Prejudices can be hidden for political considerations, but they never entirely disappear. The last week has seen a violent resurrection of the old ‘Marathi Vs outsiders’ theme that has plagued Bombay for the last four decades. This time it’s a splinter of the original champion of the ‘Marathi Manoos’ (Marathi man) that has raised some pertinent questions in an imbecilic fashion.
Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) assaulted several North Indians over the last one week. The primary targets of the MNS’s ire were cab drivers, milk vendors and panwallahs. In other words poor folk who have come to Mumbai to earn a living and support families back home in UP and Bihar. The provocation is the oft- repeated complaint in a rehashed form: the outsiders are flooding Mumbai and taking ‘our’ jobs; jobs that ‘belong’ to the Maharashtrians; ‘they’ don’t want to integrate with ‘our’ culture; ‘they’ live here and still dream of ‘their’ native lands and so on. The target this time are the ‘bhaiyyas’, a pejorative term for North Indians, particularly from UP and Bihar.
The Shiv Sena was the party that originally patented a politics of nativism in the ‘60s. The SS (note the similarity in name to Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, which means ‘Defence Squadron’. Coincidence?) claimed that the first call on Mumbai should rest with the Maharashtrians. The fact that the ‘sons of the soil’ did not control the city’s economy in any significant way added to the resentment. Over the years the SS targeted South Indians, Gujaratis, Muslims and now North Indians, violently in some cases.
Now the MNS has picked up the relay. Raj Thackrey says he will not allow commemoration of any other states’ other than Maharashtra, a reference to the fact that UPites were celebrating UP diwas in Mumbai. He says that if the bhaiyyas indulge in dadagiri they will be taught a lesson.
The latest round of bhaiyya bashing has raised bewildering questions about belonging, intra and transnational identity, allegiance, the nature and ownership of urban spaces and contestation of those spaces in the context of a rapidly globalizing world.
Ever since the demise of the textile mills in the ‘60s, a period that coincided with the rise of the SS, Mumbai has become more oriented towards a services economy, particularly financial services. The ‘Mumbai makeover’ over the last decade has resulted in the traditional chawls being replaced with highrise apartments. The chawls were living spaces conducive for community bonding by the very nature of their architecture: a slew of houses opened out to a common verandah where the residents had an opportunity to interact with each other on a personal basis, participate in each others festivals, bond over chai and drying laundry and where their kids played hide and seek and ‘verandah cricket’. Compare this to the more impersonal highrise towers, where you might live for 20 years and never get to know your neighbour.
The construction boom of the ‘90s and the new millennium resulted in working class areas becoming more upmarket with the construction of highrise apartments meant for the rich and upper middle class. The mill workers and cab drivers who inhabited these chawls cashed out while they could and fled to the suburbs, where housing was more affordable. In a sense, the working class, many of whom were Maharashtrians, were being priced out of the downtown area that was slowly turning unaffordable for all but the super rich. As one friend of mine put it, this was ethnic cleansing by other means.
Its not restricted to only the posh areas. Take Dharavi for instance. The largest slum in Asia is also set for change. Dharavi harbours many thriving industries in its narrow and rundown bylanes. Leather manufacturing units, pottery units, jewellery stores are some of them. Kumbharwada is a thriving potters colony in the heart of Dharavi. The potters here are migrants from Gujarat who came to Bombay generations ago. The potters houses open out into a common courtyard in which they work together. Pots jostle for space with potters’ wheels. To one side are the ovens where the clay is baked. The ovens belch out smoke which covers Kumbharwada in a thick fog of white smoke. The Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRA) threatens to break up the community life of Kumbharwada in particular and Dharavi in general. The slums are to be replaced with apartments. Residents of Kumbharwada ask, “What will happen to our community”. There are no easy answers.
Its not as if answers are any more easy for people who live in highrise buildings. Take me for instance. I am a typical middle class resident of Bombay, trying to earn a living in a big lonely city. I was born in Bombay to a Tamil mother and Telugu father and spent 10 years living in a Maharashtrian colony speaking Hindi and Marathi with my colony friends and Telugu and Tamil at home. Those happy early childhood years translated into a love for Marathi, which I still understand and can speak to an extent. I am pretty comfortable with Marathi and in the company of Maharashtrians.
At different points I have lived in Delhi, Hyderabad, Goa, Chennai and Lucknow. I can speak Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and understand a smattering of Bengali. In addition I went to my Grandparent’s place in Andhra Pradesh every year for summer holidays. They taught me to read and write Telugu. I spent a formative part of my life and college years in Hyderabad and made many good friends. I have fond memories of Hyderabad, but am not overly attached to it. On the other hand I am also fond of Mumbai, but am not overly attached to it either. Come to think of it, there is no place I can call ‘home’ in the sense that I am rooted to it.
My search for ‘roots’ has led me to learn Telugu more fluently. I take long distance telephone tutorials in the language from my Grandmother and have taken to reading a Telugu paper daily in Mumbai. According to Raj Thackrey I am a traitor. Do I feel like one? I don’t know what a traitor feels like? Maybe Raj knows something that I don’t.