Mumbai my life, Mumbai my daily bread, Mumbai my lifelong land
By Rudolf C. Heredia
Where is the Bombay I knew and loved and felt so safe in? Where, as children we would play in the streets and ride public transport without adult accompaniment, jumping in and out of running buses, trams and trains? The trams were the easiest and the best fun, they were so slow and safe. Skating behind ambling Victorias(horse carriages) trailing on a long rope was more risky. There was a time when everyone was welcome, from north, south east and yes, even west from overseas. All could boast: Mumbai Meri Jivan dharti! Suddenly Mumbaikars are islanders, as when it was a fishing village, and the city seems no longer the gateway to an India of the future, but just an island off the west coast of Maharashtra for ‘sons of the soil’.
Without even noticing it, that time of innocence and abandon, of adventure and discovery seems lost forever. I wonder now where children play in this imploding city. If they do it must be in video parlours and probably war games to boot. Today Mumbai has become an unending struggle for life and livelihood. We are all becoming urban guerrillas in own private wars, and perhaps mercenaries in some public ones, constantly redefining the outsider as the enemy: South Indian, North Indian, Muslim, Sikh,… Is Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan, the most populous, the wealthiest city in the country, the future of urban India? A future that is already crashing into the present and so hauntingly described in Salvatore Quasimodo’s epigraph:
Each alone on the heart of the earth
Impaled upon a ray of sun:
And suddenly it’s evening.”
Sudden tragedy makes us companions in pain, exploding into a city that never sleeps. We stop for a while pick up the pieces and then hurry on with what’s left of our lives. But there’s no guarantee that there isn’t more of the same coming. Tragedy and pause punctuate our hurried, harried, hustled living! Yet soon enough we exorcise painful residues of haunting traumas. They make us resilient, but then perhaps too selective in our memories, for they have yet to teach us to share and care beyond the passing present. Life must go on and so it does. But how can our shared vulnerability make us more caring? When vengeance is compelling, how can forgiveness be our sword? Can we be instruments of peace together for each other, for all? How can the compassion that melds us together when some disaster strikes, work for lasting peace?
Mumbai has been bombed in 1993, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, and now 2006. When next? There’s no system of quotas even for this! And in the meantime we just have to hang in there and hope that if not good sense, at least common sense will prevail. Too many of those who want to teach others a lesson seemed to have learned the wrong ones themselves. For without a collective consensus, which still evades us, we can only end up more divided and more helpless, each alone and impaled by fear.
But we don’t seem to be able to get our act together, to get a handle on where we are and why we keep going, but we are moving, moving on a carousel, round and round, up and down, while some people from the outside, we’d like to think, take pot shots at us. Sometimes it’s the rain gods who send us tsunamis from the sky; sometimes it’s the demons on the grounds who use terror against the defenceless. Yes, we are ever so proud of our city, Mumbai meri jaan! But how do we heal and cope with our brokenness? Surely, we need more than just the spontaneous generosity that a disaster evokes. This calls for a more sustained human fellowship of mutual respect and personal freedom, and we still have a long way to get here.
Travelling on the suburban trains in the city, I remember reading a railway notice: “Young and old persons are travelling unaccompanied; please accommodate them and look after them”. Today the notice would read: “Do not befriend strangers, report any suspicious persons”. I tell myself if there’s a blast I may just see the flash, I might not even hear the noise. And then, if I’m lucky, for me there’ll be just silence, and hopefully light, not darkness! Maybe that will be the only light at the end of this tunnel. But what of the others left behind in the dark? What kind of city will be left for them? They still must board the trains for a livelihood. Mumbai, meri rozi roti!
The next time I’m on the train, I’ll close my eyes and when I open them again, hope the city will still be there, and those unimaginable horrors prove just imaginary. It’s a game I used to play as a child when I was frightened and alone. I seem to be going back to my roots. But I can’t run away from my life, my livelihood, my home. And if do leave Mumbai, will Mumbai ever leave me? Mumbai meri jan, Mumbai meri rozi roti, Mumbai meri jivan dharti!
Glossary: Title and last line: Mumbai my life, Mumbai my daily bread, Mumbai my lifelong land.
Rudolf C. Heredia is an independent researcher, based in Mumbai. Among his more recent publications are: Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India, Penguin, 2007; Taking Sides, Reservations Quotas and Minority Rights in India, Penguin, 2012. At present he is working on collective violence in India.