2015 has been a year of much gloom, with civic infrastructure crumbling further, civil liberties being trampled and the idea of pluralism coming under threat. The New Year is not without hope, but the change has to come from us, the citizens of Mumbai
So as yet another year drew to a close, two things happened outside the building I live in, separated by just a few days. And to me, in some possibly odd way they capture a little of the spirit in which I write this essay.
First, somebody cleared away the huge pile of branches.
There's a history here. On the morning of Saturday December 5 (I remember because I noted it in a diary, knowing there’d be this history to write about), a municipal crew arrived outside our building. They were in one of those trucks that have a cradle behind that can levitate, so that a municipal worker perched inside can fix dysfunctional street lamps or — like that morning — hack too-long branches off trees. My daughter alerted me to their efforts, whispering frantically that they were hacking too many branches off the neem and gulmohar trees just outside the compound wall. I tried to explain that some of the branches had grown long and heavy. There was a danger of them falling off on their own and cracking skulls below. She didn’t look convinced.
In any case, the crew was done with their hacking in an hour or so. Then they gathered all the cut branches and stacked them just outside the compound wall, beside the trunk of the gulmohar and covering up a grill that opens into the stormwater drain below. Then they vanished.
Two days later — Monday December 7 — a municipal sweeping crew was at work on our lane. “Are you going to take away that pile?” I asked one of them as I walked back into the building one afternoon. “No,” said the man. “You cut the tree, so you’ll have to ask the municipality to come pick it all up.”
“But I didn’t cut the tree!” I wailed, already quailing from the prospect of chasing unresponsive municipal officials. “Some workers from the municipality did it!”
“Oh yes?” he replied. “In that case, don’t worry. It’ll be cleared.”
Days passed. The leaves on the branches died and turned brown. The pile was augmented, first by a discarded stool, then a discarded ironing table (yes), then a discarded bathroom sink, besides assorted other discarded trash. Reading the news about torrential rains and flooding in Chennai - more on that a little later — I couldn’t help a small frisson of worry: what if we had a spell of that kind of rain here and this growing hillock of refuse interfered with water trying to flow into the stormwater drain?
Luckily that didn’t happen. But for no clear reason, the branches stayed there for over two weeks, augmenting away. Until … on the morning of Wednesday December 23, they were gone.
Second, somebody tarred over the rubble.
There’s a history here too. If you remember, in 2015 we had a wetter than usual June. Sometime during that month, our building suddenly lost power for a day (I don’t remember the date because sadly, I didn’t note it in a diary). The technicians from Reliance Energy said there was some kind of fault in the underground cable leading into the building from a red box outside. As a temporary fix, they ran a thick yellow cable — presumably bypassing the fault — across our compound. When the rain slowed a few weeks later, a Reliance crew showed up to fix the fault. They dug a hole just outside our gate, also ruining part of the short approach into the building. As they were finishing up and filling their hole with mud and stones, I asked if, and when, the damage would be repaired. One looked angrily at me and said: “We’re fixing your cable fault, aren’t we?” Almost as if it really was my cable fault, almost as if it was my fault too.
Days passed. Weeks passed. The rubble stayed more or less as is. Likewise, the damage to our little driveway. Months passed. In December — six months later — we lost power for a day again, though this time the outage was announced by Reliance. They had to repair something inside the red box. More digging around the box that morning, more filling up holes with mud and stones. Where in May that short stretch — from our driveway to the gate of the next building — was a relatively smooth tarred surface, in December it was a jumble of loose stones and mud. Progress and development, didn’t you know?
Came the morning of December 25. Two newly laid patches of tar suddenly appeared, covering the rubble. Or really, about half the rubble. Our approach is still broken; around the box there are still plenty of loose stones. Still, at least somebody had made some attempt at repair.
There’s one more angle to all this. Across the road from us lives a once—cricketer called Sachin Tendulkar, perhaps you’ve heard of him. At least twice in the four years since he moved in there, his side of the road has been similarly dug up, both times cutting deeply into his own much larger driveway. But those gashes in the road were swiftly filled in and smoothened, so much so that, in total contrast to ours, his side of the road looks pristine.
Why mention all this, and in such detail? Well, think of the several very Indian themes I’ve touched on here, simply with two otherwise forgettable 2015 happenings. Electricity supply erratic enough that a heavy monsoon downpour interrupts it. A jerry–rigged (call it “jugaad”) temporary fixer cable that residents have to step and cycle and drive over. A road dug up, but restored to its original condition only after months, if ever. Trash left on the street for weeks — a magnet for still more trash — before it is cleared, if ever. Visibly different treatment of two sides of the same narrow street, presumably because a famous man lives on one side.
