The last couple of monsoons have been utter mayhem in Mumbai. This year, the first spell has brought the city to a halt. With 16 people dead, roads underwater, railway tracks submerged, and the runway shut, the government had no choice but declare a public holiday. Last year, unstoppable downpour brought down with it a footover bridge, and led to a fire in a train station ticket window. Roads turned rivers, and a double-decker BEST bus befuddled onlookers by driving straight into a height barrier that took off its roof. Having a plane crash on you is now a legit concern as well, same as having your restaurant go up in flames on a night-out.
Speaking of problems, there’s no time of the year when they’re as visible as in the monsoon. This may be romantic for some (who are these people?), but for most of us, it’s just four unending months of lengthier commutes, traffic snarls, strange smells, not being able to get an auto, paying 5X for an Uber, and a lot of keechad. In fact, Indian cities can be so infuriating at times that we’ve created our own special way of dealing with them – we pretend the problems don’t exist. We build bubbles around ourselves to try and forget that there’s a whole world of bad infrastructure and poverty out there. And our bubbles are constantly under construction.
The fundamental purpose of middle-class India’s struggle is to gain wealth, but why? So that we may improve our bubble. We want to live in gated communities with landscaped gardens, swimming pools, and clubhouses. Maybe, we think, maybe if I had an apartment on the 30th floor of this high-rise with an infinity pool on its roof, I’ll forget the slum that’s just outside the gates. We fill these homes with designs from foreign catalogues and the parking spaces with swank cars, which are then driven by the driver through potholes at an average speed of 20 kmph. We’re also the ones who buy huskies or other cold-weather dogs, tell the maid to walk them, and not pick up after them. After all, the street is outside our bubble, so we don’t really care if there’s dog poop all over it.
An evening out is usually to the movies, or to a nice restaurant, because let’s face it, when outdoors means pot-holed streets and overflowing gutters, these are your only options. A nice restaurant is usually the one serving European food, with distressed walls, hanging lampshades, and wooden communal tables. It’s impossible to have cafes on the sidewalk because those are reserved for illegal tapris and bikers, so we settle for converted backyards. Has there been a new Indian restaurant with an Indian design aesthetic in the last five years? Not that I can remember. Everywhere, the food and the feel is “global”, which really means that it’s a derivative of something someone saw overseas and replicated at home.
We’ve replaced the outdoors with our bubble.
Sumptuous new restaurants, the best pubs, and the artsiest coffee houses are popular because they help us perpetuate the myth that having enough money might mean not having to deal with this city any more. Your eateries and shops are mostly in locations where you have to get out of the car, walk fewer than five minutes next to an uncovered gutter, see a few slums, and step in some sludge before you can enter. Once you enter though, you can heave a sigh of relief – the bubble is back! – and order that little-known wine from Normandy.
Ironically, people who live in the countries we’re aping like nothing better than to be outdoors – a walk in the park, a hike in the hills, a ride on a boat. These countries have a thriving outdoors scene with governments that believe that this quality of life is part of one’s basic needs.
We’ve replaced the outdoors with our bubble. But is it completely wrong to build those bubbles and thrive in them? The fact is that we’re finding ways to escape reality because the reality is exhausting and unchangeable. So yes, of course I’d love to go to the beach on a Sunday evening but it’s quite pointless if I can’t swim in the sea because of the sewage being dumped in it. There’s no space to play a sport, no park to walk in, or read a book, or do anything really, while a dude is aggressively trying to sell me peanuts.
Similarly, it’d be nice to not spend what seems like half my life on the road. It’d be nice to have landscapes that haven’t yet turned into landfills. Maybe a few nice swimming pools that don’t cost an arm and a leg to get into. But until someone figures out a way to get access to some of that, I’ll just be here, sipping this single-origin coffee from that new boutique roastery and waiting for IKEA’s Mumbai outpost to open.