Bombay Bling

Written by  //  September 30, 2010  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  3 Comments

A guest post by Charne Lavery. Charne is pursuing her D.Phil. in English at the University of Oxford, where she is a Rhodes Scholar. In this piece she provides an insightful perspective on Mumbai, which she visited recently.

A few days after arriving in Mumbai for the first time, I mentioned to a friend that I thought it was one of the most aspirationally materialistic places I’d been. I was a little overwhelmed at first by the sheer glitz of the place, the iPhones and Porsches and Louis Vuittons, the haute couture wedding silks and rows of diamond shops. I’m not saying I expected only the desperate scrapheap of the third world brochure—it was just that Mumbai reminded me much more of Johannesburg than, say, Durban, the city across the sea with which it is more historically connected.

As much as you can tell what a city-load of people wants from its billboards, it seemed to me that Bombay wants the brightest baubles that the West has to offer.  I visited the new Phoenix mall and tried on a pair of Diesel jeans, glanced at Gucci, ate expensive Swiss ice cream. I walked past the Harley Davidson shop which has just opened up right next door to the Royal Enfield—two warring generations of successful marketing. A billboard on Marine Drive advertising tours to South Africa features an image not of Table Mountain or a roaring lion (the top two guesses of three of my South African friends), but an aerial shot of Sun City, an exoticised upmarket casino north of Johannesburg, all bronze statues, wave pools and generic plushness.

Sun City, aside from its Lost African Paradise theme, could be anywhere—as easily Rajasthan as Gauteng. Which is only to say, with predictable sadness, that the averaging effects of globalization can be seen here, too. It also isn’t just the rich and well-travelled. As a chemist in untouristy periurban Panjim, who imports Corn Flakes and Axe deodorant along with his pharmaceuticals, said with a grin, “I don’t have time to watch TV but people come in here asking for something the day or hour after they see a new advertisement and I order it. Everything they see on that television, they want it.”

Before I arrived, I had spoken to a friend from university who had spent some time with students in Delhi. The students had insisted on the Indians’ lack of materialism—it was the fault of America that the financial crisis happened, their excessive desire for brand names and their reliance on credit cards. In contrast, Indian spiritualized indifference to material goods had kept it relatively safe. This is a glib barstool argument, but it coincided with a certain stereotype of India that had unwittingly permeated my expectations. One that, at least in Bombay, seems to be mostly mistaken.

Clearly, I have spent a very limited, narrow time in the city, and have seen even less of the rest of the country. The covetous section of the population is always going to be the loudest, and Bombay, the city of Bollywood, is more than most the product of colossal self-selection of the upwardly-reaching. The city, famously cosmopolitan, seemed to me full of wealthy, homesick ex-pats and nostalgic ex-overseas students who bring with them a desire for the comfort of egg sandwiches and coffee. There are layers of complexity here that defy a visitor’s understanding.

Even so, after a few days in the city I’d seen some of the other, quieter sides. I visited Dharavi, incredible, productive place that it is, and took in some of the art that seemed locally inflected and challenging. I visited my host’s church, an eclectic mix of serious people. I liked the studious vibe of St. Xaviers and the sweetness of the string of couples holding hands under umbrellas on Marine Drive.

So if I was surprised to be greeted on my first trip to India by Bombay’s bling, perhaps that was only due to misguided expectations of my own, and the strength and inevitable superficiality of a first impression. Still, first impressions are said to count for something.

3 Comments on "Bombay Bling"

  1. jathin February 1, 2011 at 11:51 am ·

    It is a heartless, soulless city ………………….they think it is great than shanghai..

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