Saturday, November 08, 2008

Mumbai, Striving and Sinking

This has always been one of the Indian paradoxes, one that is
increasing with the countries growing economic status. One that
exhibits characteristics of a capitalistic society where the rich get
richer and the poor get poorer. An interesting article about the
growing city of Mumbai, one which is seeking to attain the status of
"World Class City."

From the New York Times essay --
"This city, before it was a city, was a dusting of seven islands in
the choppy brine off India's western coast. Beginning nearly three
centuries ago, it was gradually reclaimed from the sea, seven masses
forging one, and claimed by the teeming country at its back. Dangling
in the Arabian Sea, it has become Mumbai, India's stock-trading and
film-making capital and its window to the world.

But if the reclaiming was complete, the claiming never was. The city
was tethered to the subcontinent by a land bridge in the northern
suburbs, 20 miles from the upper-crust stronghold of South Mumbai,
where mainland India felt remote. The rich were in India but not of
it. When news arrived of distant floods and famines, malfeasance and
malnutrition, they told themselves that theirs was a world apart.

Escapism was constant. In the 1960s, young elites observed the Western
music hour on All India Radio like a religion. In the 1980s, wealthy
women flew to London to avoid the steamy bazaars. Recent years have
brought diversions like gelato, sushi, fashion shows with Russian
models, velvet-rope nightclubs, restaurants that cook the
ever-less-sacred cow medium-rare.

Here the highest social boast is that you "just got back" from abroad;
the loftiest praise for a restaurant is, "It's like you're not in
India." Mumbai's globalized class hungers for it to be a world city,
and its leaders pledge to make it Shanghai-like by 2020; the plan is,
to put it gently, behind schedule. The rich blush when Madonna dines
at Salt Water Grill and Angelina Jolie drinks at Indigo: portents,
they say, that Mumbai will join New York, London, Paris in that
coterie of names emblazoned on the epidermis of boutiques everywhere.

Arriving from overseas, one encounters first this outward-looking
city. But in the layers below, a strange truth is buried. If the elite
live in virtual exile, seeing Mumbai as a port of departure, the city
teems with millions of migrants who see it as the opposite — a
mesmeric port of arrival, offering what the mainland doesn't: a chance
to invent oneself, to break destiny.

For the writer, the Dickensian lens offers an easy view of Mumbai:
wealthy and poor, apartment-dwelling and slum-dwelling, bulbous and
malnourished. In office elevators, the bankers and lawyers are a foot
taller, on average, than the less-fed delivery men.

Luscious skyscrapers sprout beside mosquito-prone shantytowns. This is
at once a city of paradise and of hell. But Mumbai's paradox is that
it is often the dwellers of paradise who feel themselves in hell and
the dwellers of hell who feel themselves in paradise.

What you see in Mumbai depends on what else you have seen. For those
who grew up in Westernized homes, the standard is New York. That
comparison is hard on Mumbai.

To be sure, in my five years here, which are now ending, the city has
inched toward world-city status. Restaurants began to serve
miso-encrusted sea bass. Indian-Western fashion boutiques started to
attract global jet-setters. The air kiss became as Indian as not
kissing once was.

But it takes a muscular suspension of disbelief to pretend that
Mumbai, which used to be called Bombay, is what its elite wishes it
were. Residents will tell you that Mumbai is "just like New York,"
before launching a tirade about why it isn't: nowhere nice to eat,
same incestuous social scene, no offbeat films, no privacy. There is a
sense in this crowd of a city forever striving to be what it isn't.

Still, minute after minute, migrants pour in with starkly different
pasts and starkly different ideas of Mumbai."

Read the full article at--

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