Second Take — Mumbai
Mumbai is a great leveller. Mostly because of a singular ability to uniformly sandpaper its residents down with commuting, grime and pollution till they are just automatons marching from work to home, unseeing and in a last ditch effort at preservation of sanity, unfeeling. But despite having become part-automaton in the 8 years I’ve lived here, I love this city. For its sea, the lingo, for the many communities who have made it their home and for the sheer variety of landscape. Most of all, I love it for its history. A palimpsest filled with colourful characters, colonial rule, gods, calamities and the BMC.
Unfortunately Mumbai is one of those cities, where those that love it, often do not know it (looking at you Gregory Roberts) and those that know it, seldom love it. Naresh Fernandes is a rare author who possesses both love and knowledge of the city in spades. Last year Aleph, the publishing house released his pocket biography of the city – City Adrift. In the book as he narrates the story of Mumbai, Fernandes peels off the layers of dust and uncovers the stories behind the familiar places we have all passed by. Here are 4 stories I never knew about Mumbai till I read City Adrift.
J.J. Flyover. J.J. School of Arts. J.J. Hospital. I had crossed all these a hundred times and never wondered about the man behind the building. JJ is Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. A poor Parsi who made an enormous fortune in Mumbai, most of it through trade in opium. Unlike the Ambanis and Adanis of today, Jeejeebhoy’s wealth was matched by “jaw-droppingly munificent public philanthropy.” In 1822, Jeejeebhoy spent Rs. 3000 to pay off loans taken by several people who had been jailed for their inability to do so. He then paid for the Mahim Causeway between Bandra and Mahim that consolidated the island’s links with the mainland. According to Fernandes, he spent Rs. 2.5 million in his lifetime on charity. Today, we know him best by the institutions he helped found, J.J. School of Arts and J.J. Hospital. Alas, it seems that the act of public philanthropy died with him. Today the city’s billionaires would rather concentrate on building hideous 27 floor houses for a four-member family to occupy.
Town Hall/Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Fort:
“On November 1, 1858, Bombay’s official Oriental climbed the steps of the Town Hall (now Asiatic Society) to read the proclamation issued by Queen Victoria, taking over charge of India from the East India company.”
Stark white with Doric columns that are impossible to miss, the Asiatic Society of Mumbai is more famous for the steps that lead into it. It has featured in movies like Pyaasa, Gaman and Tezaab. Poor students who don’t get any privacy to study in their cramped dwellings make their way here during exam time to study in peace. And, as I discovered after reading City Adrift, it is here that Queen Victoria officially announced her takeover of the country from the East India Co. Oh, and the society also contains one of the only two original editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Antop Hill/Wadala East:
Many real estate developers are now attempting to rebrand the less than posh origins of Wadala East by calling it ‘New Cuffe Parade’. But did you know that Antop Hill in Wadala East was the final resting place of minority communities who made Mumbai their home? Fernandes explains how the area houses graveyards of Armenians, Chinese, Baha’is and members of the Prarthna Samaj, “The Maharashtrian sibling of the Brahmo Samaj reform movement started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy”. A look at the gravestones is a potent (if a bit macabre) reminder of the true cosmopolitan nature of the city.
Not named after okra, Bhendi Bazaar in South Mumbai is home to the only homegrown gharana that Mumbai has produced. In 1870, three brothers from, Bijnaur, UP came to the city and set up base here. Their popularity gave rise to the Bhendi Bazaar Gharana characterised by “slow, open-throated singing and an improvisational technique that used only a limited number of notes”. Good to know.
Even though it gets a bad rap, Mumbai is not so bad. The next time a long holiday seems like a distant dream, maybe you could look up these places and travel more in time and less in space?
An Associate Producer with the digital platform Film Companion, Kalpana is addicted to movies and can no longer tell if she is in one or watching one or writing about one. She blogs at www.ladymiddlebrow.wordpress.