Sunday, July 23, 2006

Maximum Silly

Of all the intensely silly things said and written about the Mumbai blasts, Suketu Mehta's essay in last week's issue of TIME (which I just got around to reading) has to be about the silliest.

Mehta starts with an anecdote about a stockbroker wounded in the bombing who receives a visit from Manmohan Singh in hospital and takes the opportunity to praise the prime minister for economic reforms. Huh? Okay, let's say this actually happened, and isn't a story someone made up because it sounds good. Is it anything like a mainstream reaction? Were the majority of Mumbai's citizens sitting around their homes on Tuesday night thinking, sure we got bombed, sure the economic reforms process seems to have come to a complete standstill, but because Manmohan Singh helped liberalise India's economy 15 years ago, we should all feel grateful? Come on. Mehta writes:

"In any other city, if the leader of the nation were to come to the sickbed of a person grievously wounded by a terrorist bombing, the first thought in the victim's head would probably not be to praise the leader's economic policy. But for the young broker—and for most of those wounded in the Bombay blasts...the admiration arises from the main reason why they live in Bombay: to make money."

Maybe I just talk to the wrong people, but I sincerely doubt that the first thought in most victim's heads was to praise their leader's economic policy. We weren't all sitting around Tuesday night thinking - but at least we're making a lot of money. And that, on the whole, is something I'm thankful for.

But it gets worse. Having talked about how Mumbai is the 'golden songbird' (who says these things?[1]) Mehta goes on to gripe about the Reader's Digest survey which says that Mumbai is one of the rudest cities in the world. So important a point does he think this, that he dedicates a good quarter of his essay to cribbing about how people don't understand the civic spirit of Mumbai.

For God's sake - two hundred people just died. Is how rude the Reader's Digest thinks the city is really our top concern right now? Who reads the Readers Digest anyway? Who cares what they think? Are we really so desperate for external affirmation that the most critical thing we see coming out of the bombings is that it refutes the Reader's Digest survey [2]? Personally, I can't think of anything more trivial. Mehta writes:

"Readers Digest's editors should now eat the July issue of their magazine, page by page"

Get over it already.

Mehta then goes on to give us the usual cliches about India's democratic, tolerant heritage - Sikh Prime Minister, Muslim President, Italian Catholic head of the ruling coalition - the standard shorthand. But all this wonderful communal harmony is not the reason that Bombay didn't break into riots. No sir. According to Mehta, it's because the city recognises that rioting is bad for business. Does anyone else think this is being overly cynical? Is the reason we're all tolerant and civic-minded really because we all want to make more money? And if that's true, is it really reason to celebrate? Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think that a good part of the reason people behave decently is because they are fundamentally decent, not because they've done the math and figured out the exact loss, in basis points, that starting a riot will cause.

Finally, just so that you don't think that he's being too self-congratulatory - Mehta comes up with a litany of Bombay's problems - condition of roads, lack of sanitation and water supply, which he concludes with the observation:

"Perhaps this horrific tragedy will powerfully focus the government on the problems of the country's galloping urbanization, and the dire need to invest in infrastructure."

Huh? So because some terrorists bombed a local train, the government's suddenly going to wake up to the fact that millions of Mumbai's people live in inhuman slum conditions? Would someone care to explain the logic of this to me? Does anyone else happen to believe this?

There's a scene in Asterix and the Cauldron, where Asterix and Obelix are taking part in an 'experimental' play, and the director tells Obelix that when called upon he should just walk forward and say the first thing that comes into his head (Obelix's statement - "These Romans are crazy" - lands the director in prison, waiting to be fed to the lions). Someone should tell Mr. Mehta that such random free association is not a good technique to use while writing an article for the international press about Mumbai's reactions to the blast. His piece is meandering, irrelevant, petty and at least from what I've heard or read, a gross misrepresentation of the general public reaction to the blasts. I've been trying to get my hands on Mehta's book - Maximum City - for a while now, but if this is what it reads like then I'm going to stop looking.


