Migrants are Mumbai’s shapers, not its shame


January 5, 2008

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Bombay | Culture | Customs | Mumbai

By Bachi Karkaria,

Jug Suraiya’s Second Opinion (January 4) may be dead-on in blaming India’s ersatz modernity for what happened in Mumbai , but it is way off the mark in also damning the city’s migrant nature. As a theory, it may be impeccable to argue that morality and ethics, a sense of right and wrong is inextricably linked with a sense of place, but in practice it simply does not apply to the way migration has shaped out in Mumbai, much less to the way it has shaped Mumbai.

More than any other metropolis, Mumbai is native-neutral, whatever the Shiv Sena may like to project. Migration is a continuous-process industry here, and the city would be non-existent without migrants. This is exactly the opposite of the pattern in Chennai and Kolkata, places firmly rooted in their mono-chauvinism.

Similarly, the Dehli-walla and the post-Partition Lalaji culture of the Capital have only been challenged in the recent decade by a completely different demographic dynamic. Bangalore falls into the same slot; its original Kannadiga and Tamil population may have always been diluted by multicultural pensioners seeking out its quietude and salubrious climate, but they shared a common temperament.

This is all completely different from the cultural maelstrom that has distinguished Mumbai for centuries. More so, as in any self-respecting kaleidoscope, each 24-hour turn changes the patterns.

Yet, contrary to Jug Suraiya’s premise, this does not make for a disparate anonymity where you can get away with murder or molestation. Quite the opposite. You learn to adapt, and live in the togetherness of strangers. In fact, communal angularities have full rein in the company of your own kind. Outside it, it is imperative that you emery them down. This is why the Goan makes good outside Goa;, the Bengali does better outside the stifling cultural terrorism of Kolkata; the Punjabi is so much quieter outside Delhi. As a Parsi, I could have claimed Mumbai as my patrimony, but I was a migrant too from the communal outpost of Kolkata, and the first thing that struck me was that the resident of the baugs and colonies was almost a different species from the Parsis back home.

More important, the migrant quickly becomes the neo-native, absorbing the tribal markers of a conventional community. There is a distinctive Mumbai ethnicity bonded together with the common ambition that drives every starry-eyed arrival. The difference between the Mumbai migrant, and those you might see pouring into, say Kolkata’s Howrah and Sealdah stations, is hope, not desperation. A pull factor at least as strong as the push factor which forced them to leave the place of their ancestors.

This is what creates the kind of positive energy that marks immigrant nations. Take the US or Canada, or the way the entire dynamic of a has-been imperial capital changed with the influx of Gujarati and other Indian enterprise from East Africa. Cool Britannia would never have been possible without their incandescent determination to look forward in enterprise, not back in anger.

When everyone is a migrant, then no one is an outsider, an other. And this is the way it was till Mumbai caught the infection from Ayodhya and burned in communal fury during 1992-93. It got out of the blaze with equal speed because, after this brief apostasy, it returned to embrace its original god of ambition, and his consort, wealth. It would be naive to say that no scars were left; the riots revealed the subterranean bigotry, but it has been kept in its place. Shorn of its hype, the fabled spirit of Mumbai is nothing more than this compulsion to get back to business as usual. Literally so, for the prime mover of Mumbai is dhandho.

And its migrant nature is also the reason why a woman was so safer in Mumbai than anywhere else. Its women were migrants too, determined to carve out their space. They were on the street and in the local trains going to and from their workplaces long before others elsewhere. Mumbai or Bombabe guarded that space with a ferocity that brooked no challenge. If things are changing for the worse, the migrant’s genetic compulsion to live and let live should be nurtured as the remedy, not damned as the cause.

Original article here.