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Updated: March 2, 2010 09:42 IST

Mumbai now, Bombay then

MEENA MENON
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This rather large and heavy coffee table book on Mumbai's past and present has a breezy essay on ‘Mumbai Now' by Naresh Fernandes and pictures by the renowned Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Fernandes draws upon his own maternal grandfather's history to illustrate how you can make it anywhere if you make it in Mumbai.

He starts off his contribution with the little known “shuttlers” who ferry film reels from theatre to theatre. “It's the kind of livelihood that could only have been invented in Mumbai.” Fastracking through enterprise, culture, food and movies, he hits on the central point — the point where the city changed dramatically, the communal riots in 1992-93 — and ends with the city becoming the target of terrorism. “No matter how bad things get, they seem to suggest, we have an infinite capacity to cope. But now it's all too clear that we're wearing thin.”

Succinct

In contrast, Jim Masselos presents a succinct and much more rosy picture of the past in the ‘Bombay Then' section, which is interesting and beautifully illustrated in black and white. “Bombay or Mumbai has always been a city of the here and now, of today, of tomorrow and even of the day after.” He brings out how “the efforts of citizens concerned with preserving the city's heritage” have contributed to the importance of Bombay's history.

And so we are taken back in time to the islands and the Elephanta caves and also treated to stories of drunken Portuguese soldiers who shot at the priceless statues out of boredom, the seven islands coming together, the early educational institutions, and how the city acquired a character of diversity. “Bombay town over the first half of the nineteenth century acquired a character of diversity and even cosmopolitanism.

There was a mix of ethnicities, communities, castes, religions and classes. Among them were Armenians and Greeks, Chinese and Persians, Arabs and Jews from outside the subcontinent; while from within it came not only immigrants from the immediate Marathi, Konkani and Gujarat hinterlands but from further afield — from Kerala, Rajasthan, North India and Bengal.”

Taking the reader through a rather snappy account of Bombay's rise as a city, Masselos says that “it was clear by the beginning of the 1920s that Bombay had begun to reach the limits of the seven islands from which it had begun and now needed to move outwards.” The city was beautiful and faithful to its reputation as Urbs Prima in Indis, the first city in India.

A Mumbai resident cannot but feel nostalgic reading about the city's better planned past, which comes out for instance in this observation: “Pherozeshah Mehta, like many other leading men of the city on many occasions and over many years, referred to the beauty of its harbour, the superiority of its location and the calibre of its public buildings.”

Masselos speaks of the “enormous civil pride in Bombay” something that has painfully eroded over the years, of the city's key role in the nationalist struggle, and how it became a “fully Indian city” after Independence.

Breathtaking

The opening page of the ‘Bombay Then' section is a breathtaking and rare photo from the 1880s of the city with a panoramic view along the coast. Other captivating features include: old pictures of the Ganpati festival with smaller crowds, giving it an almost personal touch; rare shots of the first railway line in India, between Bori Bunder and Thane, inaugurated in 1853; the Bombay-Pune railway line that cuts through the Western Ghats; the old Fort walls of the city which were pulled down later; and the old Churchgate station with approach through a moat and the harbour. The black-and-whites of yesteryear serve as a balm for the strained eyes that are so used to a crowded, congested and almost ugly city that Mumbai is now.

One of the pictures of Rampart Row with Flora Fountain (now Hutatma chowk) in the centre is particularly riveting. So are many of the city's aerial views of the Bombay Race Course, Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) apart from the island city itself. Another blissful view is that of the promenade along Chowpatty and Marine Drive with only a few cars, unimaginable today.

In contrast, the ‘Mumbai Now' section is brightly coloured. While the city has changed so much, the picture showing hordes of people walking through a flooded thoroughfare is worth more than a thousand words. And that kind of says it all about Mumbai now.

BOMBAY THEN/MUMBAI NOW: Jim Masselos, Pramod Kapoor, Naresh Fernandes, Chirodeep Chaudhuri; Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., M-75 Greater Kailash II Market, New Delhi-110048. Rs. 2975.

Keywords: MumbaiHistory

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