Whose city is it anyway?

Rahul da CunhaI’m sitting in a London cafe, watching the world go by. (It’s off season, so no bus loads of Japs shooting the Selfridges shop windows with their Canon instamatics). I’m listening in on snippets of conversation. And English isn’t the only language being spoken. Guess it’s to do with migrant populations.

First, it was us Indians crowding into the corner shops, then the Bangladeshis, the Pakistanis and other Asians. Didn’t really bother the Brits. We were slogging our butts off, but tucked away in little cubicles in the tube station. But then came the Middle Eastern invasion. You could walk into Soho and you could be in Syria. The Arabic lilt replaced the cockney twang. The famous Brit stiff upper lip took on a grimace. The expression of the average Pom. General distaste. No one could blame them, the Middle Eastern immigrant not really making an effort to fit in.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

But it’s the most recent trend that I find the most interesting -- the workforce has changed, Eastern Europe has invaded South London. The Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians are out in full workforce Superheroes in workmen’s overalls. Scaling up buildings, doing the heavy lifting, laying the bricks, paving the streets. The East Europeans have clearly found their place in the sun -- and it’s out in the sun. And the Brits aren’t complaining.

“Cor blimey, better Igor climbs up that 14-storey building than one of us”, says rotund Chris propping up the bar. Dirty work, civil work, manual work, call in the East Europeans. They’re robust, they’re resilient, and they need the work.

If only the East Biharis and Western UPites had similar luck. Our migrant manual labourers. Climbing up rickety bamboos referred to as scaffoldings. Diving deep into the city’s sewers. Earning an honest day’s living in the worst possible civic conditions.

And then suddenly we’re beating them up. “Let’s brutalise the Biharis, upset the UP apple cart, these ‘outsiders’ from Patna and Pilibit, throw them out.” They’re being blamed for every city problem from rape to the rupee falling.

I get that it’s a vote thing. “Let’s rid the city of these illegitimate invaders. And restore Maharashtra to its former glory.” Ya right. It’s going to take a heck of lot more than a few wrecked black and white taxis to achieve that.

These guys are doing your hard work for you. They furrow deep into your city’s underbelly on their bellies. They dirty their hands for you, let alone soaking up the stench, Mumbai has always been a melting pot. But it’s also a pisspot.

We’ve lost our cosmopolitanism. Let’s hang onto our compassion.

Rahul da Cunha is an adman, theatre director/playwright, photographer and traveller. Reach him at rahuldacunha62 @gmail.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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