Having grown up in the megalopolis, I have an obvious emotional attachment to Mumbai. Which is why when at a studio discussion this week, when a panelist referred to the ‘Maximum City’ registering minimum voting as a sign of Mumbai’s ‘resident non-Indian’ mentality, I felt aggrieved.
Surely, a city with the energy and enterprise of Mumbai, a city which literally never sleeps, can’t be seen through such a cynical worldview. And yet, as voting day for the Maharashtra assembly elections wore on, it became apparent that Mumbai was struggling to pass Pappu’s electoral test. The overall voting percentage was just around 45 per cent, only a shade better than the disgraceful 43 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections, and well below the state average of 60 per cent. If Naxal-affected Gadchiroli could see a voter turnout of 63 per cent, what stopped half of Mumbai’s enlightened citizenry from coming out and voting?
Perhaps, it’s the same reason that stopped them from speaking out when Karan Johar had to apologise to Raj Thackeray for referring Mumbai as Bombay in one of his films. It’s also possibly the reason why, within weeks of angrily claiming that ‘enough is enough’ in the aftermath of 26/11, Mumbaikars seemed to have allowed the government to whitewash its role in the utter mishandling of the terror attack.
Maybe, it’s the same mindset that has chosen to watch the city being reduced to a giant slum by a political class, which sees slum-dwellers as one large votebank and little else. Perhaps, that’s also why year after depressing year the city goes under water in the monsoons. It also explains why no one has been able to challenge the builder-babu-neta nexus, which has allowed the mangroves and green areas to be concretised. You commute for aeons in a creaking railway system, flyovers don’t get built on time, a sealink takes years to come up, dilapidated buildings remain hostage to antiquated laws: nothing seems to change.
A look at the morning papers will give you a sense of how the city lives in a bubble of its own. Nowhere has Page 3 been merged as effortlessly into Page 1 as in Mumbai. Shah Rukh’s trousseau, Salman’s antics, Priyanka’s twittering — Mumbai seems to have magnified the trivial and made Bollywood its temple of worship.
It wasn’t always like this. This is the city that had a ringside view to the freedom movement. It was here that Gandhi gave his clarion Quit India call, where Jinnah cut his political teeth, where Ambedkar shaped his ideological fervour. It was a city whose professional middle class was deeply engaged in public life. The 1960s, for example, were a period of political churning, with the likes of the Congress’s S.K. Patil, the communist leader S.A. Dange, the firebrand George Fernandes and the demagogue Bal Thackeray fiercely competing for political space. The 1967 election of South Mumbai is seen as a defining moment: the socialist Fernandes defeating the city’s then uncrowned king, Patil. Could anyone imagine in today’s Mumbai a trade unionist with meager resources being able to take on the mighty political machine backed by the all-powerful real estate empire? When did it all change? Most analysts suggest it was the failed Datta Samant-led textile strike of the 1980s that broke the soul of a city and deprived it of a large industrial workforce that almost acted as a buffer between the elite and the poor. The strike led to mill closures, massive unemployment and left the labour movement discredited and leaderless.
The 1992-93 riots and bomb blasts ended up communally dividing a city’s ersatz cosmopolitanism. A Mumbai of mixed neighbourhoods was now a city of hostile communities. The underworld was now overground as gangs bypassed the legal machinery for dispute resolution. The political class was building its own self-protective mechanism by engaging in rapid capital accumulation. Unemployment, crime, communalism, corruption: Mumbai was nestling on a tinderbox.
Rather than confront a difficult situation, a large number of elite and middle class Mumbaikars have chosen the soft option: secede mentally, if not physically from the world around them. Who cares what happens to Naxalism in Gadchiroli so long as the violence is confined to a distant border of Maharashtra? Farmers can commit suicide in Vidarbha. But so long as malls are well-stocked, why be concerned? North Indian students may get beaten up while appearing for an exam. But till our son can take his SAT and GMAT and apply to an American university, how does an attack on migrants change our lives?
Okay, so the potholed roads trouble us, we don’t like getting stuck in a traffic jam and, yes, we hate being caught in a flooded street. But at the end of the day, that’s the price one pays for living in India. In any case, there is always the escapist fantasy world of Bollywood or Bigg Boss to turn to for succour.
What’s true of Mumbai could be equally true of all our mega-cities, each dominated by a mindset that is self-centred, depoliticised and perhaps resembling that of a ‘resident non-Indian’. Maybe I was wrong to have believed that Mumbai was different. Maybe, it’s time to snap out of the sepia-tinted nostalgia that is still Mumbai for me.
The views expressed by the author are personal