No Other Indian City Belongs As Much to its Public As Mumbai: Raghu Karnad

The author-journalist discusses his relationship with the city and maps the region through its ecology, green spaces and local communities in a new 10-part podcast series.

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Mumbai’s sea teems with a rich marine biodiversity that is often overlooked by spectators. In his podcast, Raghu Karnad highlights “how much life is ready to meet us on the coastline.” Photo by: SNEHIT PHOTO / Shutterstock

There is hardly any global community that has escaped the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic unscathed. As news of the virus, its variants, and vaccine developments continue to dominate international headlines; sparks of an irreversible climate conundrum lurks on the horizon. Wildfires in California and Greece, flash floods in London and Turkey, and landslides in Himachal Pradesh have ravaged the planet in a matter of days. Earlier this year, cyclone storms in Mumbai and Kolkata left trees and homes obliterated, drawing attention to the (un)preparedness of metropolises to deal with natural disasters. With urban spaces staring in the face of adversity, environmental concerns have taken on an urgency like never before.

Marine Lines: Mumbai’s Hidden Worlds From The Suburbs To The Sea is a well fleshed-out, climate-conscious podcast that addresses the issue while also celebrating the essence of Mumbai. The 10-part series—hosted by writer-journalist Raghu Karnad (recipient of the 2019 Windham Campbell Prize in the non-fiction category)—is a powerful social commentary on the relationship between the city’s green spaces, ecology and its locals. Every episode (all of which were recorded in the second wave) deals with a different subject, calling upon the expertise of guests such as marine wildlife photographer Shaunak Modi, actress and UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Dia Mirza and wildlife biologist Nikit Surve among others.

Karnad, who was born in Mumbai and spends most of his time between Bengaluru and Delhi, immediately took to the pitch when approached by the producers of the podcast, viewing it as an opportunity to get under the skin of Mumbai through the lens of its long-time residents. I caught up with the host in a telephonic interview while he was at his home in Delhi. Edited excerpts:


You were born in Mumbai and raised in Bengaluru. How would you describe your relationship with the former?

That’s a good question. I was born in Mumbai and lived there until school started. I never managed to live in Mumbai as an adult because it was Delhi that got its hooks in me. I have a mixed, funny relationship with the city, where I am, in some sense, a native since I have cumulatively spent some time there. And in some sense, I’m a total newbie because I’ve never really been a local, you know. There’s still a lot for me to learn. And I told this to the producers (of the podcast). That suited them fine because they didn’t want the series to be a conversation by locals, for locals, in which case you can really get into Mumbai’s nitty gritty, but they’d rather it be a conversation about the city that people can listen to from anywhere in India. So this combination of being a semi-native, semi-noob put me in a position to talk to people who know Bombay very well.


What is your earliest memory of the city?

It’s probably the view of the graveyard in St. Stephen’s Church on Mount Mary Road in Bandra from my family’s balcony, around which my sister and I created a lot of legends and ghost stories. And so, that street, the little church and Mehboob Studios at the bottom of the hill are my earliest memories going as far back as when I was probably four. We left Mumbai when I was five.


Is Bombay a city in decline, as is often lamented by many who’ve lived here for long? If so, is there anything that you miss of the old in particular?

I think if you go to any city in the world, you will meet people who understandably have laments about things that have been lost. It’s true about Bengaluru, and it’s abundantly true about Delhi, where people even miss Delhi of the 1930s, the ’50s or the ’70s. People can miss a version of Delhi in which most of the current New Delhi didn’t even exist. They miss the grace, architecture, the space, and greenery. I miss that about Bengaluru too. But cities are not meant to stay stuck in time. Everyone who comes here has an equal right to the place. Same applies to Bombay as far as I am concerned. As cities grow, they necessarily lose some old-fashioned charm.


No Other Indian City Belongs As Much To Its Public As Mumbai: Raghu Karnad

Karnad, who was born in Mumbai, has spent most of his adult life shuttling between Bengaluru and Delhi. Photo Courtesy: Raghu Karnad


Is Bombay a must-see travel destination? Where would you point people towards for some of the best food, art and culture in Mumbai? 

In the right weather, for a few weeks a year, Bombay is a wonderful place to see. It has everything —nature (as the podcast highlights), entertainment, and centuries of layered history. I have special affection for the Habitat performance space in Khar and the hidden jewel of a book shop, Trilogy in Bandra. I think that Bandra might be one of the most attractive urban spaces in all of India. So I will tip my hat to its food, environment and the pleasure of walking around. That’s the part of the city that I do know.  There’s also TARQ art gallery in Colaba and the priceless Liberty Cinema in Marine Lines. Downtown Bombay has a lot of charm. But I also take it that there are parts of the suburbs and the rest of the city that people should be exploring more.


You say you missed Mumbai during the pandemic and that’s the reason you kicked off this series. What was it about the city that you really missed?

There’s no other city in this country which belongs as much to its public as Mumbai. It’s a city that exists democratically and is full of public spaces and public transports. And that’s the first thing we all lost in the lockdown. If you live in Delhi, you don’t spend all that time outside. When I think about stepping out into a city that is full of people like me and unlike me, and is full of spaces, Bombay is the first one to come to mind.


