The Heart of A City

We have a curious penchant for anthropomorphism in all things. Giving a human face or human emotions to neutral and indifferent entities comes naturally to us. Time and again, in the face of disasters like riots, bomb blasts, floods and road accidents, we ask ourselves, “Does this city have a heart?” We invoke hearts, souls and spirits in our helplessness at being unable to control events. In the recent spate of road accidents in N. Delhi and Mumbai, as lives have been smashed, chopped down, quartered and mowed down recklessly, these questions have popped up again. In Mumbai, as a young man lay writhing in his blood on the side of a busy road, a witless policeman stood by while people just continued on in their daily tumult. Even a police van didn’t bother to stop. The victim got his fifteen minutes of fame in the papers the next day but was too dead to appreciate it. So we all came to the conclusion that Mumbai lacked a heart until a few days later, when a similar situation was averted by a passer-by, who had the presence of mind to rush another such victim to the hospital in time. Apparently he, the rescuer, had read the news, and had felt acute embarrassment and shame at how low Mumbai had fallen. This was in his mind as he went about doing his good deed. He proved that Mumbai had a heart, after all. We felt collectively redeemed and sighed thankfully.

At the risk of sounding cynical, let me point out a few facts.

When any such situation on the ground occurs, on a busy highway, especially during rush hour (and nowadays it’s always rush hour) there are oncoming vehicles traveling at a reasonably high speed of 50 to 60 kmph. More often than not, it is practically impossible for them to stop as this would lead to a pile up. We also live in terribly stressed out times. There are too many immediacies that we have to juggle. It is really the job of a vigilant police force – trained in dealing with such emergencies–– to divert the traffic, provide first aid and send for an ambulance – which has professional paramedics. The government of a civilized nation does not – should not, leave disaster management of any scale to the vagaries of the local populace and the occasional kindly soul who might just happen by.

This sounds even worse but I will say it all the same. When bodies are pulled out of wreckages, blasted train compartments, and rubble, who comes to help? How many CEO’s and senior executives do you see on their hands and feet doing the actual job? It’s usually always the locals – bumbling and well intentioned, but with time on their hands. The vada-paowallah, the jobless (and clueless) local boys of the carrom club, auto drivers…salesmen… I could go on but I don’t really see a Suit among these people. The Suit doesn’t have so much time on his hands even though he may have a heart of gold and whip out his checkbook the next day to contribute to the community effort.

When we talk so loosely about the heart of a city or its spirit in these contexts, we are actually discussing the ability of a man on the street to rise to the occasion, shelving his immediate concerns and playing good Samaritan, for free. In other words we are cheerfully delegating him with a function that we actually pay taxes for, which should be carried out by various departments of the government. In sentimentalizing the issue, we are overlooking and glossing over the fact that our government bodies work in an ad hoc manner, that there is no planning for sudden emergencies and a civic structure in place that can withstand sudden calamity. At the end of the day, it’s probably some local jobless young man whom you may have normally curled your lips with contempt at, who will come to save your life with no knowledge whatsoever of first-aid if, god forbid, you get into one of these situations.

In the mid 80’s, Calcutta was dubbed the city of joy, where the people were expansive and where there were helping hands when you needed them during a sudden accident or a personal tragedy. There were always the ubiquitious para (neighborhood) boys ready to lend their shoulders to the cot headed for the crematorium. Or menacingly “talk” sense to the abusive drunken husband on behalf of the neighborhood “boudi” (sister-in-law). One misses those days, but one also realizes that they had the time, and therefore the inclination. Present day Kolkata has come out of the economic slump of the 80’s and those lovable, but unemployed young people have become far less in number.

As we become more prosperous and our economy thrives, our infrastructure has to keep pace with overcrowding and rapid development – in housing, education, basic civic needs – and on the roads. Our mindset has to change from knee-jerk reactions and hurried compromises to a more articulated and professional response during catastrophes.

Instead of searching for souls and hearts, I’d rather settle for a well regulated police force and trained paramedics any day.

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Holistically speaking

Yesterday’s schooling which we took for granted is today’s premium schooling at a price. A Satyajit Ray could have come out of Ballygunge Govt. High School at minimum cost but today nothing less than an IB school will do. Alarmed at the lack of communication skills among teachers (and in some cases articulation) many horrified parents opt for alternative schools.

