Was the past really better?

Published: 24 November, 2018 07:30 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

The older I get, the more I miss the Bombay of my early years

Lindsay PereiraMy parents would rave about a kind of custard available to them in their youth. This sounds like a bizarre thing to wax eloquent about, but they genuinely believed a particular brand of custard sold when they were young was far superior to anything available on shelves by the time they had me.

This magical, mysterious sweet treat was supposedly available in the days soon after the British left, when Bombay's streets were still clean and the air still fresh. Apparently, everything went downhill from that point on, and custard was just one of the casualties on that long list.

I used to dismiss this kind of talk as nostalgia that tends to bathe our collective past in a golden glow, glossing over the bad and sweeping away all the negativity and awfulness under a rug, allowing us to smile as we thought about our glorious youth instead. I increasingly question my own scepticism though, as I get older and the past starts to seem like a genuinely nicer time after all.

Let's put aside things like inflation and our population explosion, because both are simply a consequence of Bombay evolving into a financial centre, attracting people from across the country because that's what big cities do, and because everyone needs to make a living. I think about my years in school when I think about the past, and compare them to the way children function today, using that as a measure because it seems like a more neutral way of analysing those early, formative years.

My school, in one of Bombay's suburbs, was geared towards encouraging everyone to get along. Some of my classmates were rich, others incredibly poor, and their religious beliefs were pretty much a microcosm of what the idea of India was founded upon. We celebrated all festivals, knew as much about Eid as we did about Guru Nanak Jayanti, and were happy to form bonds that, at least in my case, continue to stay strong to this day. We simply had no room to focus on our differences because everything was geared towards highlighting what we had in common instead.

Things are anything but the same in schools today. When I look at the children of friends and relatives, I find that their choices of where to go, what friends to make, and even what casual alliances to consider are based upon specific affiliations that their parents want them to subscribe to. They are encouraged to try and enter social circles based on their beliefs and economic status, and their parents revel in reaching out to other acceptable parents to encourage networking from kindergarten.

My parents had no idea what networking meant and, if they did, they hid it pretty well. Other memories stand out. Lighter bags, for example, and fewer brands to obsess over. Even our role models - politicians, cricketers, the odd film star or two - tended to be decent, polite human beings who, even if they had personal scandals of their own, had no need to worry about the airing of dirty linen in public and watching it spread like wildfire. There were no ugly pronouncements made, no rabid calls for the extermination of certain kinds of people, and no screaming matches on television. This may sound odd, but it meant that our childhood experience of television was more insightful, calm and entertaining, with the only bizarre behaviour we were exposed to coming via extra-terrestrials on Star Trek.

I recognise the inevitability of looking at the past as better, of course, given how easy it is to overlook the advantages that technology and awareness bring to the present. I do think it was better for Bombay though, if only because the overwhelming greed that drives so much of what passes for development was absent. There were crimes like land-grabbing, naturally, and licences were obtained by bribing as many government officials as one probably has to today, but we did have access to facilities that worked, and even the buildings constructed back then - one of which I lived in for almost three decades - aged a lot better than the dubious constructions that tend to crop up almost overnight today.

Worrying about what we are leaving behind occupies a significant amount of my time these days. My parents missed custard, but I will miss the fact that my fellow-Bombayites were better behaved, a lot less angry, and more concerned about their neighbourhoods and public spaces than they are today. Then again, maybe I'm just getting old.

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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