No Other Indian City Belongs As Much To Its Public As Mumbai: Raghu Karnad

The verdant landscape of Sanjay Gandhi National Park hosts a plethora of flora and fauna. Here humans and wildlife live in close proximity to each other. Photo by: FiledIMAGE / Shutterstock


In the first episode, you ask photographer Shaunak Modi about his most memorable marine life sighting in Mumbai. What has been yours? Are you into photography at all?

No, sadly I’m quite a bad photographer. My most memorable marine life sighting was one that wouldn’t have been captured by a camera. It was through a balcony, again on Mount Mary Road, where a friend and I were sitting and looking down at the sea in Bandstand. We spotted these tiny little triangular shapes and realised those were dolphin fins. We didn’t think that was possible, and it almost felt like we’d had a hallucination. But we got binoculars to look closely. One of the fun things about talking to Shaunak Modi about this was that I finally confirmed that it is possible, and dolphins do belong in the waters of Bombay. If the waters were more welcoming, we’d see them more often.


As discussed in the second episode with actress Dia Mirza, the COVID-19 pandemic is a direct outcome of zoonosis, and ‘anthropause’ is an aftermath of the infectious outbreak. What has been your observation of urban spaces, such as Mumbai or Delhi, in the lockdown? What do you think of the argument that perhaps urban communities could collectively choose to pause in the future, in order to help reduce our impact on nature?

I think that’s a fascinating idea, but that alone sounds a bit incomplete. I’ve lived in Delhi for most of my adult life. Every year come November, we’ve been wearing masks long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The place is coated in grey smog. You breathe air that no humans are meant to breathe. The main change that I saw everywhere was the shift from air pollution to blue skies, from sound pollution to quietude and bird song, and that’s true in most parts of the country. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have to figure out how to reduce industrial activities in the long run. Humans will to figure out how to achieve something similar to this anthropause and have it be the general state of things. I don’t know if just the regular pauses will do the trick. Because this isn’t just about our immediate urban ecosystem, it’s also about the planetary ecosystem.

The lockdown gave us a glimpse of what our cities can look like. It came at a high human cost. And doing exactly that is unthinkable. But doing it in a way that actually supports everyone who depends on going to work every day might be a powerful idea. The real problem with the lockdown was that all of the people who didn’t work had to go hungry. There was nothing to support them. That’s why we faced the migrant crisis. But if we create an arrangement where everyone’s needs in this country are supported, regardless of whether they are going to work or not, then we would actually be able to put human activity on hold more often so that the rest of this planet can breathe a bit.


A lot of Mumbai’s colour and character derives from its vibrant immigrant culture. Do you think this pandemic and its ensuing effect on that community will change the nature of the city?

I think that Mumbai belongs hugely to its migrants. And most people that I know are as much migrants as anyone who comes there and lives in a basti. I don’t think that’s going to change. The city probably can’t exist without those communities. They keep the city running in a way that we have no idea of sitting in our apartments.


Your third episode deals with wildlife and nature in Mumbai. What was your introduction to the same?

When you travel abroad, you realise the clichés about Indian cities are true. There are a lot of green spaces and animals on the road. But I’ve always found it striking that apart from the monkeys, dogs and cows, Mumbai has had a leopard situation. That doesn’t exist in any other big city that I’ve lived in. And I’ve always seen it being reported in the most sensational terms. As though if you are in the wrong neighbourhood at night, a leopard might just come and drag you into the bushes. I was really glad to have had this conversation with wildlife ecologist Nikit Surve and hear the story from the leopard’s POV. It turns out that the humans of the Warli community, who live close to the leopard population, have a completely different relationship with the animal. I believe there is some risk involved, but not only do the leopards have the right to be there, but are also worshipped in the form of a local deity called Waghoba.


Are you satisfied with how our press covers the more important environmental issues of our time? Is there anything you would change or wish to highlight more?

I don’t think our press covers the most important environmental issues of our time. If we had our priorities even close to correct, then India would have had an environmental or a climate change story on the front page of every newspaper every day. Our country is probably going to be the first in line that is going to pay the price of the climate crisis. In fact, we already are. It’s just that people who edit newspapers aren’t. The Indian press is failing and letting the country down in all kinds of ways right now and this might turn out to be the costliest of all. What’s really sad is that our newfound ideas of nationalism, which apparently means loving something about this country, haven’t translated into any urgent concern for this country’s environment.


Do you foresee a sequel to this podcast on the horizon? If so, which cities are you eyeing next?

I think that pretty much any city would have similar stories. Bangalore and Delhi are the two cities with natural ecosystems that we should learn more about. Bombay has the special charm of having the sea, but I’d like to think that any Indian city would produce interesting stories about natural environment and human life.


Finally, where do you stand on the silliest beef of all time–Mumbai vs Delhi, particularly as a long-time resident of the latter?

As someone born in Bombay and as a long-time resident of Delhi, I have a very strong opinion on this. And it is that none of those people should come to Bangalore because if they do, they will want to move there. It’s easily the best city in India. It’s more along the lines of who is fighting for second place, you know. I mean, the gold medal is already somewhere else.


The podcast is available on all key platforms including SpotifyAmazonGaanaHubhopper.


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  • Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.


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