Concerns were raised a few months ago by a few parents during an orientation at a Juhu based alternative school, about whether their children would be able to cope with the ISCE curriculum after the alternate curriculum – and in the wider sense, the hurly burly of the real world… Apparently this school does not believe in imparting the 3R’s (in the conventional sense) to children until they are of a fairly advanced age. On being apprised of their fears, the principal reassured them, “We’ll dovetail into the System.”
The worrying fact is that each alternative school has its own view of what a holistic education should be – its own zeitgeist and version of natural laws that govern the growth of a child’s mind, much like the world’s interpretations of the universe, the Ptolemic view, the Inca view, the Copernican view, string theory and so on and so forth. Much like products on a shelf, schools too must stress their uniqueness. Vive le difference!

Understandably, parents are confused, with their attentions divided between competing players with all the persuasive marketing and PR arsenal at their command, promising premium education for their kids – at a price of course. The same compulsions that drive a consumer at the mall now drive both parents and teachers. Dinesh Shah got a TC from his son’s old English medium school in Goregaon(E), where the teachers were just bored housewives out to make a buck, and put the kid in a swanky new school with AC classrooms and a whopping fee structure, (thereby rising high in the biradari’s esteem.) Until one day little Nimesh Shah came home and broke the news that the maths teacher who terrified him in his earlier school and the earlier vice-principal had both joined this “alternate” school. Old wine in new bottles. Obviously, Dineshbhai hadn’t foreseen the attrition rate among schoolteachers when he was making his plans.

After all, teachers, like any other consumers are also subject to market forces.

One remembers as a child in Class 3, successfully parsing a sentence in English Grammar class. Or reading about Coriolanus and his gallant stand against the Etruscans , in Class 4. Or cutting one’s teeth on Civics at around the same time. The syllabus was government approved and there was no great issue of “dovetailing” into any “System.” Nor does one remember any neurotic children in class who were stressed out by the syllabus and the frequent exams (much tougher by today’s standards) and went into coma. And child counselors didn’t grow on every second tree.

The government has diluted the syllabus to such a degree, pressurized by parents of underachieving kids (making their perilous passage from the vernacular to the globalized world), that if little Nimesh Shah, can, in a baseline test, spell Czechoslovakia, the education ministry feels profoundly grateful.

The trustee of an English medium school in Goregaon (E), when quizzed about the lack of good teaching talent had this to say: “Every year we interview a hundred teachers. Hardly two or three out of all these teachers can speak a straight sentence in English – though they claim to be have 10 to 12 years of experience.”

And this is what one of those teachers had to say: “We are belonging to one of lowest paid professions. BMC sweeper ‘s starting salary is higher than part time teacher’s only.
Really qualified person won’t join this profession, no? Our salaries are not going up properly with inflation in last 20 years. ”

Finally it is not about boards or syllabuses or different brands of schools, “alternate” or otherwise. As in all endeavours and enterprises, blue chip companies or local institutions, the brochures may be glossy, the jargon impressive and the presentation tailormade for the Joneses, but it all comes down to the saamnewala; the buck stops with the final service provider.

One was lucky to have had good teachers. They were lucky they lived in a time when teaching paid the rent.

Imagine the worst.

If anyone had ever thought that the Saas Bahu serials plumbed the lowest depths of what our TV channels could do in order to harvest ratings, then they should do a quick reality check. Newer depths of depravity have been discovered and the bar of regression has been raised by a channel, whose parent company we have always associated with respectable journalism, and is now exploiting newborn babies to grab the magpie eyes of an audience that can never have enough.