And it’s not just my street. Just a few minutes’ walk away, a stretch of St Andrews Road, a major thoroughfare in our suburb, was closed and dug up — wait for it — between December 2014 and June 2015. Six months for some serious digging and pipe laying, with piles of mud and debris lying about, dust perpetually in the air. This, outside a hospital that’s on that stretch. If you were an 81—year—old visiting that hospital for cataract operations — as my mother was in March, making several visits — you had to pick your careful way over the debris. At one point, you had to use a plank to get across a particularly large hole. Six months like this!
And when it was all over, the road was laid with those odd artifacts that I suspect some future archaeologists are going to scratch their heads over: paver blocks. The result? The whole stretch is pockmarked with potholes and bumps and depressions like it never was before.
That road is now easily the most uneven it ever has been. But amazingly, in that respect it still cannot hold a candle to plenty of other roads in this city. Take Link Road that starts at Sion station and skirts the northern edge of Dharavi, for example. Paver—blocked most of the way now, it remains the same disgraceful excuse for a road it has been throughout the quarter—century that I’ve regularly used it. Huge potholes, piles of stones … There are times I wonder: what if this road wound through Malabar Hill or past the Mantralaya? Or, indeed, past the home of a man called Sachin Tendulkar?
You know I could go on in this vein, about rubble and dust, trash and shoddiness and visibly different treatments all over this city. I’ll spare you.
But I couldn’t help ruminating about all this some more in December, as Chennai sank. The photographs and stories from there were hard to digest. Yet as terrible a disaster as that was, we in Mumbai remember at least one worse day here. That’s July 26 2005, when nearly a metre of rain poured out of the sky and left hundreds dead. Some were trapped in cars. Some fell into open manholes and drowned. Several dozen died when an entire hillside collapsed near Saki Naka, burying their pitiful slum homes in mud and boulders.
Certainly the city’s infamous 26/7 was a once—in—many—decades occurrence. Still, it showed up like nothing else this city’s mindless rush to pave over and build on every open space, to fill our rivers with our dirt, to clog our drains with our trash and to destroy the mangroves that are our natural safeguards. It showed up our municipality for the haphazard and apathetic mess it has come to be. In truth, that tragedy should have surprised nobody. It was waiting to happen.
A decade later, can we be certain the disaster of 26/7 won’t happen again? If you consider the indifference I allude to above — to simply doing a job well, to simply finishing it in time — to me the answer is clear. I think it is to you too.
But there were other themes too, in this great city this year. During the Jain Paryushan festival in September, the government decided to “respect the religious sentiments” of Jains by banning the slaughter and sale of meat. Now while I’m non—vegetarian, I’m actually all for consuming less and less flesh, purely because of the swiftly increasing demands meat—eating places on this planet’s resources. (Of that, another time). For that reason, I actually nurse a quiet admiration for Jain eating habits. But that they would demand that the whole city observe their customs, and that an administration would actually accede to that demand — this stuff gets my goat (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Consider how we might react if Muslims demanded that during Bakri-Id, we must all eat mutton, and during the month of Ramzan, we must all fast all day. What if a government agreed to such demands? Consider that the taste of celery makes me sick. I never eat it. Should I ask the government to prevent everyone else in my city eating celery?
You scoff at all this, and rightly so. But logically, these are exactly the same as what happened with Paryushan. When did we come to think it’s okay for one community’s dietary preferences to be dictated to everyone else? If a Jain’s revulsion for meat is forced on me, why shouldn’t mine for celery be forced on you?
What’s more, this episode generated arguably the most two—faced inflammatory remark of the year. The Shiv Sena did not agree with the ban on meat, finding some innovative ways to protest it in public. Then they published an editorial in the party mouthpiece, asserting their dietary rights and criticizing Jains for their demand. So far, so good. But the editorial went on to issue a warning that was translated and quoted widely: “Till now, fundamentalist Muslims were flexing their religious muscles. If Jains too want to follow the path of religious fundamentalism then God alone should save them. … Muslims have their Pakistan, but you (Jains) have nowhere to go.”
