The Meaning of Mumbai

By Anjum Altaf

There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context.

The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history.

That, however, is not the point. Even if the rest had not been history, the fact remains that Bombay was a place one could run away to, there to find others like oneself, to meet others even more obsessed than oneself. Bombay was both India and a way out of India. It was a place that promised the realization of one’s dreams and the flowering of one’s potential in ways other places could not.

To realize exactly what that means, think of Pakistan. Today, one cannot run away from Pakistan in Pakistan. Before there was a border, Bombay could embrace a Mohammad Rafi from Lahore and a Yusuf Khan from Peshawar. Where can a young man from Peshawar head today? Karachi? The difference between Karachi and Bombay, ostensibly such similar places, holds the key to the real meaning of a city like Mumbai.

What makes a city different from a village is its diversity: In a city, one can turn a corner and bump into a new idea, drum up an outlandish plan, then seek a partner over a cup of coffee, locate a gambler and find a sponsor. It’s a place where one can escape the conformity and limits of small towns, give reign to one’s imagination, and chance one’s luck. And if one fails, there is always another day, another plan, another chance.

Such opportunities flow out of the complex interplay of diversity and dynamism, the productive energy of a city. Diversity can trigger the innovation that feeds the dynamism; dynamism can germinate yet more diversity by attracting eager talent.

But diversity is a two-edged sword. In a city, differences do not remain locked in hermetically tight compartments the way they do in villages. They break the seals and spill over, exposing rough edges that rub against each other all the time. They can just as easily end in conflict as in synergy. One spiral makes for a Karachi, the other for a Mumbai.

Diversity doesn’t yield its fruits untended. The diversity of British India could not be managed; the failure took a million lives and uprooted ten million more. No expressions of sorrow can make those lives whole again. A fortunate India recognized the value of diversity to start over. A less fortunate Pakistan, never quite realizing what it had gained or lost, continued to whittle it away further only to discover that diversity is not something one can be rid of. The more it is suppressed, the more it reappears in virulent forms. Pakistan is now bereft of big ideas or visions; only unceasing warfare remains.

Mumbai is still a way out of India; Karachi is not a way out of Pakistan. In Mumbai, there is still synergy between diversity and dynamism. But will this synergy sustain itself without care? Can Mumbai avoid the fate of Karachi without attention?

Therein lies the salience of this incidence of violence and of those that have preceded it. Each is a blow to the meaning of Mumbai, a strike against the fabric that knits diversity and dynamism. When diversity turns from an asset to a liability, a city begins the slide from an engine of growth to an explosion waiting to happen.

Mumbai is resilient; it has the legacy of Bombay to sustain it. But it needs attention. Expressions of sorrow won’t do it; beefing up security won’t do it. The focus on dynamism should not strain the diversity that feeds it. Tending the garden so that one Mumbaikar empathizes with another is also a vital need of the city. Only then will Mumbai deny a home to those who wish to strip it of its meaning.


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