January 12, 2011

Juhu Beach.

Across the harbour the vertical city of the rich
keeps rising — grotesque heads on unsteady shoulders.
The slum city of asbestos squats at its ankles,
huddled behind a smokestack.

- Keki N. Daruwalla, Mandwa

N 19 05 47 E 72 49 34

One of the most prominent beaches in Mumbai (Bombay) is the six kilometer stretch parallel to Juhu Tara Road, connecting the uptown suburbs of Old Khar West and Juhu. A favourite spot of local filmmakers, no doubt providing an inexpensive backdrop complete with dramatic sunsets, it's long been the cheapest and most viable destination for family outings to many of the city's nearly fourteen million inhabitants. A recent drive to clean the beach up has resulted in some four kilometers suitable for romantic strolls, if passage can be found among the crowds pouring in by cars and buses, though the beach still remains unsuitable for swimming or sunbathing.

To actually reach the beach one has to brave the incessantly bleating traffic — a seemingly mad flock of birds of every feather teeming hither and yon which with some practice does begin to make sense after a while. Drivers don't hang on their horn so much in anger as attempt to alert others of their presence, or simply try to dispense helpful suggestions. Once seated at a café, sipping the domestic franchise espresso which appears to be the sole alternative to the otherwise predominant instant coffee, observing starched, uniformed children being delivered home from school by auto rickshaws, it's even possible to forget about the multitudinous peddlers on the beach, the precarious sidewalk, and the various flocks of beasts of burden and bedraggled street-urchins (estimated at 18 million in India) accompanying one along the way.

However, the most direct threat to the beach's integrity is posed by the nearby Juhu Aerodrome, where plans to extend the runway of what is now a parking plot for the helicopters and jets of the rich and famous would claim part of the seafront, jutting out into the Arabian Sea and cutting the beach in half. So far, the extension plans have been denied permission to proceed by the Indian Government's Ministry of Environment and Forests, but in a polity such as India's it can surely only be a question of time before the right palms have been greased up in the required fashion.

Aviation has been part of the beach's history since 1928, when the Juhu Aerodrome, the closest and oldest of the three airports in the area, first opened. As the flightpath of international travelers takes them across the beach on their way to (or from) the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (known as the Sahar International Airport before Hindu-nationalist fervour overtook the nation), they'll pass over the former main airport of the city, the Santa Cruz Airport (now the main domestic airport), as well as the Juhu strip where the first pilot and two apprentice mechanics of what would one day become Air India were based.

Their original palm-thatched roof hut long since swept away by development, and the desires of the well-heeled and tony, who have flocked to Juhu ever since Jamsetji Tata (1839 - 1904) — the "father of Indian Industry" — bought a plot here back in the 1890s. Perhaps more than any other family, the Tatas have left their indelible mark on Juhu, as it was Jamsetji's first cousin once removed Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (1904 - 1993) who founded Air India's predecessor Tata Airlines in 1932. Increasingly though, Juhu — as well as the Pali Hill neighbourhood in Old Khar along the beach's southern end — has become the preserve of Bollywood stars, industrialists, and assorted "business" wallas seeking refuge from the less affluent inhabitants of the world's second most populous city.

Additional photography by Shauna Wilton.

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