Lindsay Pereira: A fight club with 20 million members

The simmering anger in Mumbai should be a warning to those in charge that they can no longer let the city go to the dogs

Ours is an angry city, in case you hadn’t noticed yet.

I don’t know if it always was, because nostalgia can make us forgetful, but I don’t remember instances of road rage for certain. This may be because the only private automobiles on Bombay’s streets when I was growing up were dinky Maruti 800s and the odd Ambassador. Today though, ours is a city of pent-up fury, a tinderbox of emotions ready to go off at the slightest provocation. Today, we travel with fingers crossed, hoping to avoid fights at every corner.

Two grown men baring their teeth at each other, warily running slow circles, abusing each other’s parents, screaming like ghouls — it’s what we call a good Monday morning. File pic for representation
Two grown men baring their teeth at each other, warily running slow circles, abusing each other’s parents, screaming like ghouls — it’s what we call a good Monday morning. File pic for representation

Fights on our streets are now welcome. Two grown men baring their teeth at each other, warily running slow circles, abusing each other’s parents, screaming like ghouls — it’s what we call a good Monday morning. Without these skirmishes, there would only be the occasional accident or minor communal riot to keep us occupied.

They start, as they often do, for the most ridiculous reasons known to man — or, in most such cases, two men. A teenager’s bicycle accidentally runs across a grown man’s left foot. A skinny man picks just the watermelon his plump neighbour is reaching for. A cobbler refuses to accept anything but exact change. An old gentleman is gently brushed by a passing rickshaw, leaving his accompanying grandson frothing at the mouth. Someone refuses to squeeze in a little more in a packed train compartment.

And then, game time: the first shout, and an instant reciprocal one, the first slow circle, the first show of fists. And, like a sudden splash of paint on a wall, the first solid slap. Thwack!

Time quickly thuds to a stop on these street corners. Like flies, the onlookers gather, hovering around the two men, squeezing in and out in search of the best angle, eyes wide open, refusing to blink. Automobiles slow down, buses crawl past, heads stick outside windows high above the circling figures. Now picture, if you will, these miniature fistfights across the city. See how angry we have become.

These little outbursts make life manageable in our city because Bombay is managed by people who don’t care about the lives of common men and women. When your administration leaves millions in the lurch every monsoon, to struggle in overcrowded trains and walk through waterlogged streets, and does this year after year for as long as you care to remember, the residents of that city die a little inside. Their souls no longer care about what is beautiful; their ability to empathise with their fellow residents fades, making way for anger almost immediately after they step outside their homes and make their dreaded commute to offices in far-flung corners of the city, knowing it won’t be an easy journey there or back.

As for me, I have walked past many such fights over the course of decades in this city. I have watched a great many standing on toes to look over other men who are standing on their toes. I have nodded sympathetically at my curious neighbours. And, like them, I have never made more than a half-hearted attempt to stop anything. Why stop two dim-witted people from harming themselves for the dumbest reasons anyway? This sort of self-culling can only be good for the gene pool.

The last time I found myself before a fight, it was right at the juicy moment when the pummelling was about to begin. The air was heavy with expectation; the crowds, leaning forward slightly, holding each other up to create a small amphitheatre. This is what men have always done. Imagine them crowding around two Neanderthals in a cave, their roughly hewn clubs at the ready, while curious dinosaurs outside stop chewing wild grass to stare.

‘Kuch karo yaar,’ said one of the guys standing next to me, at that last fight. ‘Make them stop.’ My fellow onlookers and I sneered at him; this, despite the fact that one of the two warring men was my oldest friend in the world. To make the guilt go away, I tapped my angry friend. “Let me hold your glasses,” I said. “They may fall off during the fight.”

It’s what we do around here: Wait until the fight goes out of people, knowing it may not make them feel any better, but also knowing that it will calm them down for at least another week or so. A poorly managed city is an angry city. I hope someone at the state government understands that, in the not too distant future.

When he isn’t ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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