Idea of Bombay, making of Mumbai

“Mumbai is still a resilient city. As we sprang back from the riots of 1992 and 1993, so did we recover, quickly, from the cloudburst and floods of 2005... Each time, we went back. We regained our swagger and our style.” Picture shows the Taj Mahal Hotel under siege in November 2008. Photo: Vivek Bendre  

People like me, people who came of age in the eighties in middle-class urban India, grew up in a different India. We were something of an in-between generation. Our grandparents lived through the transition from colony to nation; our parents grew up in the years of nation building. We grew up taking independence and a certain degree of development for granted, without having all the gadgets, the conveniences, the consumer goods, and the general first world-ness that the young of today were born into.

We also grew up with messages of unity in diversity surrounding us. We were all one, despite our religious and cultural differences, advertisements and pre-movie short films (and when TVs came into our homes, Doordarshan) told us. ‘Ek, Anek’, as a particularly cute animated short put it.

Peter Griffin
And while even our young minds knew there was an element of propaganda here, we chose to believe in it, or at least to subscribe to the notion that that was the way things should be.

To stripling me, Bombay pretty much exemplified this. After living in Visakhapatnam, Secunderabad and Madras, none of them small towns by any means, I was now in a true metropolis. The neighbourhood where we lived, the kids in my school, the markets, the buses, the trains, most of all the trains: all of this city teemed with diversity; it was like living in a Films Division short.

I grew up, with more friends whose families had come here from various parts of India — one, two, maybe three generations ago — than those who could claim centuries of city-born ancestry. Quite natural in a city that did not really exist as a city before hunks of its hills were toppled into the gaps between islands to make new land. We celebrated each other’s holidays and high days with gusto, visiting each other, sending across sweets and savouries to each other to better share the joy.

When you visited relatives back in the ‘native place’ during the summer holidays — in this city of migrants, everyone seemed to be from somewhere else — your Bombayness was acknowledged with gentle proscriptions along the lines of ‘you can’t do X here; this is not Bombay.’

The way it was

Don’t get me wrong. It is not that the city was immune to communal and religious divides, that caste and class lines did not exist — it would be beyond childishly naive to suggest that — it was just that it felt like we were living in a country that was trying to rise beyond those schisms and, more important, in a great city that was leading the way in that effort, a city that had always been a pioneer in progressive thought. (Remember the Quit India movement? Remember where it was launched?) In Bombay, one could believe, the place you were born in, the god you bowed to, the language you spoke, the food you ate, none of these would stop you from making it as long as you were willing to work hard.

That changed in 1992. The demolition of the faraway Babri Masjid that December brought riots to Bombay. For those of us who lived here through those times, there was a chill in the air far colder than the city’s puny winters could ever bring. Men shaved off their beards lest they be mistaken for Muslims. Nominal Christians who weren’t the most regular of churchgoers made sure their crosses were visible. Nameplates that had names easily identified as being from the ‘wrong’ community were taken down, leaving behind clean rectangles on otherwise weathered walls and doors. The first mentions of vegetarian housing societies came up. People talked softer in trains and buses for a while. Those riots, the ones that followed in January 1993, and then the bomb blasts that March, they killed many innocents. And they also delivered a mortal wound to Bombay’s belief in its invulnerability from the small-mindedness lesser towns and cities were plagued by. When the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition that came to power in the next state elections renamed the city Mumbai, it was just a literal ending to the idea of Bombay; that city had already become something else.

Through flood and fire

(Melting pot: “Bombay was all about differences coming together and somehow working.” Picture shows a stretch at Dharavi. Photo: AP)

Mumbai is still a resilient city. As we sprang back from the riots of 1992 and 1993, so did we recover, quickly, from the cloudburst and floods of 2005. We survived the body blows of the multiple blasts that ripped apart local trains in 2006. We got through the full frontal terror attacks of 2008, the seventh sad anniversary of which we mark this week. Yes, even then, we stopped what we were doing and stayed home and watched our televisions, but we were soon back at work, a little quieter, a little more thoughtful, a lot more fearful, but what does one do, livings must be earned. Each time, we went back. We regained our swagger and our style.

