(87): Mumbai to Lagos; A Tale of Two Cities

Muhsin Ibrahim

Starting with an apology to the 19th-century great novelist, Charles Dickens, as the title of this piece was inspired by the title of his 1859’s historical novel; the contexts of the two texts cannot, however, be related. The article chronicles my short stays at Mumbai, India, and Lagos in Nigeria, while making a kind of comparison between the two, and then with my birthplace, Kano. This was motivated by the striking parallels I have discovered between the two cities. For instance, both are the commercial capitals of their country; both neighboured seas; both are like convergent points of different ethnic groups; both headquartered one of the world’s leading film industries; both are lands of opportunities; both are populated by the posh and the poor people; etc. This is a continuation of my Facebook status update while still in Lagos a couple of days ago.

In reaction to the said status update, some people said that I have not seen anything yet in Lagos. I think those people are only slightly wrong. I have of course seen something, but, indeed, not everything. My seeing is somewhat different from that other person’s who cares not to see with the type of eyes I deployed to see things. I learnt lessons, inferred meaning and, seldom, drew a conclusion from the actions and inactions of so many people I interacted with during my less than 48-hour-stay in this crowded city that wakes up much earlier than the rest of the country, or, at least, the country’s far northern region.

I was not, by and large, disappointed by what I saw in and around the riverine city. In more ways than one, going through the city had my memories of Mumbai reverberated and rekindled. I was at the latter for three days in June 2015 on transit to Nigeria. I did not stay in my hotel room as customarily done by many people; I, my wife and two other friends spent days touring the city’s picturesque areas, famous places and so on. One of the most striking similitudes one can quickly notice in both cities is how everyone looks: engaged, nay, hasty. The word “docility” does not exist in their dictionary. The cities are not, apparently, places for the lazy.

As the multi-billion naira film industries housed in Mumbai and Lagos as the slums, there are. The exotic Indian Bollywood was named after Mumbai’s former name, Bombay. It is today the world’s largest entertainment industry. The Nigerian Nollywood occupies the second position in terms of production, not quality – I guessed you might be thinking which scale was used. Likewise, Mumbai harboured the largest slums in the world. Without any data at hand, I have rated Lagos as having the largest ones in Africa.

The secret to living happily in both cities is money, at least enough to feed and pay for one’s daily services and utilities. No one does anything for anyone free of charge. Perhaps that is why the people don’t live idly. Almost everyone is up to something. There is, however, a considerable difference between the two commercial hubs. In Mumbai, things are dirt cheap compared to what is obtained in other Indian urban areas, while the story is remarkably different in Lagos. Things are expensive, and services are much more so.

I saw people paying N100 to pee in an open, unkempt place. I paid to also pee, but I couldn’t do it outside. I insisted on using the dishevelled toilet around as that would, at least, give me some sort of privacy. Some people demanded money to render somewhat humanitarian assistance like giving directions to a stranger. A simple photocopy of a page costs N500 while a direct printing of a similar page attracts up to N1000! In Kano, these services cannot attract N20 and N100 max, respectively. For other assistance, often times, no one would bother to collect your Kobo.

In Mumbai, Africans are racially, subtly though, mocked and called “Baba”. We were also derisively greeted by touts, drivers and other lowly-spirited dimwits, while others dealt with us suspiciously as “most of [us] are scammers, drug traffickers and specialists in all sorts of shady businesses”, an Indian acquaintance confided to me. There is no such a thing in Lagos, as a city in West Africa. However, different ethnic groups are stereotyped here. Oftentimes, a Hausa man is called aboki. The word means “friend” in Hausa and has, elsewhere, no any negative connotation. Not in Lagos, and perhaps other southern states. It is a carrier of contempt and condescension. Somebody may use it without any ulterior motive nevertheless; a northerner should not always regard the word as an insult to his identity. There are always exceptions.

No doubt, there are of course several unschooled or less educated northerners. It is frequently mistaken that every northerner is ethnically Hausa. This is false. Several northerners/Hausa people are doing white colour jobs as well. From the little, I observed though, the overall (mis)perception of Hausa man is thus: he is not wise, educated and cannot speak any good English. I was a ‘victim’ of such sweeping stampings twice, though only one deserves narrating.

I booked a flight online. I came to the airport and went straight to the airline counter with my e-ticket and requested them to print a copy for me. The guy did that after showing another customer the e-ticket on my phone and asked her to check her email. He, in sum, did his work effectively. I moved to the other side, to collect my boarding pass. The lady receptionist held back the printed ticket after giving me the boarding pass. I calmly asked her to hand it back to me. She did not only refuse to do just that, she snobbishly smiled and told me that I don’t need it. I shook my head and left, saying, undertone, “Alhamdulillah, I can print it out myself once I get to home”. I know I don’t need it to board the flight, but what is a record for?

For her information, I was once exasperated because I was asked to board yet another flight after crisscrossing continents on other airliners. I don’t consider boarding a flight to travel a luxury. It’s more or less a necessity. With the ongoing, seemingly unabated kidnapping cases on our road, whoever can avoid using the road should do so. This is beside the usual incidents of armed robbery and accidents that have claimed thousands of lives on poor Nigerians.

In Mumbai, however, a customer is a king. Whether you are Punjabi, Malayalee, Kashmiri, whatnot; or Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, etc; black, white, yellow, etc; everyone is treated equally. On this note, I greatly admire their business prowess and put it ahead of ours. Often, Indians will warmly welcome you into their shop and offer you tea or coffee as you bargain. They will also give you their business card to give to others.

As commercial hubs, one expects a lot of hustling and bustling all over the place. There are of course people all around; everyone minds their business. There are so many vehicles on the roads. I admire the discipline demonstrated by the motorists and other road users in Lagos compared to what I am used to in Kano. Since the infamous corruption charges involving the leadership of the Kano Road Transport Authority (KAROTA), the once feared traffic warders are weakened and the road users emboldened. Although this has its significance, its drawback is displayed daily by the way and manner people break road laws. Virtually everyone parks their vehicle wherever he/she chooses, and cares less, some not at all, about traffic lights, and other road offences. The same is not seen in Mumbai and Lagos.

The above is not exhaustive. There are many more divergent and convergent points between these cities. I reminisced my few days in Mumbai throughout my stay in Lagos. I observed even their airports are alike; while Mumbai's was only recently overtaken as the busier than that of New Delhi, Lagos' still is ahead of its Abuja counterpart and so on and so forth. There are many more stories to tell, but that cannot be told in a single article. As a last note, I will recommend any Nigerian to visit Lagos. I think Abuja has yet to outshine Lagos in terms of infrastructure, cleanliness, at least in the highbrow areas; and so on. Open your eyes by visiting Lagos.


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