Friday, November 28, 2008

City of sorrow

The ancient world had Rome and Byzantium. The 19th century had Paris and London, portrayed by Dickens or Balzac. The 20th century elected New York as the ultimate city-symbol, the shore of hope and dreams for the waves of migration across the Atlantic ocean, escaping from the poverty of Ireland and Southern Italy, later from the spreading menace of Nazi occupied Europe.
The 21st century has Mumbai.

A peninsula like Manhattan is an island, Mumbai is hardly ever reached by sea. The migration in search of hope and future usually enters by land. It is not the Gateway of India, but Victoria Terminus, more recently known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, that usually offers the first glimpse of the city, like the Statue of Liberty did for so many migrants getting by sea into New York. Victoria Terminus has as high a symbolic status in our time as the gateway to New York did in the past century. Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the new cosmopolitan city-symbol, with its low life of endless slums, appalling poverty and organized crime, and its high rises and fancy hotels, its peaks of science and technology of the new emerging world superpower, its lively cultural life merging the East and the West, its world trade center at Nariman Point.

Everyone can call Mumbai home: Hindu, Muslim, Jews and Christians; Westerners, South Asian, East Asian, African. There is a Mumbai for everyone amidst reclaimed land, chaotic avenues and back streets, gutters and splendor; art, science, and hunger. Mumbai is our future like New York represented the hopes and the envisioned future of the world a century ago.

Mumbai exists on too many layers of reality. Sometime they peacefully intersect, sometime they explode in violent contradiction. Mumbai coexists in the infinite future and the infinite past: information technology versus Ram and Allah, probes landing on the moon and sadhus practicing yoga at dusty street corners. This is our world, the emerging collective behavior of human society, never before so clearly displayed in its full broadness as in this overcrowded stretch of land surrounded by the waters. Because everything is in such close proximity with everything else in Mumbai, it is impossible not to see, not to compare, not to imagine. Parallel lives sharing the same pavements, the same suburban trains, pressed against one another and yet occupying infinitely distant universes of the mind. Everything exists in an instant of everlasting present, everything is always too real and too compelling in Mumbai.

Mumbai already had its Balzacs and its Dickens, it has been a city-symbol in novels, art, music, film, poetry. "Maximum city" was a perfect title for the forced tour across the low life of the megalopolis offered by Suketu Mehta's book, the modern Balzac of the new Paris. Magic-realist depictions of Mumbai were best rendered in Rushdie's "Midnight Children", "The Moor's last sigh", and "The ground beneath her feet". Hindustani classical music, jazz, and bollywood pop flow down the streets, as other music genres did once shape the culture Paris and New York in the not so distant past.

Symbols are targets in our world. It was demonstrated by the New York tragedy of 2001, and after New York it was inevitably Mumbai that would be mourning, hit at the very heart of its cosmopolitan essence. There is a part of humanity that generates diversity and creates a future for the entire world, and there is a part that rejects it violently as an overstimulated immune system would fight the intrusion of a foreign organism. Entrenched in an often highly mythologized vision of past and tradition as sources of safety and unquestionable certainties, this reactive and reactionary part of mankind especially rejects the places where cultures merge, where values and traditions are freely discussed and questioned, where science thrives on criticism and open mindedness. Mumbai, which is the ultimate symbol in our century of everything that projects humanity from the past into the future, could easily be singled out as a target for such extreme rejection of any future that is not identical to a stale, oppressive and stagnant past. Bombs and shootings tragically end lives leaving a trail of blood and destruction, but the fate of individual lives does not change the course of the river of history and Mumbai will keep on opening the way to humanity's future, with its dreams and nightmares alike.