The poet Imtiaz Dharker writes, “Wherever I have lived,/Walking out the front door/every morning/means crossing over to a foreign country.” The lines are taken out of context here. Dharker writes as a minority in every country in which she has ever lived. The question Mumbai should be asking itself after we woke up to a second New Year on which women had been molested in public is: are all women now crossing into alien territory once they leave their family homes?
Mumbai, popular discourse assures us, is safe for women. This has been repeated again and again, at late-night parties as women prepare to go home alone, in offices after the take-out dinner has been eaten, at the recording studios and the call centres. This is repeated in salons where no one uses Indian perfumes and where the clothes are equally divided between ethnic chic and neo-Western designer wear. The men who reached for that woman, the men who tore off her dress and left her screaming in the street, had probably never heard about that. They do not own the city in the same way as the middle-classes do. They do not feel the same pride that the intelligentsia of the city feel in a city that can make space for a working woman or a partying woman coming home late in the night and alone. Perhaps this is because they have been shown that they do not belong. <b1>
A city is about managing contradictions. The only way to do this is by a series of subtle negotiations. A generation ago, for instance, young people were told that they should not eat in public because they did not know who had gone hungry that morning. You can argue that this was hypocrisy, a gauze bandage offered to the huge chancre of inequality and poverty. But it was also a gesture. And negotiations are often composed of gestures.
No one is arguing that the women should not have been intoxicated, if they were indeed intoxicated. No one is denying them the right to verbal retaliation or the right to wear whatever they wanted. There can be no sympathy for the men who acted in this gruesome manner. But this city is now composed of gruesome acts.
When Shamshad Khan, a performance poet from Britain, came to India last year, she was horrified at the poverty of the city. She had never travelled outside Britain before and Mumbai’s complete self-assurance, its ability to contain vast swathes of marble-coated and chilly luxury and huge stretches of open-air public toilets, left her aghast. A small card placed on her bed, which explained that the hotel valued her sleep and so had provided four different kinds of pillows on her bed, struck her as some kind of horrible irony. Outside, on the road, men and women slept with their heads cushioned on cement blocks that served as road dividers.
Of course, living in a Third World city means that you cannot actually respond with sympathy or humanity each time you are confronted with someone crushed by the huge pyramid of social injustice on which we base our lives. As our air-conditioned cars take the roads that run through labour camps and slums, our axles hurt more than our consciences. The city’s millionaires plan to build homes that are 60 floors high in a city where few young couples can even think of a single room as a starter home. The word ‘crore’ is bandied about thoughtlessly in a city where some salaries have just crossed the four-figure mark.
Now consider the scene outside the Marriott, where it is possible to spend Rs 10,000 in a single night on a single bottle of alcohol. By its very nature, such a hotel must be exclusivist, seeking to keep out men such as those who molested the women at its gates. On this night of artificial cheer, a night on which everyone is expected to have something to do, or somewhere to go, these men were standing on the road and watching the rich slide by in cocoons of steel and glass and privilege.
And then they watched as women from another class, another level, women completely unavailable came out of the hotel. Their attack is no less heinous for all their lack of social mobility. But it arises out of a whole cluster of issues relating to their view of gender, their view of class, their view of privilege.
For centuries, the city has managed its inequalities. The feudal system kept everyone in check. The feudal overlord felt the burden of his responsibility and even sometimes, the pressure of the eyes of his dependents. The old patriarchs of industry disbursed largesse in person or through trusts. It wasn’t very much by way of redistribution of wealth, but it was something. Today, Lakshmi Mittal believes that one needs to arrive at vanaprasthashrama before one gives in charity. Today, a certain class of young person is assured of a job and of a fairly decent salary as long as they know English and they take this for granted.
The call centre boom has lifted some boats. The entire northern suburb of Malad, for instance, has been revitalised and transformed into Back-end Bohemia. Young people return home late in the night and the neighbours no longer raise their eyebrows. They dig their daughter in the shoulder and ask why she hasn’t applied for a call centre job where you get a fantastic salary if you manage to stick it out for a year.
The city that everyone said was dying a decade ago has begun to boom again. But there’s an underclass that has not been touched by this new-found prosperity. They’re the people who die when a drunk young man takes his father’s car out for a spin and runs over the pavement. They’re the people whose huts are burnt when riots break out. They’re the people who run to rescue the wounded when trains are blown up. They’re like the rest of Mumbai, sometimes good and sometimes bad.
Is this city safe for women? Probably, if you go by the statistics. On the night of January 1, 2008, thousands of young women got into taxis, their own cars, buses and trains and headed home. But they were all looking around them with new eyes. In the old dispensation, a single drunken man might have tried to paw a woman. She would have shouted at him and other people would have come to her help. In the new order, the mob forms quickly. Its hackles rise immediately. It wants blood. The city as negotiation is breaking down.
Jerry Pinto is the co-editor of Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai. He lives in Mumbai and is proud of his city