When they become matters of habit
Small actions, some of them even done unthinkingly every day, can sometimes give a city a bad name
It was a rhythmic rustling and its source sat three seats away, across the aisle in the back of the Jet Airways plane. We had just landed in Mumbai, Bangkok far behind us. The crowd of returning Indians was already restive, waiting for the doors to open. The only people still sitting were myself, the rustler and the two people in between. Finally, I leaned forward a little and dared to peep.
His eyes were in some distant planet while his thumb ground into his palm, crumbling something against a swatch of wax paper. Rustle, rustle, rustle. A while later, his eyes still far away, his hands scooped the paper up into a little pouch, twisted the top and began grinding it against the hollow of his palm in a series of practiced movements. The rustling continued, faster and louder.
Then he tipped the contents into his palm - it was khaini, or dry tobacco mixed with wet lime - and carefully wedged it against his back teeth, whence it would release the toxic juices that would give him a pleasant buzz now and oral cancer years later.
The entire process had lasted 11 minutes. As we disembarked, I asked him how often he performed this ritual. Four or five times a day. Fifty-five unthinking minutes a day spent in an automatic habit that would one day bring him harm and his family grief. Made me start wondering - how many innocuous actions do we perform habitually, barely aware of even doing them, that cause deep and lasting harm to ourselves, our communities and the city?
Here are three that came to mind:
1. Rushing to the door. You've seen it at airports. The plane has landed, the seat belt sign is still on but the Indians passengers can barely contain themselves. They are up, opening the overhead hatch, pulling their bags out, seemingly unable to tolerate a moment more in the aircraft, like someone who can't wait to pee.
You see it again and again at Churchgate and CST stations. The crowds surge like a tsunami towards the doors, bodies so densely packed that they prevent themselves from entering and anyone within from getting out.
You see it in queues. I saw it as I stood in a line of two people at Andheri at midnight in a near empty station. The man behind me was crushed against me as though that somehow it would get him to the ticket window faster. I turned around and firmly asked him to step clear back. The rush to the door creates an edgy city in constant panic, elbows and curses, slows everyone down, creates a savage, uncivil environment where everything takes longer to get half-done. It is a habit whose civic consequences we suffer daily.
2. Treating traffic rules as optional. Now that we are a nation of 8-lane expressways, you might expect more disciplined driving. But I watched horrified two days ago as tourist Volvo's, giant container trucks, tiny Santros, sedans and motorbikes all wove woozily between lanes on the steep curves of the western ghats on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. It was the rush to the door again but now the players were cars, each one squeezing and edging past the others, honking and cursing in a brutal me-first competition.
Lanes are not suggestions, they are rules. So are traffic lights. Yet, at which red light have we not seen traffic edging forward inch at a time - that old rush to the door - so that each vehicle can be the first horse out of the paddock when the light goes green?
When the people of a city of 18.4 million treat rules as optional, they help neither themselves nor their city. Mumbai's many anarchies arise from a culture where the rulers and the ruled alike detest and fight regulation with all their heart.
3. Spitting freely. In a culture that treats saliva as disgusting and dirty and spitting as a sign of disrespect, it must mean something that everyone spits without a second thought on the city that they call home. Drivers open their doors to emit their juices and stairwells are streaked red with paan. But leaving one's bodily wastes wherever convenient is not just egregious, it is a key source of the spread of diseases. Each unthinking squirt makes the city deadlier, adding lakhs of rupees to the healthcare bill in easily prevented diseases.
The Broken Windows theory predicts that miscreants feel freer to commit misdemeanors where there is an air of neglect and anarchy. Guided by this, New York made itself crime-free and clean one district at a time by enforcing rules and punishing offenders on the spot. I'll stand up and applaud the day Mumbai reinvents itself, one shabby habit at a time.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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