Bombay Showcase

Back when we were young

1897 picture of people leaving Bombay by special trains at the Victoria Station after the Bubonic plague struck.  

In his account of Bombay from 1863, Mumbaiche Varnan, Govind Narayan tells this anecdote. A famous portrait painter was approached to make the portrait of a young prince. The painter declined politely, citing the prince’s adolescence; the young royal’s countenance was bound to alter in the years to follow and the painter’s image would no longer be true to its subject. “Mumbai is also in a similar situation,” says Narayan (from the translation Govind Narayan’s Mumbai by Murali Ranganathan). “It is at the height of its youthful years and there is no telling how it will develop in the years to come.”

In 2016, we ponder over the city in the thick of a mid-life crisis, refusing to grow up and think about its future, in denial and unwilling to learn from the past. As it lives life in the fast lane, rueing lost opportunities and flirting with danger in its never-ending quest for prosperity, its countenance has altered, but its quirks and traits remain unchanged.

Building Bombay

Even as political parties stake their cultural claim over it, there’s no denying that the city was a creation of the British. According to the 1891 census, only a quarter of Bombay’s population was born within city limits. The city as we know it today was conceived by the British and built by multiple communities and migrants, all of whom contributed to the shaping of its identity. As Count Hans Von Koenigsmarck put it in The Charm of Bombay: An Anthology of Writings in Praise of the First City in India, by RP Karkaria (1915), the city was both “pan-Asiatic and cosmopolitan — a melting pot of races and religions.” It was a city of bazaars and buildings, fields and orchards, of nautch girls, drunken sailors and speeding buggies.

In ‘Animated Life of the Bazaars,’ from the book Chow Chow Vol I (1857), Lady Amelia Falkland (married to Viscount Falkland, Governor of Bombay from 1848 to 1853) describes how Bombay’s bazaars buzzed with a diverse population including Chinese “with long tails”, Arab horse dealers and their Abyssinian servants, Bohras, “toddy-drawers carrying large vessels on their heads”; Armenian priests and Jews; Hindu, Muslim and Portuguese (Goan) attendants.

By the late 1800s, Bombay was an industrial hub whose mills and factories attracted migrants from Satara, Konkan and other parts of India, leading to separate housing and eating venues for each community. A number of factors led to the integration of these various ghettoised communities. Unsurprisingly, the Irani café culture that welcomed patrons of all creeds, also played a role in this intermingling.

The diversity, however, posed unusual problems. Bombay Presidency, like the rest of the Raj, had to deal with the problem of ‘loafers’ or homeless Europeans. SM Edwardes (commissioner of police from 1909 to 1916) wrote about penniless women and children being transported to other parts of India, and to Persia, Mauritius, Egypt, South Africa and Singapore. The First World War raised the problem of ‘hostile aliens’ citizens of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, who were deported to their home countries. Among these were several European prostitutes and pimps.

Crime and punishment

The city saw embezzlement, burglary, dacoity, rape, fraud, opium- and cocaine-smuggling, addiction, gambling ( barsaat-ka-satta, betting on the arrival date of the monsoon, was popular). As it grew in size and diversity, Hindu-Muslim and Shia-Sunni riots became a regular occurrence, especially during the period of Moharram. And as public Ganpati processions became common, clashing with Moharram processions.

As if to prove the stereotype wrong, a Hindu and a Muslim demonstrated that they could work in harmony. The Bombay Gazette of January 4, 1904, ran this piece of news titled ‘Sacrilege’: “At the Mazagon Police Court on Saturday, before Mr PH Dastur, Sub-Inspector Secundar Khan of the Criminal Investigation Department charged Hooseinkhan Mahomed Khan, a Mahomedan and Bala Luximon, a Hindu, with stealing silver vessels valued at Rs 300 from the church in Thana.”

In the same year, a Parsi Customs clerk entrusted with the sum of Rs 517 by his British employers, was charged with criminal breach of trust and misappropriation of funds. He pleaded guilty and confessed to having gambled away the entire amount at the races. He was sentenced to pay a fine of Rs 100 or suffer two months of hard labour.

The police bore the brunt of having to alternately control and protect Bombay’s diversity. The ‘Thagi and Dakaiti’ department in the Indian police had already laid the foundation for the Criminal Investigation Department, which preceded Scotland Yard. The British also employed the services of the local Bhandari militia to maintain law and order in the early years.

The Bombay constable, thanks to his comical uniform — a dark blue tunic and ‘knickers’, and a bright yellow cap — was the butt of racist humour: he was called “the empty black bottle with the yellow seal.” The police reorganisation of 1909 brought Indians to the ranks of officers: Anglo-Indian sergeants or junior British officers could now report to an Indian superior. “British officers considered educated Indian officers their equals and trusted them with secrets,” says city historian Deepak Rao. “As for the latter, duty came first. It may have been different with the constables.”

