The past is a different country, said the writer LP Hartley and much as that quote is overused, it does seem like that sometimes. Listening from afar to all the discussions about the collapse of Mumbai today and you feel despondent. All conversations seem to depressingly digress to everything that’s wrong with the city. From the hasty transfer of a police commissioner to a ban on meat to the dangers of a coastal road to endless traffic to crumbling infrastructure to the weather... in fact, take your pick of just about anything.
Road Safety Patrol was compulsory in our school. The best amongst us, the most coveted assignment, was to be part of the crowd control at Girgaum Chowpatty during the Ganpati immersions. File pic for representation
But Mumbai has always had a certain ineffable but palpable character: down to earth acceptance, humour and a willingness to let you be you. It is neither as cloying as Calcutta nor as hierarchical as Delhi. And it’s long been like this. There was prohibition in Bombay in the 1970s, as some people may remember. My parents had gone out for dinner one night and my father parked his car just outside a grocery shop where we did most of our shopping. When they came out after dinner, the car was gone. The police laughed a little at the complaint – white Ambassadors were just about the most common car on the streets in those days. The thief, they said, would either be a smuggler or a joyrider. A surprised policeman phoned a few days later to say that the car had been found on the highway and since nothing had been stolen, smugglers had probably used it.
My father jokingly mentioned this to the shop owner who made all the right noises. The next day, the shop, which has also my father’s bootlegger, delivered a crate of whiskey to the house. (There was prohibition — obviously alcohol was easily available!) But when my father came home from office, he said he hadn’t asked for it. He went to the shop to ask why they had sent it. They denied all knowledge.
Honour not just among thieves then, but also for customers whose property had been misused? That was Bombay in those days.
We had two “gangs” in the building complex we grew up in, in the 1970s. I was leader of the Shiv Sena while the goodie-goodie children, you know the sort, were the Congress. Inspired by our politicians, our job was to make the Congress’s life miserable with all sorts of silly pranks. How little changes, eh? This was before the Emergency however, I must confess. I had grown out of that sort of playing by then anyway. But we were also foolishly innocent. I remember roller-skating on the lanes of Malabar Hill during “bandhs” called by the Shiv Sena because, wheeee!, they were traffic-free. My parents would have never allowed that if we had lived in Calcutta then and maybe they would have never let us leave the house if we lived in Delhi.
Road Safety Patrol was compulsory in our school. Once a week, early morning, we had to direct traffic. I was really bad at it so my job was to force people to walk on the pavement. The best amongst us, the most coveted assignment, was to be part of the crowd control at Girgaum Chowpatty during the Ganpati immersions. I never made it so I had to make do with the excursions to the traffic park at Cooperage, where you were instructed in traffic rules by a friendly cop who could stand being around children. That was when they still had a band playing in the park next door. Never mind. It was another country like the man said.
When I started working in Bombay in the 1980s, I lived in hostels, I bought a tiny flat, I travelled to work by public transport at odd hours... Now when I listen to young people I realise what an easy, fun and remarkable time I had of it. Unfair, almost compared to the constant harassment that appears to be the rule.
Nostalgia of course is a wonderful recourse when you are faced with insurmountable problems. But now that I live away from Mumbai, I can only offer pap homilies: if you as a city survived the past, surely the present doesn’t have to be this miserable?
Get on with it!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona