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Mumbai battles between medieval and modern times

The people in the ‘modern city’ are crunched in one place but live in different times, and its rumoured modernity includes its imagined pace writes Manu Joseph

columns Updated: Sep 14, 2015 01:15 IST
Manu Joseph
Manu Joseph
Hindustan Times

Modernity is neither good nor decadent, it is the name of a time. It is the latest age known to man. There is a view of Mumbai as modern. A few days ago the Bombay High Court, too, said in the way of wondering how a meat ban can be imposed for eight straight days to suit one community, that Mumbai is a “modern city”. It is not true. The people of Mumbai are crunched in one place but they live in different times.

The richest of them all, for instance, the Jains who live on the Malabar Hill, are in medieval times. A few years ago, on the day a non-vegetarian restaurant opened in the ground floor of a residential building on the Hill, the Jains stood in the balconies and spat on the first patrons. They threw garbage too, vegetarian garbage. Now, nobody would be so foolish as to open such a restaurant on the Hill.

A civilisation can move either way in time. Malabar Hill was once the asset of a different kind of people, who lived on their inheritances, loved Marx, loved jazz, read much, drank, watched Polish films, and ate meat, of course. They were modern. They knew of how time had evolved in other places and tried to create it for themselves.

But, soon the supply-side Jains made them offers they could not refuse. Slowly, the Hill transformed. It retreated in time. Today, there are many buildings in Mumbai, even at sea level, that permit only vegetarians. The market does not punish such colonies. In fact, vegetarian fundamentalism makes sound economic sense. There is a premium on such communities.

There is no economic advantage in being modern and liberal in Mumbai. A home is so precious in the city that homeowners can satiate their biases. In 2002, as a reporter for Outlook, I assumed the name Mohammed Khan and went looking for a home on rent in some of the most posh areas of South Mumbai. I was rejected by all. The broker told me that I should approach only Muslims.

Some who believe that Mumbai is predominantly modern may point to young women in short dresses who walk in plain sight, as proof. Of the modernity of young women and of everyone else in the city. What the eye can see is not trivial. That a woman can wear what she wishes surely points to an important character of a city and the least celebrated quality of modernity — the fatigue of the observer. A city progresses in time not only through the collective actions of the bold, but also when the actions become so common that the rest of the city is not appalled anymore.

Mumbai might be less appalled than other Indian cities but the fact is that a short skirt is still in delinquent territory. There is a way the city gapes, with the same eyes of starved urchins outside McDonald’s. There are too many eyes from too many epochs for a moment from another time to pass unmolested in Mumbai.

The city is less bothered by the acts of lovers on the promenades, their kisses and fondles and tears. But, like hawkers, the lovers do run away when they see a cop. And, as we know, if they check into a hotel and they are unlucky, underemployed cops can make them feel like prostitutes and Johns. Someone must sell hoods for lovers, with hearts probably, that they can wear when they get arrested.

The optics of Mumbai’s rumoured modernity include its imagined pace. The speed of Mumbai is a self-congratulatory nonsense of the people who live there. Mumbai is not fast. It has very little in the way of roads and commuting is hell. And, a man running to catch a train is not ‘pace of the city’ but merely a moment from the nature of the relationship between men and trains. The imagery would not be so dominant if only the city had a truly modern metro system with a good frequency of trains.

Recently, on a short stretch, Mumbai got its first air-conditioned local with automatic doors. The way people reacted, with great jubilation, was as though they were rustics. It was a retardation imposed on a great city that has for long been run by villagers with small village minds.

The finest compliments bestowed on Mumbai, which are ways of saying that it is modern, are consequences of lazy writing. Very few phrases are as meaningless as ‘spirit of Mumbai’. If some people go to work a day after bombs have gone off in the local trains, it only shows their compulsion. If some Gujaratis stand near the Peddar Road flyover and distribute Parle-G biscuits to marathon runners, it only shows how cheap Parle-G biscuits are.

Without a doubt, Mumbai is also modern. Among the times that reside in the city there is also the edge of now in which a small population lives. They ape other modern cultures, and wish to be co-opted into them. At times, when the medieval bullies them, they make a noise, which does not bother the bully. But they do exert a pressure on the city to get used to them, to be fatigued by them, by what they do and what they wear.

Life goes on this way in Mumbai as a battle between times. And there are days when it would appear that the city has gone back in time, and on other days that it has progressed a bit. But the village headmen from another time continue to rule.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The author tweets as @manujosephsan
The views expressed are personal

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