Bombay and Mumbai: A Tale Of Two Cities

by | 10 Comments | Tags: , , , , | on Dec4 2010

The dark blue signboard saying “Linking Road,” which had stood seemingly forever in the sun and the rain, was gone one day. In its place appeared a shiny new board saying “Netaji Subhash Bose Marg”. Linking Road, the mecca of fashionable shopping in Bombay for decades, was not the only road slated for a re-christening; any road with a ‘colonial’ tag was baptised as patriotic desi. Fresh signs went up all over the city, heralding profuse confusion in terms of the long-winded new names which existed only on the signs and in print, not in human memory. Many of the old names referred to the neighborhoods or islands through which they passed; this geographical connection was now severed. To heighten the confusion, several streets now shared the exact same name. Linking Road now became Netaji Subhash Bose Marg, but so became Marine Drive, another of Bombay’s iconic roads. The right- wing state government was not content with renaming just roads; major buildings and transport terminuses were also renamed. And then came the coup de grâce, in the eyes of half the metropolis, by officially renaming Bombay to Mumbai.

“How silly it sounds, yaar, Moombai. Bombay has such a cool sound, very international, na” a vivacious pony-tailed teenager pouted at St. Xaviers College.

“Man, these Shiv Sainiks are really pushing their Aamchi Mumbai stuff too far,” said an articulate postgraduate from Ruia College.

Such criticism was countered by appreciative remarks from the “pure” Maharashtrian bastions from Shivaji Park to Vile Parle East: “aarey, aamchi Mumbai is getting faar too many outsiders, ho, we need to remind them Mumbai is ours only!”

The re-naming brought into focus the latent divide between the Maharashtrian and non-Maharashtrian communities, both present in Bombay since the founding of the city in the 1600s by the British. Reorganization of India’s states on a linguistic basis under Nehru led to the creation of Maharashtra with Bombay as the state capital. This linguistic identity reinforced regionalist sentiments within sections of the Maharashtrian community that have been inflamed by the right-wing Shiv Sena, who blamed non-Maharashtrians for usurping job opportunities as well as for rising crime and squalor. The Shiv Sena has periodically sponsored terrorism to drive non-Maharashtrains out of Mumbai by dispatching their goons to harass and beat up South Indians in the 1970s and North Indians, especially Biharis, more recently.

Bombay was a group of seven islands separated by mangrove swamps and creeks through which the Arabian Sea rushed in at high tide. Many people perished in storms while island-hopping for jobs, thus prompting the British rulers to join the islands to form one big island. Being gifted with a natural deep-water harbor and the trade that comes with it, Bombay has a cosmopolitan mix virtually unrivalled in India. Parsis from Persia, Afridis from East Africa, Bohris from Pakistan, Saudis and people from all over India and Nepal have settled here for generations in various colourful neighborhoods. Bombay is the least regional of India’s cities; English is its dominant language, spanning business, education and social interaction amongst the upper and middle classes. Bombay has been a leading center of art, intellect and business since the 1800s and the economic capital of India since the 1970s. India’s first international jazz festival, the Jazz Yatra was held here throughout the 1980s and 90s. The shadowy lawless underworld firmly links Bombay to the international web, as graphically portrayed in Shantaram and Maximum City. Dargahs are cultural crossroads of Sufi mysticism and music, with wandering sufis coming in from as far as Central Asia. Indeed, religious buildings of many faiths predate the founding of the city itself — Buddhist and Jain Kanheri caves, St. Andrews’ church, Haji Ali mosque, and the Mahalakshmi and Sitladevi temples.

Peering beyond the Marathi/non-Marathi divide, one finds astonishing diversity within the erstwhile Maharashtrian camp: Koli fisherfolk and pale eyed Konkani intellectuals from the coast, mustachioed macho Marathas from the Deccan, docile Kolahapuris and rugged Sholapuris from the dry heat of Vidarbha – all their cultures are expressed in nondescript Maharashtrian restaurants that have to be visited to discover differences in cuisine. After all, Maharashtra is a huge state, which in India means new dialects, customs, clothes and ecosystems every couple hundred kilometers down the road.

It has always been Mumbai to the Marathi speaking community and Bombay to the rest. For me, there is also a time component. Growing up in the 1970s, Bombay was a bustling yet breathable collection of small fishing villages, quaint red tiled houses, old textile mills, colonial roads, festive chawls and clean beaches. High-rises were present only at Nariman point, a novelty for people from other parts of India, who stood below the skyscrapers counting the 35-plus floors, open mouthed, craning their heads up to the sky. Today, one is surrounded by high-rises in every direction and in all parts of the city. The tearing down of small, old buildings to create these high-rises has led to a demographic shift in population. Bombay as I knew it rarely exists except deep in some old neighborhoods. Old timers find it unlivable: the crowds, the traffic, the endless construction upwards, and the dust create a perpetual haze blocking out most of the sunshine.

After a decade of denial, I now accept it: Bombay has become Mumbai, as pointed out in the film Slum Dog Millionaire. Still, the essence of the city, its urban dynamism, remains and unites Bombay and Mumbai. It is one of the very few cities in the world where a foreign language, English, has become the primary means of communication uniting the bewildering mosaic of ethnicities, cultures, religions and races. We are all Bombayites, we are all Mumbaikers.

