For all that has been said about the so-called ‘spirit of Mumbai’ and its prescribed use as an existential compass to help us recover from the vicious indignities heaped upon our city’s psyche, there is growing recognition that this fantasy is simply a mask to conceal our self-serving behaviour. Even worse, that we, as a populace are complicit in these acts – at best as silent bystanders and at worst as promoters of the malaise that has brought us to the brink of dehumanization.
Having said that, it isn’t often that our deep self-interest and the interests of our society so clearly coincide. There is a time-and-tide feeling that is coursing through Bombay’s veins right now, which we must seize upon if we are to ensure our survival. Business as usual will not do. To paraphrase Darwin: It isn’t the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent, which survives; it is the one most responsive to change.
Whether we classify these atrocities as our 9/11 or not (see this searingly honest opinion), there is no doubt that things have changed – or certainly that they must change. This change must be entirely discontinuous from the past. This change must come from the people, not the state. And this change must affect our social contract with the city – our home and the place we choose to bring our children into the world; but also the mother lode we continue to pillage and brutalize in an ill-advised quest for self-preservation.
Without any desire for universal civil rights and with a polity which encourages a snatch to survive attitude, we have on hand not a tragedy, but rather a catastrophe of the commons. You may not admit it, but you know that the traffic light you cut on the way to work this morning is part of the butterfly effect which is rapidly corroding the concept of law and order for all your future generations. This breakdown of civility now extends across all spheres of our public lives.
A lot has already been said on the matter, and our once lumpen population is rising up en masse to facilitate constructive and collective action towards genuine and permanent self-improvement.
I have a simple suggestion. Let’s bring back Bombay.
Not just metaphorically nor emotionally, but literally. Let’s dispose of the moniker ‘Mumbai’ and all the baggage that it comes with – the divisiveness practiced by the evil political opportunists to whom we gifted the keys of our city, the impotent cynicism of the elite who did nothing to stop our slide, the deterioration of every one of our once proud institutions at the hands of rabid corruption.
Let’s give ourselves a fresh start – both by breaking with the past AND by invoking the nostalgia to which we are increasingly turning. The Bombay of my youth, even if it is only a trick of my memory, was a place where there was universal respect for human life and civil liberties as well as an understanding of the responsibilities which this social contract demanded, a place where a sense of belonging created a superconsciousness which translated into collective thought and action and defeated chauvinism; most of all – a place where the defining attitude (sab chalta hai) meant equal opportunity, not lumpen defeatism.
Mumbai is the version of that dream which we sold down the river.
We’re searching desperately for a symbol to move us out of the darkness. The rebirth of Bombay can be our messiah and message – provoking us into constant action, casting aside prior encumbrances and silent consent, defeating the bleak mistrust and monumental apathy that exists – it happened in cities as disparate as Sarajevo, New York, and Beirut. It can happen here.
Rather than pander to those who would accuse me of elitism and tokenism, or even get embroiled in an argument about affecting an official change, I’m going to stress that reclaiming our democratic traditions and removing the fear that obstructs freedom of choice, speech and opinion is one of the tenets of this transformation (or rather reconstruction).
Our charter is as follows (and I am very happy to receive suggestions on improving it):
We, the new citizens of Bombay, pledge to begin once more to practice humanity, look out for our neighbors, care for our ecosystem, create and obey rules, vote for and trust our leaders and speak up when the situation calls for it. We welcome those who would make our city their home and would respect it as such. We will remain ever vigilant to keep the forces of hatred at bay. And we will not be taken for granted.
(click above to sign the petition)