The world and even India have left Mumbai far behind

Photo: HT
Photo: HT


It doesn’t offer anything that other cities don’t but it’s the notion of home that makes people stay

About eight years ago when the first Mumbai Metro line opened, the passengers gawked like ancient rustics at the swanky air-conditioned cars, and the automatic doors. It was all so new to them. Purely from their reactions, they did not look like residents of one of the largest urban economies of the world.

This January, two more sections of two more metro lines opened, and the reactions of the people were the same because the people of Mumbai are still not used to what is basic infrastructure not only in the urban world but also in urban India. Most of Mumbai still travels in humid trains that cannot be air-conditioned because commuters spill out of the cars, dangling all the way, some of them falling to their deaths almost every day. In fact, most of Mumbai is not used to air-conditioned public buses or even taxis. Its traffic congestion today is among the worst in the world because it does not have enough roads. It is only now that some infrastructural projects are nearing completion, or starting.

This was once a great city, but has regressed so much that today, even by Asian standards, it is merely a small town with a lot of people in it. Even in the form of modern urban entertainment, it has nothing beyond food. Yes, women are generally safer on the roads, if you do not count the New Year’s eve.

Life was, for long, hard in the city. It was always a gigantic urban design flaw. But, like most great cities, it had a right to make you suffer. Because it offered something in return. There was an unspoken agreement between “Bombay" as it was called once, and its people, especially its new people. In return for its flaws, Bombay offered a way of life that was not available anywhere else in India or in many parts of the world.

If you consider the great cities of the world like New York or even Shanghai and Bangkok, they do compress space and suffocate, but in return they offer the joy of a modern city that is unique in the world or at least in the region. In that way, there is meaning to the congestion. People flock to a city in large numbers, or remain, for a reason. Mumbai offers nothing unique anymore. Not even higher pay when compared to other big Indian cities.

I was 21 when I moved to Bombay and by my first evening I accepted that my home would be a debasing place. But in all other ways, life in the city was better than the places that raised me, and that was not only because I was single. Bombay, in the mid-90s was still many notches above any other Indian city. It had uninterrupted electricity supply, which was a novel experience for an Indian. Even though it did not have a great road-length, its traffic congestion was less than in Madras. I saw concrete roads for the first time. There were several bars, and night clubs. The girls were, to borrow an expression from Madras, “broad-minded". India was and is a republic against fun, but Bombay was not. In important ways, Bombay was not even India. There were the sort of people here whom you could not find anywhere else. The cultural elite and patrons of art were distinct.

All the wondrous things the world was inventing then came to India through Bombay first. The mobile and internet coverage was the best in India. The stray dogs, too, were large, well-fed and happier than anywhere else in the nation. Except for space, there was abundance.

Yet, even then it was not hard to see that Bombay was deteriorating from the time when the self-interest of the British, Parsis and Gujaratis created it. Bombay was a city that had a shot at greatness. But then it was impoverished by petty men who did not have the vision even to be corrupt in a grand way. The people of modern Mumbai are like children from wealthy families who have been abducted by a syndicate of beggars, their genetic destiny altered into a third-rate life. Mumbai is an abduction, from our own rightful destiny.

Today, Mumbai offers nothing that other big cities don’t. Even its identity as “financial capital" is obsolete. What does the term even mean anymore? The biggest myth of the city even in its better days is the notion that everyone here is terribly busy with some important thing. You make a guy run behind a train, he will look busy. There is nothing more to it. It is just a mirage of urban preoccupation. What is left of Mumbai is only its suffocation and the petty sizes of homes. It certainly has improved in one aspect. Until about 10 years ago, only the rich could live in a building that had lawns and pools, and many billionaires did not have even that. But today the upper middle-class can find residential buildings that have a pool and a gym. Even in this redeeming quality, there is nothing special about Mumbai. Other cities offer better homes at half the price.

But then people don’t quit Mumbai easily. They search for reasons to explain this and find dubious virtues—like “energy", which is just another word for “congestion", and a phenomenal nonsense called “spirit of Mumbai", which this column has explained before is merely people going to work against all odds because their homes are worse than their offices.

The real reason people find it hard to quit Mumbai is in the notion of home. A home has two powerful elements. Family and familiarity. Mumbai is just too familiar for those who are used to it. That is why the location of home is a matter of great luck, like the people who fill it. For some people, the location of home is a curse.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’.

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