Only the Sena could pretend concern for individual rights, while simultaneously underlining the bigotry that’s their raison—d’être. Quite a feat. Then again, this was the party that blackened a man’s face with ink because he was releasing a Pakistani’s book, and then told us this action was identical to what our soldiers do on our borders. This was the party that, when in power in the ’90s, promised “free homes” to 4 million slum residents but delivered — when I checked with the Urban Development Department three years into their term — a total of 1146. This was the party that crows to this day about building 55 flyovers in this city in those heady ’90s years — and yet commuting remains a frightful headache for the overwhelming majority of this city, including those who use the flyovers. This was the party that a judicial inquiry found bore the greatest responsibility for the massacre in this city in December 1992 and January 1993.
Being two—faced, then, is no kind of surprise.
Speaking of being two—faced: that was also part of the movie—going experience for a number of people, one day in December. Now it is to the Nationalist Congress Party that we owe the present—day practice of screening the national anthem before films. Such screening used to happen in years gone by too — the 1960s and 1970s — except that the anthem played after the film. Invariably, the audience would stream out as it did, thus suggesting to some hyper—patriots that they were being disrespectful and traitorous. The remedy the NCP dreamed up? Stage—manage and force—feed respect: play the anthem before the film. Why it should play at all in a movie theatre is a question worth asking, but leave that be. The fall—out is that plenty of moviegoers now feel an urge not so much to sing along as the anthem plays on screen — ever notice how few actually sing? — but to seek out others who aren’t standing and beat them over the head for showing “disrespect”.
Inevitably there are ugly incidents. Like the recent clip that went viral, of a family hounded out of a Kurla theatre because they sat during the anthem. None of the hounders stopped to think about the patriotic credentials of those who decided to order the anthem played in the first place. Given what we know about ourselves, I’d also wager none of them has paid attention to various common displays of genuine “disrespect” for this country. Like driving the wrong way on a one—way street. Like paying bribes. Like rationalising murders on innocent citizens. Like not paying taxes. In fact, given what we know, it’s a good bet most moviegoers are themselves guilty of one or more of these. What is it that turns a snarling hounder in a movie—theatre into a casual law—breaker outside? What does it say about his ideas of this country?
You know I could go on. Again, I’ll spare you.
I realise I’ve come across, so far, as a grumbling grouch. That’s the trouble with trying to look back on a year that’s finished, and looking ahead to one that’s starting: there’s so much that you remember as being annoying. And let’s be frank here — the mere artifice of the end of the year is hardly the stuff of hope. Why should an uptick in the count of a year automatically suggest the chance of dramatic change, especially as most of what I’ve grouched about has been happening for decades?
Yet the truth is that I do live in hope, as I’m sure most of us do. How can we not? So without meaning to suggest a naive optimism, here’s some of what I find myself hoping for as we turn to 2016.
First and above all, that each of us will learn a little bit more about respect and consideration for our fellow—citizens. This means all kinds of things. Like not haranguing someone who chooses to sit during the national anthem. Like slowing down to let a pedestrian cross in front of my car. Like not flinging trash — yes, even flowers in plastic bags — into the Mithi River, or anywhere. Like … well, you get the idea.
Second, that our public utilities and the municipality will show greater efficiency — and similar consideration — in executing and completing various projects. If they clean out a drain, they will also clear away what comes from it, not leave it lying around. If they dig up a road, they will work night and day — whatever the cost — to finish whatever their task is in quick time, and then diligently restore the road to at least the state it was in before. If they build a bus shelter, they will ensure that the pavement remains wide enough that pedestrians don’t have to step into traffic to get past the shelter. If they … well, you get the idea again.
Third, that all of us — citizens and authorities alike — start to understand the true meaning of “public”. What I mean is, we start evaluating the need for and worth of public projects by how much of the public they benefit. However spectacular and “iconic” it might be, a sea link that benefits only a small fraction of this city's commuters — which ours clearly does — should never have seen the light of day before any number of other measures the residents of this city urgently need. Apply the same logic to the proposed coastal road. Or cutting down trees and destroying stretches of mangroves.
Fourth, that you and I and everyone else give up on that ghastly word “iconic” altogether. I’m only half—joking here.
Fifth, that we take the time to remember the very idea of this fascinating country we live in. For me, it boils down to this much: look at each other as we look at ourselves — not with suspicion and hostility, but with a degree of humanity and understanding. You and I might disagree on many things, but you likely have the same essentially simple aspirations and dreams that I do: a better life for the family, reasonable education and opportunity for the children, clean surroundings for us all. If that’s so, why should I ascribe to you ugly characteristics I would never accuse myself of, merely because I don’t like something you do, or because you choose a different god to believe in?
Yes, why should I? Instead I wish you what you are no doubt wishing many others: Happy New Year.