Commuters stranded at CMST during the monsoon.(Bhushan Koyande/HT)
Commuters stranded at CMST during the monsoon.(Bhushan Koyande/HT)

Coping with crises and spirit of Mumbai

That the ‘spirit of Mumbai’ had prevailed over adversity yet again seemed to be the consensus opinion
By Ayaz Memon | Hindustan Times, Mumbai
UPDATED ON SEP 01, 2017 01:27 AM IST

As the city drowned under torrential showers last Tuesday, leaving thousands marooned, uprooted and hapless, ‘the spirit of Mumbai’ was evoked, cited, lauded and applauded.

Trapped at home by the relentless rain, I followed the mayhem on TV and social media: of a city still ill-prepared to handle such crisis, damage to life and property, precious time lost.

Towards the latter half of the day, the coverage was interspersed with stories of how people were helping each other, many even opening up their homes to strangers. The ‘spirit of Mumbai’ had prevailed over adversity yet again seemed to be the consensus opinion. Heartwarming and inspiring as these stories were, though, I wondered if this was not hyperbole masquerading as virtue.

What exactly is this ‘spirit’? The esoteric, intangible quality that is highlighted during every calamity, but for which there is no clear definition?

After mulling over last Tuesday’s trauma – and several more in previous years – I find what is passed off as the ‘spirit of Mumbai’ is no more than a simplistic, feel-good explanation on how the city responds to a crisis.

The operative word here is ‘responds’. In this, Mumbai is not distinct from any other city (in the world, not just India) in how it copes with crises, whether floods, earthquake, or a terror strike.

Everywhere people come out and help other people in their hour of trauma and trouble. This has to do with generosity and compassion of the human heart, community and fellow well-being and not decided by city, country, race or religion.

When the city is flooded, from deep in south Mumbai to the extreme north tip, people step out to alleviate distress. When a building crashes in Dongri and several people are trapped in the debris, absolute strangers will pitch in with rescuers.

But this would also be the case in Delhi, Bangalore, Panchkula or Gorakhpur. It’s just that Mumbai’s travails come under intense scrutiny. A megapolis struggling to cope is always an interesting story.

In Mumbai’s case this has got heavily romanticized and clichéd over the years, to large extent because of the frequency of crises.

Every newsroom now waits in anticipation of monsoon floods!

But how Mumbai gets back to normal does not mean that its denizens enjoy this process. In fact, they are fed up, their patience is running thin, they are at the end of their tether, never mind the encomiums.

The ‘spirit of Mumbai’ (or of any city), can’t be defined only by a reactionary construct. Essentially, this is ascertained by what is intrinsic, inherent, instinctive and consistent with it. And it is many, not unidimensional.

The attributes that make Mumbai what it was and therefore defined its spirit, are resilience, liberalism, professionalism, cosmopolitanism, robust law and order.

Some of this could be found in other cities, but not in all of them and certainly not all at the same time. This is what made Mumbai tick and a great example for the country.

All these attributes merged into each other seamlessly. The ability to bounce back quickly from a major crisis (think 26/11) is not easily found elsewhere. But that happens because of a strong work ethic necessitated by the need for livelihood help override trauma and hardship. A professional outlook limits scope not only for afternoon siestas and time wasting, but also pooh poohs the benefits of entitlement – of sarkari types as well as the richest families.

Mumbai works hard, plays hard. A liberal and cosmopolitan ethos meant you live and let live. The city gave you enough anonymity to do your own thing without worrying what others think. And the safety of people, particularly women, at whatever time of day or night was secured.

You might ask why I’ve referred to so many of these attributes in the past tense. That’s because the spirit of Mumbai as I understand it has been under duress in the past few decades, making us fragile. This can’t be glossed over by just how we cope with monsoon floods, though admittedly we see evidence of it in such crises.

I firmly believe Mumbai is still the most functional and livable city in the country. But that’s an odious comparison with other cities for Mumbai can only be measured against itself.

That’s where it’s worryingly beginning to fall short.

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