“I sell dreams and I peddle love to millions of people,” declared Hindi filmdom’s self-made icon Shah Rukh Khan a few years ago on a darkened stage where the only lights were on him. Mr Khan famously came to Mumbai, then Bombay, in the early 1990s from his home city New Delhi to make a life for himself in the world of theatre and cinema. And what a life he fashioned out of his large dreams, steely ambition, cool-headed business instincts, and a lot of luck along the way. In creating and living this larger-than-real life, Mr Khan gave fresh verve to the age-old description of Mumbai as the ‘City of Dreams’. Many men and women came before and after him in Bollywood and other professions, gave wings to their dreams, and made Mumbai their home.
Each success story cements the idea of Mumbai as the ‘City of Dreams’ – a reference that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made on Thursday while inaugurating two metro lines and launching a slew of projects worth nearly Rs 40,000 crore. “Shinde and Fadnavis will fulfil all dreams of Mumbaikars,” he said as if Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his deputy Devendra Fadnavis carried the proverbial magic wand. In his own way, Mr Modi too was peddling a dream to millions of Mumbaikars as well as to those who want a one-way ticket to the city.
How Mumbai came to be described thus leads to many story trails depending on who is telling it but the phrase ‘City of Dreams’ has to do with the city’s earliest character of rewarding bold ideas and hard work, as industries took off combined with the stardust from cinema — one of the city’s defining aspects — which took shape here. Every success story celebrated in the popular media or private circles further crystallised the idea that one’s dreams get a platform in the city. Mumbai became the dream factory, so to speak. But for every Shah Rukh Khan or the late Dhirubhai Ambani, there remained hundreds in the dark, often broken.
The myth that dreams can be realised in Mumbai is a self-perpetuating one. At a basic level, all cities are dream factories in that they allow migrants, irrespective of their class and background, to realise their aspirations and improve their life from the one they left behind in their villages. Bombay enabled Dr BR Ambedkar to break the shackles of caste and address the oppression that he, and lakhs of Dalits, faced back home.
What do Mumbaikars dream of? How do the nearly 20 million, in fancy high rises or single-room slum tenements, who struggle every day, see the scope of their city? The answers are clear — clean and garbage-free streets, open pavements for pedestrians, ample neighbourhood open spaces and parks, buses and trains that are aplenty and do not demand a limb (or life) in return for each day of commute, water and air that are pure enough to ingest without worry, schools and colleges that do not hurry students in shifts like factories, decent houses that can be rented or bought at affordable rates without having to mortgage one’s life to lenders, more safety and security for all genders and classes of people even at night, and perhaps the space to take in the vast sea from the many shores along the city’s coastline.
It looks like an intimidating list but it is a basic set of needs — not dreams — which can elevate the quality of life for millions. Try as they might, neither Mr Modi, nor Messrs Shinde-Fadnavis, can make these dreams come true with a “double-engine government” which they want to turn into a three-engine one with the Bharatiya Janata Party eyeing a majority in the forthcoming Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation election. Nor should politicians compete to sow dreams or fulfil them for people. They should do the job entrusted — create the infrastructure — so that the city becomes the stage to which people bring their dreams and aspirations. Give us a well-functioning and affordable, less unequal and more liveable Mumbai; leave us to do the magic.
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