Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is Mumbai like that only?

Although I am a true-blue Mumbaikar, I am confused. While the media and outsiders never fail to hail the ‘spirit’ of Mumbai, others (mostly non- Mumbaikars) blame all our ills on our apathy.

Now how can we be spirited as well as apathetic? Both are mutually contradictory. While spirit denotes energy and zest for life, apathy reflects disinterest, dispiritedness or detachment.

For us Mumbaikars, it’s not as much a question of apathy to issues, lack of concern for others, or unwillingness to take up cudgels as much as it’s a question of survival, of getting on with the business of making money. Each and every action of ours has been shaped by our daily struggle, our thoughts and non-actions determined by our grind in the great metropolis.

Just consider a few aspects if you will:

When you get in and out of a crowded local train risking limb and life, the last thing you want to do is to take up arms against the Railway ministry and shout `Mamata Banerjee Hai Hai’. The commute may be cattle class, but we have no time to stand and shriek. The boss is there to scream if we are late at work. It’s not apathy, its called work ethic.

When the rains flood our streets and ruin our homes and lives, we curse the rain gods and we rail against the authorities for not doing enough to upgrade the infrastructure and keep us safe. But a day or two later, we shrug our shoulders and get back to rebuilding our homes and lives. We know the ways of the BMC, the state babus and netas. One in a hundred may not be corrupt; one in a thousand may actually be doing good work. But who has the time or energy to seek out these people when time itself is such a premium in this city? It’s not apathy, it’s time management.

When there are so many sick, destitute people on the streets, how many do we help with a rupee or two? How do we differentiate between a genuine beggar from a racketeer? It’s not apathy, call it street smartness.

When burglars, bank scamsters and fraud builders take us for a ride, we file cases, chase police officers and media for help to retrieve at least a part of our savings or investments. That is not the famed spirit of Mumbai; it is our pragmatism, our self-preservation. For without money, you can’t do anything in this financial capital of India.

When terrorists strike, many of us cower and cringe, a few brave ones fight back, but the entire city is united in its defencelessness and shared sorrow. A year later, the media may make a big issue of 26/11, but the common man’s attitude may seem blasé, even stoic: Kya karein hum? Aisa hi hota hai? That, for the average Mumbaikar, is neither apathy nor spirit; it just means getting on with life.

And so it goes. I guess it is easier to assign pat attributes to a city and its citizens, to reconfirm smart stereotypes when one is not living in that city, or even if one is a denizen, is alienated from the mainstream.

Cynicism is not a loaded word to describe our negative attitude. It is a cloak to cover our bedraggled souls. Only if you believe that it’s each man for himself, and that where there is life there’s hope, then you can see that apathy and spirit are two sides of the same coin. A coin that is tossed by the Mumbaikar every day. Heads we win, tails you lose.

Don’t damn the Mumbaikar, but don’t praise him either. He’s like that only.

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