August 11, 2005

Too much spirit

I have this in the current Time Out Mumbai.

***

The "spirit" of this city. How often since the deluge have we heard that phrase; how many times have we heard it in the wake of other disasters in this city? The people who help unknown sufferers, the legendary resilience of our citizens, the ability to cope with adversity: distilled from all this, our spirit. Salute it!

Then fellow residents write to me, reacting to something I wrote about the downpour, saying "It's not Bombay! It's Mumbai! Do you still have superiority complex by saying Bombay?" And: "Anyway I ignore views from a Christian about life in Mumbai. You guys always had problems mixing with mainstream community."

Trivial stuff, of course. Here, for me, is the final straw: Hafeez Contractor in the Hindustan Times, telling us that the city flooded because it is overflowing with garbage, and that's because "half the city comprises slums that only sponge on the city."

Tell me about this "spirit."

This is our best-known architect; a man whom the High Court of this city named (judgement in W.P. 1585 of 1997) for creating a "bogus tenancy" in his own name to take advantage of a FSI loophole. When such a man blames half of this city for a great disaster, and calls them parasites too, what spirit are we talking about?

Churlish to bring up this stuff at a time like this? Let me tell you what I believe is churlish. When we've read plenty of stories about how people of every description -- footpath resident to 15th-floor Web addict -- went out and offered a helping hand in the rain, it simply grates on my ears, on my soul itself, to hear the tired old lie about the slum-dweller parasite.

Why is it a lie? One short answer: every single person in this city pays sales tax and octroi every time they buy anything at all. To make out that half of us -- seven million people, more than in all of Finland -- are "sponges" is monstrous, no less.

But more than that, it tells me how shallow is this celebration of the spirit. Let the flood waters recede, and you know as I do that the memories will recede with them. We'll be back to clamouring for those "illegal" slum homes to be torn down, the people in them to be "sent back to where they came from." Back to saying they are all "dirty" and "Bangladeshis" and "breed like rabbits." You know, the myths that are as tired as Hafeez Contractor's lie. As false, too.

And in flinging those lies about -- they filled the air just six months ago, remember? -- it seems to me we tear tooth and nail at the very humanity the flood drew out of the choked roads and gutters of this city.

We're all in this together, after all. The godawful conditions of the last few days hit us all. Blame the city fathers and mothers, yes, and let steady anger at them make them accountable. But also blame ourselves: every time we fling out a plastic bag, or gawk in wonder at flyovers and malls as the epitome of "development", without a thought for millions to whom those things are meaningless.

Tell me about the spirit of this city, sure. But for once, let's make it mean something.

14 comments:

uma said...

Brilliant piece, Dilip. Thanks for this. I needed to read that.

Nikhil said...

What about the Building Contractor-Politician-Criminal nexus due to which there are so many unauthorised and badly constructed buildings?

Gaurav said...

This Bombay-Mumbai bit is ridiculous to the T. As a Maharashtrian who grew up in Pune, the name of this city for me was mostly a function of the language I spoke. When I spoke English I called it Bombay, in marathi I called it Mumbai and in hindi I called it Bambai. What better illustration of the city's cosmopolitan nature than the fact that it had a different name in each language? Then along came the "Yuti Sarkaar", and wasted taxpayer's money and man hours on making it "Mumbai only". Utter stupidity.

Reminds me of this blog post I wrote a couple of years ago.

Even now I get very irked when someone "corrects" me when I take the city's name. And I dont just mean those who say "call it Mumbai not Bombay, bhau", but also those(i've met a few) who say "call it Bombay, not Mumbai, dude".

km said...

Hell yeah!

The "spirit of Bombay" is a fantasy and a most lovingly-crafted creation of the media. But it lurks everywhere - there was the famous spirit of NYC after 9/11. It's a soft-focus, Frank Capra shot of ourselves.

The truth, as you point out, is far more sordid.

Krishna

chappan said...

Dilip
Excellent article. Lets get past this name business now. Growing up I have always known it as Bombay, and thats how it will stay, for me atleast.
Sourin

Neela said...

Yay Dilip finally a rejoinder to hafeez. I hope you write many more such articles.

I personally think that inserting some facts into your article might make it stronger.

Like, what taxes contribute to the city's exchequers? Contribution of indirect vs direct taxes and so on. What proportion of income is indirect taxes for slum dwellers vs upper middle class (to reiterate that indirect taxes are regressive taxes, whereas direct taxes are progressive taxes).

Keep writing.

n!

@mit said...

