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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 39, Dated Oct 04, 2008
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
special report

Mumbai Cutting

Jaya Bachchan was just a punctuation in Raj Thackeray’s manifesto. What shape will his ambition leave the city in? RANA AYYUB speaks to a cross-section of Mumbaikars

Mumbai Cutting

What dominant image would you use to describe what Mumbai means to you?
Alyque Padamsee: Bombay is a hurricane of activities, a typhoon that runs the year round. A passionate city and a hotpot of people living together.

Kumar Ketkar: An efficient anarchy.

MN Singh: It’s a vibrant city, always abuzz. I can’t think of an image for it — the city’s work culture is what comes to my mind.

Mahesh Bhatt: My childhood. My memories are what stand as a dominant image for me ó memories of being brought up by a Shia mother, having a Brahmin father and working and playing with my Parsi friends.

Sanjay Nirupam: Mumbai is a migrantsí city, as KL Prasad [Joint Commissioner of Police, Law and Order] said. Mumbai is actually no oneís property. It came as dowry to King Charles II on his marriage to Catharine of Braganza. As for a dominant image, Ďmotherí is what comes to my mind.

What do you think are the fundamental qualities that traditionally set Mumbai apart from other cities and made it the ďBombayĒ of collective imagination? Do you feel those qualities are intact, or under assault, today?
Padamsee: Bombay is an amalgamation of four cultures: the Maharashtrian, the Gujarati, the English (which includes the Parsi and Catholic) and, of course, Bollywood. What has set Bombay apart from, say, Delhi, is its cosmopolitan attitude. Itís a place about people, about who you are, not where youíre from. But I guess the same qualities are what political parties in the state are trying to take away from it, for their own selfish pursuits, dividing people on the lines of region and caste. Ketkar: This city is caste, creed and genderless. Mumbai gives confidence and freedom to women, which no other city does. I donít think that these qualities are under assault today. Singh: The complete anonymity and freedom that Mumbai gives you is hard to come by. I come from the north and I know what it feels like, the city is completely free of any kind of petty prejudices. It gives you the freedom to work. But, of late, I believe, due to certain political parties, its qualities are under assault. Bhatt: Itís an alive and kicking city. The understanding amongst people, the interdependence, the diversity on which Mumbai stands ó the intermingling of cultures that has been brought by people from all over ó thatís Mumbai for me. Itís a strong city and nobody can ever convince me that the values of this city, its qualities, are under assault.

Nirupam: Its work culture makes it different. Here, if you donít work, you will be thrown out; only the hard-working make it. Itís a sea that you have to swim through. I donít think the essential qualities of Mumbai are under assault, they are intact and the credit goes to outsiders: the diamond traders, the film industry, industrialists like Dhirubhai Ambani, even the dabbawalas who are from western Maharashtra.

Mumbai Cutting
Photo: SHAILENDRA PANDEY

The Shiv Sena and Marathi nationalism have become a big part of Mumbaiís landscape. If you set aside the violence they indulge in, are there any valid issues, on the ground, that they raise?
Padamsee: I think Marathi manoos is a good idea, but for unification, for education, not the reasons our politicians are using it for. Whether it is the Shiv Sena or any other party, nobody has given any importance to the language. Matters related to commerce in Maharashtra are mainly done in English and Gujarati. Why donít these politicians, if they think so much of the well-being of the Marathi manoos, make them learn English, which is the key to their success? They have failed to address the core issues.

Ketkar: You should understand that it was the disgruntled lot that joined the Shiv Sena, a lot that felt marginalised. They came to suffer from an inferiority complex as the Englishspeaking, educated elite from other regions took centrestage. On the other hand, the educated Maharashtrian, who had the same qualification but lacked the confidence, also backed the Shiv Sena, without participating openly. In a way, I would also blame the Maharashtrian community, as it was not assertive enough and is still very much the same. It lacks self-esteem and, by and large, looks up to the Shiv Sena, and now the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), to stand up for it.

Singh: I think the Shiv Sena has been able to create an appeal amongst Marathi-speaking people that it is the protector of not just the Maharashtrians but also of the Hindus. I donít doubt the Senaís patriotic fervour ó they bank on the support of the Marathi manoos and rightly so, as they has been able to protect the interests of the Marathi-speaking population in the state. Maharashtrians have a justified grievance. Outsiders have not been able to identify with Marathi culture. Also, over the years, most of business, entertainment, commerce has been dominated by non-Marathi people. But I would also like to suggest here that Maharashtrians lack the entrepreneurial skill that has made non-Marathis prosper in the state.

Bhatt: I am completely for the Marathi manoos, the whole culture, the Maratha pride. I feel that, to be a Mumbaikar, you need to have a genuine love for the indigenous culture and I think, in the age of globalisation, that this culture is being overwhelmed. Let me give you an example: This city has been the source for thousands of Bollywod films, but does anyone bother for the indigenous people, the local people of Film City, who are suffering? In that regard, I share the concern of Shiv Sena and even Raj Thackeray: at the end of it, who is going to talk of the growth of the local man?

