Indian Notes: Victorian Bombay?
by R. Saheb
Bombay today, almost seems like Victorian London: the swirl of economic prosperity, we-will-rule- the-world attitude, the chaos, the closeness of society.
I almost wept, when an adolescent girl held my hand and asked me to help her cross the street. It was an upscale residential neighborhood, by no means quiet, but if a child could not conquer the few blocks around one's house, how could she open the Oyster, that this world is? All auto rickshaws and most cars were severely dented at the fenders and the sides. Vehicles stopped inches from each other in a perpetual traffic jam, many using ramroading into another as a substitute for braking. Yes, very much like the 'Victorias' or the horse carriages of the nineteenth century, running amuck over the paved roads, the pedestrians at their mercy. But they were all going somewhere, in order to do something, always a sign of a flourishing society.
I was shocked, when my able bodied retired mother announced that they had two cooks and two maids. Why? It made sense, when she responded, that domestic opportunities were tremendous these days and household help were juggling more than they could handle. In the process they skipped one household each day, usually one with old fogies.
I couldn't spot my neighbors or fellow Bombayites much on the street. It was mobbed by folks from other parts of India, providing services to the residents. Carpentry, goods and their delivery, dry-cleaning, catering, styling, tailoring…………….. Just as Bombay residents quit the city for greener pastures of US, Canada, Australia, England and the Gulf, others from states of Bihar, UP, MP, took their place. Not in the same capacity though, but in making the life of an average city dweller more materialistic and comfortable. More on par with the western standards of living and philosophy. This was very much in the tradition of Victorian England, where a well off family of 6, could well afford to hire a domestic staff of 10. Nannies, maids, cooks, gardeners, odd-jobbers……………….
To move this growing city of 12 million, the public transportation system had improved by leaps and bounds, but not so with the sanitation system. If groans as usual, and collapses every Monsoon. The burgeoning traffic made Bombay prey to heavy smog, blotting out the sun and ruining the beautiful view of Queen's Necklace. Water had to be filtered several times before it was fit for consumption. Eating out still meant a risk of diarrhea and worse, food poisoning. Malls were stocked with imported goods and Indian export quality goods. The age old Gandhian dictate of self-deprivation is finally taking a beating, at least in Bombay.
Economic reform has ensured a slew of new businesses, both Indian owned as well as foreign owned. The red tape and bureaucracy might be reducing too. Perhaps the mixed economy would give way to hardcore capitalism after all. A common man has to no longer limit his ambition to employment with a company or 'service' as my father called it. Neither does a common woman. Unlike the Victorian writers, teachers, nannies, maids and shop assistants, Indian women are already established in their careers as lawyers, doctors, architects, politicians, teachers, business owners.
There still remains that beggar on the street, much happier than his Victorian mud-flat counterpart. The beggar can survive; even prosper on the spirit of charity, while the mud-flatter was an outcast, a very sad case. He lived on the banks of Thames, in hope of finding that odd penny or article which could be sold, perhaps once a week for a meal every other day or less. Not very likely in a society where togetherness or community living is a primary virtue.
R. Saheb lives in the New York City area.
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