The beauty of Mumbai when it is deserted
I have spent the past few days with monsoon food poisoning and been stuck in my flat together with my cats for a few days, waiting for the diarrhoea to wear off, and also to gather my strength. I went nowhere and did nothing and so was panicking about what would I write about in this blog. There were no P3 parties, films, or plays that I could use to make grand statements about life, fashion or men. I hadn’t even had the energy to watch the news or read the papers.
So, this blog was nearly going to be about either a) my cats and how they behave, how seem to possess some human characteristics or b) about food poisoning.
That was until Sunday 5 pm when a colleague from work rang me to see if I was returning the next day, and if so, did I require a car. HT does not normally provide me “with a car” and I usually get about in autos and black-and-yellow cabs, as you know, so I was a tad taken aback. I wondered if there was a strike, but figured that would be odd, since the cab drivers got the fare hike they wanted on a one-day strike a week or two ago (that nearly crippled the city). I then switched on the news to see that a bandh was planned, and there would be no transport on Monday, in fact the entire country was “shutting down.”
I found this very odd. Very strange.
In my sphere of knowledge, normally, if a worker is dissatisfied with something, his union may call a “strike”. This is when workers in one industry refuse to go to work, but those that want to work in that industry, can. Those in other industries carry on, as normal. (My mum always used to cross the picket lines and go to work during the teacher strikes in England in the 70s and 80s. No one threw stones at her. She was going against her colleagues, but it was allowed.) So, let’s say there has been a fuel hike rise, as apparently there has been in India, which triggered the bandh, then those directly affected by this, eg. lorry drivers, taxis and auto drivers, could legitimately announce a strike. (Fuel protests are not uncommon in the UK. Indeed once lorry drivers all blocked a series of motorways in protest. But it was only the lorry drivers protesting, and the entire country didn’t close down.)
In Mumbai, the city did close, as did much of the country. So, on Monday, every single person that I know who works in a private company was told not to turn up, as their office would be “closed”. Shops, schools, even roadside chai and paan wallahs closed for the day. The only ‘places’ open so-to-speak were the media, emergency services and government offices, from what I could see.
This was akin to a curfew being imposed. It was like a state of national emergency. No one went outside. Everything was closed for the day. Now this would be fine, if say, a swine flu epidemic had swept across India, or if, say, there was a civil war in progress. But to cause this entire shutdown of the country over a fuel price hike, appeared to me a) a tad extreme b) a tad undemocratic and c) against the law?
Fine, if the government had called it, for a valid reason, such as to curb civil war, as it is in power. But what right do opposition parties have to organise this? As for the taxi drivers I spoke to ( those ones who’s numbers I have), they did not work that day, not because they cared two hoots about the fuel price hike, but rather because of fear. Fear gripped the entire nation. No one, barring the police, the odd journalist, cameraman and doctor, stepped outside that day in Mumbai – a scene that was replicated across many parts of India. Very, very odd that anyone can control a nation of more than a billion people like that.
Anyway, I did go to work. Being off work sick is not much fun, and after it dawned on me that I was constantly googling the word ‘diarrhoea’ and reading up on all the dreadful illnesses I might have caught, I decided I would soon go mad, and it was time to return to normality. Besides, spending long periods with my cats, great though it is, one does miss human company. Moreoever, I didn’t want to miss out on any ‘action’. The vehicle arrived and off we went. And, I was amazed. Stunned. The roads were completely empty: no cars, taxis, autos, no beggars, no paan wallahs, no florists encroached on the pavement, there didn’t even seem to be any stray dogs. Maybe they knew?
Every shop and business was closed and there was no one in sight, apart from the odd cyclist and the odd smooth Hugh-Grant look-a-like in silver BMW smoking a cigarette as if-to-say, “I’m smart, I took my car out today.” Driving around Mumbai that day, it looked like a different city, like somewhere in the USA. You could see roads stretching ahead for miles, with no vehicles on them. There was a feeling of ’space’ – that feeling you have in America. It reminded me of that time in Arizona when I waited to cross the road at a zebra crossing, when there were no cars in sight, and yet everyone dutifully waited for the light to go green. In part it reminded me of Goa – there was that relaxed pace of life, that serenity. You could suddenly see and appreciate the greenery and trees on Mumbai’s roadsides…Life felt relaxed….Mumbai also suddenly resembled the chilled-out pace of Kerala. My shoulders relaxed, I felt relaxed. It was amazing. The buildings too, with their unique grand varied architectures, suddenly appeared beautiful…Their appearances became more visible as though no longer shrouded out of view by streams of people and hustle and bustle. Even the air seemed less polluted.
So, it got me thinking, what could be done to create more space in Mumbai?
I know that a Mumbai Metro is planned, which could help matters, whether it is overground or underground I am not sure. But there is no sign of it being ready anytime soon.
Then I remembered how on the day of the taxi and auto strike a week or so ago, there had been a similar sense of space and ease of getting around Mumbai (although not as impactful as on Monday, as private cars and motorbikes were out that time.)
But still, having no autos and black and yellow cabs did help ease traffic and create space. So I thought to myself, what if the black and yellow cabs (that anyway don’t have seatbelts or A/C) were all taken off the roads and replaced by nice A/C radio cabs? Normally these black and yellow cabs are everywhere cluttering up the roads, parked all the over the place, with the drivers inside asleep, refusing fares, or trying to rip you off. Have you ever considered how much space they take up? Half the time the ‘running ones’ are also empty. So, in this utopian Mumbai, you would ring up radio taxis instead, and they would send nice cars to pick you up and drop you off, and if they had no business/customer, they would return to wait in the large car park of the radio taxi company (which would be a bit like a bus station ) – and it would not be allowed for taxis to drive along without passengers, nor to park on the roadside. Imagine how much space this would free up? How much less stressful it would be as you would not even have to negotiate fares as the fares would be fixed at the time of the booking! Imagine how much faster traffic would move? Hopefully also the drivers’ licences would all be vetted, and there would be no chance of ending up with a driver that drove like a maniac.
Currently the only radio cab I am aware of in Mumbai is Meru Cabs. Yet there is a huge need for more as I can never get through to them, and on the two occasions I did (out of about 100), the first they refused the fare, the second, the driver did not show up.
You’ve heard of car-free days in places like Bogata and New York? Well, another option would be a “Car, Moped, Auto, Taxi and Motorcyle- free day” day once a week in Mumbai on a Sunday. Still we would have to put up with buses, but imagine how much walking we would all do and how pleasant it would be? Our lives would change overnight. Sunday would have a new meaning. Either that or, here’s a controversial suggestion: raise the fuel prices even more, so there is no incentive to have or use a vehicle. The fuel prices are now so high in the UK that many people can’t afford to have a car and so have to cycle or walk instead.