Light, Colour and Real Estate

Amit Chaudhuri

  • Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra
    Faber, 257 pp, £6.99, March 1998, ISBN 0 571 19208 4

Although Bombay and Mumbai are the same city in reality, they are probably two different cities of the mind, or at any rate the names signify two phases in its history. Bombay was a colonial city; even when I was growing up in it through the early Sixties and the Seventies, its colonial planning and allocations were largely intact. Cumballa and Malabar Hill, Kemp’s Corner, Breach Candy all on one side, and, on the other, the curve of the Marine Drive as it led towards Church-gate, Nariman Point, Cuffed Parade and the Gateway of India: within these loosely-defined parameters were situated schools such as Cathedral and John Connon as well as Campion, colleges like Elphinstone and St Xavier’s, the important office buildings that belonged both to the Government and to private companies, the Bombay Gymkhana club, and the Jaslok and Breach Candy Hospitals. This was where not only the ministers’ houses were concentrated, but where the professionally qualified – corporate executives, doctors, orthopaedic and plastic surgeons, solicitors, newspaper editors – mainly lived with their families, with a small service industry of dieticians and beauticians at hand; the kind of people who had inherited from their colonial rulers flats, clubs, roads, specific residential and work areas, along with table manners, a certain intimacy with the English language, and a comparable distance from the less privileged around them. New, tall buildings would come up unexpectedly; their names would become famous – architectural celebrities in a city that loved celebrity and once even had a magazine of that name. With its sea-breeze, its year-long sun, its ambitions of upward mobility, this part of Bombay in the Sixties and Seventies could feel like a Californian city in the Fifties, where the notion of ‘having fun’ still existed within the constricting but benevolent circumscription of middle-class values.

If you moved down Peddar Road or Breach Candy towards Haji Ali, you would pass the Willingdon Club and the Race Course on your right, almost the last full-blooded colonial outpost, and then gradually approach parts of the city that were glamorous and accessible, but relatively distant, such as Juhu, with its beach, where the film stars and certain members of the upper class lived. And then there were the shabbier, sometimes older, sometimes industrialized sections of the city, a few of them on the outskirts – Dadar, Chembur, Matunga – where a local populace, largely Marathi-speaking and often middle-middle or lower-middle class (teachers, lecturers clerks and small businessmen) lived a more rooted, less demonstrative kind of life.

Bombay, as every school textbook in the city relates, consisted of seven fishing islands given as a gift by the Emperor Bahadur Shah to the Portuguese, who then offered them as a dowry to Charles II at the time of his marriage to Catherine of Braganza. What was one to do with such a dowry? Well, through a process of reclamation, the seven fishing islands became Bombay. As Saleem Sinai says (after reciting the opening stanza of the Cathedral and John Connon School song to his perpetual companion in Midnight’s Children): ‘Our Bombay, Padma!’ Although the city is a peninsula, it still gives the impression of being an island because of the predominance of water – the Arabian Sea – around it. One of the hundreds of short-lived magazines that came out of this city was called Island; and Nissim Ezekiel, the oldest among the Bombay poets who writes in English, a Jew and the descendant of migrant ancestors, has a poem of the same name about what it means to belong to this constantly growing city:

Unsuitable for song as well as sense
the island flowers into slums
and skyscrapers, reflecting
precisely the growth of my mind.
I am here to find my way in it.

Yet perhaps the city is metaphorically an island even if it isn’t one physically – in its atypicality as an Indian city; in its self-containment and complex extremes of wealth and destitution.

Bombay was officially renamed Mumbai in 1996, after the Shiv Sena Party, in an alliance with the BJP, came to power in Maharashtra (the state whose capital is Bombay), and the permanent leader of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, became the most powerful man in the state, the unofficial ‘remote control’ (as he called himself) of the Chief Minister. Mumbai is the local Marathi word for the city; it is supposedly derived from the name of a local (certainly not a canonical) Hindu deity, Mumba, a goddess who was probably worshipped by the fisher folk of the islands. Those who favour the renaming say that Bombay is a Westernised corruption of Mumbai; others that Mumbai is a local corruption of Bombay, which is derived from the Portuguese Bom Bahen, or ‘good harbour’.

The Shiv Sena, which effected the renaming as a consciously political act, was once a Marathi chauvinist party, intent on driving out ‘foreigners’ like Tamils from Bombay. Its politics were, at best, a nuisance to the genteel and more tolerant sections of Bombay and, at worst, a disgrace, but it never posed a serious electoral threat to the Congress. Its political fortunes were revived when it was reborn as a Hindu chauvinist party in the Eighties, the decade that witnessed the rise of the BJP and the upsurge of Hindu nationalism in the country. (In the elections in February this year, it and the BJP have surprised themselves by losing heavily in Maharashtra, where they were most complacent.) Bal Thackeray, once a deft cartoonist for a local newspaper, has created his most perfect caricature in himself: saffron-robed, with the lean, be-spectacled face of an arithmetic teacher, a self-proclaimed admirer of Hitler, but with the name of a 19th-century English novelist. The appeal that people like him have lately had for the electorate owes most, I suspect, to the waning of the Congress, a party increasingly beset by scandals and bereft of ideology, and to the incessant internal and external squabblings of the other parties. Thackeray is a shrewd opportunist; he has pursued wildly opportunistic and sometimes contradictory policies, encouraging big business, law and order and the underworld all at once, and would like to drive out ‘foreigners’ (Muslims without ration cards by which they can be identified) while welcoming Michael Jackson.

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