Friday, 6 February 2009

A smell of opportunity

We knew we were approaching Mumbai. The night was dark, the train stations zipped by at such a speed as the night train clattered through empty platforms that it was hard to read the station names.

But we knew we were coming in.

By the smell.

That peculiar, rancid stench that wreathes the city of dreams.

The putrid pong of sewer. The acrid smell of smoke. The rottenness of it all.

The combined effluents of so many. Human, animal excreta joining the cast off products of our industrial and consumer age. The combined pool of many hands labouring. Many feet tramping. Many products shaped, fashioned and hustled in the bylanes of the great city.

It is something that we want to wish away. Something that we are embarrassed by - and which is increasingly being pushed out of the island city as the myriad small industries seek greener pastures in ever-more far-flung 'suburbs'. Mushrooming mini-cities spreading out along the umbilical chords of our railways.

To many, paradoxically, this is the smell of hope. Many trade the pure air of a native village - for the heavy stench of the city - because there is money to be made, education to be found, opportunities to be had.

The lovely lady who helps us out for 1/2 the day at home has gone back to the village for some days. Her grandmother is ailing and she wants to see her before she dies. Our lady organized another lady to help in her absence. She came yesterday. A big toothy smile lighting up her face.

As she left today I asked her if she could give me a contact number. She gave me a business card. I waited for her to write out her number on this piece of paper. Instead she pointed to the card and said "my number is here."

It was her daughter's card. She is a financial advisor for MetLife. The card has a picture of Snoopy dancing on it. The person who gave it to me is an illiterate woman from Andhra Pradesh. Her daughter is now a financial advisor.

Hardly likely to happen in the village. For a few generations at least.

The city continues to draw people. The stench - with all its admission of our own multiple failures to create a place which is trully habitable - still carries a very sweet note to it to many, many, many from our vast hinter-lands - the Mumbai stench carries in it a waft of the smell of opportunity.


  1. Man that's a wild story. I have to think for every story like this with a daughter who "makes it big" (especially by village standards), there are probably literally thousands of people on the streets, selling a few wares beside the road, or as bonded slave laborers.

    As Wendell Berry says, many people live for "the better chance," which is usually so illusory. It causes them to move away to get what is "bigger and better", usually just leads to discontentment, scheming, hankering and fretting (he speaks of American farmers children that leave an agrarian life). Contentment and simplicity are often rare qualities, especially here in America.

  2. Yes, of course Ben. I am not in anyway saying that the streets of Mumbai are paved with gold.

    And even for those who 'make it big' the actual quality of life can be horribly shoddy. Which is why a nightly dose of alcohol is used by so many to make the hard edges of life a bit more soft.

    The other thing we have more and more is the aspirational life-style. Things that were pipe-dreams a few years ago are now thought of as necessities - and so the desire for ever more cash (at ever less work to get it...).

  3. I hear you, Andi. I didn't mean or think you were saying the cities lead to easy street for those that come in from rural areas.

    The story only set in relief for me the common human tendency/fallacy seeking the better chance and it leading to a better life, rather than embracing life where we are and with the people around us. Even the "better" is often illusory. I know this is true about my own heart often times.

    On the flip side, when someone is able to achieve an education and a level of success only a generation removed from her mother's life and experience-well, that's just amazing. I can only imagine how proud that mother would be of her daughter's accomplishments and standing in society. I'm sure it would feel incredibly validating when you come from her strata of society and haven't had much in life to validate you. That is amazing (and I don't mean to dismiss it)!


  4. progress is good. greed is not (whatever Gordon Gekko may say). We mix the two far too easily.

    Godliness with contentment is great gain. But at the same time Christ himself grew in stature and wisdom and in favour of God and man.

    Our challenge is to live out a life of humble fulfillment of all that God wants us to be. And not just in a pietistic self-centered way - but as the Good News to all Creation!