We are a city of ghosts
Apathy and consistent lack of leadership have managed to ruin what was once a vibrant metropolis. We sat back and let it happen
I arrived at a sad realisation this week, while thinking about Mumbai. It came to me while I was away from the city, at a time when I ought to have started missing it. This used to happen regularly when I was younger, when any trip outside started with exhilaration and happiness at getting away and ended with a desperate need to see my crowded streets again. It didn't happen this time though. I stayed away for quite a while, waiting for either nostalgia or homesickness to strike, but nothing happened.
My love for the city used to be a constant, when I was growing up. It routinely compelled me to defend it in front of visitors and those who repeatedly raised its many flaws up for inspection in my presence. I would argue ferociously, listing reasons for why the city had redeeming factors that were being pointedly ignored. As I grow older though, I find it increasingly hard to come up with more positive reasons.
Mumbaikars don't vote. The ones who do, choose to elect men and women based on their personal religious or linguistic affiliations, rather than on merit. It's why we are consistently governed not by people qualified to take charge, but by criminals with the most access to funds. It's why those in power use their time there not to make life better for the rest of us, but to line the pockets of those who helped them to those seats in the first place. It's why bridges fall, illegal structures rise, and public transportation gets worse even as more money is poured into making it better.
The one thing I could count on, back in the day, was a spirit of camaraderie that allowed us to smile defiantly in the face of the inefficiency around us. That spirit is now reviled, a joke that keeps on giving, used by ministers and corporators to laugh behind our backs. Our spirit has been replaced by an attitude of fatalism, that pre-empts stumbling blocks (or paver blocks) at every step of the way and prepares to accept them instead of questioning them.
Many of our fellow citizens died pointlessly all through the year. Some died in pubs and restaurants because no one had bothered to check those places for fire licenses, others succumbed to crowded trains and stampedes, still others to accidents that could have been avoided if the crores allocated to safer roads had really been used for their intended purpose. Through it all, millions of us shook our heads, took deeper breaths before setting out to work, or raged on Twitter for a day before the next trending topic took over.
I no longer think of my city with love or affection. I no longer recommend places to visitors from out of town, because I feel the need to protect them from the disillusionment I feel. I don't have the heart to take them to parks that are run down, monuments that are poorly maintained, or beaches overrun with trash. They come with an idea of what Mumbai is like, based on a million films that create a sanitised picture, and find a metropolis stumbling towards chaos instead.
It's hard to pinpoint where it all started to go so horribly awry, but I usually look at the years 1992 and 1993 as personal markers. It's when everything I thought I knew about my city was proved wrong, when neighbours were encouraged to suspect each other overnight, communities that had lived peacefully for decades suddenly uprooted and replaced by ghettos, and politicians who should have been in jail were suddenly turned into messiahs of the masses and given access to power, land and funds that continue to bleed our city's coffers dry. Mumbai changed irrevocably in those dark years, and the repercussions continue to be felt every time one of us stumbles over a pothole that has made someone rich.
I no longer miss Mumbai because I sense that the people have changed. What used to be a place of warmth and welcome is now a cold, heartless city, where neighbours avoid looking each other in the eye and tragedies are forgotten an evening after they occur. The politicians who lead us have successfully divided and forced us into corners, free to carve what remains among themselves. We have been beaten and have possibly lost the one thing we had that inspired so many other Indians who weren't lucky enough to call this city home — our voice.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to email@example.com
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