The duty officer at the police station where I had gone to lodge a complaint recently about my car getting vandalised picked his teeth and asked, “Artist? What serials do you act in?” It took some time to explain to him that I was an artist but not with an “e” at the end. He still looked a little puzzled, though. I was reminded of an interview of the formidable Vasant Dhoble where he challengingly asked the reporter “Someone explain to me what is a ‘pub.’” He said he knew about bars, though he didn’t drink himself, but didn’t know what a pub was. He went on to repeat the question a number of times belligerently, as if making a point.
The first instance is obviously an example of ignorance, which can be forgiven, but the second is not so innocent, given that everyone knows what a pub is in this day and age, even though he or she may not know that the word comes from “public house.” The substratum of hostility towards the word, admittedly of Western origin, conveys an entire world of hostility towards a certain culture and the permissiveness and licentiousness associated with that culture in the eyes of an arch-conservative.
The 1.30 am deadline for restaurants and bars was in the news once again last week when 200 revellers were rounded up at a Kala Ghoda club in south Bombay last week. They had overshot the deadline by an hour. While 21 people, including the owner and managers, were fined R1,200 each, most of them escaped. If caught, they face stiff fines, and a sentence of two years. One understands sleepy towns winding up at 1.30 am or even before that, but what kind of deadlines are these for a city that aspires to be world class and cosmopolitan?
In the past twenty-five years, the urbs prima urs of India, which was built from the ground up by great Parsi merchant princes and philanthropists and hardworking entrepreneurs from different communities, which gave us our pride of place in town planning, architecture, arts and culture, and the city that characterised sheer freedom and the joy of being away from that choking vice-like grip of hometowns, biradaris and khaps and what have you, is being systematically destroyed.
Were those revellers out of line with respect to the law? Yes they were. But is the law draconian, restrictive, repugnant and an insult to a free-thinking adult? Yes. Especially when we do squat when it comes to crumbling civic infrastructure, the public transport system, disaster management, safety of women, public hygiene and all the things that really matter and are at an abysmal low. The fact of the matter is that if you want a drink after the deadline, you are forced to go to a five-star hotel coffee shop. The bar of affordability has simply been raised.
It started with changing the city’s name, then the names of its roads and public spaces and then our very way of life.
The demographics of this city have always been in flux — after all this is a city of migrants built by migrants. But what will bring it down are people who have come not to make just a home for themselves and be part of the rich tapestry a world-class city takes pride in — people who transplant their homes here along with their provincial judgmental values and prejudices.
(Gautam Benegal is an artist, writer and a filmmaker)
Our regular columns will resume next week, with Ashish Shakya’s The Blunder Years.