We travelled between hotels by Victoria, behind plodding animals only vaguely resembling horses, taking in the overwhelming vastness of human life at such a pace that one could almost begin to absorb it all. A friend or two on a Sunday afternoon could find a relaxing cup of tea in a comfortable wicker chair at the Taj, overlooking a harbor full of ancient sailing craft, imagining this must have been Kipling's idea of a good time. Having spent considerable time working the decks of the last American working sail, the Skipjack fleet on the Chesapeake, my attention naturally zeroed in on the great sailing dhows anchored in the deep water some distance out. "It's five hundred years ago on that vessel," I remarked to my companion, reflecting that the advent of engines did very little for us in a February ice storm even a mile from the Maryland shore. As our turbaned and obsequious waiter poured fresh tea, I thought to myself that it might well be at least one hundred years ago, even where we sat in luxury thinking how modern we were.
It was my first time in India. I was overwhelmed at the sheer immensity of population and poverty teeming around me in that not-so-ancient city. "Mumbai" is a comparatively recent appellation for Bombay, if it is more than a different inflection of the same word. The place rather resembles a prematurely-aging human being, so deep runs the river of human misery below the carved and polished facade of the Taj.
Scale is an aspect of life we are only just beginning to appreciate. If you take a design for a rowboat, and build one the size of a battleship, it won't function as you might expect. Forces and properties inherent in the materials and environment do not scale up in proportion. When it comes to societies, nations, cultures, and in these times we must add, corporate entities, we simply do not know how scale comes into play. As with most past civilizations, we may not know until we reach a breaking point. And at the vast scale we have already reached, that breaking point may be sudden and catastrophic in the extreme.
Coming from the United States, more specifically from the northeastern seaboard, I had lived in New York and other major metropolitan areas, where we are to believe the infrastructure is constantly being replaced at nearly the same rate at which it decays. I thought I knew what the possibilities were for a concept like "city." I recall walking the streets of Mumbai for the first time, and seeing people lying on the ground. I could not tell if they were alive or just resting. I saw one emaciated man open his eyes and get up, and start sweeping the sidewalk. But men with wagons went by occasionally and picked up actual corpses. It only took about four days of this before I was able to walk by prostrate forms without a glance. But the condition of the napping or sick or dead person on the ground had not changed, just my willingness to accept the argument against my conscience, that this person was responsible for their own life, and somebody would probably help if they really needed it, and what did I know, a stranger to this land, anyway?
The crush of humanity, the sheer number of faces and bodies in all directions, living under plastic bags in the mud next to lavish hotels and palatial estates, even in stairwells, even in ditches that filled periodically with the runoff from higher spots, all of them striving for a better life against hopless odds, made me weep until I became numb enough, emotionally, to function. "Numb" is not the right word, but I don't find any better way to describe that adjustment of sensibilities. After awhile the shock of stark comparisons with one's past ideas of "normal life" fade into the background. This is a scale adjustment in one's perceptions. It has to do with what one finds alarming enough to call for help.
One way I had been taught to think of such disparities was on a sort of standard-of-living yardstick held vertically, with one inch at the top end. In this case I saw my own culture extending from top (the Presidency, independent wealth), to bottom (jail, poverty), between about one and six inches. Most people I know live around the four-inch mark. In India my sense was of finer and finer granulations all the way down, like the slow formation of rich loam, reducing all our efforts, and our bodies, to a dark colloidal suspension of potential fertility. The city of Mumbai seemed to span the entire length of the scale, all the way down to thirty-six and far off the end of the yardstick, miles maybe, a scale of human misery I could never have imagined or believed. In places like Mumbai, life three feet down the scale is merely normal.
And here I have used the word, "scale," in at least two different senses. It shows how rundimentary is my own sensitivity to the larger question of scale, as between rowboat and battleship.
Mumbai seemed, in the brand-new year 2000, like a huge, rotting wedding-cake seething with decay at the bottom, with the little gowned and tophatted figures of the happy couple blissfully ignorant on top, above the layers of writhing masses locked in continuous struggles for basic necessities, beginning just below their shiny shoes.
I asked one of my friends, back there at the Taj over teacups, "What happens when the system collapses?" He said, "It collapsed hundreds of years ago. It's always collapsing. This is it."
It is one thing to speak about all this as if one were a visitor from some more comfortable place, looking on from the verandah with servants hovering. This is the view TV affords us every day. But if we live in the thing we are attempting to understand we are changed forever. It is the difference between eating a fine meal, and swallowing the paper menu (which I have just learned is also served, in digestible form, at fancier restaurants.)
But change comes, at one scale and another, and what we find unbelievable may soon be the merely commonplace. I like my tea with a view of the Bay (any Bay of my acquaintance), but without bullets, thank you. At some point on the scale, those of us who can must ask whether the widening gap between have and have-not might have something to do with this kind of event, just as building a rowboat sixty or a hundred feet long might have something to do with its tendency to sink like so much loose gravel beneath the surface.