Mumbai is changing. I realize this when the traffic is thinner and I get a non “pay and park” parking space in the narrow lane behind my Office during the weekends I attend Office. Saturday mornings are lazy mornings. All of us sit around wading thru the bunch of newspapers we subscribe to. Breakfast is consumed slowly – unlike on working days when hot breakfast is consumed with one eye on the clock. ( I irritate my family by saying that I go to office only because of the hot breakfast preceding my rush to Office.) Then the day merges into a longer prayer time . The lunch would be around 2 .00 p.m. After a small relaxation, we decide how the rest of the day is to be spent.
This Saturday was no different. We had decided to visit a relating in Goregaon – a suburb 20 kms away- not far enough by normal standards, but of indeterminate time in Mumbai. It was around 5.00 p.m. Anand , my son, told me that BT- a leading political leader- has passed away. India and Indians have a peculiar way of showing grief on demise of such leaders. Instantly all shops have to shut down. Public transport has to suddenly lurch to a standstill or be seen to be unreliable. Streets become deserted, except for certain unlikely looking elements strolling around with menacing looks. Telephone calls go around asking when the office is being shut. In few minutes, all business shut down, people are rushing home, street food stalls go off, the day has ended prematurely. Several crores of business is lost.
This was the case in 1964 when Jawaharlal Nehru passed away. Nothing had changed in the intervening 48 years. Anand and Priya looked at me doubtfully and cautioned me on taking the “risk” of travelling such a long distance (20kms) in such troubled times. I thought over and recalled the countless occasions when I had stayed back in the Office on not dissimilar situations. Nothing happens except for the roads being more deserted and I reach home in lesser time. So I bravely decided to visit my cousin at Goregaon.
Not much time had passed since the news had filtered down thru text messages, telephones and jungle drums. The roads were full. Everybody seemed to be going in some direction. Public transport seemed to be less visible and what could be seen were overloaded. The traffic crawled at places. It took slightly longer time that expected. We reached safely and spent some good time with my cousin.
We left around 8.00 p.m. I had wondered which route to take on return as I was worried that the traffic would be as heavy on return journey. I need not have been worried. The main road outside my cousin’s house was deserted- a sight that can be seen only at say 1.00 a.m – and I had a choice of routes to take. I could impress Padma- my wife- with my driving excellence on empty roads. The journey which normally would take anything between 60 minutes to 120 mintues took only 30 minutes.
The sight I saw near my residence was unsettling. It was as though the night had advanced at an aggressive pace. The pavement was bereft of any human traffic. The shops had shut and hence their bright lights were replaced by dark corners. I wondered where have all the human beings who throng the roads till nearly midnight gone? There were no street side stalls . All restaurants were shut. I wondered where bachelors and those not having access to home food would go. Most astonishing was the closing of medical shops , milk vendors and petrol pumps. The lone shop which was open was that of our family Doctor. I asked him why medical shops were shut. He said that they were asked to shut by some persons.
Today is a big “Muhurtha Nall”- auspicious day for marriages and such function. Such functions involve months of planning and coordination, big expense- once in a life time kind of spending- incurred in the function and related lunch and dinner- all of it spread over two days. Invitees come from out station locations a day or so in advance for whom appropriate arrangements are made. The “risk management” aspect involves estimating the turnout (as against the number invited) and unexpected events impacting the function and number of invitees actually attending. I recall the demise of Rajiv Gandhi during May – vacation time- when there were marriages and thread ceremonies on a similar Muhurta Naal. My relatives had to use all their resources to get what was needed to get the function going.
There are two marriages today for which our family is invited. I and Padma went to attend a marriage at Chembur. The roads were deserted. The hall luckily had an unobtrusive entrance and perhaps went unnoticed to those having glee in stopping such functions. The attendance was normal. I heard some horror stories about other similar functions being affected by the abrupt closure of markets. The caterer had expressed helplessness in serving due to not getting vegetables , groceries etc. The marriages were said to be postponed on this count. One hall cancelled the booking yesterday for the function to be held today compelling the function to be held at the residence.
My host considered himself to be lucky that he is not affected. I wondered how any Indian could act in a way to create obstacle for conducting marriage or any other once in a life time function in a mindless manner. Do they understand the dreams, expectations and joy that goes behind such functions?
We returned and watched television. We switched between a live overdone coverage of the funeral and a good English Movie. Suddenly the movie stopped. I thought there was a transmission problem. But no, the news channels were running. Then it dawned on us that due to demise of our leader, we have to watch only news channels (including BBC, CNN) and mourn along with thousands of others physically present on “site”. GEC (General Entertainment Channels) started immediately after the funeral pyre was lit.
Milk did not come in the morning and milk vendors were closed. But medical shops are open perhaps due to dawn of some realization of the negative impact of their closure.
I wondered what era are we in? Is mourning also to be imposed by political parties to show their waning might? Could they not show their might in giving us good roads, removing garbage in time, improving civic amenities? I wondered whether the “suffering millions” would speak up.
In a larger context, it is clear why we call ourselves a developing country. We are yet to over come the need to have heroes whom we should WORSHIP as we would Lord Venkatesa or Lord Ayyappa, the only difference being political leaders are visible in shape and size to ordinary human beings. We are prepared to kill our economy for a brief period for no particular advantage to any one. What do we gain by being compelled to sit idle at home?
One conclusion I have drawn is that we are happy with very limited achievements. The desire to progress is circumscribed by the governance system’s lethargy or ability to stretch beyond a small and visible limit. Does it take great effort to clear garbage daily? Does it require extraordinary efforts to ensure that the roads at junctions do not have deep potholes or similar obstacles reducing the speed of vehicles and causing traffic jams? What is needed to ensure that when roads are concreted, there is no intervening stretch which is suddenly without concrete or tar? There are countless examples which each of us can recite.
I believe that our philosophy has somehow been misunderstood to aim for underachievement. (Do not look for results, do your duty etc.) Anyone who has visited USA or Europe or Singapore would have at least a twinge of regret at not enjoying similar benefits in our country.
Would it change?