Pati, Patni aur Who, very thinly disguised as a parent orientation training project, is the desi version of Baby Borrowers where inexperienced couples look after babies who are biologically not theirs. The original serial was, according to some, inspired by the idea of looking after an egg for a full twenty four hours, on the successful completion of which, a couple would consider themselves qualified to go ahead have a baby. In Pati, Patni aur Woh our celebrity couples have to actually go through all the travails of a couple with newborn children. Exactly why this would turn on the average audience – or what the producers imagine to be the average audience is not clear – unless it is something like this: See how tough it is to bring up a kid? It’s happening to us today. Just have a little taste of what’s going to happen to you tomorrow. You are not going to look so glamorous after those dark circles under your eyes, like us ordinary folk…hmmm? Not so full of it now, are you then? The fact that the participating couples are media created celebrities, probably adds to this kind of resentful thinking. And the audience loves watching their favorite celebrities suffering on the small screen with a viciousness the TV channels recognize very well and obligingly know how provide for. Through it all the children cry, they are shaken, pinched in their cheeks, and made to undergo all kinds of trauma with their parents eagerly watching on CCTV, because their children are “coming on TV” while the larger audience watches ghoulishly.

But if the channels like to believe that people are just a lot of sadistic types insatiably waiting with their maws open for newer and newer outrages to be poured into them, here is a quote copied and pasted from U tube (with all the typos intact), among many others that express similar sentiments:

“othey just playing with kids like they toys…just imagine to win a kids heart then throw it away to hurt it..my Goddness..even babies have feelings like we grown up people….they win and kids win no love at the end…they play with there feelings….daam it..if there parents are behind camera but its hurting if i give my kids and its crying and crying and i cant do anything while they training..oh no waaaaaaay i would do to my kid.”

One prefers to believe that an audience is what you want to make of it. Not so long ago, we had film makers and TV producers who understood this and did their best to create an informed and mature audience with aesthetically made films and programs with a small fraction of today’s humungous budgets and very little technology. The extreme cynicism and contempt that our serial channels display towards the public is surely misplaced because, even now, Buniyaad, Malgudi Days, Wagle ki Duniya, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and Astitva, are spoken of with a lot of respect and fondness.

The human mind is more easily influenced by the elements that would drag it down than by those that elevate it, that much is evident by the graph of regression that our media has plotted for itself. What next, one asks oneself, what fresh horrors are we to witness, now that even toddlers are not exempt?
In Rakhi Sawant’s “swayamvara” we saw the worst kind of prejudices and self-righteous sexist views being aired by her “prospective mothers-in-law chosen with scientific deliberation from the most backward areas of India. Currently, we have a dissipated looking Rahul Mahajan – a complete nonentity with a dubious background – giving cheesy smiles that turn our stomach – and asking girls to marry him. The “ugh” factor, this time? Perhaps. The channels would know best.

It is not enough to say that one can always switch off the channel if it bothers one too much – what impacts the society at large will eventually come back to impact us too in various ways, whether we personally watch them or not. It is time for us all to do something active about the profanity that is Indian television today, whether it is an article like this or that post on U-tube or that NGO in Delhi which protested against Pati, Patno or Woh.

Gadgets don’t raise your social equity any more and if they do, it’s short lived.

Gadgets don’t raise your social equity any more and if they do, it’s short lived. The latest i-phone or plasma screen TV may cost a fortune, but as anybody knows, it is wise not to buy the first products that roll off the shelves. It is only a matter of time, perhaps a few weeks, before a cheaper, newer, better version hits the shelves, and, if you can’t even afford that, a few more days before it is available at a far lesser price determined by market competition, to all. Where’s the big deal in showing off your blackberry, when you know your driver is going to get it for less than half the price next month in the grey market?

But a long time ago, Indians had to wait 11 years before getting a phone connection. A B&W TV was a distant dream and an ambassador car rivaled the status of a new bride when it finally honked its arrival, adorned with sindoor and marigold, in front of an admiring neighborhood. NRI uncles and aunts, smelling of exotic aftershave and perfume, came with exotic smelling suitcases bearing gifts of Camay soap, terelene clothes and Crayola crayons. So what if no one got to use the soap, mummified reverently as it was in some dark recess of the almirah, or that the T-shirts didn’t fit or that the crayons eroded faster than you could say, “Archie Andrews.”
The doors of paradise had opened for one tantalizing moment. For us chained to our Vividh Bharati, Bata shoes and Kwality’s icecream (in three flavours), captive to grainy images of family planning documentaries, bound to the penance of thrift, this was the world of our Betters – those who had evolved beyond us. It was to be thus for many more years before we too would eat from the same table. But what manner of food were we to eat?

