Personal opinion

The flawless facade of my Mumbai

It was a mundane Thursday, I remember. At 3 pm, Mumbai was on its routine course; in a couple of hours, a stream of people would rush out of their commercial spaces, roads would become non-traversable, and the trains would be packed with body mass of varied shapes and sizes, enough to prevent (in scientific terms) free molecular movement. 
I, on my part, was oddly enjoying a sabbatical from working at a news daily, and was on my way for a late lunch at a recently-opened brewpub The Barking Deer located in the city’s now upcoming business district Lower Parel. Like most Mumbaikars, who believe in convenient, yet arduous commuting, I took the train from town side. Now, on such journeys, especially when they are short, I usually take to standing near the doors of the local and indulging myself in a little bit of sight-seeing. 
It is on this occasion that my eyes fell upon a dilapidated, moss-infested, stone-blocked, abandoned mill. I stared at it vacantly for a few breezy seconds, and allowed my mind to question what I had seen. Why did they shut down the mill, if only to abandon it? Who could possibly be in there? Is it guarded?
And then the train halted at Lower Parel station, I got down, my mind meandered and I forgot about it. I enjoyed my meaty lunch, visited my ex-colleagues and got back home. 

Next morning, an early morning call from a friend and an old colleague woke me up from my deep slumber. 
“Did you hear about the shocking gangrape in Mumbai?” she asked. “It is so sad, she was a journalist, like us. What’s worse…It happened so close to our workplace in Lower Parel. It is so so scary,” she continued.
Having deliberately shut myself from reading newspapers and watching news channels since the last few days, I was obviously clueless about the developments. “Oh S***! Where did it take place?” 
“Shakti Mills…that abandoned mill round the corner,” she said.
My memory recreated the image of the mill, that had just yesterday, even if briefly, stirred in me a deep anxiety. The development certainly shocked me.  

That’s how the news spread. From mouth to mouth, ear to ear, one home to another. Tweeters and Facebookers expressed distress. “Mumbai is unsafe for women,” like a war cry, screamed its lungs out on my timeline and next-days newspapers. My mother was on loop, “What did I tell you about travelling alone in Mumbai?” The shock and dismay hasn’t seized to pervade our lives. It won’t for long. 

But am I ‘very’ surprised that it happened in my City? Apologetically, No.

Before spending over a decade in Mumbai, I lived in the city of Muscat in Oman.The city, which is only an-Arabian-sea away from Mumbai, is no Saudi Arabia. Women enjoy their freedom. They work, they drive cars, they shop, they travel, they take their long walks. But, often, they prefer being accompanied. Not because they believe it is unsafe. The city has no real reputation…all hearsay. So, possibly, it was just a norm. Having lived in such a protected environment for over 16 years, Mumbai became Las Vegas to me. 

This Indian metro, unlike other cities, enjoys a good reputation among its women folk. Many have not only taken this reputation for granted, but have believed in it, worn the facade like a badge on their chest, and lived it king size. When I came here in 2003, I got the taste of the freedom that this city had to offer. I could do my own thing, be myself, do chores alone; walk an isolated street at 11 pm in the night, without a terrible thought swinging in my head. All in all, I reveled in my newly-acquired freedom. 

But a sub-conscious alarm, always kicked in. Every time I heard someone say, “Mumbai is so safe, I can travel in the last local without having much to worry about,” or mention, “Marine Drive is best to walk in the nights,” I would fake agreement. I was at ease with my city, but would get goosebumps when I entered an empty ladies compartment in a local, and would rush to the general compartment for some self-assurance.   
In fact, just recently when a close female friend told me she would be coming over to my place in a cab late past 2 am, I had the most vexing time of my life until she reached home safe… not to mention her cellphone was unavailable. So, I possibly knew somewhere deep down, what I fervently believed, could not have been so true, so real, so bedecked in gold that it could never corrode. 

It is time we wake up to reality, not only women, but men too. We live in a city; we have the good, bad, ugly. The balance has never been retained, and this metro, of all places, is no blooming example of Marx’s utopic living. Of course, we need to be shocked, but we also need to stop behaving like zombies, and stop reacting like it never happened. Mumbai has never been safe. If you read the newspapers carefully daily, you will find the story of a women, young girl, maid, daughter, sister or wife being raped and murdered, somewhere — often buried in a single column or a small box. It happens, yes it does. Let us accept it. We cannot live with it, is another fact. Sadly, it took us the gangrape of a photojournalist to realise this.         

I have one grouse. Our attitude. The convenience with which we label the city with negative adjectives, every time a ruthless and shameful crime slaps us in the face. Mumbai is growing by the day; its population has far exceeded the limits of law and order. And so, it is vulnerable. So stop the “shame Mumbai” campaign; stop branding the city as if it has always been the epitome of all righteousness; stop acting like we never knew fear. Who are we humouring? Ourselves, or those who live outside the limits of our city. 

No, I am not ashamed, shocked or embarrassed that it was my city, I am ashamed by the fact that my city is home to such horrible, fearless, demonic men. I am ashamed by the ruthlessness of the crime. I am saddened because it happened to one among us, and happens, everyday to many of us, in our so-called, presumed-to-be safe city. Some stay mum, some have the courage to come out like this young, brave 22-year-old. She opened our eyes to what prevails, and has been hidden in the glossy comforts of ‘once upon a time in a safe haven called Mumbai’.