The hashtags that kept Mumbai afloat

The groaning began late afternoon on Tuesday. People, mostly not from Mumbai or once upon a time from Mumbai, prophesied on Twitter that headlines the next day would be dominated by the “Spirit of Mumbai”. By 7pm, #SpiritofMumbai was already trending. Perhaps precisely because of all the groaning.

I know because I was glued to Twitter, following the excellent updates by @MumbaiPolice among others: Avoid this route, call this number to get your car towed to the nearest garage, the sea link is closed. Various other pointers were banded together by #MumbaiDeluge and #MumbaiRains, which had been awarded its own umbrella icon —a sign these days that a hashtag has arrived.

I left office around 4pm with two colleagues. We should have left earlier but having been brought up in Bombay (and Mumbai), I underestimate the ills of the city. Sure, it might take 3 or 4 hours for what is ordinarily a half-hour commute. But we were going to be safe and dry in a car. We had water and chocolates. What is the worst that could happen? There was a chance the car would break down and we would have to abandon it and walk. Damage to physical property aside, we might catch a cold or flu. No, we might get leptospirosis from slushing around in sewage water, one colleague pointed out. I wasn’t keen on this scenario. It is not an unrelated matter that I had decided to wear white pants that day (I call them “pale butterscotch” so I don’t feel like Jeetendra).

Colleague 1, in her mid-20s, is from Delhi. At the bleakest point of our commute—when the water outside the car had risen above tyre level—she fondly remembered that her mother had begged her not to move to Mumbai, even suggesting that she could get her own flat (I do not expect anyone who is not a young Indian woman to fully grasp the generosity of that offer). Colleague 2, in her early 30s, is from Jammu via New York. None of us had experienced the Mumbai floods of 2005, which might explain our petty concerns or why chocolates were what we bought before getting into the car, and not, say, bananas.

The stories after 2005 had been tragic: floating carcasses, people who had lost everything they owned, those who had died in accidents or from exhaustion. I was at university then but for some reason had decided to skip classes that day. My classmates had reached home after walking for close to 12 hours, some overnight. They had received the help of strangers but they had also been groped and been too tired to protest. I’d felt almost guilty about having escaped all of it.

Then too one heard about the Spirit of Mumbai. The tabloid Mumbai Mirror ran billboards and a print series on newspaper vendors and sabziwallahs who were back to work the next day. Mumbai was shaken and exhausted. No one had the energy to groan. Until later. Celebrating the Spirit of Mumbai ignored economic realities, they said.

The #SpiritofMumbai might well have been a cliché both then and now, but if you were on the road on Tuesday, it was in the air. It was in the frail, drenched man who guarded a large pothole, directing cars to go around. It was in the streetside Romeos who would have been dancing bawdily for Ganpati Visarjan, but were ferrying people in the tempos they had hired. It was in the declarations by institutions of faith that they would host anyone who walked in. It was also in the persistence of folks on social media. While the flurry of doomsday messages were mildly annoying, I now know that car-seat headrests are meant to be pulled out and used to break windows in case of an emergency.

Between the sharing of scenes of a flooded KEM hospital and Mahesh Bhupathi and Lara Dutta’s domestic spat about towels, my timeline was buzzing with a growing list of people offering clothes, beds and food to those stranded as #MumbaiRainHosts. Colleague 1 let out a shriek when she saw her home address broadcast on Twitter by an altruistic flatmate. I was relieved my husband was out of town because this is just the thing he would have done: invited strangers home to watch movies all night. Sure, I believe in the #SpiritofMumbai. But after 5 hours on the road, it would be fair to call it damp.

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