A private view
FOR me it is virtually impossible to write about Bombay with objectivity or that much vaunted journalistic virtue, balance. Therefore, for those reading this paean, a declaration of interest on my part must be taken as given. I am no historian or biographer of great cities like Geoffrey Moorhouse or Gillian Tindall, whose City of Gold is a worthy classic. Neither does the architectural magnificence or melting pot character of the city seduce me. (Melting pots are generally unpleasant.) Bollywood hardly existed in my consciousness – despite one disastrous foray in attempting to put together a biography of Meena Kumari – and in a sojourn of nearly 25 years, I perhaps went to three film parties and hardly knew any film folk.
Nor am I unmindful of the intellectual, social and civic decline of Bombay. Some weeks ago, an issue of The Economic Times copiously charted what a sorry mess Bombay had become and why it was no longer the first, or second, or even the third choice of foreign capital wishing to park itself in India. Industrialists with a vested interest in the city noted with shock and disgust how ‘Product’ Bombay had deteriorated. The remedies they offered were useful from their limited perspective.
I dispute none of the above. In fact, when I visit friends (alas, they are meeting their Maker at an alarming rate!) in Bombay, at some point of time the conversation inevitably turns to the physical and existential decay of their metropolis. The quiet, wise and serene Frank Simoes, who sadly is no longer with us, maintained mischievously that all of us ’60s and ’70s Bombaywallahs created a phantom city in our mind. It never existed. Whereupon Frank was instantly pounced upon, making him spend the rest of the afternoon/night drinking even more large vodkas.
For myself, an arriviste of the ’70s, phantom Bombay did exist. I lived in the ‘phantom’ and profited from it hugely. Three cities, Lucknow, London and Bombay, have helped shape my character and personality. Of the three, I owe Bombay the most.
Ahack like me faces enormous difficulty capturing the essence or mood of a mammoth, sprawling city which possesses at once money, culture and history. (I am more accustomed to dissecting the boring, internecine struggles in the BJP.) At the best of times these things are ineffable, undefinable. Ernest Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, i.e. Paris, is now seen as Second World War nostalgia. Those who eulogise London should read George Orwell’s Down and Out. Cities, like people, are rooted in time and place and context. Nothing is permanent. Everything lies in the eye of the beholder.
My story is simply told. Indeed, it is (and certainly in the ’60s and ’70s it was) a commonplace. I arrived with not many rupees, with no qualifications, with no letter of recommendation, with no friends, with no place to live. All I had was an exaggerated notion of my own worth and an ambition the size of Boribunder. Sounds familiar?
I lived close to a quarter-of-a-century in Bombay and made something of a name as a journalist. I am convinced, totally and utterly convinced, that in any other city of our inestimable country, the opportunity to progress from novice to professional to mini-success would have been infinitely harder to obtain, if not impossible.
When I fled in late 1989, chased by menacing crowds, I had every reason to feel bitter, humiliated and angry. Happily, the anger and bitterness soon passed. Only the pleasure and an overwhelming sense of gratitude remain.
Graham Greene once observed that a person should be judged by his enmities as well as his friendships. Two enemies in nearly 25 years is not a bad record! I refer in my case to Bal Thackeray and Sharad Pawar. Thackeray is practically a universal enemy, so his hostility one wears like a badge of honour, but Pawar still has a few friends left. Fortunately, I am not one of them. These two gentlemen worked hard to run me out of Mumbai. They succeeded. (In another number of Seminar, if there is any interest, I could recount the details of my forced exile.)
Other matters aside, one’s love or loathing for a city depends largely on the quality of time spent in it. Except for the aforementioned 30-odd days in 1989, I cannot think of a period when I was (seriously) unhappy or depressed or bitter in Bombay. There were times I had no job, there were times I had virtually no money, there were times when my prospects appeared bleaker than those of the current BJP government. Happily, I had so much to be thankful for, so many pleasant memories both at work and play, so much generosity showered on me by anonymous folk, that the bad times hardly registered. The kindness of strangers through which Tennessee Williams survived, I experienced almost on a daily basis.
In Delhi, where I presently reside, failure dogs you; people known and unknown constantly wait for it to strike you. In Bombay, failure is considered the path to eventual success; in Delhi failure is considered the path to (hopefully) more failure. It is worshipped for its own sake.
When I read about so-and-so film star in the dumps in Bombay with five flops in a row, instinct and experience tell me that if he or she has a gram of talent their sixth film will be a hit and the wonderful people of Bombay (trade and public alike) will immediately forgive his/her string of disasters and pronounce the individual a ‘star’ again. The crucial and perhaps most significant difference between Delhi and Bombay is that Delhi celebrates failure while Bombay celebrates success.
India’s capital is not a warm or large-hearted metropolis. It is mean-spirited. In my own profession, which is journalism, the degree of back biting, malice, carefully choreographed disinformation and plain envy has to be experienced to be believed. Naturally, upwardly mobile scribes are, as everywhere, aggressively competitive, determined to reach the No.1 position. In this town, however, there is a special and nasty edge to the race for the top, which is manifested in the belittling and running-down of accomplishment. Running down people, in fact, is an industry here.
