Paromita Vohra: A boat in a flood

Sep 03, 2017, 06:46 IST | Paromita Vohra

Mumbaikars help stranded passengers get on safer grounds at a railway station during the deluge that followed heavy rains on August 29. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Mumbaikars help stranded passengers get on safer grounds at a railway station during the deluge that followed heavy rains on August 29. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

When the rain became intense last week in Bombay, and it became clear people would be stranded and suffering, the tweets cascaded thick and fast with both, calls for help and offers of help. Yes, it's a Bombay thing, it's true. A culture of pragmatic self-interest has nestled quite comfortably alongside a culture of helping out in this city. Just see any traffic jam in a back lane and you will see some local luminary helping to unsnarl it with élan and authority.

I believe it does come from a sense of community and identity as Bombaywala or Mumbaikar. By this I don't mean a fuzzy cosmo-patriotism. I mean rather a sense of being self-made, self-assured, modern; hence able to engage with strangers and make things happen, both for yourself and others, has also been something of the city's culture, leading to this can-do spirit. But it was also a spirit bolstered by the sense of possibility the city long offered -- of work, of a life of choice, of safety for women, as also of infrastructure like the local train and BEST which bolstered this possibility. As this thins out, and Bombay becomes less and less livable, we see some thinning of the spirit. Yet, some belief in a sense of the city, which has once been very compelling, and a sense of themselves as part of this idea, keeps people going.

Temples, gurudwaras and churches, made themselves available and open with food and shelter for all as quickly. Religious or spiritual faith provides this sense of rootedness too -- not only in community, but sometimes in the sense of what it is to be a good or capable person as part of this identity,, which brings generosity. People are quick to mock religion but here too a culture of hierarchy and mind-control can nestle comfortably with a culture of genuine kindness.

But this was also the week in which both these sources of identity got their share of cursing. People were irritated with the 'spirit of Mumbai' for taking the abuse of a corrupt municipality, for filling in all the callous gaps of governance with goodness, and of course, for landing up at work next day.

There was also contempt for members of the Dera Sacha Sauda for being part of such a cult, and worshipping a venal leader. Blind faith is a favourite slur that makes misfortune look like a willful act of stupidity (sometimes I suppose it is). If deras or other such spiritual spaces offer people a sense of belonging, possibility and mobility, why would they not have faith in them, rather than a system that excludes them?

People like to say, "As an Indian I am proud/ashamed of x/y/z." They must have some belief too in an idea and identity they are espousing when they say this. For some it embodies a belief in democracy, but it's not like our democratically elected leaders lag behind in the power abuse and corrupt morals department. Sometimes leaders set the entire economy back with currency as colourful as MSGs outfits, but their followers staunchly believe in them. Others despair at this leadership but keep believing in democracy and go off, poll after poll to vote. We're all in the same boat, keeping it afloat in the same floods, mostly with some kind of faith and contradictions.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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