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Commentary/Varsha Bhosle

Going to town

Us megalopolitans, we rarely suffer from polis-related megalomania. Whether New Yorkers or Mumbaikars, we know well our city's pitfalls: the stench of chock-a-block humanity, the garbage of souls, the pollution, the vice, the crime… yes, it's quite endless. And yet, when outlanders see nothing else but just that, blissfully blind to what turns a big town into a major cosmopolis, it brings to mind chhota-baba Pakistan's whining at Ma India.

In his article The Virgin of New York and other Tales of Two Cities, Rajeev Srinivasan has, umm, gone to town with the 'cynical, defensive and, well, downright obnoxious' citizens of 'wicked' New York. Which, actually, scrapes no skin off my posterior. But, alas, he then goes on to say that NYC is, 'alas, like Bombay'. 'Wicked', I like – so much more invigorating than 'pure' or 'simple'. But 'alas'? Hey, I'm thrilled to bits when someone sees the similarities between the greatest cities of their respective countries.

To say that New York and Bombay are great cities is tautological, I fear. So also, 'uncaring', 'difficult' and 'challenging'. And yes, we metropolitans are everything that Mr Srinivasan (of New York, and lately of San Francisco) disparagingly says we are.

To that, I'd like to add a footnote: we can stand the heat, so we remain in the kitchen. Forget fleeing our cussed country, we don't abandon even our dreadful city. And to do that, we can't afford those poetic bents to wax ad nauseum about bucolic birds and bees and forgotten histories. We manage our gritty lot in a concrete present. (Did Mr Srinivasan say we were merely 'defensive'?)

According to the 1991 census figures, Greater Mumbai has a population of 12.5 million, with about two-thirds of it concentrated on Mumbai Island, an area of 67 sq. km. Meaning, it has one of the highest population densities in the world, reaching, in some areas, 580 heads per sq km. And guess who most of us were or are: migrants, particularly from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, UP and MP. The cotton textiles industry employs almost one-half of our factory workers, while the rest are primarily employed in the production of silk, artificial fibres, chemicals, glassware, and in the dyeing, bleaching, tanning and printing industries. Soft jobs, these – along with dock work, construction, fishing…

I can just see these folks following what Mr Srinivasan 'suspects' to be 'good rules in Bombay, too': one, never making eye contact; two, never speaking if spoken to; three, carrying Rs 20 in their wallets – like their honest counterparts in NYC. Hilarious, isn't it? ROTFL. Unless of course Mr Srinivasan was advising only those who have the wherewithal for 'culture, art, theatre, fine dining, nightlife' and are thus vulnerable to crime. Which means that anybody who lives in a hutment and looks down-and-out (as, indeed, our blue-collared lot does), is a potential mugger. How simple it is for some to slot people.

New Yorkers, on the other hand, don't. They are uniformly wary of and rude to everybody. And I've no doubt whose attitude I prefer.

And while on attitudes, I must tell you the one instance which helped changed my own. It was 1984 and the 'tough top cop' hadn't appeared on the scene; I was shopping in Macy's, oblivious of the time. When I stepped out on Broadway, that street full of tramps, pimps, junkies and weirdoes, it was dark. My arms were heavily loaded. And putcch, I stepped on a large wad of gum. Busy trying to scrape it off on the kerb, I didn't see the huge black man till he tapped me on my shoulder and put out his hand. I was, er… petrified. The man shook his head wearily, went down on his knees, gently lifted my foot, and pulled off the gum. I remained frozen. He then stood up, doffed his filthy cap, and walked off. I shouted, Excuse me, thanks, do please take this… He said, Naah, you keep it.

I'm sorry, but I just don't buy stereotypes any more. Or should I be Oz-literary: 'I was mortified. I knew I was not in Kansas any more, as Dorothy might say.'

Nevertheless, I do know how dangerous New York can be; I do not deny it (actually, the omnithreatening cold-sweat fuels my lust for it). But then, the only time I've been mugged in America was in a very safe neighbourhood in Marin County, California – by Mr Srinivasan's 'different kettle of fish'. And in Bombay mine, and at any hour, I have yet to look left and right for anything other than crossing the road. I guess it's just as simple to slot places.

Taking pot-shots at the soft underbellies of megacities happens to be quite the politically correct order of the day. And it's safe, too, since we guys never have the time, nor the inclination, to publicly take umbrage (that is, barring rare cranks like this columnist). Our reactions usually range from "Yeah, so what else is new?" to "Yeah? Will anything in it affect the market?" Since it never can, we resume our cynical lives, and Medha Patkar promptly toddles off to Narmada to take a relaxing tan near the dam.

Yeah, it's safe all right: In the event of a returned lash, there will always be many more of those "sauntering, loitering or looking around" aficionados, those perpetually wide-eyed starers-at of human decay, to show their solidarity with the oh-so-sensitive assailant. I've no doubt that all those Srinivasanian pals, those reduced to jelly by NYC's deadly windshield-wipers, will have heard the call of the bugle.

A thought: what kind of people derive pleasure from cruising the Bowery and staring at its drunken bums? Probably the sort who come from smallsville to Bombay, and cruise around Kamathipura to stare at its decrepit whores – before catching their fumigated flights out to London or SF. While in the district, they probably don't notice Ashok Row Kavi of the Humsafar Trust organising free camps and drives to help its AIDS-struck denizens: A native Mumbaikar, Row Kavi does such things for the mere lark of it.

In another article, Mr Srinivasan writes, 'Most of us in the US have had experiences of racism, of a 'dot-head' epithet tossed at us, of glass ceilings and discrimination in the work place, of the casual demeaning of our nation and our beliefs that we face frequently.' My, my, my… for one so ruffled by casual debasement, I marvel at his ability to deliver the same to others.

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Varsha Bhosle

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