' Mumbai - A City Growing Numb?

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Mumbai - A City Growing Numb?
By Oliver Sutari
Oliver Sutari, based in Manipal, is a spiritual counsellor, motivational speaker, freelance writer and an avid photographer. For more information, visit www.oliversutari.com, or write to oliversutari@gmail.com

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.


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Comments on this article
Agnello, Mangalore/MuscatWednesday, April 03, 2013
Oliver Sutari's point of view is well taken.But its true of every mega city. Once out of your comfort zone everyone is on his own.But one can see high level of cooperation beween people in chawls , slums and single room apartment blocks.The old and infirm in these areas can live just with the help from neighbours. One can find a roof for a new comer in a room shared by five to six people. Those simple poor folk will help you get around in Mumbai and even find a job. I can corroborate this with my personal experience.
Mumbaikars show a great spirit in times of calamities and I again can testify to this with my experience in the '93 Mumbai blasts and the flooding.
Its true its tough to live in Mumbai and it takes time to get used to the life out there but its also true if you have grit(with no godfathers) you can make it in Mumbai than any other city in India. Mangalore included.
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Manohar Veigas, UDUPIMonday, April 01, 2013
This article on Mumbai really touched me for the reason that I was born and brought up in the City as any other son of the soil there. I remember feeling embarrassed when my School/College Leaving Certificate mentioned my Place of Birth as MANGALORE, the place planned by my parents as being the first child, to be born in their native place. I will never forget my inner strength and confidence I inherit because of the all-round rich experience I nourished from the life of Mumbai City. I agree with the Writer's opinion only to add that Mumbai City started changing for the worst from the early 90s with influx of labour migrants from the North. I too reluctantly opted out of the City in 1997 to settle in Udupi and since then not at all embarrassed to the mention of MANGALORE in my Leaving Certificate. But I proudly consider myself to be a Mumbaikar and continue to converse with my brother in marathi, the language we used while playing with our friends in the compound of our Housing Society in Mulund. Above all, I should thank my parents for giving me the opportunity to be midst the life of that Mumbai of the past and also for keeping us identified with our native place, which by destiny has become our new Home. But Mumbai will always be cherished in my mind.
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John Tauro, Mangalore / KuwaitMonday, April 01, 2013
Mumbai is city that makes me feel at home whenever I go on vacation from Kuwait. While I am settled in Mangalore, I don't feel I had been to India if I don't stay in Mumbai at least for a few days during the course of my vacation. Indeed it's Amchi Mumbai.
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shalini salian, mangaloreMonday, April 01, 2013
True to some extent. Population has increased multifold. but I have sweet memories about mumbai. having born n brought up in mumbai i feel i was in the right place in my childhood. it was a city where one had lots of opportunities waiting. there was scope in every field. by the age of 19 i had cleared PSC we exams n joined govt job. gradually i completed my double graduation. having settled now in mangalore i feel we r still 20 yrs behind mumbai. educational institutions have grown up but job wise there is very less scope for our children. after finishing their education they have to immediately leave this city for good. Mumbai has plenty to offer. it is really a happening city.
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Rudolf Rodrigues, Mangalore/MumbaiMonday, April 01, 2013
I have been without fail reading with great interest Oliver Sutari's articles on various issues and his wise counselling ideas and solutions for them!! However, here as Jasmine and af few others, I too am not at all in agreement with his views on Mumbai!
Being born and brought up in Mumbai, and presently living in Mangluru since the last 2 years, I have experienced the difference and literally missing this great city of Mumbai!! People have to work in clock work precision to reach their work destinations on time even a miss of 2 mins, he misses his regular train, bus and will get a late remark at the office!! Mumbai is a melting pot of all possible people representing all the places from our country, but still living in close love, understanding, and amity!! I have experienced this myself right from living in single room tenements with just a curtain as partition for the bath place!! It is a city which makes dreams come true!! More than 25% of the IT comes from Mumbai!! The infrastructure too has improved by leaps and bounds!! Just see how professionally the BEST transport works and also the suburban trains, impeccable!! In the recent huge floods that literally converted it into a sea, the electricity/water supply was set right in 36 hours!! It is city which can boast of a cheaper living option to all those who inhabit it unlike DK!! It is true a person who has taken the pressures of living there can survive anywhere and with anyone!! It is one of the best cities!!
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Donald , Mangalore/BolarSunday, March 31, 2013
When I was in Mumbai Bandra west., At somanath lane boys were playing cricket. I was staying at Rebello House. Now I often visit this place at night i get confusion to locate my Rebello house apartment., because of many apartments near by. I liked this article because i too feel the same like the author.
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Jasmine, Mumbai, Mangalore, QatarSunday, March 31, 2013
Me. Sutari I enjoy reading your articles but this time I feel sad. I too have been born and raised in Mumbai and am settling in Mangalore today, but that is not for the reasons you have mentioned. What you have written about Mumbai is true if you see it in the eyes of a visitor. If you have grown up there then you would have seen the love, affection n concern mumbaikers have whether in a crowded market place, a packed train or in your own neighbourhood. Mumbai is a home for everyone, anyone can survive there, yes it is crowded, packed, breaking at its seams ... But it is a place where you are welcomed, accepted, and at the same time left to be yourself. I have beautiful memories of Mumbai, of our neighbours, train friends, office friends, etc. total strangers you could trust, share or even just ignore depending on your mood. I surely will miss all this in Mangalore, but then every city has its own charm.
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Mumbaikar, MumbaiSunday, March 31, 2013
Happy Easter Sir. You are entitled to your opinion. I have no idea whatever crossed your mind to be writing such an article. Fine if you want to crib and move away its fine. Only a true Mumbaikar knows inspite of all the hustle, bustle and the muck and dirt what it means to be living in Mumbai. I Love Mumbai and living in any part of the world will not take away that love from me.
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Ronnie, Kinnigoli/CanadaSunday, March 31, 2013
Well written, below is my take on current Mumbai:

Constant water shortages, non functioning elevators, surrounded by filth, stench, engulfed in smog and smoke, people defecating in the open, overcrowded public transport, amalgamation of sweat odour, irritating eyes, suffocation, deafening noise levels, inherent rude manners, educated and the illiterate speaking the same lingo, disrespect to each other, looters and thugs from political parties and underworld all operating in harmony, synonymous with secret pockets for your trousers tailored in the city, puzzling traffic flow on the streets which are mostly standstill or hard to distinguish which way is the flow direction, abrupt turns and U-turns - living hell or dream world? Yet properties so called apartments which are in shambles being sold for tens of million rupees... I fail to accept that India is a poor country!
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ad, manglooorSaturday, March 30, 2013
True, but Mumbai is Mumbai. Living in Mumbai, despite all this nightmare, people still love Mumbai because it is a place where there is no boredom, indeed a happening place-Amchi Mumbai.
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A. S. Mathew, U.S.A.Saturday, March 30, 2013
Very true and an open story of the real Mumbai. Even when I saw Mumbai in 1971, the train travel experience was too intimidating and while passing through the slums and poverty striken areas of the city was very heartbreaking. Now, it is very hard to imagine based upon the experience more than 42 years back.
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