In 1998, a crisis took place in Lasangaon, a village in Maharashtra, a major producer of onions. There was an acute shortage and restaurants which had hitherto served raw onions free along with the meals, stopped doing so. Onions became so precious that they became status symbols. One experienced the absurdity of newspapers reporting in their society pages of wealthy socialites serving onions during their do’s and dinner parties proudly. The humble onion had dethroned camcorders, jaunts to Singapore and compact discs on the social one-upmanship scale in just a few days of deprivation.

A few days ago, on a visit to a cybercafe, one noticed two children, one from the nearby slum and the other from the swanky highrise next to it, playing virtual cricket. All they had to do was to toggle a few controls and the virtual players did their stuff to the ovation of the virtual crowd on a vast green expanse. Unthinkably expensive a few years ago, the computer and software was available to these two kids from vastly different backgrounds for just Rs 10 an hour. What was not available however, was the vast green expanse. Like the humble onion whose scarcity had made it a premium product, open spaces freely available in the past have become priceless luxuries. Unlike their parents and grandparents, these kids will never know what it is to run free with the grass under their feet. They will have to join and commute to a sports club with a hefty fee, making a fun pastime into an arduous discipline.
And so it is with all the gadgets and commodities that replace our real world and cocoon us. An ac car is no longer a luxury but a necessity, with all the noise and pollution around us. It’s is easily available, but a casual and peaceful walk on the streets is not. Street food is deemed unhygienic and hawkers banned. Pay much more to get the same from packaged snacks that contain preservatives and color (hygienic?). Adulterated milk? Keep a cow like some people in Alibaug are doing – but you have to be able to afford a farm first. Synthetic clothes, that symbol of the NRI’s genorosity – once greatly coveted, now cost nothing, but natural cotton clothes will hit your pocket hard.

Those of us who envied the Lucky Ones Abroad now know firsthand what that paradise was like in our own credit card and loan fuelled world. We have the Camay soap, the Revlon cosmetics, and the latest mobiles. They don’t cost much any more. It’s these new premium products that we cannot afford. The things that we had for free that were snatched away from us. Fresh air. Trees. A space to call our own. Like the onion, these are now on someone else’s table as status symbols. Unlike the onion, their prices won’t come down again.

