The Battle of Mumbai

Guest post by BALMURLI NATRAJAN, a member of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI)

The Battle of Mumbai did not begin on November 26, 2008. There was no clear beginning, regardless of what somnambulists who have just woken up, or saber-rattlers who have been sharpening their tools for a while, pronounce. Like all modern wars, it burst into public view over the internet, unannounced and in full-swing.

There are two major theaters of this battle: the “shock and awe” and the “minds and hearts”. Quick upon the heels of the terrifying spectacle of cargo-clad young men opening fire on a tragic public came the war-talk of other young men (and some women, simply because men flock in far greater numbers to the media cameras) on the same streets: “we must bomb Pakistan”, “this is our 9/11”, and more simply, “Muslims”. Shock and awe was in, on Mahatma Gandhi Road.

And the media channels showed that they were made of the same cloth after all by successfully fixing the meaning of the shocking and awful in coordinated fashion. The southernmost tip of Mumbai quickly became a metonym for the nation, with the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel reborn like a Leviathan from the seas coming to occupy the status of icon-in-chief of Mumbai. Many have pointed out the inappropriateness and contemptuous irony of such an icon – an elitist enclave in a city where half of the 18 million live on the streets. What about the other icon, the CST railway station, they ask? And their critiques ring true to most. I agree wholeheartedly.

Nonetheless, the selection of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is indeed iconic of the battle of Mumbai, of how globalization takes roots in India. It realistically captures the tenor of the battle underway and the mythologies that sustain it in this globalizing age (or at least century) which India’s ruling elites have already claimed to belong to Asia. How is this so?

In the scramble to understand what happened, what needs to be done, and to somehow come up with the “mother of all antiterrorism plans”, it is the inconvenient truths of globalization – whose iconic signature is rapid growth with even more rapid growth of poverty and inequality – that get chided for showing up now and then in the analysis. Like when Ashok Pawar, a police constable who had fought the battle within the Taj Palace Hotel wondered, not without some irony, “It was my first time inside the Taj…How can a poor man go there?” So, although we are all asked to cling to this wounded treasure almost as if all Mumbaikars owned a slice of it, at least the Taj website unsentimentally announces who it welcomes, or at least who counts in its register: “From Maharajas and Princes to various Kings, Presidents, CEOs and entertainers, the Taj has played the perfect host, supportive of their every need.”

Power, capital, and of course, entertainment – a heady mix that allows the Janus faced Taj to at once look outwards with its back to a city inviting the next wave of globalizers and look inwards at a Mumbai through the tinted lens of a global elite and their local satraps for whom Naipaul’s “million mutinies” (many happening in Mumbai) have only been coffee conversation with respect to how they would impact the climate for investors. Thus, when the House of Tata brings out a full-page ad in the New York Times (Dec 5, 2008) about how the attack on the Taj Hotel was “an attack on the spirit of India” there is no sense of irony that the same Tatas perform their own attacks on the spirit of the Indian Constitution and the aboriginal populations of India by signing a Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with the government of the state of Chhattisgarh to acquire safeguarded Adivasi (aboriginal) land in Lohadiguda, Bastar district to set up steel plants, not to speak of Singur. The blinders are worn tight and the entertainers let into the Taj Hotel portals, have successfully inserted appropriate doses of cultural heritage consumption when needed so that the mask of the world’s “largest” democracy is carefully preserved.

But the globalizing elite walking through the Taj is only one part of the binary that holds the key to the battle of Mumbai and to globalization’s future in India. Another icon lies buried but which too rises up from time to time to show who are the asli, not nakli, Mumbaikars.

Sometime back at a small school auditorium in Prabhadevi far from the southern tip, I asked a group of intellectual activists in Mumbai as to what was the iconic food of Mumbai? After much haranguing over the relative merits of the humble vada-pav, the more feisty but equally humble bhel-puri and the far more flamboyant pav-bhaji, a consensus seemed to be emerging around vada-pav – largely due to its uniqueness to Mumbai, all three being ubiquitous. Then a small voice mentioned a fourth, jhunka bakri and this brought out an elephant lurking in the room.

Although known to most people in that room, no one was prepared to accord it any status beyond that of being a “provincial” dish of an admittedly large, very large population – ethnic Maharashtrian working-class Mumbaikars, a proletarian among a sea of homeless, petty-trading, yuppie professional and bourgeois. Not surprisingly, in contrast to the other three supposedly “cosmopolitan” dishes (all of which have their own Wiki entries on the web), jhunka bakri (a gruel made of gram flour or besan usually mixed with fried onions and eaten with jowar or millet rotis) can literally pride itself on being of the salt of the Mumbai earth. And, whereas the other three dishes are available from the roadside stall to plush restaurants, jhunka remains unable or unwilling to become gentrified. It is definitely available at or around CST railway station, although it is invisible to many Mumbaikars, especially those who know the name of the restaurants in the Taj Mahal hotel. For a dose of reality, most Mumbaikars anyway do not understand how a hotel can contain a restaurant within it. Further, contrary to some claims, Mumbai’s civil society does not know the price of coffee at the Taj, but definitely knows the price of chai or coffee at roadside Iranis, Udipis, Kamats or at those numerous nondescript hotels in almost any neighborhood in Mumbai or even India named simply “Taj Hotel”.

