An edited version of this piece is the third in a column called 'After Words' in Time Out Mumbai.
This is published in the Aug 17-20, 2012 issue (Vol 8 Issue 26) of Time Out Mumbai.
Makkhi choos: someone who, on seeing a fly fall into his cutting chai, first contemplates its presence, then removes it delicately with thumb and forefinger, and finishes his chai. After which, leaving nothing behind, he puts the fly to his lips, and with a slurping sound, sucks the tea out of its soggy corpse, its innards and gizzards with it, leaving a dry husk that was once a proud makkhi. Etymologically, you may gag at this, however, what with our collectively upward mobility and increased spending power, this phrase no longer has the resonance it once did. And yet, how apt is this description when applied to us collectively.
How else would we explain the recent World Cities Culture Report, commissioned by London’s Mayor that Mumbai is a world laggard when it comes to cultural infrastructure, huffing and puffing far behind Paris, New York, London, even Shanghai when it comes to the number of museums, heritage sites, live music venues, nightclubs and bars. In our pursuit of rampant free market capitalism and our jugaadu- kaam chalau ways, we have sucked the public out of every public space in the city in an attempt to make money from it.
The government, who should have been patron to cultural enterprise, has itself outsourced culture to private players in the city, all of whom are more concerned about profit to be sucked out of investment rather than the free provision of cultural enrichment to its citizens. How else do we see a purported art festival called Kala Ghoda become a vast venue of stalls upon stalls usurping open space that could well have been used for cultural events. Must this always fund that? How again, one may ask, is the premiere centre for performing arts in Mumbai now available at a (considerable) price to conduct your second cousin’s aunts’ daughter’s sangeet? Possibilities of monetising are sucking city culture dry of richness and diversity. Culture thrives in a large places filled to the brim with magnanimity, in the warmth of a shared city, not in the husk of makkhi choos mindsets.
Mumbai’s city culture is also being sucked to nothingness by burgeoning moral killjoys, who, like Rowling’s Dementors, feign outrage at the slightest stimulus. Were it not that much of the outraging is expressed through violence, vandalism and destruction, we could have brushed it off. But taking opportunistic offence to remain in the public imagination is, unfortunately, carried to completion by a capitulating state quick to ban everything from academic tomes, to pixellating cigarette smoke on television or shutting down art exhibitions ‘for the greater good’.
Whose morals were being protected recently, when posters of ‘Jism 2’ were removed from the bodies of BEST buses? In all honesty, this is how I think a conversation between a mother and child would go- Child (curious, pointing at bus): What’s that, mommy? Mother: That is a picture of a woman covered with a wet cloth. Child: Is she nangu-pangu? Mother: Yes. Child: Oh, okay! (going back to picking its nose, or chasing street dogs or whatever it is that kids do in public spaces nowadays). An unbridled, bristling outrage is leaving our city dry, ‘niras’, as it were, and our makkhi choos imaginations are left bereft of any cultural inclusivity or liberality. Enjoyment is mediated by ten o’clock curfews and hockey-sticks, by rules still applied (ad-hoc) from the late 1860s and by a forced homogenization of just about everything that could benefit from diversity.
As the power of our purse grows through increasing economic liberalisation; the breadth of our minds shrinks in the morass of our own making. We anticipate trouble everywhere, the fear of shutdown, the fear of litigation guides our actions to the point that you don’t need a Dhoble to tell you how to behave; you modify your behaviour in anticipation of a Dhoble. He may never come, but you’ve been booked. Miserliness borne out of economic hardship may be understood, but miserliness borne of an attitude cultivated by making a virtue out of squeezing money in any situation or to live in fear and denial of one’s own cultural potential is the thin edge of the wedge and Mumbai seems to have given itself up to it.
Our city has been called a ‘cultural wasteland’. Dry as a dead fly is more like it.