For the greater, common good
Miraculous things happen when we start giving our collective wants more importance than our individual ones
The nicest thing about visiting any other country is, for me, also one of the simplest. It's when the people around me make way. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it can be for anyone who simply isn't used to this act of common courtesy. They do this unconsciously, opening doors for women, allowing senior citizens access to a bus, or slowing down at street corners in order to give pedestrians the right of way. There are no signs asking them to do this, and no laws that insist on their compliance, but much of this comes naturally because of the way they have been raised, and the power of emulation that can compel some people to do good as much as it can instigate others to start a riot.
I am always rudely awakened, every time I arrive in Bombay, by the sight of fellow passengers shoving each other in a rush to the nearest exit. This battle for position begins with the frantic opening of overhead baggage spaces, continues to the immigration counters, and culminates in knots of people around booking counters for pre-paid taxis. There are lines for all of these tasks, of course, but whether or not they are observed depends upon how lucky one is. It's almost as if we have a pathological need to be first, no matter how it affects the rest of us.
There must be something in the way we have all been brought up that prompts this behaviour from an early age. Maybe it's the fact that we have to push and shove our way through every single BMC office we know, for everything from birth certificates to the paying of taxes. Maybe it's the belief drilled into us by our neighbours, that some of us can rise only if a lot of us fall. Maybe it's a lack of empathy that only people living in some of the most populated spaces on the planet learn to internalise because it is so intrinsic to survival. Or maybe it's just bad manners, because we have an overabundance of those.
Either way, this would still be okay if the repercussions of our way of thinking weren't so awful. Our inability to put our neighbours and communities first, unfortunately, is what ends up making life difficult for all of us in the bargain. Think about how selfishness permeates every aspect of what we support and choose to criticise. Think about residents who have blocked the expansion of roads, for instance, or celebrities who have put their comfort above the ease of those who live around them.
Selfishness is also what drives our political choices, prompting millions of us to vote not fellow Indians who deserve to represent us on the basis of merit, but fellow Indians who speak the same language we do, or share the same religious beliefs. It's why political parties find it so easy to manipulate us all, safe in the knowledge that our selfishness will prevent us from accepting the right candidate every time, gently nudging us towards the least acceptable options instead. We are always like fish in a barrel for those armed with a gun.
The massive fire at Aarey Milk Colony a couple of weeks ago underscores my point. We heard about it, read the Instagram posts, tracked the path of the blaze on Twitter, and then forgot about it the next morning because it simply didn't matter. We didn't stop to wonder how and why this fire broke out in an area that has been coveted by all kinds of vested interests. We didn't ask about the tribals, animals or other residents who call that part of Bombay home. Few of us have even bothered trying to figure out why activists have been fighting the government of Maharashtra for years now, trying to save this green lung for the rest of us.
I like to think there is still hope, that there will come a time when our children will tire of the relentless selfishness they grow up with, when they see how the rest of the world behaves and start to recognise that working towards the collective advancement of everyone makes life better for us all. Until that happens though, it's sad to think that we will be condemned to keep fighting for space and pushing our neighbours to claim our seat at every table. It's sad that we won't make way for others simply because no one made way for us.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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