Like potholes on the Andheri-Kurla Road during rainy season, suddenly, the western media is full of stories on and from Mumbai. The cover story by Time magazine and a politeness survey by Reader’s Digest, which put Mumbai at rock bottom was followed today by a rebuttal of the Digest story by ex-Mumbaite and currently a Brooklyn resident, Suketu Mehta, whose claim to fame is Maximum City, a Pulitzer prize finalist novel about Mumbai. In between, the Wall Street Journal also found time to run a front page story on day traders operating out from cyber-cafes in Mumbai.
Stories by Time and Reader’s Digest were typical mainstream media stories – barely able to hold attention for the time an average person spends sitting on the toilet seat in the morning. While Time’s story was giddy with possibilities of Mumbai, the Digest story was giddy with the stench of apparent rudeness prevalent in the city. But one definitely expected a much more nuanced view from Mr. Mehta, a renowned author and a long time resident of the city. Unfortunately, Mr. Mehta took Digest’s criticism of his native city a little too personally and let go of his objectivity like a person getting rid of his singles in a dance bar on Charni Road!
In defending Mumbai, Mr. Mehta takes the oft-trodden path of romanticism, an old enemy of NRI authors, whose memories of their native towns are often tinted with rose colored glasses of distance and comfort of their new home. As he compares New York with Mumbai, Mr. Mehta contends that:
In quest of its exquisitely well-mannered New Yorkers, the magazine conducted its research entirely in what it quaintly considers a quintessential New York institution: Starbucks coffee shops. Not bodegas, or delis, or fried chicken outlets, where the results might arguably have been very different.
Oops, you really meant that the Digest conducted its interview in White dominated hangouts rather than the ones populated by Blacks and other minorities, didn’t you, Mr. Mehta? Then Mr. Mehta corrects his oopsies in a hurry by casting his lot with the less fortunate (that is, “I am allowed to make that comparison because hey, I live in Brooklyn” ) :
It’s not that people who like to pay three bucks for a cup of coffee at Starbucks are more polite — only differently polite. In the less chi-chi parts of the city I call home now, they might not hold the door open for you, but they’re more likely to help you out in finding a job or an apartment.
Traveling freely on this path of anecdotal evidence, making his argument as unscientific as Digest’s, Mr. Mehta gamely tries to bring up a few good points about Mumbai.
I suggest that the Digest conduct a second survey, using my own measures of civic courtesy: If four people are seated on a commuter train bench designed for three, will they accommodate a fifth person? Will people smile brightly at a stranger’s little kid in a restaurant, stopping by to say “How sweet!” — even when the child is being noisy? And if people are eating in a train compartment, will they share their food with you? I bet Bombay would come out tops.
Well, having lived in Mumbai for a few years, I know for sure that letting a fifth person sit on a seat meant for four in second class compartment of a Mumbai local train is not common courtesy, it is simply a survival strategy – if you don’t move, they will simply push you and make space or will make you get up. Mumbaites are neither rude nor polite in this case – it is a logical response to the number of people in a train compartment. As for tolerating noisy kids, I could point out evidence either ways, whether inside the train our outside of it.
Mr. Mehta takes further offense at this bit here:
Though most Bombayites would consider the Digest’s findings about as painful as a mosquito bite, an article accompanying might cause them to choke on their chapatis. In it, a Bombayite is quoted as saying, “In Mumbai, they’ll step over a person who has fallen in the street.” I’d like to think that the dear old Digest, which I grew up reading in India, doesn’t really believe this grotesque view of the city, for in 1997 they published an excerpt from an article I’d written about the everyday courtesies of the Bombay train.
Sure, I have experienced this myself when I saw two teenagers fall down from their bike on Worli Road and no one was willing to take them to hospitals. Heck, even the famed Mumbai cabbies would not stop when my friend and I, two out of townies, tried to take them to the hospital. It is a known fact that due to silliness of Indian law, often the good Samaritan, ends up getting stuck with wasting time in court cases and FIRs and many times people simply prefer to carry on with their lives.
In trying to paint a more polite picture of Mumbai, Mr. Mehta forgets one single thing about Mumbai. It is a town, which, more than anyplace else believes in survival of the fittest. If that leads to allegations of rudeness, then a Mumbaite will say, “Hey, that is no skin off my nose” (“Abey mere baap kaa kya jaata hai – tu kaltee maar yahaan se!”)!
Years ago, Mohammad Rafi crooned in CID and defined Mumbai for eternity, as eloquently as anyone ever could, as a place where you have to fend for yourself and as a place where you might find everything but a heart. So why take offense now at the editors of the Digest?
Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan
Zara hat ke zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan
Kahin building kahin traame, kahin motor kahin mill
Milta hai yahan sab kuchh ik milta nahin dil
Insaan ka nahin kahin naam-o-nishaan
Zara hat ke zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan
Aye dil hai..