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September 20, 2006

A City Stripped

Text by Rahul Bose. Illustration by Pria Agni

Bomb blasts and ravaging riots…faceless terror and fascist forces…. Over the years, Mumbai – India’s commercial capital and the nerve centre of the country – has been traumatised by violent acts that have shaken its sturdy spirit and filled its denizens with an unnamed fear. Actor and concerned citizen, Rahul Bose, wonders why we do not raise hell

It is not often that you can put an exact date on things but when it comes to fixing a date on exactly when Mumbai’s psyche had been badly battered, it’s easy – after the riots of December 1992 and January 1993. There is no doubt in my mind that these were the events that broke the spine of any courage the ordinary citizen of this city ever had.

Courage is easy to fake when the enemy is an outsider, from foreign shores, where he or she cannot see your face. True courage is when you stand in front of an enemy who will remember your face forever and yet you stand up for your rights. Mumbai, me included, ran for cover those days…13 years ago. The city hid, elegantly, by forming disaster relief committees; hid, craven, by remaining silent in the face of fascism; hid, panicked white, as it scrambled to run, to survive the day. It took Justice Srikrishna to finally say it. His report found that all major political parties, most notably one political party, in some cases in collusion with members of the Mumbai police, actively encouraged the rioting. The end of the orgy left not only 1,788 citizens (mostly from a minority community) slaughtered; it dismembered, once and for all, any guts left in the Mumbaiite’s belly. Kheema. Bheja. Gurda. Kapura. Fried. Chopped. Burnt.

Then the sprinkling of dhaniya. In 1995, the city was renamed Mumbai. Why? Where was the grass roots movement that made this a burning issue for the ‘Bombayite’? No survey taken, either by the government or private agencies, ever showed renaming the city beating civic amenities, water and rising prices as the issues most critical for the average citizen. I do not recall reading about any self-immolations taking place for this ’cause’. Besides, the city was already called Mumbai in Marathi (ask me, my mother was Maharashtrian), just as it was called ‘Bambai’ in Hindi.

So, what was the need for a change? The fact that the voice of the Maharashtrian had to be heard? No argument with that. But I challenge anybody to say that a name change for the city was the most pressing issue in the Maharashtrian-‘Bombayite’s mind in 1995. And yet, when the state government’s proposal was announced, the Centre acquiesced meekly and then only when the poles that held the ‘Mumbai’ sign up at the Gateway of India had been erected, was the bent over ‘Bombayite’ told he could stand.

So buttoning up, we brushed the humiliation off our trousers, bravely smiled at our neighbours from other cities and excused ourselves as we had to rush to our next appointment. We are Mumbaikars, you see, finely honed soldiers of the nerve centre of the country. No time to waste. Swallow the violation and move on. Nobody saw. And if they did, so what. Mere baap ka kya jaata hai? Besides, tere baap ka kya jaata hai?

The brutal part of our fear psychosis is that it exposes us every single time we are faced with a recognisable enemy. The saddest, most beautiful part of our cowardice is that we have invented complex ways to mask it – and never been so transparent. A headline in an eveninger announces a pointless bandh by a faction-ridden, Hindutva-preaching party and the city shuts down. But we have our excuses ready. ‘Decided to make it a long weekend and give the office an off. Great for employee morale.’ ‘The best way to fight them is to just keep quiet. Don’t give them the oxygen of publicity.’ ‘There is no point creating a furore. It will drive foreign investors away.’

Amazing how much space for degradation we have in our bodies when our guts to protest and our stomach for dissent are carved out by the goons we see on Govinda day. I’d go even further. In a brilliant display of the famous entrepreneurial spirit of Mumbai we’ve decided to save the street bully the effort – we’ve become great self-surgeons. Every time the slightest hint of communal violence starts making the ‘sms’ rounds, we energetically oblige and command our family members to stay at home. The moment a bomb blast goes off in a corner of the city we switch the TV on to breaking news with tea and biscuits.

What? Head in the sand, us? Tail between our legs? Watch your tongue! Didn’t you see me shouting, angry, on that news channel when that reporter stopped me at the paanwallah the next day? Do you know mine is the strongest voice in the office? People were shocked at my bold statements on the train this morning. I mean we have to stand up for our rights!

The fact is Mumbai today is the perfect example of citizens abrogating their right over their town, their neighbourhood, their home and family. Go beyond the law and order issue. One look at the collapsed infrastructure of the city and you know it didn’t happen overnight. Four decades of non-governance and corruption have stripped the city of its dignity. Who protested? Who took to the streets? Which chief minister was hounded out of office? Unfailingly, for a week every year garbage collectors in this city hold us to ransom. Mounds of rotting refuse pile up on our streets, choke our drains, poison our battered lungs. How many of us have mobilised ten, just ten people in the neighbourhood and cleared the garbage ourselves? Does it take a Dettol commercial where eight-year-old kids clean their street to shame us? I wish, but I know we are past becoming sensitised through a television advertisement. It is a well-known fact that unless the blatant nexus between the builder lobby and the state’s politicians is broken, infrastructural change is a pipe dream. Then why have we not raised hell and demanded a reversal of the rape of the city’s open spaces, sought to arrest the freefall of vertical construction in already hard-pressed neighbourhoods, campaigned for a commensurate increase in essential services?

One might think it’s a stretch to assume that fear could be the reason. Is it? Let’s examine the psychology of fear. Fear is an insidious thing. It spreads its tentacles through the human heart; it erodes our self-respect. To justify our capitulation we wear the garb of being too busy to sweat out the small stuff. When the comfort of this position is proved to be temporary by the next piece of bullying, we discover our saviour in apathy. How much cooler to pretend to be above all this than to stop, introspect and try to mobilise constructive change? And so gradually we retreat into the smallest circle of security, the family. At this point, fear’s victory is complete. We are now indistinguishable from the Mumbaiites who watched in petrified silence as a mentally challenged girl was raped by one man wielding a little knife on a late night local train.

Where do we go from here? What do we do in a city where the bhelpuri of violence has had another tasty garnish added to it – terrorism? What now? Strangely, happily, the Mumbaiite has stumbled onto the first step towards a reclamation of all that’s been lost. The Mumbaiite is angry. Angry at the government, angry at the system, angry (although he or she will never admit it) at himself or herself. Anger is good as a first step, but the conversion of anger into passion is the vital metamorphosis that will determine who wins this game, because while anger is destructive, passion is its flip side. Passion asks, what can I do, what can we do to change this? Once we get there, the last step, action, will follow. Because there are still a few thousand citizens who will lead the action with all muscles blazing. A few thousands…who are waiting to start for us the exorcism of the ghosts of fear. Who are willing to lead 16 million people onto the streets, the very streets where you and I ran from one day in 1992, who will expose every outrage on every street and show us that with a combination of knowledge and hard work, doggedness and compassion, head and heart we can stop the slide, turn the wheels around and slay the biggest ghost of them all, the one within us, the one called fear.

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