The Big Alphonso

Way back in my teens, reading those Louis L’amour westerns, one thing appealed to me greatly. It was the description of those campfires where strangers gathered and drank coffee — each one not knowing the other’s name, swapped stories, and moved on. None displayed curiosity about the other’s past. It was the frequent reiteration in those books that all kinds of people rubbed shoulders in the West: horse thieves, scholars, bootleggers, scientists, musicians –and the wrong kind of questions could get you killed.
A man’s past was behind him and done with when he went to the West. When I came to Bombay in the late eighties, I was therefore thrilled to be given this advice by my ‘import-export’ roommate on my first night, in a boarding house in Chembur: Don’t stare at a man’s eyes directly in a crowded local train — he could turn out to be anybody. This was my Wild West where anything could happen and my destiny was mine alone.
There was joy in not taking money from my father (who didn’t have any in the first place) and fulfillment in staying as an illegal sub-tenant in the Antop Hill government quarters or the PNT Colony at Sahar. Dealing with rat-faced brokers, eating street food (that now finds hallowed place in the so-called Food Guide) and often going hungry opting for a quarter of Old Monk instead.
On Sundays, I’d walk the length of Fort and Churchgate, browsing the pavement bookshops, blow a major part of my week’s earnings downing beers in an Irani and take the Harbour Line home. For back then, Bombay was not just a place to make it — it was freedom. To live on one’s own, with no societal obligations, free from the opinions of others and to explore dark and tantalising corners.
This was a port city, an everyman’s city, a frontier town and a bachelor’s paradise. I stayed with three elderly Sindhi brothers once in Bandra as a PG — they were brokers who had seen good times once but were now broke. The eldest had, in his heydays, bought an Impala car and on the very first day, not knowing how to drive very well, smashed it against the society’s gates. It went as scrap that very day. No regrets. Coming from a background that made thrift into a religion and risk into a four letter word, I learnt new words like bindaas and phrases like himmat mat haro. And no one ever called a struggler a loser even if he had lost.
A struggler was an entrepreneur and there was a bond. But as I was revelling in the backbreaking work in an animation studio at Mahim for a pittance, gadding about in the local trains, exploring the charms of Sion Koliwada and the narrow bylanes of Borabazar street, I was missing out on one essential point. In those fictionalised accounts of L’amour, the West was frozen in time and the cowboys and gunmen never grew old. There is nothing as impartial, meaningless and amoral as a bomb.
There is nothing as sordid and mundane as a coward. In 1993, the meaninglessness, amorality and sordidness of lesser men leached the colour from the city, robbed it of its magic and left us with a husk called Mumbai. And if that wasn’t enough, soon our trees would go, and a thousand malls and department stores would bloom in place of the picturesque wadis and the hundred-year-old chawls.
I now cope with my Xanadu gone, no longer a city of dreams –just a piece of real estate to be sold and re-sold repeatedly. Twenty-one-year-olds who wandered aimlessly in this new world and browsed through pavement bookstalls will be called losers — and rightly so. For the next wave of migrants have not come with stars in their eyes like a Dharmendra or a Yusuf Khan struggling from a chawl.
They are a steady, practical lot; rich landowners drawn by the real estate boom or would-be young TV stars and starlets with the solid backing of feudal family wealth, starting their careers from 2BHK pads in Lokhandwala and Yari Road. Conservative and traditional deep inside but with the veneer of modernity quite like the McAloo burgers they prefer.
I watched as Dr Salim Ali’s beautiful bungalow was pulled down and concrete took its rightful place. The old houses of Bandra, Santa Cruz and Khar with their quaint, old names fell into neglect and legal disputes. In Lower Parel, under the shadow of the malls and highrises, are small shanties that line the streets. Entire families wait here for compensation from the closed mills and eke out a living by selling street food. They are the collateral of someone else’s boom town. I find the remnants of the past in Central and South Bombay.
And the new brash Terminator 2 avatar in North Mumbai. Right opposite Crossroads Mall on Tardeo Rd is a Parsi colony — understated, almost apologetic. It is easy to miss it on your way to the Haji Ali signal. Old men and women peep out from behind faded curtains timorously at the huge blazing mall. It is hard to believe that these are the people who ruled Bombay once.
It was the rich tapestry of different communities that was so attractive, that gave this island its special place. My south
Bombay friends used to joke, “It is not part of India.”
From Pancham Puriwala’s mouthwatering puris to Martin’s sausages off Colaba Causeway. From vintage cameras to the latest Nintendo games. From Mani’s sambar in front of Ruia College to the heaps of liver, kidneys and assorted meats at the Mohammed Ali Road stalls. From the amazing Novelties Regd.
Shop on Peddar Road with its ancient curios, to the garish bric-a-bracs ofthe Causeway. All India, yet definitely not part of India — for where in India would you find such inclusiveness and so much variety within a few square kilometers? This was Bombay — not the city but the concept. Whoever’s soul wishes to be free and to be all those things that liberate us from pettiness will always wish to go West. To find a Big Apple or a Big Alphonso. Away from hometowns and biradaris that bind us down.
But when the concept died, the city died. We let the small minds decide the fate of Bombay. One by one these spaces are being taken over by rows and rows of fast food centres, hideous garment and furniture shops, malls and glass fronted call centers. There is no nightlife as that would offend the sensibilities of the gentleman from Sangli or Jaunpur or whatever. He would rather not blend into this place, but bring his own baggage of prejudices and beliefs with him. The entire city and its culture is being worked over with the twin brushes of uniformity and conformity. Office buildings? Glass fronted. Songs? Hindi. Interiors? Saas bahu serials.
Food? Punjabi-Chinese-South Indian. Entertainment? Malls. If you want to be different then you now belong to the niche market. Try the five star hotels for the kind of food you took for granted yesterday. Try the NCPA on the far tip of the island for the kind of programmes you grew up enjoying, and had ready access to close to home.
Yes, the Mumbai spirit is very much alive. But it is a free spirit and not bound to this place and time. A process of reverse migration will begin where many of the educated and the young who are in a position to, will opt for quieter, more sensitive places. Places where they can breathe and not have to dumb down in order to survive. There will always be a Bombay. It simply may not be in Mumbai any more.