Dear Mumbai, perception matters

Kanchan guptaIn the late-1980s, I was offered a job, that of a resident editor, to assist the Delhi-based editor of what was then a prominent and influential English language newspaper to revive its flagging Mumbai edition. The legendary editor, brilliant and mercurial at once, was keen I should join immediately.

A couple of days later I travelled to Mumbai, had a brief meeting with the ailing owner of the paper, discussed salary and perks with the finance boss, was taken to see the apartment they would give me (it was in Sassoon Dock, facing the Arabian Sea, and I was enthralled by the idea of sea gulls for company). We even discussed curtains and furniture.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, with face blackened by Shiv Sena activists, with former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. File pic
Sudheendra Kulkarni, with face blackened by Shiv Sena activists, with former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. File pic

Back in Calcutta later that evening, my wife and I discussed relocation plans. The only problem we foresaw was getting our daughter admitted to a good school, but I had been assured this would be taken care of. I spent the next few days drafting my resignation letter, dreading the moment I would have to tell my Editor at The Statesman of my imminent departure.

As the adage goes, God proposes, man disposes. CR Irani summoned me to his office one morning and I walked in to see him looking extremely displeased. Apparently the owner of the paper, a close friend of Irani’s, had called and asked him if he could poach me from The Statesman. I wasn’t quite prepared about that possibility. Nor had I expected Irani to be apoplectic with rage.

To cut a long story short, an enraged Irani chided me for considering a job in that paper. Told me off for not taking him into confidence. And then pushed an envelope across the table. Back in my office, I opened the envelope. I had been bumped up to ‘Top Grade’, which meant holiday money with no salary hike.

The reason I am recounting this story is to recall, some 25 years later, how I missed the train to Mumbai and never became a Mumbaikar, although I loved the city as much as I loved Kolkata. I still do. Destiny brought me to Delhi instead, a city I have never quite cared for or come close to liking.

Kolkata — as I have written in the past, has a heart — Mumbai has a soul, Delhi has neither. It’s all about character, my mother used to say, some have it, some don’t.

But, at times, I wonder if the Mumbai I craved for in my late 20s still exists. I know it’s fashionable to mourn the decay and death of a city’s beautiful, picture-perfect past (which probably existed only in our minds) and bemoan the wart-littered unwholesome present (which probably was the past too, in reality). It’s just that I speak from my heart, not for the cameras as the Page 3 People do.

The entirely meaningless politics of dissent and disruption that the Shiv Sena practices does nothing to enhance Mumbai’s prestige or the party’s electoral prospects. In recent times, it has not only embarrassed its senior partner in government, the BJP, it has also made itself look utterly immature and silly.

Individuals and incidents are immaterial in crafting long-term perceptions. Public memory is remarkably short in our country, nor are we blessed with a sense of history. What appears on the front page today, or features as the ‘Burning Question’ on a prime-time show that should really be called The Tower of Babble, is forgotten tomorrow.

Yet, the perception remains. And over time, perceptions coalesce into a critical mass that outweighs reality. Mumbai is far too big, far too steeped in history and culture, far too important in managing India’s financial wealth, and a lot more, to bother about a temporary restraint on sale of meat — which in any event is followed more in the breach than in its practice — or an over-the-hill Pakistani singer with a repertoire of maudlin songs that belong to the times when the city had to make do with bootlegged Vat 69, or a nobody in the Pakistani establishment whose 850-page boring, verbose, badly-written book is a desperate attempt to remain relevant in the seminar circuit.

Annual meat sales have not been affected. The Pakistani singer will return home with more wah-wahs than cash. Few will actually be conned into buying a book authored by a Pakistani nobody after hearing him speak insincerely or watching him pose with Gandhi’s charkha, and fewer will actually read it.

But what will remain are shadowy perceptions that would do gross injustice to a great city with wonderful people. You could ask why am I bothered about it, after all I am not even a wannabe Mumbaikar. The answer to that is simple. You don’t need to be a Mumbaikar to love Mumbai, care for it, even cherish it, as I do. I wish the Shiv Sena would think about this.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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