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Caste system and Bombay

Yes, this is a post on Bombay. Almost everyone I know seems to know the parts of the city because of the media centric role it plays, and has an opinion. (In case you, reader, have doubts about any part of the city, here is a map tp help you.). Oh and this is a long post, and not a rant, really. People are free to choose how they  live. Choice of travel modes and property prices are individual decisions, I believe and not a factor of circumstances (usually). So this is just casual observation about people in Bombay, as free from judgemnt as I could muster, because most people anyway know what I feel about the city. I dont need to blog it.
Bombay is two cities. It is not about rich and poor (which is indeed very contrasting in Bbay unlike most cities) and neither it is about religion (unlike what movies and books may make you think). It is two cities because it is one city forced to become larger than what it is. It is, perhaps, at some level about Bombay and it becoming Mumbai.

Traditionally Bombay was a city at the edge of a cliff, barely any aerable land, area scooped away from the harsh sea. Then, somehow, it became the land of opportunities. And people came to Bombay from all over India. And Bombay grew. The suburbs became part of the city, and what was not Bombay 10 years ago is now almost central. And what was an uninhabited island when I was young, well, its mainland now, almost the place where I live - part of 'old Mumbai'. And the city is still growing. One day it might reach Pune. And at this pace, the day is not far.

All that is beautiful. All that is nice. But that has divided the city into two parts - 'The Town'  and 'Suburbs' - nomenclatures used only by people living North of the Mahim Creek. The southern tip facing the sea became the 'town' region and a the city grew northwards - the only available landspace - suburbs grew and became part of Bombay. For those who life in the 'actual Mumbai' or in the suburbs, they are the 'mumbaikars' while anyone from South Mumbai just say they are from South Bombay. Suburbans of course, call them 'Townies'. According to them townies are snobbish. Amongst many other things. Bandra lies at the cusp, unable to choose. Unable to be accepted into what was Bombay and not deigning to be a part of the suburbs. And so anyone who comes here from other cities goes to neutral land, Bandra.

But it is not about that. It is a lot about the way of life in these two parts of the city which differentiates them so totally, that the moment you clap eyes on someone, you can guess which part of Bombay they are from - South or North. For one, it is north Bombay that is so immersed in the famous Bollywood culture. It is remarkable. Pass Santacruz and enter Juhu and from there to the ends of the city the movie feel does not leave one. There are posters of every single film that has been filmed - and you realise just how many there are.

However, the biggest divide of them all are the train travellers and the road travellers. The population count in South Bombay is relatively lower than that in North Bombay. Also, most workplaces happen to be concentrated in South, though there are hubs in Bandra and Andheri as well. So people travel, from all ends of the city, people traverse distances to reach their workplaces and then leave for home, tired, beginning their home work on the way itself (cutting and buying vegetables, deciding on kids' homeowrk etc). Because of the way the city grew, infrastructure did not keep up and the nodal transport means are Trains. Indian Railway trains that connect smaller towns to major cities - the locals - are the main transport means for Mumbai. And people willingly pack themselves into these trains, spilling over, trampling each other and zealously guarding their right to be there.

A glance can tell a person whether s/he are a train traveller. They have a haggard look to them. No matter if that day they have travelled by the most luxurious car. train travellers are usually thin. Extremely, anaeimically, thin. Not the worked-out, dieted thinness that is more common in South Bombay. Also, their shoes - they are extremely flat. Like bedroom slippers, almost. It can be skirts, dresses, jeans or salwar kameezes. Footwear is slippers. Most train travellers have hair severely pulled back and tied up, in defiance to the wind in trains else if left open (rare) are meticulously brushed, often, all the time. Men wear shirts tucked out when they can, but anyway they are dripping with sweat. And, to my nose, no matter how much they use perfumes and deodorants, I can smell the train. The slums areas that the train has to travel through.

Train travellers always seem to be eating. And the fd seems to go nowhere. Its like they live to chew. To eat, to catch up on the time they lose between the autos and the trains and their destinations which could have contributed to a sit down meal. They carry big bags - men and women. And the bags contain food, the newspaper (folded into a tiny square), an FM or music player (nowadays phones are more common), and a small bottle of water. Then there is the attitude. The way they stand. The way they abhor personal space. Can you feel someones breath on your shoulder? Oh not to worry, Mumbai hai, yahan jagah kahan hai! And thats the attitude. People stand so close to each other for such a large percentage of their lives that even in an open area, a train traveller will stand centimeters away from a person, probably brushing them, breathing down their necks (literally).

And then the dressing sense. Perhaps there are more middle-class people in the suburbs than in South Bbay, but the clothes can be classified into 'suburbs'. Where the clothes from a small shop in south Bbay will scream South Bbay, the same holds true for vice versa. The 'bling' factor seems magnified. It may be the Bollywood effect or it may be the hurry, the buying from station markets and not proper markets, or  just lack of discerning customers culminating to a lack of choice. But even a casual observer can differentiate men and women just by what they wear. Even the higher end shirts on men somehow seem woebegone, just by how they are worn (loose) or by their colour and designs. train travellers stay away from pearly whites you see. And I have not yet broached women clothes with regards to deeper necklines and skirts and dresses.

