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Mumbai's Victorias ride into the sunset

VICTORIAS MAY FINALLY ride into the sunset. For outsiders, that sentence will make no sense, but Mumbaikars will know what it means: that the familiar clip-clop of horses near the Gateway of India and at Nariman Point will no longer be heard.

If you look at old photographs of the city, you will see many of them. In fact, horse-drawn carriages were the sole means of transport for the well-off. Victorias weren’t like the ubiquitous tonga seen in many parts of India which had just two wheels; Victorias were four-wheelers, more spacious, rather grand in fact, the perfect way to make an entry into the Taj Mahal Hotel. You will even find a description of them in the Oxford Dictionary (‘Historical. A light four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible hood, seats for two passengers, and an elevated driver’s seat in front. Origin c 19: named after Queen Victoria’).

Historical? They still ply in the city. Of course, now it’s as a tourist attraction rather than as a mode of transport. I have seen them in Melbourne and a few other places in Australia, as well as in Vienna and other old cities of Europe. The difference between our Victorias and theirs is telling: while they serve the same purpose of taking tourists for a ride, the Mumbai carriages have now become flashier. Most have silver- coloured metal cladding, multi-coloured bulbs and are festooned with strings of flashing lights. You could be inside a gaudy wedding mandap, or a bordello. The overseas ones eschew these embellishments, and remain true to the original model.

There’s another striking difference: the Melbourne/Vienna Victorias have huge horses (often a pair) pulling them. The ‘beasts’ look as well-fed as their liveried owner- drivers: they probably go together at the end of the day for a Guinness at the nearest pub. In stark contrast, our Victorias are drawn not by horses but by nags; sad-looking animals that are obviously ill-fed, and in all probability, mistreated in other ways.

A few years ago, PETA, the international organisation which fights for animal welfare in dramatic and outrageous fashion to draw maximum publicity, had their international president pretend to pull a Victoria. Although well-intentioned, that missed the point. The president looked reasonably well-fed; was she then making the point that horses shouldn’t pull carriages at all? Or was she saying that they should be better treated? There can be some debate on the first point; none at all on the second.

The case against Mumbai Victorias is that their owners treat the horses which give them their livelihood in a cruel manner. An SPCA office bearer once told me how horses are abandoned outside their compound in the most pitiable state. After SPCA has cured them of diseases, brought them into shape by proper diet and care, the buggy owners turn up to claim them. No wonder no one will lament the passing away of Victorias from Mumbai streets. They belonged to another age; their failure to adapt to the needs of a different era was a result of their owners’ utter callousness. Agitations by animal rights activists, followed by court rulings, have forced the government’s hand. Once the usual official dilly-dallying is done, Mumbai’s Victorias will, like so many other things in the city, be only photographic memories.

One day Mumbai’s chawls will go the same way. A recent newspaper report lamented the fact in a story which began : ‘Mumbai’s most famous chawls, the BDD chawls, will now pass into history’.

That brings us to the important question of whether everything that gets venerated by age deserves to be preserved even after its utilitarian purpose is served. Mumbai’s chawls are a prime example. They were built around 80 years ago, primarily for mill workers. They consisted of single rooms opening into a common corridor open to air, so it was like a balcony. At the end of the corridor were common toilets.

This simple design was functional; it provided adequate space for migrants; the balcony ensured good ventilation. The shared space also brought in a spirit of camaraderie. Problems arose when migrants brought in their families, and the obvious lack of privacy became a massive headache. The community spirit of chawls is much in evidence during festivals like Diwali, when a building is lit up as a whole, rather that the individual efforts you see in a modern building.

But is this community spirit enough to compensate for the obvious inconveniences of living in a chawl? My guess is that the first people to opt out would be its own occupants. So chawls, like Victorias, shall soon fade into Mumbai’s sunset.

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