Nirupam: The Shiv Sena has been popular but only amongst that one-fourth of the city that is Maharashtrian, capitalising on the insecurity instilled into their minds ó that migrants will take away what is theirs. The only valid issue ever raised in the name of the Marathi manoos was the unification of every Maharashtrian towards the formation of Bombay state into Maharashtra in 1960. Besides that, the Marathi issue has done nothing except divide people.

Mumbai Cutting
Photo: SHAILENDRA PANDEY

What do you make of Raj Thackeray? Is he a chip of the old Thackeray block, or is he different in any key ways?
Padamsee: Raj Thackeray seems to be a charming man who could have done well in a multinational company, not politics. What he is doing in politics is simply trying to model himself on Bal Thackeray: these are exactly the issues the Shiv Sena used to rise to power. He knows that he can take up any issue, make it inflammatory and get mileage. Raj Thackeray is also, by and large, a product of the media.

Ketkar: Raj Thackeray is a person with a tremendous connect with the masses, and charisma. Someone who is loyal to his comrades, his partymen, which has made him popular. A man with magnetic appeal, he manages to wield the same clout as his uncle. He is raking up the same issues his uncle started with although, in 1960, when Bal Thackeray first raised the Marathi manoos issue, the economic situation was different.

Singh: Raj Thackeray has the fire that the senior Thackeray possessed, but he is devoid of ideas. What heís doing is just a poll gimmick. He wants to set his base here, carve a niche for himself. After all, he has nothing to lose.

Bhatt: I was charmed by Raj Thackeray when he came to power. He was a Maharashtrian who dared challenge his uncle, who dared move out of his shadow and away from his uncleís ideology. But I disagree with the path that he has taken. His approach has been regressive. Having said that, I am not going to dismiss Raj Thackeray because, deep down, he is a man with potential.

Nirupam: Who is Raj Thackeray? A clone of his uncle and nothing else. Whatís his identity? All he is doing is raking up issues that the Shiv Sena once used to gain popularity. His only aim is to cut into the votes of the Shiv Sena, which he is willing to do by any means.

What is your take on the whole Bachchan- Raj Thackeray fracas? Do you think Amitabh Bachchan was right to apologise for something so trivial [Jaya Bachchanís remark that she would speak in Hindi since she is from Uttar Pradesh]?
Padamsee: I am appalled at what Amitabh Bachchan has done. It has lowered Bachchanís stature in not just my eyes but also in those of lakhs of his countrymen. He has let them down. By apologising, he has raised Raj Thackerayís stature.

Ketkar: Raj has learnt the art of making political mileage out of the most trivial situations. Jaya Bachchan made an off-hand comment and did not expect it to snowball into something so big. As far as Bachchanís apology goes, he had his own compulsions.

Singh: There was no option left before Amitabh Bachchan. Frankly, I think Jaya Bachchan should have maintained some restraint, considering the kind of environment that existed. There was nothing wrong with what she said, it was not offensive ó it was said in a light vein and she was caught off guard. But it was also quite obvious that she was making a dig.

Bhatt: Let us understand that Mrs Jaya Bachchan is not just a film personality but also a key member of a political party. Any utterance from her loses its innocence even if said from the podium of a film function. It was a political issue. Mrs Bachchan should have certainly maintained restraint, especially in an atmosphere when there was already tension. It was the time of Ramzan and Id, and she did say it as kind of a dig ó she almost provoked him as a key person from a political party trying to take on a person who had been under a gag order. I think we should all stop making comfortable villains and look at the reality. I would say Amitabh Bachchan was intelligent enough to have apologised in this case. He has also, in a way, contributed to Raj Thackerayís cause.

Nirupam: There is a stark difference between Amitabh Bachchan and Raj Thackeray. While Mr Bachchan has achieved what he has with hard work, Raj is trying to do so by maligning the image of that man. Also, Raj knows that Mr Bachchan is close to Balasaheb. He wanted to instigate the Thackerays, which he has done. As for apologising, Mr Bachchan has let down not just his fans and supporters but also every north Indian in the city. The north Indian community is now embarrassed to speak its own mother tongue.

Mumbai Cutting

What grouse do you think underlies the idea of protecting Marathi language and identity? Is there popular sentiment backing it or is it merely lumpen politics?
Padamsee: Two kinds of people like headlines: terrorists and politicians. Raj Thackeray likes to create controversies. Politicians like him and Bal Thackeray create enemies for the Marathi manoos they claim to represent. First it was Muslims, then south Indians and now north Indians. Tomorrow it will be someone else.

