By Ajay Chacko Jun. 27, 2016
Stuck in a three-hour traffic snarl, and your concern seems to be a divorce taking place 4,446 miles away. That, my friend, is the spirit of a dying Mumbai.
Back in the 1980s, inside the smoky interiors of Calcutta’s coffee houses, debates brewed between Bhadralok, the kurta-clad highbrow intellectuals, on everything from Bohemian Rhapsody to the Naxals, who wove a Promethean dream to fire Bengal with revolutionary idealism, from Chernobyl to the Cold War. All of this, over paanch takar coffee. We called it the Calcutta Coffee House Syndrome.
Loosely translated here’s what it implied: Why discuss petty, but immediate issues that plagued the “dying city” around us – transportation, power outages, and endless strikes – when you can discuss Castro and Cuba, the “Anti-fascist Protective Rampart”, and other such issues which earmarked you as a raging intellectual?
I was reminded of the Calcutta Coffee House Syndrome, as I looked around the office and saw the millennials engaging in yet another heated debate over Brexit. It was a wet weekend for Mumbai. Even as rains battered the city, many of my colleagues animatedly discussed this historic divorce that ended after 43 years of a rocky marriage. Behind them, roads flooded swiftly. It didn’t matter that many of them would get drenched, as they negotiated with uncooperative cabbies and autorickshaw drivers to get back home, others would wade through murky waters to get to nearby railway stations, where they would hang on for dear life in the tin cans of local trains that struggle to transport 80 lakh people every day without grace, and yet others would brave the journey through a pothole-riddled Western Express Highway, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over three hours to cover a distance of 10 kilometres, as they fiddled with their phones, no doubt Googling about Brexit, Bregret, and more.
I have lived in Mumbai/Bombay or whatever you like to call it for over two decades now. Like the many harrowed citizens of this dying city, I have spent over three hours every day for 15 long years commuting from Kandivali to Lower Parel, before I finally gave up both my job and work and re-mapped my life, after realising that nothing is worth the physical and mental drain. My life may be better now but my outrage against the city isn’t over. Not by far.
We are all residents of a terrible, decaying city. Mumbai has an overpowering smell that Gregory David Roberts may call “the worst good smell in the world”, but years of never-ending struggle have made this smell stifling. And it’s only getting worse. Piles of garbage lie unattended around overflowing bins on both sides of almost every street. Mumbai generates 9,000 tonnes of solid waste per day and has failed miserably at managing it. Once touted as the City of Dreams, it has now transformed into the City of Garbage. Waste management continues to be a major concern what with over 40 per cent of the population living on the streets. And what choice do they have? Homes to live in are a luxury in a city, which doesn’t even have enough hospital beds to die on.
At some point during my 600-odd hours of commute every year, my lower back gave in. I was advised to take it in my stride as the price one has to pay for living in Mumbai and riding roughshod over crater-sized potholes. And now after spending crores on road repairs, all we have are more potholes and a 352-crore road repairs scam with murky contractors and “big players” at the helm, who miraculously manage to dodge any special investigation team. No wonder then that for the middle-class, living close to your workplace is such stuff as dreams are made on. But dreams should be bigger, shouldn’t they?
We should be going after the goons responsible for bad roads, poor rail infrastructure, and sky-high housing prices. But we pontificate on the impact of Brexit.
As roads lie broken, the lifeline that the city takes pride in, has also faltered lately. Ahead of the monsoon, services on both the Western and Central railway lines were disrupted after technical snags. Now that the rains are here, flooded tracks, failed engines, and delayed services are expected to be the order of the day. And here we are, beating our chest over the first bullet train.
What really gets my goat though, is this bizarre theory of private enterprise and Mumbai spirit, which is thrown around to sugar-coat the pathetic condition of a rather “above average” set of people, who try and eke out a living in a city, which is perhaps the one-eyed king in the land of the blind (to borrow a phrase from R3). We should be yelling murder every day on the front pages of newspapers, on TV debates, and our social media feeds. Instead we choose to romance the rains.
We should be going after the goons responsible for bad roads, poor rail infrastructure, and sky-high housing prices. But we pontificate on the impact of Brexit. Yes, the big Britain-EU divorce will impact us and perhaps the 0.1 per cent of the country will find it hard when their market cap or net worth erodes by a few crores, but will Brexit change my life? Has any major crisis changed Indian cities, its villages, or its towns?
Maybe we should really take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “How much can we take?” If the answer is “endless abuse” then, let’s get back to talking about sexy stuff like Brexit. But if the answer is “enough” then let’s cut the bullshit, start dealing with the drains, gutters, and garbage of this messed-up city that we call home. Or soon it will be time to say Mumbye.