Thursday, October 07, 2004

Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan

I have never been to Bombay, err Mumbai. That's a confession, and I am really ashamed. But I can't do anything but to blame the circumstances about this deprivation.

But I love Bombay already.

Like millions of Indians who eat and breathe Hindi cinema, Bombay is a city after my heart. It is a part of my consciousness. The big city as I know it (I come from a mofussil town) took birth in the crevices of my imagination through Hindi films only until I saw one in reality (Delhi, and later Calcutta too).

"Zara hat ke, zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan..."

"Bombay se aaya mera dost, dost ko salam karo..."

"Bum bum bum Bambai, Bambai hum ko jam gayi..." (that incorrigible Govinda ditty!)

I remember the romantically poignant and materialistically heartless Bombay of Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, Kaaghaz ke Phool, Mr. & Ms 55), the socialistically polemical Bombay of Raj Kapoor (Shri 420 and Awara), the gangster-led and communally-charged Bombay (and its underbelly) of so mnay others: Ram Gopal Varma (Satya and Company), Mani Rathnam (Bombay), and so many Amitabh Bachchan-Manmohan Desai movies of the 70s and 80s. Then the middle class movies like Katha, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Dharavi, and so many Amol Palekar movies... Bombay is an indelible part of my memories.

All this nostalgia began because of Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found."

See, the very title is like the lost and Found formula of Manmohan Desai. This much talked about nonfiction is Mehta's Tigerwoodsian debut. Amitava Kumar says: "Maximum City (is) an extraordinary debut--a debut that will rival Arundhati Roy's in fiction." (

Here are some of the points that caught my attention in the book:

Mehta writes, "With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us."

"There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia."

"The notion of what is a luxury and what is a basic need has been upended in Bombay," he writes. "Every slum I see in Jogeshwari has a television; antennas sprout in silver branches above the shanties. Many in the middle-class slum have motorcycles, even cars. People in Bombay eat relatively well, too, even the slum dwellers. The real luxuries are running water, clean bathrooms, and transport and housing fit for human beings."

Maximum City is also a memoir of migration across cities. At one point, Mehta describes how when he was in high school, his father had shouted at him, "When you were there, you wanted to come here. Now that you're here, you want to go back." This was in New York, but it doesn't really matter; it could have been Bombay. The episode made Mehta aware of a truth about himself: "It was when I first realized I had a new nationality: citizen of the country of longing."

Consider the Bombay beer bars where "fully clothed young girls dance on an extravagantly decorated stage to recorded Hindi film music, and men come to watch, shower money over their heads, and fall in love." The world of the beer bar is unique to Bombay, Mehta writes, "and for me it is the intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death, and show business."

"On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn't have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street."

"The food and the water in Bombay, India's most modern city, are contaminated with shit. Amebic dysentery is transferred through shit. We have been feeding our son shit."

One of Mehta's informants is Prahlad Kakkar, who made Bumbay, "a film about shitting in the metropolis." Kakkar explains, "Half the population doesn't have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside. That's five million people. If they shit half a kilo each, that's two and a half million kilos of shit each and every day. The real story is what you don't see in the film. There are no shots of women shitting. They have to shit between two and five each morning, because it's the only time they get privacy."

A young, homeless poet from Bihar tells Mehta that "the footpath is the friend of the poor" because it provides so many people a place to sleep on; this youth finds it remarkable that ditch water, black with sewage, is used to grow spinach in Bombay.

All this reminds me of Raj Kapoor from 'Shri 420'. He, upon his arrival in Bombay, is appalled to learn that he would have to pay Rs. 1.50 just to grab a place on the footpath to spend his night!

50 years later, the scenario remains unchanged. That is the tragedy of Bombay and of India.

"Here are a few statistics from Suketu Mehta's stunning new book, Maximum City. In some parts of Bombay, you can find 1 million people in a single square mile. Two million of the city's residents lack access to latrines, and the air has 10 times the maximum permissible levels of lead (to breathe it in, as 5 million or more living on the streets do every second, is equivalent to smoking 2 1/2 packs of cigarettes a day). An unusually large number of criminals are either shot in "encounters" or tortured to death in detention in Bombay; four years ago, only 4% of criminal offenses saw convictions. The courts of India had, at the turn of the century, a backlog of 25 million cases. At the present rate, these would take 350 years to clear."

The real import behind Mehta's tome has been captured by Pico Iyer in Time Asia (includes the above para):

"I read Mehta's book, by chance, a few weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro, where 700 favelas, or officially designated slums, spread across the hillsides and seem ready to mud-slide down and swallow up the Sheraton hotel and the condo blocks beneath them. According to one Brazilian friend, 400,000 people arrive at the city's bus station every year, seeking a new life, only to find that all the jobs and houses—and lives—have been taken up by others like themselves. They can survive only by joining the underworld, and a child is seen as irresponsible if he goes to school when he could be supporting his parents by running drugs. If the population of Bombay continues to double every 10 years, it will eclipse that of Italy by the year 2015, says Mehta. We may dream to ourselves of the beauties of a "global village." But then we wake up to the reality that we're stranded in a planetary metropolis."

1 comment:

Shakeel Abedi said...

Maximum City. Am reading the book now and am finding it amazing with every turn of page.

I went to Bombay - I refuse to call it Mumbai, to me it will always remain Bomaby - as it was then the capital of poetry. Dom and Nissim, Keki and Pritish were all there.

The Bombay I saw was a different Bombay. But then like every great city it has many faces.