But the above diffidence to admit jhunka as iconic of Mumbaikars is only explained apart from those millions who simply eat it everyday without concerning themselves with its semiotic powers. In the 1970s, the Shiv Sainiks, the self-styled nativist cultural chauvinist army in Mumbai sought to transform jhunka into an index – a much more assertive kind of sign than an icon – a litmus test, paternalistic and patriarchal of course, for distinguishing who was a “son of the soil” of Mumbai. “Outsiders” – the new immigrants from all parts of India who enter VT (now, CST) railway station quickly learnt to face the brunt of the Sena in the struggle to be and become a Mumbaikar (the South Indian lungivallas who were public enemy number one in the early 1970s to almost every other ethnic group arriving from outside the territorial boundaries of Maharashtra, and finally, of course, to the perennially Othered outsider, Muslims). The humble jhunka was coopted in this struggle by the Sena as the true food of the aam aadmi who was Maharashtrian. And this was what made “cosmopolitan” Mumbaikars wary of jhunka.

In the wake of the Mumbai shootings, jhunka and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel contain not only the potential (which other icons too have), but the power to shape the future vision of this weary yet vibrant city, the battle of “hearts and minds” of Mumbaikars.

Globalization’s two-faced existence – rising nativist chauvinist provincialism and a cannibalizing market fundamentalist universalism – both anti-democratic forces (as Benjamin Barber points out in his Jihad vs. McWorld), sheds light on Mumbai too. It is only a matter of time before the Sena’s jhunka will be invited to be consumed over cups of coffee at Shamiana within the Taj. A marriage of sorts between the two most powerful faces of globalization, ostensibly at each other’s throat, but really fighting the same enemy – the aam insaan (let’s be gender inclusive please). Both, opposed to democratic ways of shaping a Mumbai.

Both, making the claim that “we are all Mumbaikars now” (borrowing from 9/11’s ground zero of course) even while entrenching exclusivist enclaves in Mumbai and India. Both, walking all over and at times courting, the aam insaan who sleepwalks much like her American cousin who could only gasp after 9/11, “why do they hate us?”

Jhunka in the Taj, building a kind of nationalism for a globalism to ensure that deep democracy does not have a chance. Without a beginning for sure, the battle of Mumbai. But will it ever end?

Will the ordinary Mumbaikars take back jhunka from the Sainiks and make it stand for that other Mumbai whose battle has been ongoing grinding poverty, overflowing drains, decent housing, and fighting a descent into an indifference of difference that makes evil into a banality? They ask many questions, but how will they make themselves heard? For example: How have South Asian states (especially Pakistan and India), the ruling classes (with lackey middle-classes), and the sociocultural police that exclusivizes spaces like Mumbai, not only failed to create conditions, but actively prevented the formation of vibrant civil societies, secular and cosmopolitan? How have inequities of neoliberal globalization (untrammeled wealth concentration), made states into stooges of capital such that swathes of humanity languish in hunger and alienation across the subcontinent? How long will the Lashkars and the Bajrang Dals/Abhinav Bharats, the Taj and the Sena’s jhunka, write the scripts for ordinary Mumbaikars, scripts in which humanity is but, another commodity seeking protection from its own exploiters?

…Milta hai yahan sab kuchh ik milta nahin dil, Insaan ka nahin kahin naam-o-nishaan

…Available is everything here, not available is a heart, Humanity nowhere is a sign of you

(From the film CID 1956 on Bombay, now Mumbai.)

5 thoughts on “The Battle of Mumbai”

  1. OK. I am confused. What have Vada Pav, Bhel Puri, Pav Bhaji and Jhunka Bhakar got to do with globalisation? Pardon my unintelligence, please. Thank you.

  2. The article argues that vada pav, bhel puri and pav bhaji are viewed as “cosmopolitan” whereas jhunka is viewed as “provincial”. perhaps all are facing the impact of globalization in different ways.

  3. Globalization is very evil but it will soon come to an end because of the economic downturn that is happening in the Western world.

    The big question that looms is, what next? What after globalization?

    The Indian politicians had a way out in the early nineties, they were able to open the doors of the country to investment from the West and give people some respite. But now? What will happen now?

    I think we are entering a dangerous period of history. What mantra will save us now?

  4. i think it is because of “globalisation” that society as whole progressed. And one can’t looks at it only as a post-90 phenomenon. what will u call the trade relations that “Malayalis” had with china and arabia? Even Christianity and islam entered the southern tip of the subcontinent before the invasion of vedic brahmins. The new avenues opened up need to be explored at the same time the feudal inequalities perpetuated in the industrial and post-industrial societies also need to addressed. One can no longer remain “closed” within a caste castle for long. Come out breaking its divinity to experience the horizon of freedom and humanity.
    McDonald and Vada Pav can co-exist in the cultural bowl of globalisation. it is two-way communicated; as in history the domination and resistances co-exist in post-90s neo-liberal era as well.

  5. how did these end up being a piece on the cosmopolitan morrings of vada pav and the provincal moorings of jhunka. The protests after the attacks were more against the incomptent politicans who screwed up and it was by the people of this country,, cutiing across all boundaries for once. I hate fundamentalism of all kinds and do not want any religious fanatic to decide, when i go out..

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