different neighborhoods of this area. The stigma of the riots and the presence of the underworld involved in the Bombay bomb blasts (1993), saturated this area with a signification it could never really escape. Hence the Musalman, the outsider, the terrorist, the rioter, the anti-national came to form a metonymic chain, contrasted and highlighted heavily by the then right wing ruling party, the Shiv Sena — the Shiv Sena emerged as a Hindu right wing political party at the time and was involved in orchestrating the riots and looting in Muslim neighborhoods. If neighborhoods bear the weight of these historical events of the city, then bodies participate in this narrative through everyday locations of living with violence. Recently a public intellectual of Bombay exclaimed: “Look at these Muslim boys speeding across town, no respect for rules, civic space, probably a hangover of riding camels.” He was referring to the Muslim boys who ride their bikes between the old Muslim neighbourhood and the colonial city, today the elite financial area of Bombay. These boys due to the festival are made allowances to transgress city spaces, beyond the old Muslim neighbourhood and venture into the zones of the elite colonial city. On other days they are usually stopped, checked and fined by the traffic police, speeding or not.
The city functions as a doppelganger on itself, with different sets of rules applying to different areas, and of course to different religiously affiliated communities. Continue reading “The City and the City*: Space and Semiotics of Muslim Bombay**”