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Mission Impossible in Mumbai? Hope not.

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
January 2012
Mission Impossible in Mumbai? Hope not.

I have been fortunate to be able to share my views candidly on tough topics in this forum.

And yet there are times like today when the sensitivity of the topic gives me considerable pause. Hence this preamble: I was born and raised in Mumbai; it is still very much a part of me. So the following critique of my former hometown comes as an exercise in introspection rather than uncaring trashing from a tourist or an outsider.

There is no palatable way to say this—the city of Mumbai exists within what seems like a giant cesspool. The stench and filth in most parts overwhelms all interactions in and with the city. The surprise or shock is not in this statement—because that is eminently evidenced all over the city, barring a few exceptions. Rather, the shock is in how blissfully immaterial it is to the locals that their city is somewhat like an open sewer. The conversations that consume this metropolis and its media are, rather, about style, glamour, fine dining, malls, and such.

This is not to begrudge Mumbaiaites for wanting the best of the material world. The point is not to demoralize or induce guilt. Nor is this some naïve or idealistic rant for the local residents to stop what they are doing and go out and help the poor and clean up the city overnight.

But can we at least stop pretending that we, the privileged in Mumbai, are islands unto ourselves? Can we see that our lifestyle, our standard of living, is inextricably linked to the underclass—the street-hawkers, the day

laborers, the rickshawallahs, the slum dwellers, the beggars? No amount of Lakme products will bring any sense of beauty in our lives if we can’t prevent that stench from coming through the windows of our cars and homes. We may feel world-class by going to a Lady Gaga concert in our city, but that won’t last too long if entire regions of the city are shut out to us because the thought of commuting to them either by bus, train or our own car seems unpalatable. That fancy new continental restaurant is exciting, but we still live in a city where outsiders can’t drink water straight from our taps without falling sick. We may try desperately to cocoon ourselves in AC cars and gated flats, but unless at least a fraction of our energies are diverted from glamorous living to civic engagement concerning our collective spaces the stench and the ugliness will continue to hound us despite our maddening efforts to shut them out.

There are no easy answers; but simply relaxing the fortress-like wall that we, the privileged of the city, have built in our minds to demark ourselves from the ugly aspects of our own city may go a long way. Can we start
by acknowledging the waiter at the restaurant instead of only ordering him around? Can we see the “invisible” poor as fellow citizens? Can we see that we can’t compartmentalize the city, thinking the ugly parts are for them, and the islands in the form of Louis Vuitton stores are for us? Can we invest at least a fraction of our energies into the collective spaces rather than pretend they don’t matter to us?

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