Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Train to Bandra

Yesterday, visiting an Indian journalist, I ventured out to Bandra, an increasingly chic Bombay suburb that is worlds away in look and feel from the urban rush and pollution of my own Fort Area neighborhood. Passing through the somewhat hallucinatory Indo-British fusion that is Victoria Terminus (renamed Shivaji Terminus by Hindu zealots in the mid-1990s in honor of a 17th century Maratha king), I hitched a ride on the sweltering working-class commuter train for the 45-minute journey.

As we sped by, hot wind blasting through the cars, leaving the Fort’s Victorian-via-Bollywood buildings in various stages of decrepitude and bazaars behind, the poverty on display from the railcar, even by Haitian standards, even following my visit to the Dharavi slum (Asia’s largest) in my first hours in Mumbai, was staggering. Amidst the engine of India’s economic success story were lean-to shacks with tin roofs built right up to the edge of the train tracks which shuttered as we rode by, vast ponds of fetid, mosquito-breeding still water amidst hundreds of fragile human dwellings and the overwhelming smell of raw shit that flooded the car at regular intervals despite the speed at which we were traveling.

And everywhere: people, people, people. One can only really appreciate the idea of a city of 20 million people when you realize that one can never venture into the street without their eyes immediately taking in 500 other souls going about their lives.

But still amidst the want, as has been characteristic since my arrival in India, color burst forth from all sides: Advertisements for Indian soap operas, multi-colored washing hung from windows, garlands of flowers hung out of the windows of trains passing in the opposite direction by Hindu religious pilgrims. And, such a change from much of Latin America, peacefulness. Despite the crush of people, despite the poverty, there is a strange calm that pervades things. Going back to the train station in Badra last night, through the twilight streets, on an auto-rickshaw, or walking home through the Fort Area, despite the night and the inequity, there was no charge of menace, no feel of impending potential violence such as I have felt in certain sections of Port-au-Prince or Rio de Janeiro at various moments. Of course, I am writing this here in Bombay the same week that separatist militants from the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) killed at least 71 Hindi-speaking migrants in attacks across Assam state in India's north, and the conflict in Kashmir continued to grind onwards. And of course my driver to Dharavi - a supporter of the xenophobic Shiv Sena political party - treated me to a long discourse in fractured English about how Bangladeshis, Muslims and “southerners” (those from South India) were to blame for the poverty that I was witnessing. But, nonetheless, in terms of examples of urban tolerance, Bombay thus far seems to be an interesting example.

A word on etymology: Bombay was in fact first called Bom Baia by early Portuguese explorers. In recent years, the Indian author Suketa Mehta wrote in his very interesting book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, that the re-naming of the city “Mumbai” was “not just a process of decolonializaion but of de-Islamicization. The idea is to go back not just to a past but to an idealized past, in all cases, a Hindu past…Bombay was created by the Portuguese from a cluster of malarial islands, and to them should go the baptismal rights. The Gujaritis and Maharastrians always called it Mumbai, when speaking Gujarati or Marathi, and Bombay when speaking English. There was no need to chose. In 1995, the Sena demanded that we chose, in all our languages, Mumbai.”

In deference to the extraordinary tapestry I have encountered here in the last week - long-bearded kufi-chapeaued Muslims, Kashmiris with their wares spread out before them on the streets of the Fort, serious and industrious Paris still practicing the Zoroastrian religion of the forbearers - I will refer to the city as Bombay in conversation and on this blog but, in a nod to an unfortunate political reality, as Mumbai in my articles.


Sutton said...

Sounds amazing. Is Bombay one of the Indian cities plagued by monkeys?

Herman said...

no, fortunately not. though mumbai is plagued by crowded sidewalks, bumper to bumper traffic, noise and a fair share of pollution, we're not yet beleaguered by simians.
hjr - bandra