References:
http://www.mumbaispace.com/cityinfo/newnames.ht on renaming Bombay streets
http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/trading/bombay/history.html on history of Bombay
http://www.mumbainet.com/template1.php?CID=15&SCID=5
http://www.dancewithshadows.com/mumbai_history.asp
http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/10721189 on the rise of Marathi regionalism
http://www.shantaram.com/: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, 2003
http://www.suketumehta.com/ft.html – Maximum City: Bombay lost and found by Suketu Mehta, 2005

Footnotes:
Maharashtra: a state in India of which Mumbai/Bombay is the political capital. Before the creation of Maharashtra state, Bombay was the capital of Bombay state, that included parts of Maharashta, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
Shiv Sainiks: members of the rightwing Shiv Sena, a political party based in Pune and active in Maharashtra, who advocate “Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians”. They are also allied to rightwing hindu supremacy groups Rashtreya Sevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Dal/Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Aamchi Mumbai: “Our Mumbai”, in Marathi. Used as a slogan by Shiv Sena.
Chawls: multistory (1-5) houses whose apartments or units open out to a common verandah that traverses the length of the building. Constructed to house textile millworkers and government workers, these houses are now ubiquitous in central Mumbai.
Dargahs: burial places of sufi muslim saints where pilgrims stay.


About Amartya Saha :
Amartya has a PhD in ecology and works as an ecohydrologist with the objective of protecting watershed ecosystems. He has worked in India, Argentina, Brazil and the US. He is also a musician involved in various projects, from playing bass for the Colombian jazzrock group Filigranas to sufi music in South Florida. He finds nazar an excellent platform for writing about socio-environmental issues facing South Asia.
View all posts by Amartya Saha
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10 comments

  1. Pab Pablo says:

    Dec 6, 2010

    Reply

    Hi,
    Another good piece after the North-East tamasha. From Bombay to Mumbai is a political shortcut for people who want and think like ” Hapapacha maal Gapapa ” meaning this is my fathers treasure,shall use it as I like. The whole rot lies with the people who are illeterate, rather kept illiterate, half-fed and living in slums that all the villages are today. Today democarcy is raped by the goons in the garb of leaders,Netas who are elected by these stalwarts of democracy,the poor common man. Good luck Bharat,good luck Mumbai.

    • amartya says:

      Dec 7, 2010

      Reply

      Yes, Pab Pablo, indeed the solution to the world’s problems( be exploitation of people or natural resources ) lies in education. As long as teachers’ salaries are low, good teachers will be very few. As long as the school curriculum remains antiquated, people won’t go the extra effort to get their children educated, while the netas will capitalize on these huge illiterate votebanks…

  2. Sarah says:

    Dec 7, 2010

    Reply

    Interesting. I had always wondered about the re-naming…

  3. Bulbul says:

    Dec 7, 2010

    Reply

    I agree with the author’s point for the most part. Just like New York, “Mumbai” belongs to the entire country if not world.

    However, something has to be done in terms of policies to understand and answer the disgruntled feelings of amchi loka!!

  4. Abad says:

    Dec 12, 2010

    Reply

    Mumbai city names comes from “MumbaDevi” temple. Mumba-Aai: Aai means mother.

    Original name was indeed pronounced ‘Mumbayn’, in realty there was no
    English at that time. It was used by natives of this place which were typically Kolis and Agaris (fishermans).

    British/Protugeese came in. They destroyed the culture, looted & divided India. They renamed this local place to Bombay. You can still see that people kept calling Bambai (Bombay + Mumbai) in Hindi.

    So in short rename history is:

    Mumbayn(1525) => Bombay (1700) => Mumbai (1995)

    I have to admit that in last 10 years Mumbai is has lost its charm. It has become beyond over crowded with rampant crime rate.

    • amartya says:

      Jan 1, 2011

      Reply

      thanks for the one-liner timeline of the name ! Yes, it is very unfortunate that Mumbai has gotten so insanely crowded, as the only way it can accomodate the masses thronging in every day is by growing vertically upwards. Studies of overcrowding of mice in labs has shown that mice get more aggressive, and certainly a similar result can happen with humans. The weird thing is that Mumbai still has a good work ethic, that leads to businesses setting up shop, that in turn leads to immigration with attendant negative feedbacks.
      Yet, if one looks closely enuff, there are islands of tranquility in Mumbai, all over, especially in the pre-dawn hours.

  5. Santanu says:

    Dec 12, 2010

    Reply

    Bombay people have problem of Biharis now. What about Bengalis? We bengalis have Biharis problem from last 2-3 decades.. Where ever they go they create crime, mess and slum dog area.

    Even in Delhi it is not a different story..

    Bihari culture is well shown by Gabbar singh (Daku/Dakaiti) in Shole movie..

    • amartya says:

      Jan 1, 2011

      Reply

      Sholay is a classic, no doubt ! Although Biharis will suggest that Gabbar represents everyone fron Gwalior/Bundelkhand area to Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh and Andhra..
      The “Bihari Problem” as termed by non-Biharis, is visible as they arrivge in cities which are already full, and hence have to live in slums.

      However, Biharis have gained a foothold in Kolkata because they work way harder than the Bengali bhadralok. All the heavy labor, construction rickshaw pulling, porters etc in Kolkata are from Bihar. Likewise in other cities like Bombay and Bangalore, where they are pouring in.

      Why so many Biharis leave their state, which has some of the most fertile land in India, is largely due to internecine caste wars.

  6. Aditya says:

    Dec 17, 2010

    Reply

    Love it. Absolutely love it.
    You’ve done your research well, my friend.

    Good job!

    • amartya says:

      Jan 1, 2011

      Reply

      Thank you, Aditya !

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