This was submitted to the management of the condo where I live for the inaugural house magazine. They thought it was a little too out there and rejected it. So here it is, in all its subversive glory.
We returned to Mumbai after a couple of decades outside the country, to find that the housing societies where the middle class lived, that struggled cheek by jowl with low income flats and the labour hutments and chawls, have been replaced by urban ghettos. In the days gone by, only South Bombay had these wonderful apartment buildings with art-deco names redolent of the Raj – like Persepolis and Iris. The old business families (who had their money in one of the Swiss cantons), and the young thrusters who manned the ramparts in Citibank, Hindustan Lever and other multinationals lived in these apartment complexes. In reality South Bombay was a lonely outpost of the United States, hemmed in by the sea on one end on this benighted island and the locals on the other. Their highly westernized social life and their love lives were all lived within this crowded square mile. Their inhabitants had to perforce cross the dangerous territories of Mahim and Bandra and Andheri to get to Santa Cruz where the Bombay-New York flight awaited them. And they did the transit with trepidation, sometimes holding their nose (which they had to as they approached the Mahim Creek). Difficult to get in and hard to leave. A ghetto in every sense of the term.
When we returned, we found that the SoBo Ghetto had been surpassed by these new island ghettos situated in those parts of Bombay the old SoBo-ite would dare not be seen in for fear of social death. These ghettos were in areas once ruled by some gangster or the other, some of them legendary for their violence and their control over local politics. At one time, gangs of Hindu and Muslim hooligans fought each other on the streets in these places. A prominent local gangster was notorious for the number of elections he won while in prison. Signs of old wealth were all over the place – the textile mills on which Bombay’s many fortunes were made dotted the landscape, shuttered after a doctor turned trade unionist forced them to close down over a strike. The harassed SoBo elite who owned these mills heaved a huge sigh of relief and waited patiently, living no doubt on fresh air and money squirrelled away with the gnomes of Zurich, for the day when a government pressed for land to accommodate its middle class would enable these mills to be sold for their land value. And when that day came, some thirty years later, the land passed into the hands of yet another cohort of the new elite, who bought the land and decided to turn them into island ghettos. This time with guards and walls!
Bombay, after all, was a set of islands, criss-crossed by sea inlets and waterways. Once upon a time each of these islands had a different feel and ethos and some of them were distinctly for the colonial elite. When the waterways were filled in the brown faces moved in, while the white faces slowly retreated to their clubs and bungalows; emerging during the day to step into an office every morning in Ballard Estate replete in cotton suit and sola topee, nod to Mr Iyer who did the typing and to Mr Srinivasan the accountant, to his spacious office with a huge ceiling fan revolving lazily on the ceiling, and proceed to conduct business based on the rent-seeking that marked the colonial enterprise. Paper. Medicines. Books. Textiles. Machinery for the railways. Or even banking – at the Chartered Bank of India, China and Australia, or at the Mercantile Bank. In the evening, retire to the club and ask the bearah to bring a gin and tonic juldee juldee.
These new island ghettos of the 21st century are nothing if not salubrious. Of course, a uniformed guard stands at the gate and demands to see proof of residence. This being India, on the third day after you move in, he greets you with a big smile and waves you in. All other lesser mortals have to fill in a chit and get the sahab or memsaab you are visiting to sign it. Outside the ghetto, the roads are lined with debris – if not the smelly stuff of the morning ablutions. Men and women hurry along in clothes purchased in Dadar Market for a song. What passes for a pavement is filled with vendors selling daily needs. Vehicles dodge past double-parked vehicles. And the street itself is lined with the usual set of shops. Fancy Goods. The local liquor shop. Medical. Plastics. Provisions. People jostle past each other as Bombay struggles to make a living without any help or support of anything other than the sweat of their brow.
Inside the ghetto, it is magic. Manicured lawns appear on the left. Little children in the latest from Tarte Tatin or Gap Kids run on the lawn playing football or cricket. Other children dart around furiously on their little push-scooters, maids in tow trying to keep a hold on the kid while maintaining the conversation on their mobile phones with loved ones back in Bharat. Burra Sahibs in khaki shorts and polo shirts walk about, no doubt discussing the latest new buyout deal or reveling in the self-respect that a new, resurgent India now makes them feel. Shapely women in fashionable gym-tights head to the fitness centre or the heated pool. Old men walk slowly talking of the good old days. Old ladies sit in the deck chairs on the upper deck, talking fondly of their grandchildren. Mixed gatherings of parents try to boast about their children while not boasting about their children. Water is plentiful. There is no shortage of power. And if you wanted to top up on your bread and eggs for tomorrow’s breakfast, why, there is a superette in the basement! Need that freshly dry-cleaned suit to notch up yet another conquest on the corporate bedpost? There is a laundry! Everything is digital these days yaar but sometimes these maids nah want some cash – so there is an ATM! On Saturday nights the young centurions and their centurionettes can visit other centurions and centurionettes, sashaying across in their finest, free to drink as much they want without worrying about the drive back home.
Too cynical? Perhaps, but all this is true. What is also true is that this being India, a real community tends to form. Births and weddings are celebrated together. Deaths are condoled together. Festivals are celebrated in the lawns. During the pandemic real efforts were made to ensure essential supplies reached the ghetto. Friendships are formed and there has been a building romance or three. There are divorces, sadly. And the parties are harmless fun most of the time. Bollywood songs are belted out either by one of the larks in the building or by a wannabe lark aided and abetted by alcohol.
All these ghettos – these islands really – are linked to each other by the new pathways of Whatsapp and Facebook, establishing connections between other similar ghettos and their denizens. Along with the textile mills the Hindu Muslim riots are gone (or so we hope) from these areas, and the entire local community now revolves around the buying power of these ghettos – whether for house-help, drivers, security guards, or for local commerce. There is a renewal taking place in these communities. The local gangster who ruled the community through the chawls in which millworkers lived, has enabled the sale of that whole complex to augur the arrival of yet another ghetto in its place for the more of the upper middle class. Perhaps this is how it should be.
It is perhaps not wise to be too Marxist or too Scandinavian about the existence of these ghettos. There is no civic requirement for a social conscience, only a moral one. One should not ignore the fact that the residents of these ghettos power businesses, run banks and companies, raise capital and provide services. All of which helps the economy and employs those not in the ghetto. And the beauty about Bombay – unlike places like Sao Paolo for instance – is that everyone is aspirational. And this is the kind of city where one can be aspirational regardless of who you are and where you come from. I remember taking an Emirates flight and they sent a car to pick me up at night. The driver greeted me and told me his name was Deepak. I asked him where he was from and he mentioned a place in Tamil Nadu that is known for its barren land and perennial lack of water. The conversation switched to Tamil. I asked him how long he has been in Bombay. He said something like 20 years. This is deivalogam (God’s own world), he said – if you are prepared to work, you will eat.
So let’s raise a glass to this particular ghetto. A warm and pleasant island, full of community spirit, where men are men and women are beautiful, and it’s an English summer’s day all year long.