Dilip - Wonderfully put. The whole idea of "beautification" is ansurd if it destroys the life of people... out cities and its class citizens want someone to clean off their gabage,,,, clean their dirty clothes..... clean their laterines.... sweep their dust.... wash their cars etc etc... we also want to pay them less ...scoff at them if they ask for a raise... laugh if they talk of retirement benefits etc etc... but at the same time we call "THEM" parasites... who should do all the dirty work but not be visible to us after that is done ... because I need a beautiful city

Quizman said...

Nice article, Dilip.

Krishna said, "The truth, as you point out, is far more sordid."

But underneath all the politics and the finger-pointing, there is a fundamental truth about the 'spirit' of Mumbai. A testament to that is the fact that despite the overwhelming poverty and wretchedness, the crime rate in the city is very low. Compare that to other populated cities around the world - especially those in developing countries. Compare that to crime/drugs in the inner-cities of the US.

That a vast majority of Indians choose to eke out a honest day's living, inspite of living in inhuman conditions, must speak volumes about the city's spirit and culture. At least, it speaks far more than the so-called culture of the Page 3 types - like Hafeez Contractor.

Tanuj said...

nice post, d.

just picking on something you have mentioned a few times: "every single person in this city pays sales tax and octroi every time they buy anything at all."

what makes me uncomfortable is that this assertion is used as a justification for people not paying direct taxes.

i pay octoi and sales tax too on every soap cake i buy - should i shoo away the tax man next time he comes to collect the income tax i owe him? or perhaps, shut the door on the guy who collects my electricity bill?

a majority of slum dwllers may fall below tax brackets, but I think many fall into tax brackets too. having to pay indirect taxes cannot be a justification for not paying everything else these guys owe the govt, however low that amount may be.

of course, saying that slums only sponge on the city, or labeling the poor parasites, is extreme.

t

Anonymous said...

Dilip,
I am seriously confused. On one side, when I read your articles and few other people's articles, I see that some people always seem to sympathise with slum dwellers.
On the other side, I have met a quite few people from mumbai and have heard a totally different set of opinions from them. I hear that from time to time mumbai municipality does build apartments for these slum dwellers, but these slum dwellers rent that out the apartments and continue to live in slums!
Page 3 - we can conveniently ignore these pieces of junk!
Also, if you think you are blamed by a section of people by saying you are christian, just to let you know, I have always been blamed for casteism being born a hindu, even though I don't practise it and rather fought against it at every opportunity I have received.

- Renee

Anonymous said...

'I have always known it as 'Bombay' so it will remain Bombay to me' arguement is as narrow-minded as the entire renaming affair. There is enough material in myth/lore/folk and literary traditions in Marathi/Konkani & Gujarati which refer to the city only as 'Mumbai'. I was reading this piece by veteran actress Nanda (daughter of Master Vinayak) who said something to the effect that she knew the city as 'Mumbai' when she was a child in Kolhapur and she came to know it as Bombay only when she came to live in the city. What I mean to say, that there is a sizeable proportion of population, in whose collective-consciousness the city has always been 'Mumbai' and will continue to remain so and you don't need a public rechristening for that. Similarly, I have reservations with the perception that 'Bomaby' stood for the cosmopolitan spirit of the city and 'Mumbai' stands for the loss of all the values that defined the city.
Bombay is not just the art-deco buildings, the Paral-Lalbaug-freedom struggle-Ganeshotsav part also defines Bombay for me.
Now for the slumdwellers selling the houses they have been rehabilitated to, there is some amount of truth in that, but that is steeped in the economic realities of the strata. But to conclude from this, that all the slum-dwellers do not aspire to a better standard of living is a little far-fetched. The truth is that there is a daily influx of migrants in the city - both blue collar and white collar and there is only that much of space.So people are absorbed in the accomodation strata, that their purchasing power lets them. Those who can afford get into the housing societies whose exact longitude coordinate in the Bombay N-S line is proportionate to their income.The twenty something MBA shares a one room apartment with his flatmate, graduates to an independent apartment after marriage and salary hikes a few years later. Others settle for PG digs, two hours commute from NallaSopara, fabricate marital arrangements (which are conveniently trashed when such arrangements become a hinderance to one's participationin the the beauty contests).
But then a middle class hous-hunter still has options to choose from, made possible becuase there is an entire market created at that level. Because of the higher profit margins in that particular segment, nearly all the housing projects cater to that particular segment. The rules have been flouted, land has been grabbed, land notified-denotified to create housing socieities and apartment blocks for the rich and the middle class.
The tax-paying morally upright 'middle class' has no qualms in making a significant proportion of the entire payments in black money, nor do they question the antecedants of their builders, the land on which there the house has come up, the things which concerns us is the most is the distance from the nearest mall. There is no such market available below a certain income threshhold.
When the first round of growth happened for Bombay, there were chawls built in the mill-town Bombay which absorbed the influx. There is no such low cost affordable support system available now. No builder is coming up with a low cost housing project, when there is enough economic wisdom in actually coming up with an apartment block of single room tenements.
The apartment block where I live in Kandivali is located close to a low cost housing project which was built by MHADA with the world bank support. This is one experiment which has succeeded, These are one room houses sharing some common area, packed very densely but then they are infinitely better than the slums. The houses were probably alloted the first time round but now an entire economy has sprung up around them, the houses come with ownership rights and can be bought or sold. The rates have kept pace with the times, and the rules regarding brokerage, commision, registration remain the same as Middle class houses but they still remain a fraction of the ones for middle class apartments. This basically demonstrate two things- if there are affordable options, people would not like to live in slums and that it is an economically viable enough option for the private players if they want to step-in.
Read Paromita Vora's lovely essay on some insights on how a slum rehab project transforms into a neighbourhood with all the trappings of the middle class existence. Talking of the literature- why is it when we talk of the definitive Bombay book- we talk of Rushdie and 'Maximum City' and 'Vertigo' and 'Shantaram'? Why is Manto and PuLa not part of our collective literary-consciousness?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, I had 500 words to work with. I decided to forgo those inconvenient things called facts...

