After Wednesday evening’s horrific bomb blasts, Mumbaikars had a stark choice before them: they could continue to go about their lives, or jump into the Arabian Sea. Amazingly, Mumbai’s citizens chose the former option. And thus, we were once again witness to the legendary ‘Spirit of Mumbai’.
Anyone who survived the 80s will recall how, along with learning how to appreciate the safari suit, we were made to understand that even if India was a poor country full of poor people — unlike now when we’re a rich country full of poor people — we were a happy bunch who could squeeze out every ounce of joy life provides, no matter how miserable that life may be. The theory went something like this: the poor of India, not weighed down by the material comforts of western countries, got more bang for their buck and were hardwired to find happiness even when surrounded by daily hardships other societies stopped taking for granted decades ago. So the Indian boy without an arm but with a radiant smile begging on the streets was actually happier than the snotty American kid hooked to video games that he constantly plays to fill his ‘spiritually empty’ life. In this scheme of things, we, in socialistic India, were taught to look at comforts as ingredients of a ‘spoilt, materialistic’ society. It was a sweet deal: turn a matter of shame into a matter of pride and you didn’t even have to really deal with getting rid of the problem.
Then, of course, with a little help from Mother ‘Poverty is Beautiful’ Teresa, we got our first global brand identity: Calcutta as the ‘City of Joy’ courtesy the pioneer of slum tourism Dominique Lapierre. After Rudyard Kipling’s epithet of ‘City of the Dreadful Night’ — borrowed from a poem by a Scottish poet to describe 19th century London — for Calcutta, ‘City of Joy’ was a great piece of re-branding indeed. And I have a strong suspicion that this happy tag went a long way in the CPI(M) government taking it easy about fixing the state of Bengal. Build those malls and get those professionals back in Calcutta again and what’ll happen to all that lovely focus on the little joys of rickshawpullers and street urchins prancing around the tubewell?
If we have a homegrown branding exercise that has clicked, it has to be the ‘Spirit of Mumbai’. People have described the resilience of citizens facing life-threatening situations in other places. The ‘Spirit of the Blitz’ was the stoic camaraderie and we-will-not-be-cowed-into-daily-depression resolve that Londoners showed during World War 2 when their city was being bombed by the Germans. More recently, we marvelled at the disciplined calmness shown by the Japanese that made disaster relief operations and normalising extremely abnormal times that followed the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear plant meltdown such a stunning example of a truly civil society.
Mumbaikars, too, have shown how they reach out to fellow humans under extreme duress during such moments of crisis. But is this resolve being taken for granted like the way visible urban poverty was a few decades ago? And what option would a Mumbaikar have if this ‘Spirit of Mumbai’ thing decided to take a walk and find out — just as a one-time experiment — how things would turn out if, in one mass act of delirium, everyone decided that enough is enough, pack their bags and move to far-flung places like Delhi, notorious for not being Mumbai?
The truth, as a future ex-prime minister stated last week with the logic of Euclid and the sensitivities of Marie Antoinette, is that you can’t stop 100% of all the acts of terrorism directed especially at India’s largest, liveliest, most boisterous city. It would be plain stupid to think otherwise. The other truth is that with the ‘Spirit of Mumbai’ operational each time the city is attacked, do our authorities really have to get up, put on their slippers and bother to stop the 99% of attempted terrorist acts that are supposedly thwarted? I’m sure the ‘Spirit of Mumbai’ can take much more pain.