Ire | A Tale of Two Cities’ Fears

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentary

My new piece on thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment on perspectives, comment and such, on the fear psychosis of sorts in two Indian cities. Curious? Read on. (Though my blog post has slightly additional content.)

This piece on thREAD

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In the recently released Phobia, Mehak, Radhika Apte’s character, an artist, is molested by the driver of the cab she’s returning in late night from her art show. Resulting from that trauma, Mehak develops agoraphobia, a fear of being in perceptibly threatening places. She is panic-stricken and feels paralysed at the thought of just stepping out of the apartment door. Even when her boyfriend moves her out of her home to a rental, he has to drug her to do so. (Mahek is compelled to move out as her sister, who she is living with and is married with a son, begins fearing for how Mahek’s mental state and her resulting actions will affect her child and thus also begins getting exasperated with Mahek.) However, her condition doesn’t necessarily improve in the new place, and she sweats and palpitates like, um, crazy for a simple activity of putting out garbage bags.

Chennaiites seem to be in the grip of a similar fear presently. That of the rains. The moment they feel the drop of a drop (for the past few weeks, the city’s been intermittently receiving off-season, convective showers), images of horror and feelings of misery rush into the collective psyche. Thanks, or rather, no thanks to the floods of last year.

People walking to safer places during the Chennai floods of December 2015However, as someone who’s stayed here only for a few years, my reactions – and I don’t mean to be insensitive in the least bit – seem to be more like those of people around Mahek: puzzled at the mass fear, so to speak. During the rains / floods too, I was baffled first by the amount of rain the city received (a city that I had heard has only one season, hot, or three: hot, hotter, hottest) and then by the reactions of both the city and the people: anguished, broken, crushed. And this isn’t because I stay in a part of the city that seems to have better civic amenities. Or because I wasn’t able to see the effects in the other parts; when the lights came back two days later, on TV, we finally got a sense of the plight all around. So, before you seem baffled in turn by why I was bewildered by the city’s and the citizens’ what-I-initially-considered “magnified” responses, and therefore come across as callous and uncaring, let me share why.

I have stayed in Bombay / Mumbai for the longest time, and before that, in Calcutta / Kolkata or pretty long too. Two coastal cities, just like Chennai, but that receive a lot more rain than Chennai, so much so that in both metros during monsoon, there are occasional floods, or at least regular water-logging.

In Mumbai, people’s reaction to the rains moves along with the months of the monsoon. May end, when people have been burnt to the bone, but sense the first rumbles of the clouds, hearts begin fluttering in anticipation, much like the office-goer’s at Friday 4pm. When the first rains hit (usually around end May or early June; this year, they are set to debut around now), those hearts, and people to who those hearts belong, begin dancing. They rush out, drench in the first rain, on Marine Drive, at Juhu, or just in the compound. Everyone feels like a merry Bollywood couple. Young, old and wet alike, they hum classic rainy songs, brim with poetry, and talk of quaint things like “the redolent petrichor”.

A month later, the mood is, well, May-December. After four weeks of grimacing through slushy streets, wet clothes, wetter shoes, soaked shirts and skirts, sitting or standing next to other soaked shirts and skirts in the local or metro, the Mumbaiite is already begging for a reprieve. And Nature responds in true Nature-ishtyle, by giving them… July. When the rain is at its most belligerent and leads to the breakdown of most civic machinery, especially on one day Made in Hell. This is either mid or late July; 26/7 is another beleaguered date in Mumbai’s long list of such dates, and similar to Chennai’s 1/12.

A local train and people in deep water during the Mumbai floods of 26/7 2005Train services and trees collapse, people are stranded in offices, on roads, at stations. Or take hours to get back home. When they finally do, all they want is a comforting hot bath. Only to find there’s no electricity. By which time, they are cussing the corporation in ways that would do the Delhi Sardarji proud. The next day, of course, everything is considered off: offices, schools, colleges, services. Sounds the same as what happened recently in Chennai, right? (See, I told you I wasn’t being insensitive.) And this occurs year after year, without fail. In fact, if it didn’t, people would think something was wrong with Mumbai, or with Nature. But the next-to-next day, the city, as has become hoary to say by now, “bounces back”. Everything is back to normal, or some semblance of it.

Before the puzzled Chennaiite wonders how, this isn’t all because Mumbai really has some “never-say-die” spirit (in fact, with all that the city’s endured over the years, Mumbaiites feel that statement is a cruel irony), but also because, due to its location on the country’s west coast, which receives the south-west monsoons, the main rains in India, it has built a largely decent and decently working drainage system, despite the burgeoning population. The lack of which, many admit, did Chennai in during the Rains from Hell. As also the unmindful construction of buildings in low-lying areas and marshlands. And of course, faulty coordination and decision-making when it came to the matter of that dam-water release. All of which have given many a Chennaiite many a horror for many a month at the sound of not many a rumble.

