A few days back I had a chance to visit the eponymous Shivaji Park (in Dadar), accompanying my eleven-year old for her weekly athletics training. Having grown up a walking distance away from this oasis of greenery, the park occupies a special place in the pages of my nostalgic memory bank. For our family, this has always been “the Park” – a place where we virtually grew up spending most of our evenings.
The oval-shaped ground has a lush green cover with a well-laid walking track that is just over a kilometer long, which makes it ideal for people of all ages, shapes and sizes to take their daily walk. The park is also peppered with neatly organized eateries and food carts, that cater to different gastronomic palates, providing varied eating options to one and all. The park also boasts of a Scout Hall, which doubles up in the evenings as a marriage venue. It also has a couple of sports clubs which groom aspiring athletes, cricketers, footballers, tennis and table tennis players. As a walker in this park you cannot avoid the shouts of aspiring cricketers requesting you to return the ball which may have inevitably rolled across onto the walking track. You will come across fitness freaks who walk with a permanent frown on their faces – as if they hold some grouse against the not-so-fit walkers. You will also see casual walkers who leisurely saunter along just to enjoy the verdant environs of the park. You will see senior citizens either walking alone, or in groups, animatedly debating with each other on variegated topics. There would also be the ones who just sit on the low-rise concrete platform that encircles the park. Of course, the park is also frequented by some lovelorn lotharios, who turn up in the futile hope of catching the attention of some of the pretty ladies who come for a stroll. But irrespective of whoever you come across, you will always find a sea of happy faces and a general sense of bonhomie among the people.
On the western perimeter is the huge statue of King Shivaji (hence the name), below which is a popular temple that is frequented by most walkers. Across the road from this temple is one of Mumbai’s biggest swimming pool and a stone’s throw away is the famous Dadar beach. In case you are tired of walking, you can hop across to the beach and dip your tired feet in the tranquil waters of the Arabian Sea. Another set of local epicurean delights await you at the beach, with horse and camel rides thrown in for good measure. An evening in this park or beach can be quite an enriching experience. My earliest memory of the park is of the time when my mother would take me there (I must have been four) and we would play hide and seek. She would hide behind the tree-trunk of some tree, and I would go seeking her. As I grew older, I graduated to playing tennis-ball cricket with friends. My aunt stays right across the park, so as the sun made its unhurried trek down to meet the horizon, we would go for leisurely walks with cousins and parents. Inevitably, we would amble over to the beach, relax in the soft sand and end up having bhel puri. That was a different era, so it did not matter how unhealthy or insalubrious the food was – it tasted awesome and that was all that mattered.
There are certain occasions when the locals avoid the park. One of them is when it is taken over by politicians, who in the name of political sermons spew venom and propagate their bigoted views on the gullible public. This ground also plays an unwilling host to hordes of people visiting Mumbai to pay homage to their mentor and guide, Dr B R Ambedkar, who is enshrined in a memorial on the shores of the aforementioned beach. For a week every year the locals assiduously avoid the park, since the reverent doctor’s followers make it their residence, staying in the temporary tents put up by the authorities, and unabashedly carrying out their morning ablations in the open. During this period, the ground becomes a veritable fortress, with entry strictly prohibited for health-conscious walkers and sports-loving kids. The idea behind allowing this annual “pilgrimage” is noble, but it has now become a dogmatic show of electoral strength and a superfluous drama of reservation politics. I personally have nothing against uplifting the downtrodden, through constitutional amendments if needed, but if the benefits being provided blatantly transcend the rights of the general public, then it becomes a recipe for disaster in an aspirational country like India.
Though my recent visit to Shivaji Park was after almost a decade, I was elated to see that the sea of happy faces and sense of bonhomie still endures. The only difference being that there are more benches for people to sit, and sturdy safety nets protect walkers from stray cricket balls. In the midst of the unmitigated stress of life in Mumbai having this verdurous haven of happiness is most welcome, and must-see for all.