An expat’s eye
HISTORICALLY the expatriates arriving in Bombay dreamt, if not of streets paved with gold, at least of rich rewards. Like the street kids who nowadays throng Victoria Terminus, they came to scavenge and compete to realise a dream and all too often found themselves competing against impossible obstacles, suffering and dying in the attempt. The contemporary arrival still has to fight to find a niche in a clogged city of 15 million souls in which even the soft cushion of corporate status and padded expense account is not absolute proof against the red tape, raw character and dysfunction of this welling mass of life.
Entering this cacophonous environment engenders similar sensations to the confusion of mind wrought by the first pages of a great Russian novel. A whirl of characters, names, threads of relationships familial and financial, great business houses or their relics, historical importances glorified in barely noticed statues and memorials. A multicultured conglomeration of individuals living at a crossroads of history, trade and money. A magnet for the actual or potential entrepreneur ready to snatch his moment of opportunity or luck. Bombay, like other cities built on finance and the promise of wealth is home to the individual. Lines of dependence exist but they are always stretching and mutating as each character creates his or her own path through the labyrinth. Less than any other city in India where apparently the key is community, here the individual rules and has the self-belief to build his own kingdom in a competitive empire.
In the past the expatriate who triumphed over climate, disease and misadventure succeeded often far beyond his expectations. Riches and power were the prizes. As in other erstwhile jewels in colonial crowns the myth endures and has, until recent years, continued to find solid substance, not perhaps in the swelling coffers of the nabob but those of the international corporation. Now, although the outside adventurers and invaders have left their many marks on the structure and spirit of Bombay, they have little part to play in the life of the city. Outside influence has been and continues to be disseminated and absorbed but modernisation of all kinds is coming from within at least as much as without. This energy of ideas combined with a traditional work ethic has created a reverse colonisation by NRIs, as successful financially and intellectually, if not yet politically as that of Victorian empirebuilders.
Aday in Bombay offers to the traveller a sample cutting of the fabric of the contemporary city. For one who visited first only in the late eighties or early nineties, the cloth of the city may seem unchanging but the moving spirit is thrusting towards the future, however veiled it may be. Sahara airport, the heaving slum of Dharavi and gluelike traffic notwithstanding, the first major sight in Bombay for the transient remains the Gateway of India with its attendant hustling throng and then the splendid bulk of the Taj Mahal Hotel. Constant upgrading and modernising has kept the Taj among the great hotels of the world and, despite of the dubious architectural appeal of the new building, it is still a more imposing landmark than most.
The Taj and Oberoi hotels remain major meeting places for business people and well-heeled travellers but recently increasing numbers of international style bars and restaurants have grabbed their slice of the action. Where once there were a handful of designer restaurants in South Bombay, now there are new ‘in’ places round every corner and far into the suburbs too. An international flavour has taken over where Trishna and Khyber ruled supreme and Chinese, European and South-East Asian cooking awaits only the whim of current fashion.
‘Designer’ rules, at least for the gilded young of the city and, at this level, Bombay becomes like every other international stopping point. Jewellers touting for the tourist trade no longer settle for the traditional tribal bangles and beads beloved by travellers of the sixties and seventies. The latest designs could be found anywhere in Europe or America. Bombay has a plethora of exciting designers who may have digested details from other cultures but now have more innovative ideas to export than they desire or need to import.
As a glance in the window of an elegant boutique in London or New York will demonstrate, Indian influence and designer style is now conquering the highest end of the market as much as the sixties that once cornered the cheap trade. The expatriate can come and buy with his welcome dollars (India is enduringly fashionable and still cheap) but he has little to offer in terms of ideas that is more creative, exciting or just new. Bombay looked like a dusty dowager, now she is kicking off the crinoline and elbowing her way to the front line of fashion. The evidence is easy to find, even on that first journey from the airport, in the flashy splashy glossy magazines sold by street boys at your car window.
