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Another one bites the dust
Sidin Sunny Vadukut

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December 18, 2007

Earlier this week I was walking briskly down a footpath here in Prabhadevi, Mumbai. It was just past ten in the morning and I was just in time for a meeting. Okay, I admit I was mildly distracted by the work that lay ahead of me and was not entirely paying attention to the path in front of me.


But I was broadly aware of my surroundings of course.


Now, when one is walking on the paths in the city one begins to take many things for granted. One of these things is the continued and consistent existence of the path beneath one's feet. My mistake. One moment my foot was pacing confidently on some sort of cement tile and the next I was tumbling through the air doing something trained high divers give their entire careers to perfect, often being reduced to steroids in desperation while the Chinese take all the gold medals.


After an expert triple somersault with a flourish I landed on a combination of knee, elbow and upper lip. A severely twisted ankle lay by my side throbbing in pain. The fall was so terrible that a video of it would have been a very popular e-mail forward.


"Fat Malayali boy breaks sound barrier! Must watch."


One of the tiles on the path had come loose, slipped out of its place and, apparently, spent its new found freedom waiting for me to pass by.


Thankfully Mumbai is a city of the most resilient people who really believe in helping their fellow man. So, while in any other city a crowd would have gathered around me staring at my graceless situation, in Mumbai no one batted an eyelid and went about their daily business. One or two people did frown at the fact that they had to walk around me. One Parsi lady was very late for office and lightly leapt over me in order to keep her lively rhythm.


Since that incident I have taken to walking around with my eyes firmly fixed on the path ahead of me. This means I have had much time to actually observe the pathetic condition of the footpaths in this city.


If you do not live in Mumbai then I must tell you about the footpaths here. (If you are a Mumbaikar you can leap right over me and move along like you always do.) Many people who come to Mumbai for the first time are bewildered by the fact that the people of the city seem to walk right in the middle of the road. Without an immediately observable care in the world. It doesn't matter if you are speeding along in your BMW [Images] at 100 kilometers an hour and you are blasting on a horn that is emanating waves far into the solar system to be discovered by aliens thousands of year in the future.


The Mumbaikar will simply ignore you and carry on walking at a leisurely pace while traffic piles up behind him or her for miles.


Now at first sight this might seem like sheer arrogance on the part of the pedestrian. Is he deaf? Does he want to die? Is he insane?


Of course not. He is perfectly sane, of sound hearing and deeply admires staying alive.


The problem is this: the footpath is vastly more dangerous than the roads and traffic.


The footpaths of Mumbai are danger zones without compare. If a foreign country were to ever invade India and attempt to occupy the city, all we have to do is convince them to march along the footpaths. The city would be ours again within seconds.


For at each step you run the risk of running into something, tripping over something, slipping on something, and of course, being murdered by someone when you get in their way. Especially Parsi ladies on a mission who may look frail and gentle on the outside but are all ninjitsu inside.


First there are the vendors. In most places in the world a nine-square-foot plot of footpath will probably house a tree, a garbage bin or, in Kerala [Images], a tea shop, a Church or a toddy shop.


In Mumbai the same space will house a pan shop on the ground floor, an STD booth on top, and the second floor will be let out on PG basis for around 5,000 rupees a month. "Without meals. No non-veg meals please. Rooftop leased to Vodafone for tower. Water on weekends. Maybe." And that's right in the middle of the footpath. (However, the land is under litigation.)


But in case you avoid the chaatwala, grilled sandwich-wala, cobbler, boiled egg-wala and feel terribly proud about yourself then you are merely moments away from falling into a drain. This is because of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation "Sustainable Cholera" Act of 1953 that stipulates that at any given time, at least one paving tile in every 100 meters of footpath must be removed and then replaced at a precarious angle using bonding agents such as gravity so as to allow free and fair falling of citizens into deep dark rivers of sewage.


Okay, so you manage to leap across the gaping holes in the ground. But then you landed on a stray dog who immediately takes a liking to that fleshy part behind the shin. Thankfully the people of Mumbai come to your help and you are able to shield yourself with another pedestrian. You deftly nip past the mutt and run face first into a signboard that was installed last month by the lowest bidder who is yet to come to terms with such concepts as "steel".


By now you're hope in humanity is at an all-time low. You are beginning to feel like one of those teenagers in the horror flick who just can't kill the axe murderer and finally decides to hide in the abandoned room on the terrace without the lights or windows but one creaky door.


(Did I mention the tracts of footpath that are used as toilets "with splendid life-like scenery" by the local populace?)


Of course, I think I am being a little too cynical here. It's not all bad in Mumbai.


Sometime last year I believe the city was paid a visit by the then President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam [Images]. A stretch of terrible footpath in Worli was suddenly attacked by workmen with the sheer determination and focus that only comes when someone in the BMC is threatened with suspension. "This is not the citizens (yuck) we are talking about! But the President, goddammit!" is what higher-ups in the BMC decided at a meeting.


Overnight stretches of dirt, filth and rubble became smooth paving stone lined walkways. The President must have been very impressed. This actually gives us a simple solution for our infrastructure problems. I am very proud of this idea of mine. So spare a few moments.


I am sure the Prime Minister and the President between them can cover all the six hundred plus districts of the country in their terms of office. Both must spend at least a night at each place. Even accounting for their air travel, we should become a first world country in no time.


Of course there will be terrible traffic the day they decide to hit the roads. But that is a small price to pay for good footpaths, functioning street lamps, traffic signals, electricity supply, water supply and so on and so forth.


One such trip every five years and the people from Shanghai will be here looking for advice.


I think it's an excellent idea. One that should be written into the constitution right away. What do you think?

Earlier columns:

More adventures of the Vadukuts, mister and missus, can be found at Domain Maximus.

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