It’s over 56 years now that I have lived in Mumbai, India. Yet, with every page I read of Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash, I found that I knew next to nothing about my city’s history.
I travelled to work at Nariman Point for over 15 years. But I never thought to ask how and why the district was named Nariman Point. Who was Nariman? The Point part, at least, I always figured to be derived from the fact that the district was at one edge of South Mumbai flanked by the Arabian Sea.
Turns out that the name, Nariman Point, is an absolute irony if not a thumbing of the nose by the city’s powerful elected leaders and business fraternity.
The story behind Nariman Point goes back to the early 1900’s when the British government drew up ambitious plans for expanding the then called Bombay city. The idea was to reclaim land from the sea. The area known as the back bay was earmarked for the ambitious project. Notably even today, some parts of the down town area are called Backbay Reclamation.
The reclamation plan ran into massive trouble with miscalculations ranging from the fact that the Arabian Sea was composed of stiff and not soft clay to how to prevent fillings escaping from the porous sea wall. Naturally there was a big time and cost overrun. It was then that a public outcry led by Khurshed Framji Nariman, a Parsi lawyer and a prominent congressman, gathered momentum finally forcing the government to back pedal and curtail the scale of the reclamation to only two blocks at the then northern and southern ends of the back bay.
Some four decades later when the V. P. Naik led state government revived the reclamation plan, Nariman Point was finally born. Interestingly, at that time, too, there was a major public outcry and accusations of graft. It appears that Mumbai has a long history of the politician-builder nexus!
History had repeated itself, probably reviving memories of Nariman’s spirited fight. As Gyan Prakash points out, “As Marine Drive, flanked by Art Deco buildings, arose in the 1930s and 1940s and became a prestigious and picturesque address, the abandoned blocks looked increasingly like a gold mine. This included the unreclaimed area immediately south of Marine Drive, which the postcolonial government had named Nariman Point to honour the nationalist whose muckraking had turned the 1920s reclamation into a scandal.”
Nariman, to my way of thinking, must have turned in his grave at the naming especially when Air India hung a message on its new, high-rise office billboard that read “Nariman had a point and we are on it.” Of course, on a more thoughtful note, he wasn’t called Veer Nariman (veer means brave) for nothing, fighting for India’s independence and the cause of the common man. So, hopefully the naming had good intentions, if rather thoughtless.
Another fact that I learnt about my city, thanks to Gyan Prakash, was how Horniman Circle got its name! For years, my idle gaze would fall on B.E.S.T buses destination plates that would read ‘Horniman Circle.’ But I never wondered who Horniman was. Now I know. He was B. G. Horniman, an anticolonial Irishman who was also the editor of a nationalist newspaper, Bombay Chronicle.
By the way, it was in Horniman’s newspaper that Nariman lambasted the planned reclamation, calling it, amongst other names “Back Bay Bungle,” and “Back Bay Muddle.”
Yet another amazing story I gleaned from Mumbai Fables was the apocryphal (sic) tale of how Chor Bazaar got its name. No, that one I am not going to share. Interested readers can either read Gyan Prakash’s book or go see Zafar Bhai, the owner of Jubilee Decorators located in Chor Bazaar. Prakash heard the tale from him:)
I chose to revolve this post around facts I discovered about my city, Mumbai. But Mumbai Fables is much, much more.
Prakash chronicles the city’s history from 1498 when Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut. A keen historian and a highly gifted storyteller, Prakash Gyan unfolds the making of Mumbai (once Bombay) from the time it comprised 7 islands and was ruled by the Portuguese to the current day “maximum city” or “dying city” as it is varyingly called.
No book on Mumbai can be complete without examining the role of Bollywood. Prakash does this with great insight, tracing the emergence of the Hindi film industry from the pre-independence day intellectual ferment created by writers such as Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and Majrooh Sultanpuri (to name just two) to the march of the industry along commercial lines.
Along the way, the author of Mumbai Fables also documents the influence of Hindi films on the youth across India. I quote, “This desire for the city was created largely by Bombay cinema.”
It was a desire that lured millions in search of their dreams to a city misleadingly fabled to deliver.
Today, critics lament the fate of a city groaning under the burden.
But, Prakash challenges those critics.
I fell in love with the author when he quotes Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (K. A. Abbas): “Bombay, it has been said, is not a city, it is a state of mind. It is the state of a young man’s mind, exciting and excitable, exuberant and effervescent, dynamic and dramatic.”
That feeling of adoration deepened when I read what Prakash had to say about Dharavi – that it is in reality an economic success story. Here is an excerpt:
“Dharavi is “Allah ka gaon [God’s village],” says Khatija, the old Muslim woman who migrated from Kerala decades ago. It is a cosmopolitan mix brought together by dhandha business deals, clean and shady. Dharavi is pure Mumbai. “No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the prosperity of Dharavi.” Though far from perfect, it represents a form of urbanism characteristic of what architect Rahul Mehrotra calls the “kinetic city.” He distinguishes the kinetic city from the static city, which is composed of architecture and monuments built with permanent materials. The kinetic city represents the city of motion—“the kutcha city, built of temporary material”; it is temporal, a city in “constant flux.” In the apparent chaos of narrow streets crowded with people disgorged by suburban trains, in the constant making and remaking out of recycled materials in Dharavi, in the vital pulsating energy of the informal economy.”
This is not to say that the people of Dharavi and other Mumbaikars don’t deserve the comfort of better, equitable urban planning. They do!
Why I chose to highlight Prakash’s take on Dharavi is because Mumbai’s millions of hard-working people need to be seen from the right lens and not the biased one of the intelligentsia from the comfort of their air-conditioned existence.
The Mumbaikar on the street, in the Mumbai locals, in slums like Dharavi deserve more respect. And Gyan Prakash has given that to them!
On that note, let me leave you with some images of life in the iconic Mumbai local (all images are by my nephew, Aditya Seshadri) and this amusing joke the author recounts featuring Ajit, the now legendary Bollywood villain….
Robert, Usko Hamlet wala poison de do; to be se not to be ho jayega (Robert, give him Hamlet’s poison: from “to be” he will become “not to be”).
Featured Cover Image Credit: Mumbai Local – Image by Aditya Seshadri