The Irresistible Charm of the Siren City
Delhi’s Terminal 3 reflects the city’s crude unease with modernity; Bombay’s airport has the casual ease of a city used to egalitarian urban life. When you land in Bombay, you feel part of the human driving force that creates jobs, provides entertainment, choices of lifestyles and the pulsating beat of urbanity. I may be biased but this is the city where I grew up, using public transport, walking the streets, comfortable in my middle class existence.
It was only when the division took place of the erstwhile Bombay state into Gujarat and Maharashtra and I was yanked from my predictable and inclusive middle class existence, I realized that that there are Gujarati and Marathi, Hindu and Muslim, Brahmin and others, rich and poor. I sort of knew that but that was when I understood that these diversities can be used for political gain.
Today, the entire political conversation is built on these divides. All of India is riven with differences. Bombay, however, still retains the streak of egalitarianism. There is incredible wealth; abject poverty; but the beat goes on like it did when I was growing up here. The Siren City boasts a sophistication that is far removed from Delhi’s bastard culture of privilege and braggadocio. Yes, it is my city that the brigands of the various senas are bent on destroying. Bombay’s heritage of sophisticated cosmopolitanism is threatened.
Unlike Delhi, where citizens are thugs; in Bombay, thugs hold citizens to ransom. On a recent trip, I was stuck in heavy traffic on the Worli Causeway (soon to be renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Causeway by the thugs?) and we inched along. I was struck by the fact that no one tried to weave through traffic or honk.
I was on my way to meet my friend Father Lawrie Ferrao, one of my oldest friends. He is the director of the highly-regarded Xavier Institute of Communication. I first met Lawrie in 1958 in Hilda Pimenta’s fifth standard class at St Xavier’s High School in Dhobi Talao. I was a forgettable kid in the school that boasted many students who went on to make their mark in the world: the most prominent being Sunil Gavaskar. There were others not quite as publicly acclaimed but stars in their own right in various fields: space science, mathematics, anthropology, petroleum, journalism, law, business and what have you.
When I finished with the school in 1965, I lost touch with Lawrie and only re-established contact with him at a reunion of the class of 1965 in January 2008. Taken aback that he was a Jesuit priest and then the principal of St Stanislaus in Bandra, I spent a lot of time with him at the meet. In the event, he was the priest who conducted the service at my daughter’s wedding in St Elizabeth Church in Ucassaim, Goa, our other home. Thus, we re-established our friendship
We spent a few hours together, not just reliving the old times but discussing various issues including the state-of-the-art of communications education and urban governance and everything else over lunch at the highly-overrated Khyber Restaurant in Kala Ghoda.
The previous night I had dinner with my friends Almona and Sidharth Bhatia. She is the publisher of GQ in India and Sid has just written a fabulous book called Cinema Moderne: The Navketan Story. We talked late into the evening about many things but mainly about Dev Anand and how he represented modernity and hope in an India shackled by socialist dogma and Gandhian claptrap about village republics
Note: For my friends who, like me, hold Gandhi in high esteem. Gandhi was a post modern thinker; his ideas were seminal and far ahead of his time. However, the idea of a self sufficient village presumes full literacy and civic awareness. He preached civil disobedience and said nary a word about free and compulsory primary education.
Coming back to my Bombay experience, it is now increasingly clear that the political battle is between those who endorse Bombay’s cosmopolitan character and the thugs, who would drag the city into moffusil obscurity. Call it Bombay versus Mumbai. The latter seem to be winning by sheer muscle.
And so Bombay is a conundrum: you see in it hope for India’s future and you despair that is held hostage by thugs. What happens in Bombay over the years will determine whether India will live up to its promise as player on the world stage; or will slide into the chaos of a fourth world country.
Finally, an explanation on why I call Bombay the “Siren City.” It is an island; it is seductive in its decrepit charm; yet it draws people even though they may end up on the rocks. The people who have always lived there or consider it home have an Odyssean worldview: “all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”
Bombay being Bombay, I have to end this with a line written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and sung by Mohammed Rafi: “Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan.” Mumbai just doesn't work in that song. Never mind it was a rip-off of an American folk ballad called “My Darling Clementine.”