The city saw several prominent commissioners. Charles Forjett (only an ‘acting’ commissioner owing to his Anglo-Indian roots) was responsible for the structure of the Bombay City Police; Sir Patrick Kelly, the city’s longest-serving commissioner (1922-1933), is often referred to as the ‘Father of the Modern City Police’. Forjett spoke several Indian languages and roamed around the city in disguise, particularly during the 1857 Revolution. Kelly spoke fluent Pashtu and started the Pathan branch to control armed dacoity by Pathan gangs. Many Indian officers rose up the ranks; the most prominent being KJ Petigara, the first Indian Deputy Commissioner (only a British officer could become commissioner).

Quirks and anecdotes

Count Von Koenigsmarck said that “the city of Parsee millionaires is at the same time, the city of the plague.” The Black Death, the bubonic plague, struck Bombay in 1896 and returned from time to time, causing death and desertion of homes. Houses where a plague death had occurred were marked with a red ring. Among the many reasons for the plague, says E Washburn Hopkins in India Old and New, was the idea that the plague was punishment for having defaced the Queen’s statue and strung a garland of slippers around its neck. ‘An Humble Appeal To His Excellency The Right Honourable Governor of Bombay’ was sent in repentance, with a plea to suspend business and exhort people of all religions and nationalities to devote time to prayer to rid the city of the disease. The plague did not stop the notorious ‘professional house-breakers’, Nanabhai Dinshaw Daruwala and Tyebali Alibhai from breaking into homes temporarily abandoned by their owners. They were arrested in 1907 and 1908 respectively.

An entertaining incident occurred at the time of Viceroy Lord Chelmsford’s arrival in 1916. On noticing the absence of people lining the streets to welcome him, the police rounded up petty criminals, informants and homeless people, and gave them new clothes and a small sum of money. “The plan worked well. As the new Viceroy’s carriage swept out of Queen’s Road onto the bridge, the signal was given and a hearty burst of hand-clapping, punctured with cries of shabash, rose from the little crowd of disreputables at the corner. No one knew who they were, except the police who had hunted them out of their haunts a few hours previously,” says SM Edwardes inThe Bombay City Police: A Historical Sketch, 1672-1916.

Like then, like now

As the city grew, and the railways, electricity and cars arrived, people’s lives began to change. Property rates soared and the stock market was established. The Independence movement gained momentum. It was a time of cultural, political and social evolution.

The character of the adolescent city remains unchanged in many ways. In 1893, almost exactly a hundred years before the 1992-3 riots, existing tensions between Hindus and Muslims — owing to the demand of the Hindus that the killing of cows, goats and sheep be banned — further escalated with the Prabhas Patan riots in Kathiawar, where a Muslim mob attacked temples and killed some Hindus. Bombay came to a standstill for ten days, 50,000 people fled the city, 100 were killed and the damage to property, temples and mosques was irreparable. It was following these riots, SM Edwardes writes, that Tilak formed the Anti-Cow-Killing Society.

Marathi, Parsi, Gujarati and Urdu theatre often employed mythological themes to communicate hidden nationalistic messages. Censorship acts — some remain applicable today — kicked in to suppress dissent; the police began to censor plays, confiscate books and prohibit religious songs they found objectionable.

There was concern about the increase in property prices and vehicular traffic; when the number of lorries went up to 70 in 1915, the Motor Vehicles Act was passed.

Even in those times, the police were overworked and underpaid. “Constables were known to take bribes,” says Rao, “and were called ‘tukdiwalas’.” In addition, they received donations from nautch girls, sadhus, Pathan dock workers, Siddis, Irani café owners and a Parsi theatre group. (And yet the entire force donated a day’s pay to the Imperial War Relief Fund in 1914.)

The city’s craze for fitness and gyms is not new. Akhadas were common and gymnasia, often segregated by religion (and for men only). The Hindu Sarvajanik Vyayamshala in Girgaon was established in 1888. Others like Chalke’s Gymnasium combined wrestling with gymnastics. It was here that the legendary Sandow was beaten by a man of slight build. Meanwhile, the well-spoken KG Rao, lead gymnast from the famous 1920s Tarabai Circus, opened a modern gym equipped with Roman rings, the trapeze, single- and double-bars, a boxing ring and swimming pool, among other facilities. Members included celebrities like the Billimoria brothers, Prithviraj Kapoor (often seen with a three-year-old Raj Kapoor in tow), the actor David, among others. Members would demonstrate their skills annually at a ticketed event held at Empire Theatre, Excelsior or Opera House, until Professor Rao’s Gym closed in 1932.

As the city grows older (not necessarily wiser), it might be worthwhile revisiting its early years, looking back at its quirks with fondness, learning a few lessons along the way, and finally painting a realistic portrait.

Janhavi Acharekar is the author of the historical novel Wanderers, All , a collection of short stories Window Seat: Rush-hour stories from the city , and the travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa . The city of Bombay/ Mumbai features prominently in her writing.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 8:24:50 PM |

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