So, does Mumbai have nothing to flinch about then? Nope, many a Mumbaiite has a phobia too.

If Chennai has been witnessing large-scale unauthorised construction due to its emergence as a software and manufacturing hub, its firm position as the South’s film capital, and thus the constant influx into the city, and therefore the need for massive new commercial and residential spaces, Mumbai’s tale has been no different. After it finished reclaiming land from water (the city was built from seven islands and now even has a sea link connecting some of them) and then claiming the air (high-rises), the city, due to similar reasons of being a financial, marketing, and glamour capital and thus having non-stop immigration, has been devouring land, like a super-starved T-Rex. And after eating up most of legit land, it’s been turning its attention to… the forest.

Builders, unscrupulous and unknowing alike, aren’t just building close to forest land, they are also building on it. I myself have stayed in a few such places. One complex, built on official forest property, had a long fence put up by either the builder or the residents, demarcating the “residential space” from the “forest land”, as if to give the complex legitimacy. (After a long-drawn-out proceeding, the owners – mercifully, I was a tenant here – had to pay compensation to prevent their flats from being razed. And this is proving to be more the norm.) Another area, very rapidly developed, where I actually was an owner, has been created by carving a big, long road through what was earlier considered a jungle and enveloping the city’s national park. It still has signposts urging people to watch out for crossing animals. In other areas, buildings and complexes are coming up either on hills or by breaking down hills. At this rate, Mumbai may soon need another mode of transport: ropeways.

Now, when you build on land that was earlier the animals’ and thus enter what was their terrain, the animals, devoid of an exclusive territory, are (apart from many dying as a result) forced to enter what is now “your terrain”. And I’m not talking wild pig, snake or fox here, but… big cat.

A leopard photographed at dusk, with the lights of a Mumbai suburb in the backgroundSo, if every year, the whole of Mumbai has to bear the brunt of brutal rains for one day, every two-three years, for a month or so, the people living in these encroached areas are seized by big-cat fear. One day, someone spots a leopard, or worse, claims a leopard attacked and killed a child or small-sized adult, and everyone, obviously, begins panicking. Wildlife authorities are called in, people are warned not to go out alone in the dark, residents are advised to keep their surroundings clean (the big cat comes for street dogs, who are found near dumps, as its food source is getting rapidly depleted in the rapidly disappearing jungle), banners with messages on reaction and action points are put up. When the fear reaches crippling levels, typically with numerous sightings (though many of these might be unfounded), there is pressure on the officials to “do something”. What they typically do is set a live-animal trap for the cat. If it works, they go release the animal into deep jungle or a distant forest area. (This typically doesn’t work; there have been cases of leopards that have made their way back 100+ kms, as they are known to be the smartest of the big cats and, like all beings, prefer their own territory.) The people seem satisfied though.

During that month or so, though, people are understandably super-paranoid. A former colleague who lived close to my place told me she would jump on seeing a branch shake at night. In the same area, when returning late through a 750-m straight, dark stretch with buildings on one side and forest on the other, I would be nervous myself, not knowing if the two lights in the distance are a small car’s or a big cat’s. And so I would take the auto right up to the building entrance, asking the autowaala to wait until I had gone in. In this other area, when I had visited an animal shelter during the period of a “big-cat strike”, the director told me a leopard had come a couple of nights (smelling potential prey), walked up and down the boundary wall, but had gone away, as the shelter had made sure all the small animals were locked inside. And when leaving my building for work one morning, I heard a clutch of young mothers exchanging fearful notes (at that time, two leopards, a male and a female, had “struck terror”, something like The Ghost and The Darkness), with one lady exasperating, Yeh kahaan se aaye hain??” (Where have they come from??) The animal lover (and somewhat expert) in me retorted, in my mind, ‘The animals could be saying the same thing about you…’

One city afraid of water from above. Another of cats from around. What they really need to fear – in case it isn’t clear already – is rapid, rabid, unthinking, unplanned growth. Mull over that while I go check whether that slow, gaining sound outside is a growing drizzle or a growling feline.

To rest people’s minds a bit, let me resort to the words of several wildlife campaigners in these “leopard-infested” areas in Mumbai, who now rather than aiming to remove the big cat from its territory are attempting to educate residents that it’s possible to “live with leopards”. They say, “If you’ve seen a leopard once, it’s seen you 20 times by then. And yet, it chooses not to do anything (to you).” I can’t resist adding, who really is the better species here?

Check out this link: Living with Leopards in Mumbai

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