Contrary to poplar belief, and quite like any other Indian city, dressing for women in Bbay has to be just as well thought out. But its lesser of a worry if you happen to be travelling South. For while the city has fair share of travellers and women, just like the rest of India, men in the suburbs are stll unused to women with plunging necklines and hems.Hems, period. Somehow a woman in a body hugging teeshirt and tight, tight jeans is OK as compared to someone in a knee length skirt. Anyway, the point being, travelling to North Bbay makes one realise that the wardrobe that is normal in South may just not work. And if you are travelling by train, in a general compartment as compared to a Ladies one, there is no scope of sitting down unless its totally empty. You dont want men stading right on your toes while you sit. And the beggars. At crossings, in trains, everywhere.
The car travellers from the suburbs therefore, span the opposite end of the spectrum. Because of being surrounded by train travellers, they are usually snobbish enough to not even want to grace a taxi, forget autos. And this attitude extends to every other thing.

South Bombay on the other hand exudes a different feel. For one, public transport is restricted to Bus and Taxi. No autos, and trains are badly connected. On women, there is a prevalence of heels (and not the sensible block heels of the adventurous North Bombaiites) and clothes that are chic - if not from coutoure houses, then they look like they are from expensive shops. Its all very different from the feel of a Bollywood movie, and more like a neutral city. And that is because the emphasis seemsto lie more on style than whats de rigeur for the latest Hindi movies. And sequins seem rare(r). Even in the poorer sections an eve teaser is rare and so are the starers. Wear what you may. Women smoking is not wierd, and somehow the crowds are more structured. The personal space factor may be low, but as compared to the train travellers, it is a football field. In short, this part of the city seems more comfortable with itself. Perhaps because of its history it consists of older residents, more at ease with being a part of a rich, growing, multicultural city. Perhaps this very comfort reflects in their clothes and their attitude. Perhaps thats why the more affluent (and not noveu riche)  are attracted to South Bombay (apart from property prices) as are the more affluent foreign residents.
And the major problem that any suburban has with a South Bombaiite is - they dont travel by train. No matter how many cars they own, a suburban has to travel by train for some part of their lives. And as per them, you have not lived in Bombay unless you have travelled by train. And the townies seem unable to grasp that.

Bombay has its own caste system. A geographical one. And one gets pulled into it no matter how hard one tries to stay away. Because the caste system ensures a life style difference. A difference so stark, yet so subtle.

And I did not even speak of the subdivide of East and West as seen in suburbs, and that of the 'western line' livers and harbour and 'central line' livers. I have not seen such strong, apparent, distinct differences within people of the same city in any other city. I guess its part of Bombay?

Sky around HAji Ali

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
23rd Feb, 2009 08:43 (UTC)
Quite an eye opener for those who only know Bombay through the media.(Is that a pic from your balcony? ^^)
But what is it about Indian cities that the southern part remains the most affluent? I can draw parallels with Delhi too- people do partly judge you based on where you live.
And the trains of Bombay are unique- no other city has such an important network or with so many people riding it- perhaps that's why you've never seen anything similar to this anywhere else.
Delhi historically was made of 7 separate and distinct temporally separate kingdoms- and even today there are worlds of differences between various parts of the city.
Also- it's a lot more heterogenous- offices and factories are scattered across the city in various business districts- CP,Nehru Place, Jhandewalan, Okhla and what have you. So there's less changes of encountering 'other' kinds of people unless you travel to those parts of the city.
To compare with your analogy- South Delhi/Bombay are similar in terms of affluence, though Bombay will trump in terms of style and attitude towards women.East and certain parts of North Delhi are pretty unsafe at night, and also tend to have more slums.
I think this reputation has to do with the rising influx of illiterate cheap labor from the cow belt- people from ultra conservative backgrounds who have never seen a modern woman before and think that gives em license to do as they please with them.
23rd Feb, 2009 09:06 (UTC)
Re: Fascinating..
Perhaps. But the difference between people in Delhi is not as start as that in Mumbai. Perhaps because the differences are so many, and as you mentioned, the hubs so widespread.

The picture is from the 11th floor of my office building. 2007 monsoons.
23rd Feb, 2009 15:40 (UTC)
definitely nutral, one i agree with, and one which no mumbaikar wiill agree:) but on a very difft level its sad that geography rules the life.e...some one born in subs will carry on the legacy? but well, thats how the cast system works, no?
25th Mar, 2009 07:07 (UTC)
Train travellers have another tell tale sign. They are more sweaty, dishevelled and women usually have a huge bag of stuff like veggies, all the grocery shopping and things.

Something about this city is extremely yucky. Its like there is muck and more muck and we are just keeping it aside and learning to live with it rather than get rid of it. For instance, look at the houses we have started accepting! I would have scoffed at these a few years back.

The problem is your environment seeps into you. You start doing the same thing in your daily life also - its scary.
25th Mar, 2009 07:22 (UTC)
Im guessing its you V, yup I agree. I scorned the thought of living in small spaces. But I see myself getting more reconciled to the idea - I cant help it!
What I can help is try to separate myself from the filth as soon as I can, and I hope I will be able to do so.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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