Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Bombay Madness

By Ranjona Banerji

It is well known — at least anyone who lives in Bombay or visits it — that this city is self-obsessed. Bombay has been given this now-almost mythical character, where, as if the minute you land in this city, some mysterious force enters your body and you turn into something else.

It could well be that Bombay changes you, but it is not magic. It is more likely true that all places where you live for a period of time change you and the corollary of that is that each of us, with our various personalities, finds that one place suits us more than the other.

But with Bombay, it’s a constant examination of this Bombayness. In Calcutta, for instance, there is plenty of angst and soul and discussion with lashings of tea and swirls of cigarette smoke — adda, if you will. But in the few years I spent there, the essential Calcuttaness of jhal muri was not the subject of newspaper articles the way vada pau is discussed in Bombay.

I would even put it that food is more important to a Bengali than to anyone else in India and several towns and villages in Bengal are identified only by some typical foodstuff — but that’s as far as it goes. It’s food, not the essence of self that is under discussion.

Delhi, on the other hand, is chock-full of history and has more historical structures per square mm than most places have in their entire range of square km. Yet Delhi does not identify itself in quite the same way with its buildings and the ‘Bunty loves Pinky’ legend gets more currency than ‘restored by so-and-so corporate for so-and-so committee’. The government still controls Delhi. In Bombay, even government buildings are sought to be refurbished with private sector help — as newspapers have recently told us about a plan to add a few floors to Mantralaya and give a builder some free land in exchange for the work done.

We delight in what we are and we delight in agonising over it. This process gives us character. Town versus burbs, North versus South, once obscure satellite towns versus once obscure suburbs. Till even 15 years ago, a person who worked in Borivili would say he had to go to ‘Bombay’ to work. Now a person who lives in Khopar Khairane, in New Bombay, thinks he lives and works in Bombay. But the part of Bombay which is not Khopar Khairane takes issue with this. For that lot, Bombay has to remain within a geographical limit; it has to have common reference points. Can you claim to know Bombay if you did not grow up eating seeng-chana at the Gateway of India? Worse, if you confuse India Gate with the Gateway? If you have no idea that a school picnic means going to Borivili National Park? If you don’t know where the Goldspot factory is, even if it no longer exists and that once iconic orange bottle is lost to liberalisation?

These are very real problems for some and hence the mad scramble to keep the quaintness of Bombay alive. Some of these attempts are simply bogus, to use the modern terminology, artificial constructs to try and create a sense of nostalgia where possibly none exists. The people of Kalbadevi are apparently very happy that their ward has been taken up as a pilot redevelopment project and it is only people who never lived there and never visit except once a year who see beauty in the chaos. The bridge between heritage and contemporary has to be crossed intelligently and harking back to some vague golden age is to ignore the ground realities. The Crawford Market redevelopment is in danger of falling into this trap.

For someone who has lived most of their life in this city— including the formative years, but who has also lived elsewhere — some of the newfound hand-wringing manufactured nostalgia can be amusing. There is some little brouhaha going on over the beautification of the zoo. It cannot be denied that Bombay’s zoo is one of the worst in the country. Animals live pathetically in cages, there is no sense of openness or the wild and its only redeeming features may well be the government nursery and the newly-recreated Bhau Daji Ladd Museum. But yet, our saviours of Bombay find something in this ghastly travesty of a zoo to be preserved. I am surprised that animal activists are not supporting a move to improve the living conditions of the animals. No, apparently it is to be kept as it is — no arguments.

Many of these preservers have not grown up in Bombay so probably did not have to endure the plight of the creatures locked up in zoos in their childhoods. For anyone who has seen the Delhi, Calcutta or Hyderabad zoos, Bombay is a joke. The Central Zoo Authority thinks so too and regularly denies it certification. But the zoo is heritage, and the current flavour is heritage at all costs. Not the condition of the animals, not objections to zoos in general as an ideological stand, but just that whatever was must be preserved.

Perhaps not so strangely, since these ‘new’ saviours have not spent a lot of time on the top of Malabar Hill — Cafe Naaz closed down almost a decade ago — the quite cute uglification of Kamala Nehru Park with its ‘amphitheatre’ done up in what look like bathroom tiles has not bothered anyone much. Malabar Hill has become too remote and so has slipped out of our consciousness.

So we will shop in the malls on the New Link Roads in Andheri and Malad, though 15 years ago that part of Andheri had vast tracts of marshland and Malad was a quiet sleepy suburb, leading on to quiet fishing villages. If you arrive in Bombay circa 2000 AD, you accept the development as an established part of the landscape and fight for the preservation of what is obviously old — the zoo, for instance.

The older inhabitants also want to preserve those parts which they live in and you still meet that endearing tribe for whom Bombay means the island city. Once you cross Mahim Causeway you have entered the badlands, wild territory, where the others live. It is true, if you are old enough. Tigers were spotted there last century. Why go there at all, except to go to the airport?

Then there are those politicians who run this city. Sharad Pawar wants to encourage people to drink more wine. His party member, R R Patil, who is also the state’s deputy chief minister, is a late arrival in this city, so he found dance bars deeply offensive. They were not common in his hometown. They have no magic for him, only an upsurge of morality. The chief minister finds no resonance in Bombay either, so he keeps commissioning flyovers perhaps hoping to escape it easily that way. It’s been years since anyone who runs Bombay loved Bombay. Chhagan Bhujbal was mayor once and wanted to clean it and green it; now he sulks.

But it ought not to be forgotten — even by those regulars at the city’s ‘pubs’ that the pubs themselves are new: 1992 onwards. Up to the 1970s, there was prohibition in Bombay and it is the Bombay Prohibition Act that controls Gujarat even today. Bombay’s answer to prohibition was typical — and so grew the great Bombay underworld of smugglers and bootleggers. Dawood Ibrahim was a new entrant himself, and he has been made willy-nilly into Bombay’s only don, with scant respect for his ‘illustrious’ predecessors — by filmmakers who have recently come to the city and by television channels which are not headquartered here at all. Yet, didn’t Bombay come to a standstill when Vardarajan Mudaliar died?

When you round it all up, what it amounts to is very little and yet very large. You come to Bombay because it is the city of gold. You hope. Almost 20 years ago, a magazine I worked for did an article on how you could still pan for gold in Pydhonie. Streets paved with gold — get it? But it was a stretch even then and it’s completely lost now. Besides, everything old is not necessarily good. The picking and choosing of what we save has to be judicious and a little higgledy-piggledy is good mental exercise.

Yes, there will also be some of us who know more about Bombay and some who have to prove that they also care by picking up campaigns and some who don’t care at all. But to truly belong, you mustn’t get caught up in stuff; you have to be cool about it. On the trains, on the buses, in your cars and taxies and aeroplanes. Tension kaiko lene ka, magaj kaiko khaneka, aakhadin khalipili boom kaiko marne ka? Ekdum masth rehne ka. The vada pavs and zoos and floods will come and go, but we’ll go on. That’s why we’re all here isn’t it, to be bindaas?

(Ranjona Banerji is a deputy editor with DNA in Bombay.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really liked this essay: it is incisive and insightful. This is going to be some issue. I do hope and pray you get to put out this issue the way you have seen it.
-- Murzban F Shroff (