Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Untouchable City

I cannot remember the last time I touched any wall in my city. It's not as if I am obsessive compulsive about not touching anything outdoors, but one glimpse at the walls of this fateful town & it is apparent why you can't even dream of touching them. 

The average height of an adult Indian male is around 5 Feet 5 Inches. That means, the mouth of this average Indian male is at around 4 Feet 11 inches from the ground. The tobacco munching mouth can project a jet of murderous red spit on any wall at an average angle of 45 degrees at varying velocities. This is obviously assuming that the person spitting on the wall is at a reasonable distance from the wall to avoid any splatter on him. This archetypical male has been bestowed with god given powers to consume infinite amount of chewing tobacco. That translates directly into the city's latest murals. We are blessed with this art form which is the biggest ever crowd sourced art project ever imagined. It also works on a subliminal level to make the artist unaware of his contribution. With gravity doing most of the strokes, all the artist has to bring is fresh set of saliva & a large puddle of chewed tobacco. With the cutting edge pneumatic forces which took nature itself several million years to perfect, this unassuming street artist does this city a favour by contributing his talent for free.

No amount of dripping sarcasm is enough to speak of these dripping red walls. We are tactile animals. One of the largest & the most important sensory organs on our body is the skin. We count touch as one of the five basic senses which allow us to perceive our world. Although we are not limited to touch anything else, we are definitely limited in our ability to caress our own city walls. It can be a building of historic importance or some high rise commercial premises. These murals paint the city with a joyous abandon only found elsewhere in nature. As a matter of excretion, these artists were never taught any discretion. In a way they can't be blamed, no one ever taught them not to paint these walls. Another feature of this city, where if it isn't explicitly mentioned, anything is allowed. For instance, if there is no 'no parking' sign, even an entrance to a building is a place to park. If by some miracle there is an instruction like 'no parking', some of the courageous folks from the city do take pride in disobeying them, especially "Do Not Spit Here" signs.

So who's fault is it anyway? BMC (the local municipality) has tried half successfully to enforce an 'on the spot' fine a few years back. But with the city bubbling with new art work, it seems not to be working so well. What would it take for an average artist to avoid painting the wall? What incentive can we offer to that artist whose mouth does his work for free? 

Education is another futile concept for these artists who will gladly spit on it & move on. The very posters that tell not to spit in public would become open dart boards to test their projectile accuracy. The spittoons will be inundated with a smouldering red goo at the end of the day which is below any human being's dignity to clean. The beetle juice in these chewing products is itself corrosive by nature & takes more than just water to clean once it has dried. So something which is beyond anyone's dignity to clean, becomes even harder to clean after it dries.

I remember having taught in my school that littering, spitting & defecating in the open is bad. I don't know why I remember this, but somehow it must have made some impact subconsciously. I don't do any of these things in the open out of choice & which has now become a reflex. Any habit to form requires torturous repetition of some task to make it mundane & ordinary so that our body can carry it out automatically. How can we internalize the importance of hygiene in public places in these lost souls?

Is decency a matter here? Are people just not decent enough to acknowledge the fact that they are soiling something? I have had some rare glimpses of decency which I wouldn't have attributed to the city of Mumbai if I hadn't witnessed them myself. A white collar gets off the bus at CST bus depot & innocuously throws the ticket stub near the bus door. Now ideally this would be a normal sight in Mumbai, where people thoughtlessly litter. But he wasn't so lucky & had to spend some time thinking over what he did later. The Clean-Up Crew recruited by the BMC had apparently cleaned the area a few minutes ago & were resting on the foot path adjoining the bus stop. All of them watched the guy throw the stub & they suddenly sprang into action. They all rushed at once to have that person surrounded. The white collar obviously demanded to know in a rather animated way why he was being held up. When they told him that he had littered, I was half expecting an apology or at least some sign of shame. Perhaps that's what the clean up crew expected too but instead they heard him barking expletives. Now a cloud of anger shrouded the bus stop & shoving ensued. Clearly a crowd gathered demanding to know why an educated (looking) person was being held up & barking in an uneducated way at a bus stop full of uniformed clean guys. After a full 4 minutes, which seemed like half an hour of proving how he never even got off the bus, he relented & walked back to the bus door. There wasn't more drama in any soaps on the tele than what I saw next. A clean - up member had recovered the ticket stub & was holding it in his finger tips. He handed the stub to the white collar & made him dispose it in a nearby dust bin. No claps, no appreciative words from anyone, no thanks to the clean-up guys, the crowd dispersed as if nothing had happened & the white collar, mumbling expletives under his breath rushed off to catch his train.

Another slightly more graphic incident gripped me the other day waiting in a traffic jam trapped inside an auto rickshaw. There was no view staring at the back of the driver so I peeked outside & looked in the general direction. I noticed two beggars (perhaps husband & wife) along with a small kid. Perhaps 3 years old or may be less. The couple was begging at a street corner where a lot of pedestrians walked by. The small kid, was looking for a spot to take a dump around the same corner. I knew even before it actually happened what I was about to see, but I couldn't have been more wrong. I looked away from it, but could't seem to shake my mind from the idea that a piece of fresh turd was going to lie at the corner of the road for eternity. I turned around hoping that the horrible scene would have passed & saw something so unbelievably surprising that I couldn't believe my eyes. My hand reached to cover my mouth in total disbelief. The 3 year old kid was instructed by his mother to pick up the turd with a small plastic bag. She then took him to a dustbin nearby & they both threw the bag in. The mother & the kid got back to the corner & she started to beg again as if nothing had happened. The whole world went their way after the traffic cleared, completely missing the point of this miracle of decency which I am sure not many must have seen till the very end.

I am cherry picking examples due to sheer lack of them which display basic decency in the urban population of Mumbai. But I can never forget the torment of the cleaning crew or even the basic hygiene of a beggar. What are these if not examples of decency & an unsaid love towards our own city? Even if it was just part of the job description or a habit to clean it up.

One question I beg to ask these people, whoever they are & who are never going to read this. Is their artwork motivated by a systemic hatred towards the city? Do they hate the diversity, the financial inequity, the general throbbing pulse of the city so much that they choose to malign it with their sole contribution. I am yet to see a person spit inside his own home & then welcome any guest. Athithi devo bhava my ass. We can't even keep the financial capital of our nation clean, let alone invite anyone to walk through this god forsaken pile of filth.

After all this probing & venting out my frustration towards this art epidemic, I don't feel any better. I still can't touch my city & must forgo the biggest sensory attachment I have to the place I call home. 


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