Mumbai, that wonderful point of aggregation of Indians from all parts of the country, has never been too far from the news. Delhi is mocked as a mere political capital, an agglomeration of babus and netas. Kolkata is too much about culture and Chennai too straitlaced for many. Mumbai, the land of snacks and slangs, commerce and opportunity, is the place to be, they argue. For years, it has been drummed into our heads that the city is all about resilience, that it has a soul which mocks at adversities. Tragedies here are just events, life has to go on — who has forgotten 26/11? Or for that matter the floods. Every time Mumbai is hit, Mumbaikars hit back.
Not just authors and poets, even our Hindi film merchants have celebrated the city ever since cinema moved beyond mythologies. Remember Johnny Walker in CID and that unforgettable number, ‘Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan’. Majrooh Sultanpuri’s words conveyed awe and wonder. Or Akbar Khan in the mid-80s with Haadsa that had the magical song, ‘Yeh Bombay Shaher Haadson Ka Shaher Hai’. Amit Kumar’s words, again, evoked curiosity. More recently, we have had films like Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan . And its sequel. No other city has been similarly seduced, embraced, loved.
Truth to tell, wonderful as these songs are, they convey only a partial picture of the city, a breezy moment of joy. That’s all. The details come with the written words. They provide a picture that may not always be beautiful but still holds your attention. They show the city’s undisturbed elegance, its almost unending heterogeneity; they also show its ugliness, its new-found luxury ghettos, its eternal chaos. I discovered as much with City Adrift , Naresh Fernandes’ short biography that described it as a metropolis “reclaimed from ocean and iniquity”, a place that “effortlessly manufactured the dreams that captivated a nation and drew fortune-seekers to it by the million”.
And it all started with a dream. Goddesses Mahalaxmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati appeared in a dream of a government contractor. They said that when Sultan Mubarak Shah’s men captured the city in 1318, they had fled their ancient haunts in Worli to hide in the creek, the Kshirsagar. If they were brought back to dry land, they promised him, the seawall would hold. Ramji rescued the deities and soon Mahalaxmi was installed in a temple by the shore. The building of the embankment changed the fortunes of Bombay, Naresh quotes Govind Narayan, the city’s earliest biographer.
Then, believe it or not, the city came to the Crown as part of the dowry Charles II received for marrying the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza! Amazingly, Charles was given to understand that the city was “within a very little distance of Brazil”! A little later, he leased Bombay to the East India Company on a rent of 10 pounds per annum. Thus was the prince dispossessed of the “great burden”. With this deal started the city’s unending tryst with commerce. If Naresh supplies dollops of nostalgia, he does not blink when he talks of contemporary politicians and how somebody like Manohar Joshi built Kohinoor Square on a plot of land once occupied by Kohinoor Mills. Its holdings also include hotels, wind-energy farms and technical schools. What he says in these lines is important, what he says between the lines is vital.
Naresh here does not act so much as an author as a facilitator. He just slips into the role of a tour escort, leading you by the hand to the city, its landmarks, its pockmarks. He shows you the picture, lapses into silence, allowing you to draw your own interpretation, your own conclusion. And then at the end takes you by the jugular. Alluding to 26/11, he recalls a text message that said, “Yes, we need to be scared about the people who came in on the boat but we need to be even more worried about the people who came in on our votes”. Yes, he avoids stating the obvious, again happy to let you understand the unsaid.
“The re-islanding of Mumbai does not bode well for its future. A city can flourish only if it has common ground to make common cause,” he concludes with a flourish.
I had not read Naresh earlier. After this tale of a city trying to rediscover its soul, I am sure, it won’t be the last. Naresh indeed paints with words; subtle yet scathing. As for the city, well, it will outlast the Joshis and the rest. After all, as Majrooh told us almost 60 years ago, ‘Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan’.