Mumbai unfailingly succumbs to chauvinism. It is the city’s defining feature
“Each time a friend of mine makes it big,” a colleague from Bombay told a few disbelieving journalists in Delhi, “a part of me dies.” There you have it, succinctly stated, the difference between Delhi and Bombay. It starts with what it means to ‘make it big’ in each city. Bombay is about fame, and fame is a limited quantity that cannot be shared. So when a friend becomes famous, it diminishes you in the eyes of those who look upon you in his presence. In contrast, Delhi is about power, which has a different dynamic. A powerful friend is a useful friend, you partake of that power and you are seen to gain from it. Whatever the explanation, it is in Delhi that you can revel in a friend’s success.
Consider, then, the metaphors that go with the two words that define the respective cities—the height of fame, the corridors of power.
Fame is vertical, it needs the masses looking up at it (or to look down upon). Power is horizontal, it needs a domain over which it can be exercised. The geography of the two cities mirrors these aspects. Bombay is an island under siege from the sea; it can only rise upwards, to the heights. Delhi has no natural limits to its expanse. While fame insists that you forget there was once a time you were not famous, power demands that those who wield it do not ignore the reality of this country. In other words, while Bombay gazes upon itself, Delhi opens out to the country.
I remember my first trip to Bombay. I was still in school and had never seen a skyscraper before. I kept wondering where the city’s children went out to play. Everything seemed hostage to these buildings. Each time I returned, I found that I was not the only one looking up, the entire city was doing the same. It seemed a pursuit without end. Even if you are living in that penthouse, you know there is always an Anil Ambani who has one bigger and better.
In this city of people looking up without looking around, dreams are what matter. It is evident. The stock market, ad industry and Bollywood—whichever way you stack them, they make for too little reality. In Bombay, I am always asked about politics, that obscene obsession with caste and community, about whether anyone really cares. Bollywood, for one, does, even though the dreams it sells at the box office tend to mock this obsession. The reality is that the tickets that turn these dream merchants desperate are election tickets, which they seek from any party that would offer them. The stock market, too, is fixated on the play of power. A whiff of instability in Delhi, and the city of dreams begins to quake.
The simple fact is that the lines of supplicants flow from Bombay to Delhi, never the other way around. Relief from this, proclaim ad gurus and industrialists from Bombay in lengthy write-ups, lies in shielding the economy from the vagaries of politics. This really deserves no answer, other than ‘Get Real’. Irritation more than dislike is the reaction Bombay provokes in Delhi—we believe that even while living a dream you can’t really run away from reality.
Bombay can’t look beyond itself. You have to be really caught up in your dreams to think a few concrete blocks piled up against an angry sea make for a scenic stretch, a few square yards of dug-up earth make for a park, or that a temperature variation of a few degrees makes for a season. It is only when the reality of this world suddenly strikes the city that a Simi Garewal will lookdown from the heights and discover that there are slums down there.
Clearly, Garewal had never before bothered to look, for she thought she saw ‘Pakistani flags’ flying atop every shack. For years, she had been prattling away on TV with the best of Bombay who boast of its broadmindedness, but it seems none of them sensed her sense of reality. Politics, after all, is such a boring thing, not something to be discussed with friends in white who simper over you in an air-conditioned studio.
It is not just Simi Garewal. When reality does sink in, all of Bombay responds as only Bombay can. Scented candles and designer dresses make for a procession of the fifteen thousand. Affronted as they are with the politicians and politics of this country, they ‘decide’ to teach the rest of us how things should be done. Oh sorry, but for that long weekend in April, they would have taught us all a thing or two about how things ought to be. This, though, will not stop the city from trying to preach to the rest of us on the next available occasion. Self-reflection does not go with dreams, they forget.
Dreams have a habit of dissolving under scrutiny. Consider Bombay’s cosmopolitanism. Which other city would accede so easily to being called Mumbai instead? Which other city can boast of Bal Thackeray as its patron saint? The cosmopolitanism of the city is a veneer over a reality altogether too grim to withstand serious debate about what lurks under it.
Every recent trip of mine to Mumbai has been beset by some threat issued by Raj Thackeray and his gang of goons. Mumbai always succumbs. Unfailingly. This chauvinism is a defining feature. You can only ignore it by looking up. Take a look around, instead, and it stares you in the face.
Starved of space, Mumbai is stingy in everything but its dreams. I have nothing against vada pav or poha, but done with both, my instinct is to ask for some real food. Back home in my village in Punjab, people have been killed for smaller
insults than what passes for a glass of chai in Mumbai, and that apparently is too voluminous for residents of a city that believes in the baffling idea of ‘cutting chai’.
Such stinginess is in keeping with its paltry history. Like most residents of Delhi, I drive past 2,000 years of history without making much of it, and then in Mumbai I am expected to get excited over a non-existent landmark called Bandra Bandstand. This is why Delhi takes in as many migrants as Mumbai every year, and never denies them a sense of belonging. In Delhi, the man who steps onto a railway platform has as much claim to the city as the Jat whose forefathers have lived within city limits long before Mumbai was even conceived. Whenever it is tested, Mumbai always comes up short, as perplexed students from north India who land up for any government examination always find out.
It is perhaps because Mumbai makes it so hard to belong that people there go on about belonging. They feel they have had to earn the status implied by their residence there, unlike the people of Delhi, on whom no demands are made.
People from Mumbai are very touchy about anything said about their city. Unasked, they will tell you why they cannot live in Delhi or why Mumbai is wonderful. So much so that there is perverse joy in provoking them.
In Delhi, however, you have to work hard to find someone who has something good to say—let alone gush—about the place. Delhi is confident enough to mock itself. Mumbai, however, just can’t stop pretending.
As far as I am concerned, give me a week in Mumbai, it will be well spent. Any longer, and I start longing for some reality.
Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.