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Modern Family: Pride In My City

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Sep 18, 2015

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It happens every single time: The Rajabai Clock Tower makes me smile as I pass it. Not only because of its fine, recent facelift. Mumbai’s answer to Big Ben brings back a motherhood memory I’m still surprised by.

Remember that simple question posed to children: What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s greeted with the usual answers: footballer, cricketer, actor, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. Picture our pure astonishment, then, when our kindergartener said without missing a beat: “I’ll be the man allowing people up Rajabai Clock Tower.”

Baffled and bemused, we were thrown by the offbeat reply. But after a minute, the shock gave way to pride. He’s going to end up an admirer of heritage buildings, I told my husband, who laughed and said, “I hope so.”

Shouldn’t we all hope for that? Hope kids grow up with a love and appreciation for their hometown – in my son’s case, and many others, a strong sense of the amazing city Mumbai was, isn’t quite now, but still can be. A Herculean effort, given the sorest of sights that meet their eyes daily, yet some of us surely wish they can gaze at the larger picture to see beauty beyond the potholes jerking their school bus, the spit pools pocking the streets, the high-rises scraping polluted skies.

Our kids are the inheritors of all this. They will engage with the future of any city depending on how they perceive its past. Warts and all, some magic still surfaces in our squalid urban landscape. The young just need a chance and the right help to locate it.

“Teaching works best in enabling environments,” says children’s author and naturalist Deepak Dalal. Fresh from an enlightening workshop on historical story building at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, he shares, “What with the maps and vintage photographs of old Bombay, the models of the city as it grew, the displays of how people dressed in the old days and engaging props, I enjoyed myself and so did the youngsters who attended. If one has to learn about Mumbai history and heritage, there can be no better place than this museum.”

The admiration was mutual. Deepak in turn won over the kids, showing vignettes of 19th-century Bombay, tracing the growth and rise of a city that came to be called Urbs prima in Indis – foremost city of India – as the plaque outside the Gateway of India states.

Forgive me if I can’t stop smiling when I see the Gateway of India either, as much from healthy ego as heritage pride! That enduring symbol of Bombay has my birth date carved in yellow basalt stone. Informed, as a toddler feeding pigeons there, that the King and Queen of England sailed into town at that spot more than a century ago on December 2, I couldn’t quit chuckling. So the parents formed an annual practice of bringing me to Wittet’s welcoming monument as a birthday outing at the end of each year. It was, then, a long drive from suburban Bandra where we lived, but en route they passed the time by pointing out landmarks and sharing personal recollections. They made mine the city they had so joyfully claimed and explored as theirs.

I vowed to be as proactive with my own kids, to find connections and chances like these to instill the same love for the city. While expecting my first baby, I became a signed member of the Bombay Local History Society, even trundling along its guided walks nine months pregnant! When Time Out Mumbai magazine launched, I jumped at the invitation to become its Kids section editor. It was a dream job made tedious by having to track and list every single museum, maidan and media activity for children a fortnight ahead – but made worthwhile by the mouth-agape wonder on the faces of my kids as they enjoyed those events.

I learned, on the job, not everything comes with a pricey ticket. When the modest Police Band plays tunes at public promenades from the Hanging Gardens to Carter Road, check it out. Watch kids light up at the sight of those colourfully costumed men playing shiny trumpets and trombones under the sprawl of flowering trees, and you’ll know you’re on to a good thing. There are weeks of Celebrate Bandra and I Love Andheri programmes, dancers at Elephanta Island, seaface fireworks at Worli, festive Ram Lila troupes at Chowpatty, flamingo spotting in the Sewri mudflats, bird trailing with the Bombay Natural History Society, half a dozen magnificent forts to explore. So much for the fallacy that our children only have a few days of fun at the overcrowded Kala Ghoda festival in February. All you have to do is be the eyes and ears for your children, identifying what can entertain, edify.

Reclaiming endangered public spaces is a fine, useful way to express pride in them. Too many of our cities find themselves spruced up only for official visits from dignitaries or for occasional festivals. Even a tourist-friendly state like Rajasthan sees Jaipur and Jodhpur dressed brightest in January and October for their international literature and folk music fests respectively. Rather than leave it to the authorities, why not band together with some other local families to drum up year-round interest in local pleasures? Discover or create the Urbs prima part of your own hometown – however hidden – for your kids’ sake. Timothy Beatley offers an example in Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age, in which he describes an initiative in New York City to appreciate the South Bronx River. A group of citizens restored a sense of connection to their community and natural environment by having child residents hug, roll and float a golden ball from venue to venue. Like an Olympic torch, the ball was symbolic beyond the fun of transporting it. Imagine a similar effort for Mumbai’s Mithi River, or any of India’s many other neglected and choked rivers, and the pride it could instill in our youth, ourselves.

I leave the penultimate word to Deepak, heartily agreeing when he says: “There’s always something more to discover about this city.”

And surely every city.

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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