IN FIRST PERSON
Talking of my city
Photo: Paul Noronha
Mumbai, the city of illusions, has decided to turn itself into a Western city. Selectively… JERRY PINTO
Westwards ho! A city in a hurry.
In front of my home, a huge crack developed in the ground and swallowed up a theatre. Green and yellow tin sheets were put up to cover the death of Citylight Cinema, local landmark and the second-last single-screen theatre in Mahim. The work proceede
d and from time to time, the urchins who scramble for scraps inside the Gopi Tank Market would stop and watch as slowly, a metal dinosaur would dig its teeth into the earth and scoop out another big chunk of soil.
And then, one day, we saw the first slender column of another mall of Mumbai. Not everyone was delighted. The island city of Mumbai is a narrow strip of land, pointing into the sea. To get from South to North, there are three roads one of which is Lady Jamshedji, named after the benefactress who built the causeway that links the city to the huge hinterland of suburbs which inches further north every year. This means that each evening my street is a nightmare of noise and nerves scraped raw by stop-start traffic. A mall here is only going to make things worse.
But there is nothing one can do. There is no way to fight a city that is intent on reinventing itself. Mumbai has always been the city that has been willing to try anything. It has now decided to try and turn itself into a foreign city. It does not actually want to be Shanghai. That’s an Eastern city and Mumbai has always looked west. Whoever first defined Shanghai as the idealised urban other for Mumbai was being politically correct. Few Mumbaikars line up to go to Shanghai, unless there’s a deal to be cut there. Most Mumbaikars would love to go to Dubai. Or London. Or New York.
But this is also the city of the illusion. And therefore no one actually wants to do anything that would turn us into a city like New York. Some years ago, the citizens of Bandra, a tony suburb, decided to build themselves a nice promenade. In order to keep it clean, they decided that no dogs could be walked there unless the owner/walker was carrying a pooper-scooper, an implement with which the doggie-do could be cleaned up. A few weeks later, a friend asked the guard how come the area was covered in piles of pooch potty. The guard shrugged. He had asked a certain gentleman to clean up after his dogs, he said. The gentleman had told him that he had killed several people and would not hesitate to add the guard’s name to his list.
That’s my city.
Matters of faith
Some years ago, the city flooded. We were told it was our fault. We were dumping so much garbage in the Mithi River, also known as the Mahim Creek, that it had been unable to drain the water from the interior of the city. For a while, everyone went around trying to do his or her bit. But if you have a pooja ghar and you have flowers to offer your favourite deity, and if those flowers wilt, what’s a woman to do? She has so much work, poor dear, so she stuffs the flowers into a plastic bag and when the local train she catches to work crosses the Mithi River, as it must, she throws her plastic bag into the river with a muttered prayer. A Hindu friend who has just moved from London watched in awe as hundreds of little bags were dropped after a local festival. She asked the woman sitting next to her whether she had heard about the floods. The woman, a government bureaucrat, was loquacious about her experiences, oh my goodness, how she had walked home, god only knows. Hadn’t she been told about the Mithi River? She had, but the government would say anything to get out of its duty, said the faithful government servant. And this was a matter of faith and in matters of faith; she would not allow anyone to tell her what to do.
That’s also my city.
Many years ago, I sat in a sociology class in the Elphinstone College. The head of the sociology department convened a seminar on urban sociology. Several eminent speakers were invited. As her commencement speech, the head of the sociology department said that she had often driven from the airport and wondered at what a terrible first impression this city must create on outsiders, as they passed miles and miles of slums. A huge wall should be built, she said, to cover these up.
That’s the educational system of my city and its response to the problem.
An aged aunt returns from London and says what most of our middle-class aged aunts say. She says it is such a clean city. She says she would love to live there. I ask her whether she would be able to manage without her servants. She adjusts the folds of her well-starched sari and rings for tea. She tells me that she would have a servant there. When I tell her the minimum wage expected by servants in London, she thinks I am joking. But she says she is quite willing to take a girl from Jharkhand or Orissa with her. She says without any irony that she would take a girl who does not speak English so she would not be able to talk to people there and get ideas about being paid minimum wage and all that.
It isn’t my city. It’s my people.
The Indian dreams of New York but he has no idea that he will have to wake up and iron his own Y-fronts; that he will have to wake up in the early morning to shift his car from one side of the street to the other because of parking regulations; that he will not be able to be rude to waiters; that he will be fined when he breaks the rules.
This is a city of illusions so we will let him dream on.
But across the road, the danger of illusion making is suddenly apparent. On February 26, a slab collapsed in the building of the mall and 13 people were killed according to a UNI report. Most local newspapers found little time for those people who died. They were the poor and the poor must be hidden behind a wall.
A huge wall near the airport.
A wall of green and yellow tin.
Any kind of wall.
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