Millennium Post

The spirit of Mumbai and other fairy tales

City Adrift: A short biography of Bombay is a myth buster. There are about as many myths surrounding the city as there are immigrants the Shiv Sena would want to send back. The most convenient of them all of course is the myth of the Mumbai spirit.

The idea that Mumbaikars or Bombaywalas (depending on whether you have adjusted to the parochial times or have clung on to a saner, less exclusionist past) have that special ability to get back to work after a thunderstorm or terror strike is a convenient one for the powers that be to get away with doing nothing. And Fernandes says it like it is.

Bombay’s indomitable will has been hailed by its politicians and socialites with such regularity, it has become obvious that they’ve used this resilience as an excuse to absolve themselves of the need to take the difficult decisions necessary to actually make the city more liveable. The incessant invocation of Bombay’s spirit is just an attempt to ignore the numbing of another little bit of its soul.  

The second myth Fernandes debunks is Mumbai’s ‘secular core.’ As the city changed its name from the more cosmopolitan Bombay to the less inclusive Mumbai, more than a bit of that famed, old spirit died. Not that communal clashes never took place in the past. Fernandes digs history to tell us that in 1873, ‘against the backdrop of a high-pitched campaign against cow-slaughter, skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims left eighty people dead. Eerily, the violence occurred in many of the neighbourhoods that would become conflict zones in religious riots exactly a century later. But in the 1890s, Bombay had a rich experience of random interactions in public spaces and a sophisticated web of institutions to help it draw itself together again.’

And these random interactions in public spaces and sophisticated web of institutions seem to be lost somewhere as a frail, fire-spitting cartoonist with a Marathi daily rose to reclaim Bombay for the sons of the soil and changed the city’s name and nature.

Unlike previous generations of Maharashtrian reformers, who believed that social change should start with self-improvement, (Bal) Thackeray had an easier solution: he blamed outsiders for Maharashtrians failing to find jobs in the city’s private sector. In May 1966, he formed a youth organization to combat the perceived injustices to the Maratha manoos. He called it the Shiv Sena—Sivaji’s Army, invoking the warrior king who had carved out an empire in the region in the seventeenth century. In time, Bombay’s largest museum, one of its main train stations and both its airport terminals, domestic and international, would come to be named after Shivaji, resulting in many confused passengers missing their flights, but presumably reinforcing Maharashtrian pride.

With time, South Indians, communists, Muslims and north Indians became the targets of the Sena’s xenophobic violence, as ‘Sundar Mumbai, Marathi Mumbai—A Beautiful Bombay is a Marathi Bombay’ became a rallying cry.

Having loved and loathed Mumbai as a journalist for three years, I know Fernandes has risked life and limb by putting out such passages against the Sena. Though Old Man Thackeray is now dead, his son, grandson and nephew Raj, who has formed the breakaway party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, are capable of unleashing hell at the slightest hint of criticism.

And such divisive ideology has morphed Mumbai into a city of ghettos. Fernandes writes: ‘Though the threat of physical violence has receded over the years, working class Muslims continue to gravitate towards Mumbra to avoid discrimination they routinely face in finding homes in many parts of Bombay. Prejudice against Muslims is so prevalent, even Shabana Azmi, the respected actress, has complained that she and her husband Javed were unable to find a flat of their choice.’

Then there is the issue of Mumbai’s obsession with poverty porn. The proportion of Mumbai residents living in shantytowns has ‘more than doubled from 23.5 per cent in 1991 to 48.8 per cent in 2011’. Yet the celebration of Dharavi’s entrepreneurship is, as Fernandes puts it, ‘another piece of ideological legerdemain.’

Unnervingly, the city’s elite have come to see shantytowns as hubs of enterprise, as ‘special economic zones’ and ‘city-systems’ (though, of course, they don’t want to be living right next to one of these ‘user-generated cities’). Dharavi, perhaps because of the global popularity of the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, has come to embody the unimagined potential of Bombay’s shantytowns… Pretending that Dharavi is an oasis of opportunity absolves them of the guilt of ignoring the pitiful conditions in which their cooks, maids and drivers live. They have come to believe that life in the shanties and its sweatshops can’t really be so bad if slum residents are able to be so productive.’

But beyond the myths, there is a city. A city betrayed by babus and bad politics and bursting at the seams. Fernandes goes back and forth in time to reclaim what was and what is lost. Once a princess’ dowry, seven conjoined islands make up today’s Mumbai and had historically settled the most diverse collection of people the Indian subcontinent has ever seen. As the city changes for the worse, this short biography will be a reminder of what could have been.
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