Mumbai, like Bombay, has no time to spare, where distances are measured in minutes and hours, not kilometres. It is still a place that rewards hard work, where fortunes can be made from humble beginnings.

Mumbai is a more crowded city than Bombay ever was, but that was inevitable; gold-paved streets are magnetic, but an island only has so much space in which to grow. And this has meant that we pay ludicrous prices for the cubes of air we call our homes, that we spend precious hours just getting to and from our places of work, that our open spaces are threatened, that builders can buy politicians and bureaucrats will conspire. (For me, it’s meant that my family had to move out of the city, to its little sister across the creek. Once it was called New Bombay, then the municipal signboards welcoming you to the city were blackened with tar, and a new name was painted over it in rough letters: Navi Mumbai. That name become official too. Just history repeating itself in a different geography.)

Mumbai is still safer for women, for children, for the aged, than most other cities are. It is still a home to the arts and culture and sport and entertainment and all the fine things that are worth working hard for, the better to appreciate and enjoy them.

We live more comfortable lives, certainly, than most of India. We can take our electricity for granted most of the time. And though we panic about the water levels in our lakes, we somehow make it through each year until the monsoons arrive. Our air is far from clean, but the sea breeze bails us out most days, blowing away some of the smog.

And yes, we are richer. And yes, we have so much that more developed countries have, the big brands and the High Streets, the glass towers and the luxury cars. Heck, we may not be Shanghai yet, but we have our very own suspension bridge.

But in the Mumbai of today, it has become okay to talk of the Other.

Bigotry is now legitimate; it no longer speaks in whispers, it is loud, it shrieks on our streets, shuts down shops, and sometimes the whole city. It does not want you to live in its buildings, it does not want you to cook your way, dress your way.

In this unsentimental city, hurt sentiments take centre-stage more often these days. (And we, the media, cannot absolve ourselves from blame for providing a steady stream of the publicity to the publicity-seeking hurt sentiment that comes our way.)

Again, don’t get me wrong. Just as it was not a total free thinker’s paradise when my generation was growing up, it certainly is not hell in which we find ourselves in our middle age. Things are undoubtedly and demonstrably worse in other parts of India and, yes, the world.

We will survive

Mumbai, like Bombay, has no time to spare… It is still a place that rewards hard work, where fortunes can be made from humble beginnings.

Mumbai still is, and regularly proves itself to be, more progressive in its thinking than most places. In Mumbai, hard work still rules, and good ideas can still find a home. In Mumbai, you can still say what you believe, and be sure that no one will try to kill you if what you say offends them… reasonably sure, that is. I can still casually call the city Bombay, as an old friend can do, without more than the odd idiot on Twitter scolding me. Perhaps one day louts-for-hire may gherao this newspaper’s office if their paymaster’s delicate feelings are hurt by something we say, but this newspaper will still come out the next day, and its journalists will still walk the streets unafraid.

But here’s the thing. Today, liberal voices are more hushed; free speech advocates now censor themselves. This can only be a bad thing in a city founded on free movement: of people, of goods, of money, of ideas.

Bombay was all about differences coming together and somehow working. Bombay celebrated its differences, made the most of them and like some medieval alchemist, it conjured up success and growth. One couldn’t expect any less from a city that was imagined up out of seven islands and lots of swamp and sea.

But maybe that’s a lot of poetic tosh, born of too much brainwashing by the Films Division in one’s formative years.

Perhaps the Idea of Bombay began to die before the name did. And perhaps now, while it still gasps for breath, it’s really past hope and we should let that idea go. That would make me sad.

There’s a part of me, though, that doesn’t want to believe that: the part of me that still calls the city Bombay, as if using that name would conjure it back into existence. Who knows? Maybe there are enough of us, and if we all think about it really, really hard…

(Email: peter.griffin@thehindu.co.in)

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 6:34:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/idea-of-bombay-making-of-mumbai/article7924214.ece

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