The other day, as I was walking downstairs, I saw a group of kids playing in our 8ft by 10ft lobby. These kids, — 13- and ten-year-olds — were playing cricket. The bowler was making a deliberately slow over arm motion so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone in that confined space and the batsman who was practically in handshaking distance of him, was equally gentle with the bat.
I guess if you sent the ball to the lift a few feet away you scored a four.
I asked them why they were not playing in the driveway, which though was no Wankhede stadium, at least afforded a few more square feet of leg space and dignity. The thirteen year old told me that “watchman uncle” had forbidden them to play there because the flat owners had instructed him to keep the kids off in case they scratched or dented their cars. I went out and saw the row upon row of cars, expensive shiny latest models of SUV’s and sedans in a new light.
This is what they had traded in for the health and happiness of their children. Stainless steel statuses with chrome finish.
To state simply that playgrounds are vanishing and that our public spaces are shrinking would be parroting an oft repeated truism. Of the 2,903 plots reserved in Mumbai city’s development plan for recreation activity, only 721, accounting for a poor 24%, have been developed. Most of the remaining plots have either been encroached by slum dwellers or sold to developers.
It would appear that as the walls steadily close in upon us and the meagre perimeters we occupy and real estate prices keep soaring upwards, it is our ineluctable fate to find our raison d’etre in the hoarding and speculation of the very phenomenon that is destroying us.
A venerable old gentleman who had bought a 2BHK flat in Kandivli once told me with smug satisfaction that the trees around his area were going to be chopped down and a mall was going to come up — thereby raising the net value of his property. It is worthwhile to understand what space actually connotes.
Part of how sophisticated and civilised we are as a society is measured by how we treat our old and infirm and our children and how much mental as well as physical space we are willing to allot to them. Typically, Indians see childhood not as a crucial formative period, but as something to be gotten over with hastily, children not as complete entities, but as unformed adults in a process of incubation.
And the old are simply supposed to be on their way out, having finished their innings and “done their bit.” You actually exist officially — as bonafide members of society when you are a healthy earning member of society — a provider.
To give a small example: The waiter in an Indian restaurant serves the man of the family first and not the woman or the child or even the old person sitting with them. He, the provider and the one who is going to be paying the bill, occupies hallowed space.
Our mindset considers anyone who does not generate income as persona non grata and their feelings and needs irrelevant. And so when it comes to space, parks and playing grounds are our last priority. Open fields and forests, what good are they? Do they generate revenue? Or do those who use them?
There are many who would argue that it is impossible to be so sensitive in a country with so many people. If this is so, we have lost everything worth living for.
After all, the time-honoured justification of all our transgressions, our competitiveness, has always been, “We do it for our children”. We have convinced ourselves that an occasional summer camp or a visit to McDonald’s will serve as adequate compensation for the green fields of our youth. That the flatscreen TV we have bought for our retired parents will take the place of a walk in the park.
The yardsticks of civilisation always seem to rest in the hands of the next generation. But that is the kind of escapism we allow ourselves to wallow in when we hand over the batons of our failure to our children and bequeath to them tiny spaces wrapped in concrete instead of the wonderful lightness of being that a green Earth brings.
(Gautam Benegal is a filmmaker and writer )