Since I am still a bit of an outsider in Delhi, I am unfamiliar with how precisely the game is played, but I can assure you, kind words and fond thoughts and graceful acceptance of achievement are more or less invisible. Whenever four or five people are gathered together beneath Lutyens’ stylish landscape, dollops of malice, you can be pretty certain, is being freely dispensed. And relished.
When I was destitute and desolate in Mumbai, which was quite often, I would come across complete strangers on the street or at parties. They would say something like: ‘I heard about your sacking, but don’t worry you will get another paper to edit soon.’ After quitting The Indian Post in 1988, I received huge amounts of mail from fellow journalists expressing sympathy and regret. When I resigned from The Pioneer in Delhi in 1994 there was thundering silence mixed with quiet rejoicing.
I left Mumbai in late 1989 and till last year at least each time I returned, many friends informed me that the Bombay I lived in is dead. The spirit of tolerance is dead and has been replaced by a spirit of hatred. Now people, literally and metaphorically, prefer to live exclusively in their small or big patch. Culture is ugly, politics is ugly, the city is being made ugly, people-to-people relationships are ugly. And ugliest of all: no one is fighting back. I cannot really comment on the accuracy of the diagnosis. I hope, and I suspect, it is slightly exaggerated. We live in ugly times, therefore Bombay cannot expect to remain uncontaminated.
All Mumbaikars, and I count myself as one of them, have a responsibility to preserve and nourish Bombay’s big heart, its unrivalled generosity, its welcome to those ready to chance their ambition. The Shiv Sena, of course, is the principal adversary of such an enterprise. The SS, alas, is not the city’s only foe. There is, unfortunately, a creeping complacency in the citizenry, a resignation, a feeling that nothing can be done.
Bombay was once the abode of alert and vigilant civic citizens. Where are the elegant Parsi ladies rescuing sick pigeons? Where are the Friends of the Trees?
Why don’t we see more initiatives like Save the Oval campaign? Not so long ago, Bombay was packed with talented, enterprising, dedicated and useful eccentrics – why have they gone underground? When the aristocracy, in terms of city pride, in any city retreats, the merchants of vulgarity take over.
Before Bombay became Mumbai, the city belonged to nobody and everybody. Like millions, when I arrived with a single hundred rupee note in my pocket and many crazy ideas in my head, I stayed in a seedy hotel on Wodehouse Road called Buckley Court. Each character who lived there was worthy of a Conrad short story, if not a full novel. At the breakfast table and at the famous ‘Olympia’ restaurant in Colaba late at night, mind boggling plans and strategies used to be thrown up and discussed furiously. (An exiled Armenian lady and her son were plotting an armed rebellion from the hotel.) Yet, frivolity or diversion was not our purpose. The city gave space for wild imagination and, most crucially, provided numerous instances of people who from hotels like Buckley Court had ‘made it big’. Cranks and eccentrics were welcome; they too could try and court the bitch goddess.
Anyone who has lived and mingled in Bombay must record how his precious time spent there was made immeasurably richer by interaction and discourse with the rank and file of two communities – the Parsis and the Goans. These extraordinary, carefree, gifted, generous, zany residents’ contribution, not just to commerce, but to the gaiety of life in the city cannot be over-emphasised.
Delhi dreams too – I know lots of individuals dreaming of becoming cabinet ministers – but the schemes here are shady and the strategies invariably involve double-crossing and blackmail. In Bombay, miraculously, dreaming was open, legitimate, indeed frequently mandatory. Your friends and relatives encouraged you to dream – and dream on a mega scale. That glorious mix of fantasy and fact cannot be allowed to die.
I interrupt here for some breaking news. At the end of May this year on a brief visit to Bombay, I found the citizens more or less at peace. The city has come to terms with its No. 2 status as far as wealth, power and influence are concerned. That there is more disposable income in Delhi – ‘it is a trader’s city’ is mentioned without disrespect – is freely conceded, while the itinerant visitor from India’s capital is treated with a mixture of admiration and awe. Ten years ago it was pure contempt.
But there is a more profound change. The population of Bombay seems less neurotic, less paranoid. It does not constantly look over its shoulder. And for this happy state of affairs, one must be grateful to the steady decline and influence of the single most corrosive, corrupting and regressive force in Bombay, i.e., the Shiv Sena. When the history of the great metropolis is rewritten, the Shiv Sena will get more than a passing mention.
More than the crude and frequently comical spectacles of fascism and totalitarianism, Shri Bal Thackeray sought to destroy the indomitable spirit and cosmopolitan culture of Bombay – and he nearly succeeded. He was stopped in his tracks by his strong tendency to self-destruct and, more crucially, by the common sense of middle-class Maharashtrians who Thackeray had briefly won over. When Balasaheb meets the Grim Reaper, he will leave behind a party in a shambles. Its disintegration is imminent. A fact for which we must all rejoice.
Bombay may never fully regain its ’60s glory, but for me and for millions, it will remain the city which taught us everything we know.