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Global City, or the City an Enigma?

June 26th, 2009

I stepped out of Lokmanya Tilak terminus this afternoon, expecting to hail a cab from the taxi stand, get into one and start the ride to my destination. It was raining. Cab drivers were at the platform, asking passengers if they wanted taxis. I refused to pay heed to any of them, knowing that they would ask for the sun and the moon as fares. I stepped out of the platform and the station. In the face of the rain, I walked here and there, asking for taxis to take me where I wanted to go. Around, I heard cabbies charging passengers Rs. 500 for rides to Borivali and passengers agreeing to the fares. So, what’s going on? No cabbie at the taxi stand is willing to come along with me to my destination. Is it because it is relatively less far as compared with other fares? I then caught hold of the havaldaar mama (the famous lower level cop) and told him that I was unable to find a cab and I did not know where to go. He asssured me that he will get me one in a minute or two. I was not sure whether to believe him or not. Choosing the latter option, I continued with my search. Eventually, one cabbie came forth and asked me where I wanted to go. He agreed to ferry me to my destination on the condition that I pay him a flat rate and not go by the meter.

Why? If not by meter how else do you expect me to come with you?

Madam, it has been raining since morning. I am afraid that there will be water clog in the direction where you want to go. There is a lot of traffic. If you agree to pay me Rs. —, I take you where you want to go.

I agreed, despite my reservations, because it was not worth standing in the face of the rains with luggage and parcels. We began our journey, and as it often happens to me in Mumbai, I started talking to the cabbie. He wasn’t the chattering types. So I had to think of questions or topics for a conversation.It was not easy, but some things he said were very insightful.

What is this bridge they are making here, I asked, pointing to an under construction structure outside the Lokmanya Tilak terminus?

That? That is the new link road connecting Kurla East and West sides with Santacruz and Chembur.

So, I heard that they are revamping the Lokmanya Tilak terminus station?

Yes, they are expanding.

How? By adding more railway lines?

No. They are going to demolish the ticket counters where they are now and shift them to the rear side. Some work has been done and it is looking very posh.

Yes, they were clearing out some of the slums and extending the station.

Slums? Clearing? No. That does not happen.

A little while later:

How is the traffic in the city?

It has increased.

Increased? But they are making all these flyovers and expanding the roads?

That only increases the traffic.

So, has your business been affected because of the new private taxi services?

No, it is still the same. Local person will travel by local taxis. Moreover, these private taxis are expensive. They have to pay the driver and they get very little in their hands at the end of the day.

A more little while later:

Bombay has changed a lot.

Changed? Hahaha! No, it is still the same.

But all the development is now happening around Malad side.

That is true, but South Mumbai still remains South Mumbai.

Some more while later:

Do you have to pay to stand for fares at the newly developed Santacruz domestic airport?

Yes, but we had to do that earlier too. Even at Lokmanya Tilak terminus, we have to pay 10 rupees to park.

For a moment, I was a bit puzzled when I heard this piece of information. Are the parking rates still the same at the domestic airport and the revamped train terminus?  When you hail a cab from the domestic airport and even from some of the train junctions, the fares are twice/thrice the usual rates. Earlier, cab drivers used to levy these fares on the grounds that they have to pay halting charges to the airport authorities (or perhaps the cops and security guards) and hence, the fares had jumped up. I tried to connect the bits of information that had come through in the conversation – the belief about the posh-ness of the upcoming railway station and the levying of the higher fares. It struck me then that people at all levels are participating in the imagination of the global city which is materializing through infrastructure improvements. Perhaps the posh-ness of the revamped airport and railway stations had caused the cabbies to believe that they could levy higher fares, thus cashing in on the infrastructure improvements in their own ways. That the aspiration of the global city or the Shanghai/Singapore etc imagination prevails at all levels is not a new insight. Even my Arjun bhai, the hawker who I used to talk to outside the VT Railway station four years ago, would tell me how computerized railway passes were now a sign of modernity. In my last visit to Mumbai, my TC was complaining how issuing of tickets has become slow and cumbersome because the old punch-and-pop system has been replaced by a dot matrix printing machine which slowly spews out a card like ticket – the card ticket now being a sign of the revamped city!

Why this change at the cost of efficiency? I asked my TC.

Because we want to build a Shanghai or whatever international city out of our Mumbai, he said.

It is amazing how the aspiration is shared among people at all levels even when the global city is materialized at costs which might seem/are unjust and unfair. Yet, the imagination and aspiration prevails. People participate in it when it happens and label it in their own ways.

As I once again step into the city, trying to unravel it, to understand it and therefore myself (who has been lost), I tell myself,

… the city will be an enigma. Our every attempt to know and control it makes it known and yet,  unknown in other ways and facets.

The city, an enigma …

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