[1] Well, Mehta for one. He's so fond of calling Bombay the 'songbird' that he does it four times in a one page article. Once was bad enough, but four times? Shudder!

[2] Which it doesn't actually - there's no contradiction between people being generally rude and coming together to help in a genuine crisis. I don't think that Bombay is a particularly rude city - I think it's largely a function of what patterns of behaviour you see as being standard etiquette - but the fact that people helped others after a bombing doesn't mean that they aren't generally rude to each other.


confused said...

Such kindness for such an idiotic article? Describing it is just silly is actually a compliment.

This Mehta boy has been all over the Western media pushing the worst type of cliches, how Mumbai is all about making money, but boy,as you pointed out the man in blue turban has travelled a long way from those early days of reforms. To think a man lying injurd in hospital would congratulate him on economic reforms! I don't buy that story at all.

Another thing, he is pushing the same stupid theory how this was an attack on Mumbai upper class! Almost every expert has pointed out that the bombs were placed in the first class just because it is so much easier to do so. But if entire premise is that the attacks were meant to stop people from making money, well then what is a lie here and there.

I saw him on AC 360 on the day of blasts, and instead of telling anything about the city and the geo politics of the attacks, he was ranting against the RD survey.

Sorry! I am not quite kind as you are, this guy is a bloody moron at best and a feeding vulture at worst!

jhantu said...

interesting blog

Sony Pony said...

I have never heard of Suketu Mehta; but lord, I couldn't even finish the article. I couldn't agree more, what idiotic dribble.

I must say, every time I pick up Time (which isn't very often at all), it's usually irritating in some way or another.

dazedandconfused said...

I don't find it too improbable about the broker congratulating him on economic reforms...

Falstaff, if Britney Spears/Paris Hilton came to see you while you were lying in a hospital bed, what would you say?! :)

Falstaff said...

confused: :-). What can I say. I'm trying to learn to be polite.

jhantu: thanks

SonyPony: Well, now you have. Agree with you about TIME, but usually it's stuff in the lifestyle / Arts section that annoys me.

d&c: :-). I would say "Dammit, I knew I would end up in hell."

:) said...

i haven't read the article, but the book is most definately worth a read (in my humble opinion).

and though it seems hard to believe, there was another victim who stood up and saluted the PM when he came visiting...

confused said...

''I would say "Dammit, I knew I would end up in hell."

Gawd, this guy is such a snob!


Not that I don't agree with you :)

Shreemoyee said...

I do agree that rudeness is a function of a percieved notion of politeness. I have stayed in Mumbai for a very long time, it being called rude was a rude shock. Nice post.

Mrinalini said...

Survey by the "Reader's Digegs Team" is not realistic, Rajan Nair raises some very good points on his article "Civility survey out of touch with Indian culture".

Sash said...

Falstaff: I have been a silent lurker on your blog for a while. I love your writing. Not surprised that Mehta wrote such a piece – Maximum City was one of the most clich├ęd books written on Bombay. But it’s still worth a read. Although given a choice, I would still recommend people to read Bombay, Meri Jaan (co-edited by Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes), which unfortunately didn’t get the media blitzkrieg like some others.

Falstaff said...

:): Okay. Ironically, the fact that people would praise the prime minister at a time like this is probably stronger evidence that Mumbaikars are polite than anything else.

confused: :-) But, of course.

shreemoyee / mrinalini: Yes, but I don't know that it's a big deal. I was surprised when I first heard about the results, but then I read about the methodology and thought "ya, whatever". My beef with Mehta is that he seems to have taken it to heart to the point where he can't talk about anything else. That's childish.

sash: Thanks. And thanks for the recco.

Prat said...

Truth be told, Falstaff, the book is actually well researched. Kind of menaders here and there a bit, but all in all a decent read.
I think I liked it because it lasted for over two weeks :)