The heaving metropolis of Mumbai is the Indian city of dreams, but in this realm of dreams exist nightmares, too.
I am a dal-chawal-eating, drive-crazy-on-roads, hop-skip-and-jump-traffic-signals Indian. Nothing that this strangely myopic land throws around should shock me, right? WRONG!
Mumbai street scene
Photo credit: Peter Rivera
Mumbai shocks even the veterans of human misery like me. Why? Because of its utter disregard for human life. I have seen firemen laughing away to glory sitting on top of a speeding fire truck, barefoot and without helmets. I regularly see completely naked, dusty, smelly children play with their make-believe toys next to the busiest traffic signal in the city. I have gawked at houses about to crumble down like powder any second now, and their busy residents with mohalla culture. I have seen adolescent urchins trying to push one another down from a police picket roof. On a weekend train journey, I try to avoid looking at millions of butts using railway tracks as their loo in absence of better sanitary facilities.
What I was afraid of has already happened. I have begun getting numb. Yesterday, I stood by, ignoring a small street child being beaten up by a security guard of a high-end mall because he was trying to beg 10 rupees from me. I have now mastered the art of a slight shake of a head when all manners of dismembered, crippled, old, young men and women approach my auto-rickshaw to beg.
I stood by, ignoring a small street child being beaten up by a security guard because he was trying to beg 10 rupees from me.
It’s still easier to ward off hawkers. But how does one practise to lose one's empathy? How do you learn to ignore utter misery and the subsequent cry of help, when you suspect, it might as well be a huge scam. As Bollywood teaches us, it’s a major racket. Indian NGOs dealing with street children say that more than 20,000 Mumbai street children are drug addicts. How do you deal with this kind of intense negative realism? How do you develop an outer shell that does not feel intensely guilty of every pleasure you have in your life because there is so much desperation and need all around you?
It’s like Mumbai is lying there belly-up… warts and all, unashamed. Only it breaks me into pieces every time I step out of my box in its vicinity.
This post was originally published on The Rootless Wanderer in January 2010.