Mumbai: Where 'Survival Is the Art of Living'

A Street-Level Look at India's Sprawling City of 13 Million Shaken by Last Week's Terror Attacks

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Mythili Chandrasekar Mythili Chandrasekar
"Indifferent sadness." "Impotent love." "No whining. Accept hardships and keep going." "The show must go on."

These were but some of the comments from consumers during a study by JWT India on the character of Mumbai just a few months ago. In the aftermath of recent events, the value of Mumbai-ites' resilience became a subject of debate. Many felt what one of the respondents said: "Riots, bomb blasts, floods. ... The city bounces back by forgetting and that, I personally feel, is a bad thing. The city should come to a grinding halt. That is when there will be considerable thought given to what led to these adversities and real steps will be taken to prevent these from happening."

So, according to the study, what makes Mumbai what it is?

First, day-to-day life is a struggle

"Mumbai is a draining city in a physical sense; one requires tremendous amounts of energy to get through the rigors of everyday life in Mumbai."

"Traffic is chaotic; most people have to spend five to six hours commuting. Mumbai's productivity is reduced by half due to traffic-related delays."

Yet, it's a city of opportunity

"Setting goals and achieving them is what people come here for, and they focus on that."

"Strugglers here continue to have their dreams despite their failures, especially in fields like media, films."

"Mumbai has a culture of intense competition. The number and scale of opportunities available are immense."

Be competitive and you'll reap rewards

"Survival calls for competitiveness as well as preoccupation with one's own matters; hence being self-absorbed and indifferent is natural to the seasoned survivor in Mumbai."

"People do not mind being right or wrong as long as they get ahead in life and achieve what they want."

"Mumbai has no sympathy for the newcomer. He or she has to be ready to compete and work hard, suffer and endure to get going in this city."

"Don't resist the hectic pace, go with the flow, the current will carry you forward."

Therefore, there is no time to dwell on the difficulties

"If your car is bumped, then you abuse that person and move on. You do not get into terrible rage like in some other cities. They do not want to get trapped in such situations. ... It is smarter to move on."

"If you are traveling in a train, there will be so many times that you will be trampled, jostled ... but you have to pick yourself up and move on. That is the attitude that surviving in this city calls for ... forget and move on."

"Despite the frustrations, you do not find a lot of violence. If people are stuck in traffic jams for a long time, you might find a lot of horn honking but not physical violence."

"Mumbai is often trapped in situations that it cannot control. Terrorist activities are situations which Mumbai cannot control. Politicians' actions also trap Mumbai in a way."

Indifferent sadness and impotent love

"Mumbai only feels sad. Imagine a person hit by a train. People here will feel sad, but there is not enough action as a result of the sadness because people do not either have the time or the inclination. They leave it at feeling sad. They will tide over the guilt of not doing anything by thinking that 'I at least felt sad. ... So what if I could not do anything about it?'"

People do not speak out

"The average person in Mumbai is not inclined to speak his mind out on controversial issues; the fear of repercussions as well as the 'mind your own business' attitude act as deterrents."

"They cannot afford to spend time on such issues. People generally refrain from making political statements openly. They want to avoid trouble, not get trapped in situations."

There is no 'Voice of the City'

"Power is in the wrong hands. The sentiments of the political power does not necessarily reflect the views and sentiments of the larger Mumbai public."

"Though Bollywood people are representing Mumbai, they are not doing anything personally for Mumbai."

"Though there are personalities in Mumbai who appear in TV interviews, all these people have no power. ... Nobody listens to them. ... They only cater to the elite class. ... People who are really affected, they do not have any voice. Whatever leaders that they have are those who try to take advantage of the situation."

"The social fabric of the city is quite complex. The class divide is quite stark. So you do not have people responding to or uniting on larger city issues that do not directly affect them."

"You will have a group talking about pedestrian spaces being misused and another group talking about the attack on open spaces in the city. But you will never find people coming together as one group and talking about larger issues like terrorism that threaten the city."

Mumbai does not have a vision of its future

"Mumbai lives in the present and does not think too much about the future. If they thought more about the future, then there will not be too much of dirt, filth lying around."

"Those here do not have the time to plan for two, three years down the road. They do not think of planning for the future, think of larger causes like environment, etc."

"Survival is the art of living in Mumbai. ... In Mumbai, it is difficult to survive and also easy to survive. ... You just have to be a little street smart."

("Art of Living" refers to one of the biggest offerings in the new age "spirituality for wellness" domain in India.)

Now, even the definition of street smart has changed. For the people who will just honk and move on, for the people who just want to carry on with their goals, for the people who just want to live and let live, being street smart now means dodging bullets.

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This article quotes entirely from "A Tale of Four Cities," a proprietary JWT India Brand Chakras study that set out to uncover the forces that make the character of each of India's four metros -- Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata -- and understand how citizens relate to their cities. The qualitative study involved Depth Interviews with journalists, radio jockeys, psychiatrists, advertising professionals, HR consultants and Focus Group Discussions among citizens of each city, a mix of men and women, young adults and older, long-term residents and recent settlers. Mythili Chandrasekar, executive planning director at JWT India, steered the study.
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