The street children begging or selling in and out of the traffic, the pathetic beggars and their apathetic babies ever tapping on the glass for alms are no less a part of the Bombay dream than the designer babes in cool Colaba bars. The ‘individual’ city is a hard place, increasingly upbeat and forward looking but still dysfunctional and difficult and not too many safety nets available for anyone. Street kids come following their dream; beggars are a symbol of the sea of poverty surrounding this island of wealth in a developing country. Seagulls follow fishing boats, beggars follow money, nothing changes.
The street child is something different; he or she has a vision and because he is a child with the hopes of children, he expects ultimately to get his chance for success. The brutality of Bombay, the battle for survival, creates a craving for any comfort or release from the struggle. For street kids the comfort comes mostly from ultimately destructive pleasures; drugs provide the cheapest and most available form of escape. Work with children in these circumstances is hardly a fashion role but certainly one with as much scope for new ideas as in any shiny design studio.
North America and Europe have long felt themselves to be the leaders in charity to the developing world and, whilst better financial controls and organisation are devoutly to be desired at both ends of the donor line, this is still a vital if disappointing state of affairs. However, in new concepts or the ability to think laterally and work out creative and fitting methodologies, small organisations all over India and noticeably in Bombay are far ahead. Unfortunately the constant cult of the individual, the ubiquitous handicap of small non-governmental organisations, slows the procreation and nurturing of these ideas through competitive bickering and one upmanship between interested parties.
A more opaque form of social competition seems to be a mark of cities built on trade and finance with an indigenous and expatriate meritocracy, quite outside the traditional order of caste and class, of those who have scrambled to the top of the pyramid. In all such societies and perhaps particularly those whose geography makes them to some extent self-contained islands, there is constant competition to prove financial and social standing. Bombay today has the same indicators of success at every level of society as similar cities round the globe. Ranging from the just acquired trendy trainers, the cable television set or two, up through the motorcycle, motor car, the Mercedes, a room, a house, a penthouse apartment, then designer food and clothes, foreign travel, villas, the best of everything.
People have always enjoyed flaunting their achievements , aspiring to the possessions of those on higher rungs of the ladder and creating envy in those on the lower. At certain moments governments have passed sumptuary laws to quell such extravagant demonstration and encourage the use of resources for the common good. It is perhaps regrettable that when style and fashion overlay the substance of community tradition and culture, to possess the latest cell phone may be the overwhelming ambition of the A grade student.
Artistic prowess emerges where there are patrons and publicity. In the constant search for the new and exotic, contemporary Indian artists have taken an important place in the famous auction houses of the world. Buyers in Europe know for instance of the notoriety of Husain and appreciate the dreamy beauty of a work of Anjoli Ela Menon and galleries have sprung up in Bombay in the wake of shows and sales in the great hotels. Bombay has always absorbed and embraced artistic movements and ideas; Victorian gothic, the bizarre mix of the Indo-Saracenic, the perfect examples of newly renovated art deco blocks. Now in fine art and architecture the ideas are coming from within the city and India and encouraged by internal patronage are adding to the top end of the quality export list.
It is likewise impossible to be unaware of the sparkling gew gaws of Bollywood on show to a worldwide audience. Dance extravaganzas on satellite television, ‘Bombay Dreams’ on stage, fusion music on pop radio stations, all reaching far beyond the NRI community. Bollywood directors and stars are becoming well-known faces and names in foreign magazines and newspapers and metamorphosing into international celebrities on the pages of Hello and OK.
That the world is a small place is the greatest cliché. India has for centuries been pushed and pussed by outside forces, empires have come and gone and left their marks. In the past few decades greater wealth has massively increased the numbers of the young middle classes able to travel, study and work outside India and leave their own marks on their adopted countries in return. The ticket to a US or occasionally still UK university is the golden dream of Bombay youth and the opportunity once received is well used. Most of the great scientific and medical research centres in the developed world use and value the brain-power, ambition and work ethic of these students.
