The descent of Mumbai, and other urban legends

In Mumbai, life gets harder by the day, and sleep shorter by each night. The roads remain, as ever, dug up. And the Metro work is never complete. The city is a prime example of exactly what’s wrong with our idea of Urban India.

Mumbai is only a prime example of how an Indian city ought not to be.

A week in Mumbai lasts longer than 7 days, I found out— again.

I have spent a considerable part of my professional adult life Mumbai, beginning with another century, actually another millennium. I had started out sharing a flat in Mulund in the eastern suburbs. The rickshaw fare from the railway station to my place was Rs 2.60. The road outside was dug up. Construction activities filled the air with red dust and warlike noises. A plate of idli and Udupi-style sweet sambar cost a little under Rs 6. Decades later, all of it remains the same except for the idli prices.

To get to the Times of India office (where I worked) opposite the Victoria Terminus you would catch a train at Mulund that was bound for the next station, Thane, a terminus. This was called Catching The Return. You Caught the Return so you could find a seat. You risked injury and death for it. For the window seat, you toyed with the idea of murder. When you did not get it, which was mostly the case, you considered suicide. Anyway, back to Catching The Return. The passengers from Vikhroli and Bhandup already would be on the train looking for exactly the same seat that you had in mind. So, by the time the train reached Mulund on its way to Thane, it would be already packed.

Well, as of last week, nothing much seems to have changed. It is a city of promises, still. And nightmares, even more.

Despite COVID constraints, it takes over an hour to cover 7 km by car. The roads and railway station areas continue to be dug up like excavations sites. Waste piles up by the wayside. Plastic chokes the creeks. The inner city disintegrates by the minute, yet miraculously holds together, like a glass cracked. Charming, centuries-old bungalows, say, in Bandra or Santacruz, which a civilized society might conserve and protect, vanish overnight and a high rise appears, a middle finger of concrete and glass rising from a fist of slums — if you are looking at it all from an aerial perspective. That finger is in the face of the God of Cities up there.

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To add to the daily difficulties, the Metro work, a very cruel joke on track,  just about never ends. In Delhi, or even in the trade union-dominated and ecologically over-sensitive Kerala, the Metro work has been fast and orderly. In Mumbai, it is in perpetual limbo. If nearly 20 million people are constantly trying to either reach their workplace or home,  it is anybody’s guess what the quality and quantity of their output would be.

For a long time, this massive effort to overcome the difficulties of existence in Mumbai was generously — and falsely — termed the Spirit of the City. The City Never Sleeps. Maximum City. Amchi Mumbai. These laudatory and euphemistic certificates, coined by the changing (and yet the same) clueless city administrations and deceptive corporates (Citibank, for instance,  popularised the deceptive phrase: the City Never Sleeps)  were supposed to goad the working population of Mumbai to greater heroism— somewhat like how the generals enthuse their soldiers to hurl themselves into the line of fire. The underlying message of these exhortations is: die. You will recall that on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, it was written: Work Sets You Free. As the prisoners eventually got to know, it just meant they would be worked to their death.

Mumbai is only a prime example of how an Indian city ought not to be. The fact of the matter is there is not one Indian metropolis that is worth living in. Last week, on the occasion of Republic Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the next 25 years are going to be hard for India. Hard, because of the amount of work involved to put India on the map of developed nations. Presumably, it means urban life would be a little less torturous. But since 1947, except for Chandigarh, that Nehru had Le Corbusier plan in 1953, not one new Indian city has been built. Not one. And even in these old ones, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Bangalore, the best buildings and parks are built by our colonists.

The Modi government is doing its all to improve upon the perfectly handsome Central Vista at an estimated cost of Rs 22,000 crore. They could have instead built another city. A city that invited new ventures and adventures. To a limited extent it would have decongested urban India; invited inflow of native and foreign capital, and proved a less stressed urban lifestyle is possible. China is doing it all the time. Pudong, in Shanghai, is a great example.

Mumbai did try. Navi Mumbai is an effort in the direction of building new cities. But India is essentially Bharat, and our idea has always been to make life as unpleasant as possible for ourselves; everything must be fraught. Ease is the disease. And Navi Mumbai, but for pockets, is as run-down as any other city in India.

Like no other Indian metropolis, Mumbai underlines the Indian philosophy of Maya. Naturally, Bollywood flourishes here. This life here and now does not matter. We live and die for the next. The transitoriness of existence justifies the ugliness — the lack of ease in mobility, the little respect for heritage, the alarming indifference to beauty, the unquestioning co-existence with Himalayan piles of garbage, and the addiction to constant movement without direction: these define us, our contempt for this life, which is just another bend in the river.

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Bombay was a great city. Mumbai is not. The first was aspirational. A state of mind. The present city is in a permanent state of rot. The next 25 years, at the end of which India will celebrate its 100th anniversary of Independence, will be largely a question of our relationship with aesthetics and, as a people, we lack in that department. We have no sense of symmetry. Which is another way of saying we are wanting in the fundamental principles of organization and structure. In 25 years Mumbai would be in a greater mess if that is possible. We certainly will work hard at it.

As I keep telling myself these days, it is a race thing. We are just not beautiful people.  There is still hope, of course.  It lies in the countryside. Develop rural India. Reverse migration. Build a village.

Catch all of CP Surendran’s columns here

(CP Surendran’s novel, One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B, is available on Amazon, and in all leading book stores)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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