We look at collapsing walls and giant sinkholes, only to take a deep breath, chant ‘spirit of Bombay’ to ourselves, and move on. We deserve better.
I love Bombay (or Mumbai, if you like). It’s a magnificent city with better people, fairly safe streets, and enough entertainment to keep one occupied. I’ve shuttled between Mumbai and Delhi all my life, and while I cannot choose one over the other, I’ve called Mumbai home for a few years now. It makes me happy, and the knowledge of living in a city where any dream can come true leaves me in awe sometimes.
And then come Mumbai’s legendary monsoons. They’re the kind of muse you can write reams and reams of poetry about. Some of the most iconic romantic songs in Bollywood have been shot in the Mumbai rains. It brings out the amorous idiocy of Mumbaikars, best displayed by how we’ll go to Marine Drive specifically when the Coast Guard has given a high-tide warning and get swept away (literally and metaphorically). It’s a three-month period that makes this city lose its head.
It’s rather hard to describe to someone what living through a Mumbai monsoon is like if they haven’t experienced it themselves. We trudge on with our daily lives in the face of the kind of civic crises that would cause panic in any other city. And what do we get? An email from human resources saying ‘you can work from home’.
Of course, like any other delusional people, we need to make this easier on ourselves. To do that, we refer to this phenomenon as ‘the spirit of Bombay’. This phrase evokes the kind of softly glowing ideal we think we live up to – the illusion that we actually have a choice when we trudge up and down a flooding, broken city, trying to eke out a living. We tell ourselves we choose to do this because it’s easier than confronting the truth of how we’ve become apathetic to the fact that we live in a city that’s failing us. We look at collapsing walls and giant sinkholes , only to take a deep breath, chant ‘spirit of Bombay’ to ourselves, and move on.
We deserve better.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is the richest civic body in the country. Its 2017 budget was over Rs 35,000 crore. Nearly 40 per cent of that budget goes into roads and their upkeep. It’s also meant to fund a little system called the Brihanmumbai Stormwater Disposal System (BRIMSTOWAD), a fairly complex and effective contingency draining system that is often not given the go-ahead to drain until the waterlogging becomes dangerous.
The state and the Centre spent Rs 1,200 crore on it (in 2005), but only 28 phases of the 58 intended have been completed. Promises to inaugurate 11 more phases have been made for the past five years, but have led to nought. Tenders for three crucial phases in the eastern suburbs haven’t even been solicited yet. This project is supposed to help change the city’s drainage capacity from about 25 mm/hour to nearly 50mm/hour. It’s a fundamentally important project that will save the city from a 2005 redux – something we come dangerously close to every year.
This is just one example of the kind of apathy we live with, and the kind of disrespect we’ve resigned ourselves to. To love something is to acknowledge its flaws and to make it better. So, here’s me acknowledging that Mumbai, as a sum of its hues, is one of the best cities in the world. Mumbai, as a sum of its realities, however, is one of the worst, and we should be angry that we’re okay with it.
The ‘spirit of Bombay’ is a sham. I don’t want to hide behind it anymore. You shouldn’t, either.
Harnidh Kaur is a poet and feminist.
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