The Indian education system may be hidebound and old fashioned with rote learning at the core but it manages to produce the inventive and advanced thinkers needed by global science and industry. Education in Bombay is as competitive as most other aspects of life and the foreign university place another score on the top level of the competition board. The pressure to succeed increasingly makes the life of the young in Bombay an endless round of examinations and tutors, but the arcane methods and politically in correct attitudes produce demonstrable professional and intellectual excellence.
Dining in an art deco apartment block or the dining room of an Edwardian club surrounded by aging polymaths, the people who formed independent India and now despair of her future as a united country, the past intellectual wealth of this city is elegantly on show. These are the people who benefited from the best of the old classical Indo-British education, studded with the hereditary jewels of Indian history and culture and sharpened by years of legal and political training. There are few people now in any country with this breadth of knowledge and experience as well as the continuing intellectual curiosity to look beyond the frilly trimmings of modern living to the horrendous obstacles but also bright possibilities of the future.
Their descendants, the students of today also look towards the future, a future of scientific innovations and wealth creation and travel but with little space or vocation for the public service of their grandfathers to community, city and country. As the hugely successful Indian diaspora spreads, who amongst these multi-talented young people will stay home or return from a lucrative career abroad to untangle the cat’s cradle of modern skills, history, political rivalry, religious differences, corruption and extreme poverty in nuclear age India?
To expatriate eyes Bombay has all her multitude of wares on show, both at the heights and the depths of existence. The space created by each individual may be responsible for the ability of people to coexist in so proscribed an area of land. Affluence and poverty sit side by side and the poor do not attack the rich, only aspire to their wealth. Religious extremes exist of course and flare horrifically on occasion. By and large, in spite of extreme views expressed as volubly over smart dinner tables in Malabar Hill as in mosques and temples, Moslem, Hindu and Christian muddle through together and get on with their own daily lives and rituals.
India is far more resilient to the shocks and horrors gasped at in northern countries. The daily papers offer ‘minor incidents’, dozens dead; in the North a cause for mass mourning, government enquiries and national despondency. In Bombay a train crash or even a bomb does not stop the fatalistic rhythm of life. Expatriate companies and financial institutions are welcomed with open arms albeit dressed in red tape. Foreign exchange through foreign companies and tourism is encouraged as a key to prosperity.
Expatriate managers and staff are hardly required; the home-grown excellence needs to be used if it is to add to the future well-being of the city and not to be tempted overseas by greater rewards. All the components for a smooth running triumphant machine seem available, but the mechanism still lacks a masterplan and a key.
To dream of opportunity and the future in a city built on hope and aspiration is nothing new. Maybe it is a pipedream indeed to imagine that the jammed machine of Bombay could wind itself up again and be a leader in the continuing struggle for India to take her proper place at the international table, but this deep pool of diverse gifts should not be unused. The focus on the individual in the city has prevented the worst of the community rending problems in other parts of the country, but the individual, buried in his own vested interests, equally is not providing the cohesion necessary for the whole city to forge a spearhead for the future. Individual excellence encompasses all areas and all levels of professional life; there is an ambitious and growing middle class, but some balance of unself-interested public-service needs to be regenerated. Bombay has been cannibalised and reborn throughout her history and now seems capable of reinventing herself again using her inherent wealth of manpower and skills if the will can only be found.
Looking fondly at Bombay from a distance, there are so many gems to catch the eye, so many bright strands to untangle and so much grime and pain at the base. The poverty of Dharavi or villages all over India will not go away but a balanced and united modern country with proper processes in place for change and a role in world affairs will allow additional prosperity to filter down to the foundations on which it is built. The individual, the successful entrepreneur needs to revert to his traditional family values and transfer them to the macro family of the city.
Loyalty and support, duty and responsibility, pillars of Indian family life were also keystones of past public life and service in India. Such family values in the North are paid little more than lip-service but, where there is relatively strong and incorrupt government, similar social values are popularly accepted for the perceivable common good. Bombay may still be the city of gold but the mine is unsound and nuggets are being trodden into the earth by the rush of individual prospectors. Responsible and even-handed leadership must create a cohesive team to rebuild the structure and tap the deepest veins for the benefit of all.