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January 4, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

The Fuehrer of Mumbai

In December 1986, I moved to Calcutta from Mumbai, then Bombay. At the time, almost everyone I knew in Mumbai was horrified that I was abandoning India's most modern metropolis for what they saw as a sleepy backwater.

"You will hate it," my friend Pritish Nandy told me. "When you come back to Bombay, you will kiss the ground at the airport itself."

I arrived full of apprehensions. Some were justified. The power situation was dismal. The phones didn't work. The roads were a mess. A new dharna on some idiotic pretext or the other was launched every single day. The Communist Party of India-Marxist-led government was full of self-righteous morons who believed they were smarter than everybody else. And so on.

But as time passed, a miracle took place. Things actually got better. Power cuts became a distant memory. The phone system was overhauled. After the bypass caught on, traffic got no worse. Only the political problems remained. The CPI-M continued pretty much the same, as did the dharnas.

By 1992 I was able to tell my friends in Mumbai that they were wrong. The quality of life in Calcutta was vastly superior to Mumbai. Sadly, that year I shifted to New Delhi and left Calcutta for good. But even though New Delhi had huge advantages over every other Indian city (largely because successive governments had spent so much money on it), I still thought that Calcutta gave it competition.

Nevertheless, I managed to convince few people. Even though the urban arguments (phones, power, roads and so on) could not be challenged, everyone argued that Calcutta would remain a backwater as long as the CPI-M was in power. New Delhi, they said, was the centre of political action. Mumbai had films, glamour and money. Both were sophisticated, seductive towns. Only Calcutta was narrow-minded and parochial.

Well, think again.

If the last three years have proved anything, it is that Calcutta has remained much the same while the other cities have got much worse. In New Delhi, the last vestiges of sophistication were removed by the spectacularly incompetent Bharatiya Janata Party government consisting of stubborn Jats and the worst kind of Delhi Punjabis. The BJP destroyed the power supply, drained away water, and sat back while its trading class supporters made 800 per cent profits on such vegetables as the onion. Small-minded? That was too good a word to define these idiots.

But even New Delhi is much better than Mumbai. In 1992, when I argued that the metropolis was being transformed into the world's largest slum, my Mumbai friends were still taken up with the glamour surrounding the post-liberalisation boom.

"You are crazy," they said. "This is the Manhattan of India. This is where it's all happening. This city parties all night."

In the event, this was a particularly unfortunate boast. In 1993, Mumbai was rocked by the worst-ever riots since Independence. Hundred of Muslims were massacred by Shiv Sena thugs. The Muslim underworld responded with the serial bomb blasts. The Mumbai police (under a Congress government) reacted by rounding up hundreds of innocent Muslims, torturing them, looting their money and then locking them up under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. The communal situation in the city would never be the same again. So much for broad-minded liberalism.

Nor did the parties continue all night. The riots were followed by the Shiv Sena's ascension to power. About the first things that Bal Thackeray and his thugs announced was that restaurants and bars would have to shut early at night. Those that defied the curfew were raided and their managers arrested. Next, they imposed a ban on rock concerts at night. Then, they went further. Even the Filmfare awards ceremony was disrupted when some cop pulled the plug as Madhuri Dixit was dancing on the grounds that it was late at night. Now, I gather they have banned women from working as waitresses on the grounds that all waitresses are whores anyway.

Even as the party was ending, Thackeray's thugs decided to censor art, culture and advertising. The models, Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman, were prosecuted for posing in the buff with a snake (later, they were done for cruelty to animals on the grounds, presumably, that the snake was so horrified by Madhu's body). The veejay, Marc Robinson, faced prosecution for daring to kiss a fellow veejay on the cheek on stage at a Savage Garden show. The painter, M F Husain, had his house ransacked because the Shiv Sena had found some old paintings of his and decided that they were anti-Hindu. (Asked about the incident Thackeray said, "Husain is lucky that we let him come to Hindustan.") Now the Shiv Sena has targeted the film Fire, arguing that Thackeray does not approve of lesbians presumably on the grounds that they deplete the pool of available women.

If this was sincere, then I would have some respect for it. After all, many otherwise sensible people have a puritanical streak. But the truth is that Thackeray has absolutely no problem with vulgarity or sexual deviants. One of his earliest supporters was the Marathi actor, Dada Kondke, each of whose films raised vulgarity to a new high with its sexual innuendo. And even as it was objecting to waitresses on the grounds that they were whores, the Shiv Sena was hosting a concert by the noted heterosexual, Michael Jackson. Apparently, Thackeray now points proudly to the toilet that Michael Jackson used at Matoshree, Thackeray's Mumbai home. If he sees any contradiction between objecting to lesbianism and in hosting a crotch-grabbing alleged paedophile, Thackeray does not let on.

His own behaviour does not suggest a terribly puritanical streak. According to Outlook, he claimed during the election campaign that Sitaram Kesri "continues to be impotent despite having Sonia Gandhi to gaze upon." In case the audience missed his silly and smutty point, he made an obscene gesture to illustrate his position.

Why then has the Shiv Sena gone to such lengths to destroy the ethos of the city of Mumbai? My guess is it is due to equal parts megalomania and helplessness. Thackeray likes being a dada. What better way of proving that he controls Mumbai than to terrorise everyone by closing their restaurants and wrecking their cinemas? Everyone now has to come, cap in hand, to Matoshree before the Smutty Fuehrer grants them permission to continue.

But it goes beyond megalomania. The truth is that the Shiv Sena stands for nothing. It was set up by the Congress in 1967 to break the communist hold on trade unions. Its ideology consisted of beating up Malayalees and extorting money from Gujaratis. When all this got Thackeray nowhere, he decided that there was more profit in Muslim bashing. Even that has now begun to yield diminishing returns. Hence the desperate search for issue; hence the need to resort to such gimmicks as changing the name of the city. The fascist behaviour stems less from any ideology than from an essential ideological hollowness.

Contrast this with Calcutta and the CPI-M. The Marxists have always struck me as being a party of small men headed by a giant. And there is no doubt that they must take some of the blame for the parochial, backwater character that Calcutta has acquired after the '70s.

But whether you like them or not, there is no doubt that they stand for something. It is as clear that they are entirely secular and are free from the poisonous communal venom that afflicts the Shiv Sena. They have given Calcutta an atmosphere in which the arts flourish and freedom of expression is not subject to arbitrary censorship by thugs and goondas.

I never thought I would say this but with both Mumbai and New Delhi in eclipse, there is no doubt that Calcutta offers the best quality of life of any Indian city, both in terms of urban advantages and ambiance. It may not be the centre of action, but at least you will find onions in the market, the lights will not suddenly go off and no thug will knock on your door to extort money in the name of the ruling party.

And that definitely is a reason to cheer.

Vir Sanghvi

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