Ketkar: The middle class certainly supports Raj Thackeray because it has grievances but the grouse should not be against north Indians or outsiders as much as against the elite Maharashtrians who have not been able to stand up for their fellows. There has been a criminal neglect of Mumbai, no doubt, but by whom? By Maharashtrian politicians. The Shiv Sena has been ruling the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), but what has it done for the city?

Singh: Despite being a north Indian, I agree that this city has become over-crowded. The influx of north indians in the city has certainly created problems. It has become unhygienic. If we stay in the city we should contribute to it and not just look after our own interests. The middle class is certainly invested in this kind of politics ó the Marathi class is miffed with outsiders and Raj Thackerayís politics finds support with them.

Bhatt: My spot boys, my watchman, have all been supporting Raj Thackeray because they are the people he is fighting for. The elite may deny this and say that Raj Thackerayís politics does not work, but for the middle class it does. When the sense of your self is being eroded, this is bound to happen. The Marathi middle class wants its identity to be saved.

Nirupam: There is nothing wrong in fighting for you mother tongue, your identity, but against whom? Earlier it was south Indians, tomorrow itís going to be Punjabis, Goans, Sindhis. They just want to alienate the Marathi-speaking population from the rest because thatís the only way they can retain their votebank. And sadly the middle class has been used in this entire drive, in the name of their interests.

Mumbai is now in a state of upheaval and turmoil ó a new identity is being fought over. In the process, do you think the space for liberal discourse is shrinking? What worries you about this new identity?
Padamsee: The space for liberal discourse is certainly shrinking in the city, and its citizens are responsible for this as nobody wants to speak out. Nobody has the guts to stand up and say that whatever is happening is wrong. My plays and my views, too, have been attacked by these people in the past. Itís how you choose to react.

Ketkar: I am worried that Mumbai will tomorrow not be the same city that it was, the Mumbai of dreams, the cosmopolitan Mumbai ó and for that I would squarely blame not just the Shiv Sena but also the government of Maharashtra.

Singh: I worry that Mumbai has started to resemble other cities where caste-based politics rules the roost. Votebank and caste-based politics is taking away its cosmopolitan nature. Its people are broad-minded but the law-enforcement agencies have not done their jobs. Being a policeman, I think the authorities and legal department have done a shoddy job and let someone hold the city to ransom. The Mumbai police has helped make Raj Thackeray.

Bhatt: To say that the space for liberal discourse is shrinking is overstating the case. Mumbai is too big and accommodating a city to be affected by this. One needs to learn from the MNS and the Shiv Sena about its commitment to the culture and the cause of the Marathi manoos, the local man. Of course, everyone is free to work here but not at the price of the well-being of the locals. The Marathi man should not get step-motherly treatment.

Nirupam: We talk about Marathi nationalism, and that it started with Vir Savarkar. As far as I know, Vir Savarkar did not fight for Maharashtra but for India. The Shiv Sena has been active for 42 years, but still the state has produced some of the best writers, actors and creative people. Had they been successful, the film industry would not have made the kind of liberal, thought-provoking films it has. Fortunately, the liberal colour of the city has been nurtured by Marathi-speaking people like Shobhaa De and Kumar Ketkar, who are excellent examples of pluralism and a liberal attitude. What worries me is that the urban educated, who can stand up and speak, refuse to do so.

Mumbai Cutting
Photo: SHAILENDRA PANDEY

If you were to pick two people who embodied the best and worst of Mumbai, who would you choose?
Padamsee: The best would be MF Husain. Iím yet to come across a more virile person. At this age, the man continues to contribute in a way no one can. The worst is not a person but the stateís Congress government, for being mute spectators to every problem.

Ketkar: The best would be Vijay Tendulkar. As far as the worst is concerned, I would not want to name one particular person.

Singh: I donít believing in picking one person and holding him responsible or making him an epitome of certain values.

Bhatt: The best is Ratan Tata, a man with a global image; highly successful yet firmly rooted in his city. The worst is not one person but the entire me-first, pleasure-seeking generation, which is completely disconnected with whatís happening around them.

Nirupam: The best would be Mr Bachchan and the worst has to be Raj Thackeray.

Do you think of yourself as a Mumbaikar? Is it important to think of oneself as that?
Padamsee: I am a Mumbaikar but thatís not an identity for me. The identity I hold important is that of being a human being.

Ketkar: I consider myself a Mumbaikar who is now embarrassed about the identity.

Singh: I am a Mumbaikar, born and brought up in Mumbai. I have served this state to the best of my abilities and I donít think I want to give any more proof of being attached to this city.

Bhatt: I have never restricted myself to an identity because it is not necessary. But if you force me to wear it on my sleeve, then yes, I am a Mumbaikar from Shivaji Park.

Nirupam: I think of myself as a Mumbaikar, as somebody who carves out a niche for himself with his hard work.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 39, Dated Oct 04, 2008

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