November 25, 2011 2:51 pm

Mumbai, three years after 26/11

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The city’s cultural decline is as much of a concern as the terrorism threat it faces, says Vivek Dehejia

As someone born in Bombay, as it was once called, but raised abroad, the city lived large in my imagination. It was the place where we would spend vacations as a family, have obligatory meetings with relatives, and where I could catch up on a huge backlog of reading, from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot and most things in between. So, albeit idiosyncratically, Bombay has always had cultural and intellectual associations for me – and, of course, there is also the association of place.

For anyone from Bombay the art deco sweep of Marine Drive and the facade of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel stand as immovable markers of the city’s cosmopolitan grandeur, past and present. To watch the Taj in flames, on a television screen thousands of miles away, on that November day, was agonising for me, as it was for so many displaced Mumbaikers.

Yet despite extravagant protestations to the contrary in the febrile Indian media, the tragedy three years ago was not a singular event, but rather the most spectacular in a sequence that the city has endured over the decades. One need only recall the serial bombs that ripped through the city in 1993 and 2003, with the most recent occurring this past summer.

Ultimately, in all of these cases, it was the city’s heady cosmopolitanism, more potent than any narcotic, that kept it strong in the face of repeated terrorist attacks. As the literary theorist Homi Bhabha, himself from Bombay, says about Salman Rushdie’s writing: “The fission of syntax that blows up Bombay – the ‘bomb’ in Bombay – is a wonderful image of this city of ‘too-many persons’ and too many stories.”

But this source of strength for Mumbai is, alas, largely a thing of the past. Terrorism and security are, of course, legitimate worries, but they must not crowd out the concern that is the city’s intellectual and cultural decline. Bombay, and then Mumbai, has long worn the mantle of India’s first city, but that is in danger of being wrested from us.

The city has descended slowly into parochialism and petty provincialism. Populist politics, in which a majority behaves as an aggrieved minority, has been one of the triggers, as has been the failure to upgrade the city’s creaky infrastructure.

Mumbai is not an easy or affordable place for most writers and artists to live these days, driving them further afield into ever more remote suburbs, removed from the once-pulsing city centre.

To be sure, there are vestigial fragments of intellectual and cultural life to grab on to, whether the offerings of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) or the occasional literary event or festival; but these are disconnected patches that cannot be stitched into a tapestry.

Sometimes, of course, there is great glory in decay, the embers of which we now have a whiff of in Mumbai. Vienna experienced an intellectual and cultural efflorescence at the beginning of the last century, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was unspooling into nationalism, socialism, and proto-fascism. But like a rapid descent from daylight into the gloaming, this sunburst of creativity did not long survive the First World War. Vienna today is a museum city that embalms and preserves an ossified past.

Mumbai may yet avoid the same bleak fate, if only because of the city’s dynamism and youthful demographics. Nor is Mumbai likely to cede its hegemony in the domain of popular culture, especially music and cinema, anytime soon.

But for those cultural forms to which the word “haute” is prefaced, be it couture or cuisine, our friends in the erstwhile imperial capital will soon be looking at us in the rear-view mirror, if they are not already. Mumbai may have mass, but momentum is on Delhi’s side.

As we recall 26/11, those of us tied to Mumbai’s literary and cultural life, either as creators or connoisseurs, might reflect on our diminished stature, punctuated by terrorism, yet something that has been in train for some years.

Were Mumbai to rediscover the cosmopolitan spirit of Bombay, it would be the most salutary possible response to the legacy of 26/11.

The writer is professor of economics at Carleton University in Canada

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