I’ve been back in Los Angeles for less than a week and it’s a been a hard week for the US, and for the world, a terrible week. Blood and guns, all that is wrong with this country. Despite this, and between jet lag and the exhausted relief of return (however transient), at the personal level, I’m ok. It’s strange to speak as if carefully parsing happiness—personal versus ‘for the world’ — but it’s how I’m learning sanity these days.
June was a struggle and a mistake and it passed slowly, with the single-mindedness of people waiting to be let out of a claustrophobic train compartment. It was our fourth month in India. We were still in waiting and tired of living the nomadic life so we accidentally moved out of hotels/bnbs and rented an apartment. By accidentally, I mean sleepwalked into this decision because conservative middle-class upbringing advises you to ‘settle’; ghost voices in our head saying ‘give your daughter a home’. Except you can’t settle when you’re not meant to. A few days after signing the deal, we learned we needed to come back to LA. There was no point making this home because things were still too uncertain.
The dilemma of an unfurnished apartment. The dilemma of waste. How much to buy without guilt. How much space may be left empty before it begins to gape at you. I’m a home body: I spend most hours inside a house, fixing, cleaning, making, writing. A halfway house is not my thing. There is no romance in half-furnished apartments where you stare at plants, knowing they will die when you leave.
So the place we rented, this temporary home: Gundecha Symphony, a complex with three towers painted in a color between nude, mud and pink. Outside, a vast construction site preparing for a flyover. Traffic jams at the crossing. A cacophony of honking until late at night. Grey half-constructed buildings stretching to the hills in the distance. It’s part of Mumbai’s fresh redevelopment phase which seems to have engulfed most of the northern suburbs. Builders are buying up the older, low-built apartment blocks and erecting towers where they stood. The new towers are ostensibly posh, which is to say decent bathroom fittings but they have dubious water supply and outside the windows, nothing but other grey windows. Because they’re so tall, you can’t see the few trees that exist at road level and there aren’t too many in any case. Every available land area inside the complex is paved with concrete. A garden is contained in one area in the luckier complexes. Heaven forbid any green spills out of this containment.
Bombay was never an overwhelmingly green city and ensuring it doesn’t become entirely grey-brown is going to be a challenge in the face of corporate developer greed.
Then there is this: in a city where millions live on the street, does one have the right or the breath to complain about parks?
An article about migrants and the city in the Economic and Political Weekly says “The ‘purified spaces’ of the ‘beautified city’ normalise a ‘bourgeois urbanism’ that informalises labour, legiti- mises the downward spiral of wages, sharpens socioeconomic inequalities and institutionalises the displacement and social exclusion of minority groups” (Chatterjee 2014: 23) Further, “marketing the city to attract capital involves a ‘‘hypermarketised style of governance’ (Weber 2002: 520), often geared towards a cosmetic overhaul achieved through slum eviction, identify- ing ‘blight’ and ‘purification’ through greening and beautifica- tion projects” (Chatterjee 2014: 17). The direct implication of this style of governance is more and more eviction, dislocation and homelessness for the toiling masses.” Read the whole thing here.
It’s problematic. Yet, if one feels guilty asking for trees, the sadness of the place.
Beyond the tower, in the streets, there was the panic of watching the homeless. I seem to have lost some protective armour—the blindness we practice while on the streets in Bombay, or at least the ability to see but not feel (too much, too keenly) the lives of others. Poet CP Surendran writes:
To a thinking man, happiness is a false category. Especially if you are an Indian. You may travel in a souped-up Merc with a portable bar and a hand shower, but you are still travelling the potholed road that millions mistake for a Byzantine network of loos. No wonder that the beautiful people are partying nonstop. You stop drinking, doping and dancing for a moment, and then you find that moment is the eternity you have been trying to avoid all your life. If beautiful people stop partying, the world will turn ugly for them. Celebrate then the air-conditioned nightmare.
There are, according to one estimate, three million street children in India. Nearly 80,000 of them are on the streets of India’s number one city, Bombay, where I stay. An equal number of the naked hordes wander through the dust-laden roads of Delhi, battalions of brown baby phantoms, visible to the naked eye, but dead in every respect before they are born.
Our tycoons whose success we devour in the form of self-help books (Ten Traits of Successful People, etc), our politicians whom we merrily elect to arbiter our future, and the bald and the beautiful—the 10-million-strong articulate English-Speaking Republicans of India—see the future of India go begging on a daily basis, and think of happiness. So what they do? They go get a Guru, the Mental Masseur, the bearded gent who grants you peace in the time of war. Absolution guaranteed every second Saturday. A society of Absolute Absolutionists!
We make a noise when farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Maharashtra commit collective suicides. That’s far away and so, safe to sympathise. We are free to be outraged. Outrage adds to our happiness. It reaffirms our faith in our moral being. There are dozens of children dying of starvation on the road every day, unsung. That’s urban and in our face. What shroud of self-satisfaction and spiritual claptrap serve to cover the bodies of the little dead?
Yes, this time the colour of my lens was dark. I’m sorry if it hurts some of you who love Bombay. I too love the city and feel keenly my inability to access its greater parts / joy on this trip. I also got sick. I’m sure this did not help my perception/experience.
I’m back in LA for a couple of months. That’s all I know for the moment.