Saturday, April 26, 2008

Beleaguered in Bombay

I love cities. Though I profoundly love nature, I'll always choose to live within the human dense drama of the urban landscape. The bigger the better, and since first visiting there two years ago, Bombay has been one of my favorite cities in the world.

With sixteen million people, water in every direction, and all the chaos that India has to offer, Bombay makes the head spin, the heart hurt and has you running for cover or screaming for more - usually in the same 24 hour day. That said, my most recent visit had me doing far more running for cover than rejoicing. The flu, heat in excess of forty degrees, and an overwhelming dose of human misery and cruelty left me suffering and gladly departing town.

On the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel in the southern suburb of Colaba, my busted-up cab rear-ended a brand new Honda. We pulled to the side of to the side of the road and after getting out of the vehicle my nearly destitute and toothless driver was physically assaulted before having his mobile phone stolen from him. I can only guess that this was to ensure that he wouldn't bolt out of the area when the claim was filed; however, it was an unnerving act to witness given that the clothes worn by the other driver amounted to more than two months wages for my cabbie.

A few days later I visited the Buddhist ruins of nearby Elephanta Island, where a crippled dog was wandering in near insanity while seeking food wherever it could, as it's rear leg swung freely from a complete break halfway up. I was a gross disfigurement that could only have been accomplished through human hands. Meanwhile, Indian tourists were teasing monkeys by discarding their used water bottles as food, adding to the already substantial layer of refuse littering the once holy site.

Worst of all was the unknown fate of an infant toddler who had been paraded through a downtown intersection. No more than 2 years of age, she was being carried by a man who demonstrated not a hint of parental care as he thrust the pulsing, bleeding wound of her left hand in the face of every passing motorist. The girl stared on in mute shock as we handed over a stack of rupees while her guardian gripped her arm and waved it in our faces, goading us for more money.

The worst parts of Bombay grind you down and leave you wondering at the ultimate fate of the city. Although it possesses upwards of 40% of India's wealth, 55% of Bombay's residents live in slums. New high rises and renovated flats exist beside shacks of tarp and tin in a third world city where real estate prices rival those of London and New York. The lack of public conscience that plagues Bombay is summed up brutally and honestly by Suketu Mehta in his Pulitzer Prize nominated account of Bombay, Maximum City:
Indians do not have the same kind of civic sense as, say, Scandinavians. The boundary of the space you keep clean is marked at the end of the space you call your own. The flats in my building are spotlessly clean inside; they are swept and mopped every day, or twice every day. The public spaces - hallways, stairs, lobby, the building compound - are stained with betel spit; the ground is littered with congealed wet garbage, plastic bags, and dirt of human and animal origin. It is the same all over Bombay, in rich and poor areas alike.

This absence of civic sense is something that everyone from the British to the Hindu nationalists of have drawn attention to, the national defect in the Indian character.
They are words that are worth considering as India surges towards double digit economic growth. But in this city whose history is painted by commerce and currency there is a more striking example of this problem. In a time of soaring wealth and a growing divide between rich and poor, the image of Mahatma Gandhi has been quietly removed from India's new currency notes.

It would be well to carry his message of care forward, alongside economic prosperity.

More images of Bombay below.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And making a call recently to complain about my NEOCITRAN cough and cold....I found out that it is manufactured in Bombay India...I am still in shock.