The Death of a City

Social Commentary

The Death of a City

Illustration: Sushant Ahire / Arré


ast night, I watched Road to Perdition again. Tom Hanks (Sullivan, the hit man) is fleeing with his son, driving on clean roads of the American Midwest, toward his death. The movie is set in the 1920s, nearly a hundred years ago, and in quite another millennium. The roads are straight; they are endless. They do not go through bathrooms or skirt public water taps. The snow is neatly piled up on either side of the roads like white waves that curve and fall. The car keeps moving and I am feeling bad for the killer because he is Tom Hanks and a father.

America is where it is today because of its interstate roads. They are built for a nation on the move. Gangsters and cops, businessmen and vagabonds, they all are free to steer toward their indeterminate destinations. Good roads facilitate the pursuit of happiness. That’s a pursuit not easily carried out in Bombay, where I have returned after a longish spell of absence.


Last evening, I took a cab from Kala Ghoda, under the stringent stare of the 19th-century king and told the driver, “Take me to Worli.” This was once a fishing village, one of the original seven islands that comprised Bombay. The great landmark of Worli is Haji Ali, a dargah built in 1431 AD in memory of a wealthy and pious merchant from Bukhara. The distance between the Edwardian-century structure to the more ancient Islamic one, is around 10 kilometres. It took me three hours. It was as if each kilometre was a century. Perhaps it was an exceptionally congested day.

The millennial distance between pre-modern and primeval Bombay, is loaded with sure signs that this city of 20 million is dying a collective death. But it is so slow and steady that its patients do not realise this. It’s like default euthanasia. Which is why though the city’s GDP is $368 billion, the infrastructure and life values are not what any city with a future can be proud of.

It is not as though there have been no debates on the subject. But most debates sooner or later narrow down to the population problem. At this point, the problem traverses the irrevocable distance from management to politics: regional parties would steal political thunder by blaming it all on the migrants.

For long, the Sena and other like-minded parties stuck to its position that 350 families migrate to the city every day. The “outsider” was to be blamed. It was not clear how they arrived at this figure. But it did make some sort of populist sense: migrants were the reason that the city was plummeting into overcrowded darkness. The recent census figures disprove the claim though. The average of incoming families is 42 per day. Which ironically is a critique of the diminishing draw of the city.

Everything that is beautiful in this still city is built by outsiders. That is a harsh statement to make. But that happens to be the truth.

As any progressive economist will tell you, the rate of migrant inflow is a measure of a city’s potential and promise. The three hours I spent in a cab to transport myself over a distance of 10 kilometres, is indicative of where Bombay is going. Or not.

That is what close to 80 lakh commuters of Bombay’s local trains (whose tracks were laid by the British) face every day. Their life hours are stolen from them daily. They travel in inhuman conditions, the kind of conditions that prevailed in concentration camps during World War II. The peak-hour pressure in a compartment is likely to kill a baby, or make you faint if you are not an Indian inured to impossible levels of discomforts. An average commuter spends around four hours of his day trying to reach his work place or home. Calculate that for a period of 30 years of his life, and you will see the colossal waste of man-hours and the utter futility of his life.

Surely that must impact a city’s productivity? Over 150 years ago, in 1853, the British ran the first train from Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, what else?) to Thane. It was a 14-coach train. It took one hour and 25 minutes to complete the 34-km journey. In 2017, commuting takes the same time but in abysmal conditions.

It is not just commuting, of course. It is about a certain kind of disorientation of the city’s administrative culture. It is disorientation in terms of time. A temporal neurosis. It is as if in Bombay all the clocks, including the one atop Rajabai Tower, counts the seconds as days or months, actually decades. Contrary to the popular notion, Bombay is not on the move: It’s standing still.

Everything that is beautiful in this still city is built by outsiders. That is a harsh statement to make. But that happens to be the truth. It’s built by the Portuguese, Parsis, and the British. The great forts, lovely churches, Ballard Pier, the colonial bungalows, the great neo-gothic Victoria Terminus, and the best of Malabar Hill. The natives built little. And mostly what they built was unfortunately not memorable.

That lack of creativity and aesthetics translate to unruly shows of strengths and often a false sense of entitlement. For instance, in an attempt to recolonise the historical spaces of Bombay, sons-of-the-soil party Shiva Sena, keeps naming and renaming the milestones of its own heritage with one label: Chhatrapati Shivaji, about whom nothing can be said besides encomiums, and whose fame rests on the fact that he fought the Mughals.

Since these are times when anything that is anti-Muslim could be construed as patriotic, it is perhaps inconvenient to remember that Shivaji’s own general was a Muslim. That should qualify him for secular man. More importantly, the Sena’s mono-normative, reductionist culture messes with the heritage of the city. A certain poverty of imagination, let’s say, and it has great deleterious effects on Mumbai’s rich history. The blinkered vision manifests itself in other parties as and when the situation demands. The virus infects the developmental politics of the city, not just the name.

You could keep changing the name of the city. But rechristening is the most painless way of paying tribute to anything. As of now, this city is very close to its last toxic breath. According to the 2011 census, 42 per cent of the city’s population lives in slums. And most of it does not have access to toilets. There are virtually no footpaths for pedestrians. Almost all of the sidewalks are taken over by hawkers, which is a billion-dollar parallel economy by itself.

Still Bombay is not without its charms. The sea, for example. That has nothing to do with politics or planning. It is a gift, one that lends the city an eternal character. And it is best experienced early in the morning. In the quiet, blue-grey hour before dawn, the old sea rises to greet you and you alone, and the white spray salts the parapet and your bare feet. In a clock full of 4 ams, Charlie, this is still your city. One in which you can dream up your future. Or fall in love.