I have been reading Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, his nonfiction account of returning to modern Bombay to live after a 21-year absence. Some of it is so spot-on it is hilarious. So much so, that I thought I would share some of his most astute observations about life in India. For those of you who have been, who understand the yes/no, now/never, love/hate relationship – you will totally get and appreciate this. For those who haven’t, you will be highly amused, though perhaps a bit perplexed. And it is sadly, frustratingly, altogether true. My favorite line:
India is not a tourist-friendly country. It will reveal itself to you only if you stay on, against all odds.
Bombay survives on the scam. The ethic of Bombay is quick upward mobility, and a scam is a shortcut. Anyone can work hard and make money. What’s to admire about that? But a well-executed scam? Now, there’s a thing of beauty!
All things in Bombay fail regularly: plumbing, telephones, the movement of huge blocks of traffic. For the month after my family arrives (at their new flat), I chase plumbers, electricians and carpenters. The electrician attached to the building is an easygoing fellow who comes in the late afternoons, chats with me about the wiring in the flat, and patches things up so they work only for a little while, assuring multiple future visits. The phone department has to be called and the workmen bribed to repair it. It is in their interest to have a lousy phone system.
As for my plumber, I want to assassinate him. He pits the occupants of the flats against one another, telling the people above and below me that I should pay to fix the numerous leaks, then telling me I should convince them to pay. The president of the building society explains it to me: All the pipes in this building are fucked. All this takes most of our waking time. The city is groaning under the pressure of the 1 million people per square mile.
India desires modernity; it desires computers, information technology, video on demand. But there is no guarantee of a constant supply of electricity in most places in the country. The country is convinced it can pole-vault over the basics: develop world-class computer and management institutes without achieving basic literacy; provide advanced cardiac surgery while the most easily avoidable childhood diseases run rampant; sell washing machines that depend on a non-existent water supply; drive scores of new cars that go from 0 to 60 in ten seconds without any roads where they might do this without killing everything inside and out, man and beast.
It is an optimistic view of technological progress – that if you reach for the moon, you will somehow, automatically, span the inconvenient steps in between. India has the third largest pool of technical labor in the world, but a third of its one billion people can’t read or write. The country graduates the best technical brains in the world, but neglects to teach my plumber how to fix a toilet so it stays fixed. As a result, in the “Country of the No” nothing is fixed the first time around. You don’t just call a repairman, you begin a relationship with him. You can’t bring to his attention too aggressively the fact that he is incompetent or crooked, because you will need him to set right what he has broken the first time around.
Bombay is not the ancient Indian idea of a city. It is an imitation of a Western city, and like all other imitations of the West here – the Hindi pop songs, the appliances, the accents people put on, the parties the rich throw – this imitation, too, is neither here nor there.