Mumbai’s crime is its intellectual death
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Mumbaikars again showed their spirit last week when their precious suburban train system was running late. They did what they have done before to make things better: Vandalize the railways, burn state property and attack train drivers to extort better services in future from the government.
Of all the things one is inflicted on by that city’s residents, the most tiresome is that called the spirit of Mumbai. One day, 10 years ago, after Mumbai was flooded and swamped and incapacitated by clogged gutters, Shravan Garg, a friend who was then editing the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, came visiting. He remarked on the front page of the paper I was then editing and said another paper had framed the real story better. Which was what? I asked. The spirit of Mumbai, he said.
This spirit is best expressed by visuals of trains full of Mumbai residents going to work the day after a calamity. The spirit of Mumbai. I do not like this awful phrase. I find its essence revolting. It is a celebration of Indian selfishness: “Oh, look! I’ve survived and am off to work again.”
Writing some years ago in The New Yorker after yet another bomb attack in the city, journalist Naresh Fernandes observed:
“Vegetable vendors did a brisk trade in spinach and sour limes, and hundreds of commuters streamed past on their way to the nearby train station. The city’s ability to pick itself up and march right back to work in this way has, after previous attacks, routinely been hailed by politicians and society leaders as evidence of the indomitable ‘spirit of Mumbai’. Thursday morning, that cliché was notably absent in the newspapers and on TV. In fact, for the first time, Mumbai citizens were expressing an antipathy towards that phrase. Perhaps they were finally mindful that politicians who had praised the spirit of Mumbai had used this presumed resilience as an excuse to absolve themselves of the need to take the difficult decisions necessary to actually make the city safer and more livable.”
But it will be back, of course, though we saw more of the true spirit of Mumbai last week and it is expressed as “get me to my office or I’ll be violent”.
Mumbai should justly be convicted of greater crimes than selfishness. Flying out of the city to Bengaluru, the plane taking off goes over the waters, and then turns south. At this point passengers on the port side can see south Mumbai in full. It is dismayingly small. To those who have experienced landing at, say, Chicago, or London, the great island city of South Asia seems little more than a few grey and dusty neighbourhoods clumped together. “From its island body,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his 1926 book, Jesting Pilate, “Bombay radiates...suburban squalor into the land.” No different today of course and, in fact, worse.
But all of that is not the real problem. The crime of Mumbai is to be intellectually dead and pathetically helpless.
I once took the bus tour around Dublin, a city of around 500,000 people. Showing us the sights, including the Irish city’s finest landmark (the Guinness brewery), the driver would every so often casually point out the homes of famous Dubliners. The list was impressive: George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Bono, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, the Duke of Wellington, George Berkeley, Bram Stoker, Francis Bacon and Bob Geldof.
On and on it went. Every neighbourhood and every street of that small town had produced someone of global fame and genuine quality. This roll-call of names had a larger purpose. It showed off what the town’s culture was.
I thought about what such a tour would be like in Mumbai, where I then lived. What could be shown there? “Here’s Salman’s house. That’s the Ambani family’s tower. And look, there’s Kareena’s flat.” That’s how it would go. I was talking to the historian Ramachandra Guha a few days ago about this and he asked whether I liked being away from Mumbai.
“There is no one in the place to have a conversation with,” I said to him grandly, “since Rafiq Zakaria died.” He thought about that and then said, “What about Naresh?” (ruining a perfectly good sweeping statement.)
Fair enough. Perhaps there are other people, but that doesn’t absolve Mumbai from being a place that is dull unless one is interested in the stock market or Bollywood, neither of which interest me. The stock market Gujaratis, and business folk generally, are not thrilling company. Bollywood and Versova are vacuous and pretentious.
Mumbai’s suburbs are, each of them, built as little narrow-minded ghettos. Here the Tamilians, there the Marathi Brahmins. I was born in Vile Parle (East) and was outraged to know at the age of 8 that Mumbai (it was always Mumbai in Gujarati) was in Maharashtra and not in Gujarat. Everybody around me, from Dr Gandhi to the tailor Khimjibhai to the Irani hotel, spoke Gujarati even to strangers. I’m sure it’s the same today. Huxley writes of attending a meeting of Mumbai legislators where “the speeches, all but that of Mrs (Sarojini) Naidu, who gave us English eloquence, were in Gujarati, and for me,...no better than gibberish”.
Elsewhere, the Punjabis have done to Lokhandwala what they would do to any place. There is a restaurant there called Sasural. More need not be said. The Sindhis made Powai’s Hiranandani Gardens. It is pretty, if one likes advertising shoot locations, and looks foreign. But it doesn’t have any character and isn’t a community, as Catholic Bandra or Parsi south Mumbai are.
The whole city is overrated in every way. I am being overly cruel, yes, and with its film-making and money-making, it is not a horrible place.
Having moved there from Surat, I thought Mumbai was great, and it is, but only because it is situated in an otherwise dreadful part of the world. By itself, there is little its residents have done to improve upon their British inheritance, and their spirit, forever helpless and beholden to the state and its services, is nothing to write home about.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns