March 30, 2013
I grew up in the suburb of Bandra West and as a kid, a lot of us would gather and play cricket on Sundays in the streets near my house. This was in the early ‘70s when vehicular interruptions were extremely rare. In the late ‘80s, my mother was afflicted by Parkinson’s syndrome. By then, taking her on the wheel chair on those very streets had become a perilous undertaking and my mother, like so many elderly and infirm people, was forced to remain imprisoned in our own home till she passed away.
Today, it is risky even to stand by the roadside. And the city is so noisy that people have to talk on top of their voices on the phone to be heard. If you have noticed, if you call anyone in Mumbai, you hear more of honking and other street vocal clutter than anything else.
Every once in a while, people talk with great pride about Mumbai; they call it a very “happening” place, but the underlying factor that attracts people here is money. No one in their right sense can consciously love Mumbai – not with its open drains, pot-holed and painfully congested roads, densely polluted and foul-smelling air, utter lack of road discipline, absence of pavements and zebra crossings, and its stinking market places. Whether you consciously love Mumbai, or have simply fallen in love with it, the city is not for the faint-hearted. It will either make you, or break you.
It is an acceptable mantra that if you can commute in Mumbai’s trains, you can travel anywhere in the world; and if you have lived in Mumbai, then you can survive in any city of the world. That is how tough this city makes you. The common joke that goes around is that all you need to do to get into a train is the stand in its doorway. And, you do the same if you want to get out. Anyone who has commuted in Mumbai’s swelled up trains, that are bursting at its seams, will tell you that this is exactly what happens.
People are quick to point out that no one ever comes to help those in danger. This is true for two reasons. Firstly, no one notices and even if they do, they either don’t have the time; or, no one wants to get into any trouble. Forty or fifty years ago, one could intervene in a quarrel between strangers. Today one has to think about the guns and other weapons that just about anyone carries. Remaining sane on a daily basis by itself is an enormous challenge a Mumbaikar must face in a city which has an infrastructure that can be best described as ‘worse than dismal.’
Just about everyone seems to have connections – right from the rich to the man living in the slums. The rich get away with anything because they move with – as they boast – the police and politicians in their pockets. The poor belong to a vote bank no greedy politicians can ignore. For instance, those living in illegal dwellings are paid in tens of lakhs to vacate if any development project comes up. People belonging to the middle class remain right in the middle and usually get into all sorts of trouble if they do something wrong. Take income tax, for example. The very rich are seldom troubled by the income tax officials. A majority of the middle income group pays taxes upfront by way of TDS and they struggle to get a refund, even years after they file their returns.
Travelling in a rickshaw even for a day in the suburbs of Mumbai gives the visitor an idea of the dire straits this city is in; and, how numb-hearted it has made its people. No one wants to give an inch. And, if no one does it, why should I? is the common refrain. Out on the streets it appears that people are engaged in nothing except racing the one next to them. In fact, I imagine from a bird’s-eye perspective, the people living in Mumbai seem to be doing just that, right from seven in the morning, until way past midnight.
I asked one lady why she had moved out of Mumbai. She said, “Even in my sleep, the mind seemed to be overworking.” As plain as it may sound, this calls for some contemplation.
As I was growing up, I remember my father telling me that Mumbai will see a lot of improvement. I was cynical about the trenches that were being dug on newly paved roads to lay telephone lines. I could not blame my father for his optimism. As an East Indian of Mumbai, whose ancestry went way, way back, he had seen swathes of forests and marshy lands, including snakes and scorpions in his grandparents’ backyard. For him any sign of improvement was a big thing.
I remember telling my father that to me it never made sense why anyone should dig up newly paved roads. This was nearly 35 years to 40 years ago. By the time my father passed away a few years ago, he continued to frustratingly witness the same digging and refilling of trenches. Have the modern-thinking civic authorities changed? New trenches can still be seen all over the city. Many women have delivered babies in taxis, thanks to potholes. Many will still tell you that Mumbai is improving.
Since pavements are illegally occupied by hawkers, garbage bins “decorate” the already congested streets; and people must negotiate vehicles, overflowing garbage, hawkers and more people. On most streets near shopping centers and market places, pedestrians reach faster than those arriving in vehicles.
Some years ago, I was driving in Mumbai and there was a massive traffic jam under a bridge. A friend – who was new to Mumbai - was with me at the time and he looked quite miffed. I told him there was one good thing about traffic jams and that they are not partial to anyone. He was wondering what I was trying to tell him until I pointed out a multi-millionaire in a huge foreign vehicle also biding his time just next to us. I will never forget the smile on his face which looked like it had been struck by enlightenment.
Several years ago, while crossing a railway bridge, a woman got an allergic attack from all the dust and the fumes that now envelopes everyone’s skin. She reached for her anti-histamine spray only to find, to her horror, that the little cannister was empty. As she struggled, gasping for breath, people just watched her die.
A few years ago, while some people were busy celebrating Diwali with firecrackers, the heavy smoke caused a severe allergic reaction in a small child travelling with his parents in a rickshaw. The child died in the arms of his father; the rickshaw could not move one inch past the road jam. What kind of horror the parents experienced that fateful moment only they will know.
Every new project we see in Mumbai – be it the new bridges, or the metrorail – will not do much to reduce anyone’s woes, simply because they have come twenty to twenty five years late. Every single inch of road space is getting filled with vehicles and the expansion of roads is simply not able to cope with their burgeoning population. To add to the people’s woes, almost every project is mired in protests and stay orders, and no project ever gets completed on schedule.
Many, without realizing, say that Mumbai is getting bad. The truth is Mumbai’s woeful state has reached its limits. As one taxi driver, who was in a catharsis mode, told me, “Mumbai is in such a mess that even God will think twice before intervening.” This may be true because to construct more buildings, devious builders have eyed properties owned by churches. In what is surely a nexus between builders and the government, the government is trying to pry land from various churches.
For those struggling to eke out a living, it is indeed commendable that they can go on and on, overcoming hurdles because they have no choice. I salute them.
Many feel that Mumbai is a happening place. I agree. A lot is happening, but hardly anything that does good for its inhabitants.
Let’s look at the cost of real estate. To think that people pay crores of rupees to own flats and, in return, take in all the filth the city throws at them is nothing short of confounding.
Like the movie directors and actors, who promise you that their forthcoming film is a must-see, and leave you exasperated with the same ‘mirch-masala’ told in a different manner, Mumbai is selling on lies and unkept promises.
My roots run deep in Mumbai; however, I had to make a choice between struggling daily and probably losing my mind, or moving out to retain my sanity. And that is how I chose to settle in South Kanara as my wife hails from this area.
Several years ago, a commuter was found in a sitting position by the window of one of the Churchgate-Virar suburban trains, with a newspaper resting on his laps. With hundreds of passengers moving in and out of the train, and so many sharing space around him, no one noticed that the person had stopped breathing. By the time some passengers realized it, the train had commuted back and forth half a dozen times. I suppose that sums up how numb most people of Mumbai have become.
Today, one good deed that happens in Mumbai becomes an eye-catcher because of its rarity. Atleast it keeps one hopeful that in some corner humanity is still alive.
Oliver Sutari - Archives:
- Photo Feature: Magical Karnataka
- Loneliness: The Dark Reality - 2
- Loneliness: The Dark Reality - 1
- We Adopted You: To Reveal or Not To?
- The Things We Say
- Wounds From The Womb...
- Restraint Above Reaction
- The Blame Game
- What are we Pursuing?
- Rekindling Love
- Sowing Seeds of Love
- Power of Human Will
- We Reap What we Sow...