Quizman, you're very right. I applaud and celebrate that spirit you're talking about. But as I said in the article, the kind of things that Contractor says militates against that spirit.

Tanuj, you say: what makes me uncomfortable is that this assertion is used as a justification for people not paying direct taxes.

Of course it should make you uncomfortable. But where is this justification made? I made the assertion to point out that it is a lie to say, as many people do, that people in slums do not pay taxes.

There is, of course, a flip side to this too: something like 1 in every 5 eligible taxpayers actually pay their taxes. On another tack, you could make a case that Contractor's fiddle with FSI is an evasion of what he owes to the govt. For him to speak of sponging, then, is a little much.

Renee: my purpose in writing some of these things is to dispel some of the myths about slumdwellers, about our urban condition. One of them is that the "municipality" builds houses for them. It doesn't. As for moving out of the apartments, you might find a pointer here.

Anonymous 954am: some very fine points. First, I too have heard a bit too much about that mythical "cosmopolitan Bombay": it never seemed to take Ganeshotsav, or the Kolis, or lavnis, or Lohar Chawl, into account. Second, good explanation of the housing situation. Some of that applies too to the much older chawls around, for example, Charni Road station. Third, indeed, why not PuLa and Manto? Or Jaywant Dalvi and Daya Pawar? Or even the various Bollywood films through which you get a view of the city? Why not Paromita Vora?

And who are you?

arZan said...

Dilip

Great post. I find it ridiculous that the name was changed to suit some political party's whims. Its a sad state, when we as a city are so insecure of who we are that we go and change names of everything and anything. For whatever its worth, names are as much a part of heritage as brick and mortar is.

Now re: Hafeez Contractor,

Let me state that i am an architect and urban designer.

I would like to point out that he may be the best known architect, but he is not the best, or nowhere close to it.

Read here about what i think of him. If the architectural community in India could have one wish, it would be to disown him as an architect.

He is singularly responsible for the crap we see in the suburbs, termed as architecture.

As my professor once said

“If a Hafeez Contractor building comes up in your neighborhood, buy a apartment there and move in, so at least u don’t have to look at ugly architecture outside your window everyday”.

There are hundreds of more architects who do better work. What Hafeez is good at, is business. He started by wooing clients with charging 0.5% as fees when the whole architectural profession charged 2-4% as per the standards laid out by the IIA.

His grandiose schemes are just that...schemes.

I think you should have taken the opportunity to enlighten the people about better architects, world renowned architects like Correa, Doshi, Bimal Patel and many many others.

Just my 2 paisa....!!

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess you guys are just you inadequacies and frustrations on some practical ppl who have contributed to the city in some way.(http://www.rediff.com/news/2003/oct/29inter.htm).. All the Correas of the world are great for their theories (saw him on CNBC the other day- wat theoretic crap, Would like to see some “real” contribution). I would like to see them create some good work in our complex environment. Why all the pent up energy agst Contractor. It’s become a fashion amongst the intellectual –elite to criticise our middle class taste. I mean we like it… you def don’t coz he seems to be the only one who seems to get something out of all the mess that we call mumbai. I guess he eats out of all your share. I would buy an Hafeez apartment any day than some dosh or patil – Do they even make buildings. I guess its just rivalry and jealousy talking
And don’t you see all those slums lining the city’s sewers , roads etc!!!.. All of you guyz sit in south mumbai in your AC offices and high rise duplexes and comment on those poor ppl in slums ( it is 55% by the way).The govt does’nt do anything about it…. Atlst allow capable ppl like hafeez contractorto give some solution.. OR why don’t one of you give a solution?????????????