By Swapan Dasgupta
Let me make yet another horrible confession of political incorrectness. I happen to be among the minuscule die-hards who are instinctively at ease with Bombay, rather than Mumbai. Perish the thought that this has anything to do with any aesthetic repugnance for the Shiv Sena-BJP government that effected the change in the mid-1990s. It is simply a question of habit and a dogged refusal to change with the times. I can’t speak for Marathi and Hindi speakers but to one of Macaulay’s orphans, Bombay sounds more natural than Mumbai. In secular India, however, it is de rigueur to say Mumbaikar rather than Bombayite.
I am, of course, neither a Mumbaikar nor a Bombayite. My closest connection with the fabled “Mumbai spirit” about which the English TV channels and a particular breed of bleeding hearts go on and on, is the striking, light-blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire. I have always been a casual visitor to the city—one who takes taxis rather than the commuter trains to travel from Colaba to Borivili—and naturally prefer the verandah of the Bombay Gymkhana to the conviviality of the Ganesh Lunch Home. My Bombay is hazy and centred on people rather than places.
Yet, even from a distance, the slow transition from Bombay to Mumbai was more than apparent. In my mind, there were always two Bombays. The first, gleamed from countless Hindi films of the Sixties, centred on the juxtaposition of the bright lights of Malabar Hill with the rain-soaked slums where the other half lived. Bombay, it was apparent, was a city of extremes—where fat cats and dynamic entrepreneurs prospered and working people, like Raj Kapoor in Shree 420, struggled. It was also a metropolis marked by the archaic charm of the Parsis, the dash of the Gujaratis and the civilised decency of the Marathi middle classes.
Bombay was always an old city. The Indo-Saracenic architecture of its public buildings and the lovely art-deco style of the 1940s apartment buildings, gave Bombay a style of its own. Of the three cities created by the Raj, Bombay, in fact, was always the least British. Unlike Calcutta where Marwaris serviced the dominant Scot-dominated boxwallahs, the economy of Bombay was always firmly in the hands of the “natives”.
The implication of this on the collective mindset of Bombay was profound. The nationalist movement was very generously funded by the Bombay elite because they wanted a state that would accord preferential treatment to Indians. At the same time, the more visceral dimensions of anti-colonialism which were so marked among the Bengali babus in Calcutta and the impoverished Muslim gentry of the United Provinces was missing from the city. Bombay bowed to three deities—Ganpati and Goddess Lakshmi, the icons of good living and wealth, and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the symbol of Hindu assertion.
The importance of Shivaji to Bombay can hardly be overstated. He was, of course, the audacious folk hero who had made a daring escape from Agra fort and clawed one of Aurangzeb’s general’s to death. At the same time, he was the founder of the only, self-avowedly Hindu kingdom in modern times. The Hindus, it is said, were always a nation who lacked the vision of a state. In Hindu pad-padshahi, Shivaji and his Peshwa successors conferred on the Hindus a sense of governance.
The British realised the importance of this phenomenon far more presciently than future Indian historians. A few years ago, I read the autobiography of the Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the man who was assassinated by Madanlal Dhingra in London—an act of retribution for O’Dwyer’s complicity in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. A passage from the book, published in 1925, is worth recounting. The Maratha Brahmins, wrote O’Dwyer, “have by actual experience learned what it is to rule; the others have, for at least nine centuries, been under successive conquerors; and with all their forensic ability show so far no indications of any capacity for organising a government of their own.”
The profound sense of civic pride and local activism that was the hallmark of Bombay was a legacy of this historical ability to wield power. Bombay was always a well-governed city because the politicians of all hues—Congressmen, Socialists, Communists and Hindu nationalists—imbibed the Peshwa tradition of sophisticated statecraft. All the major political and social movements, from the Dalit self-respect movement to the Hindu assertiveness over Ram Janmabhoomi, found reflection in Bombay.
It was a happy city too. So much so that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a stalwart of the Bombay Bar, always dreamt of spending his last years in the house on Malabar Hill rather than some god-forsaken palace in Karachi.
The deluge began with a series of parallel developments—the growth of a lumpen Shiv Sena, the rise of a powerful Muslim underworld and, finally, the coming of age of a deracinated cosmopolitan elite. Many of these developments had their origins between the mid-Sixties and early-Eighties but they flowered and took shape around the time that Bombay was unceremoniously dumped for Mumbai.
The 1992-93 riots were, in many ways, a turning point. The more lumpen elements of the Shiv Sena emerged as saviours of the Hindus and soon turned their skills from protection to extortion. The more rabid of the Bhendi Bazar lot acquired disproportionate clout within the Muslim community, overshadowed pragmatic elements like the Bohras, and, after linking up with the underworld, formed the nucleus of the terrorist cells which organised the first devastating bombings in March 1993. And, finally, the riots and the subsequent serial blasts became the occasion for a clutch of cosmopolitan activists—with generous help from the media—to hijack the agenda of activism. Working in the Times of India during those turbulent days, I recall the editorial savagery which greeted the suggestion that the ISI and Dawood Ibrahim had anything to do with the blasts. Rajdeep Sardesai even wrote an edit page article regretting that Dawood’s patriotism was being questioned by nasty saffronites.
Given this backdrop, the public life of today’s Mumbai has only a passing resemblance with the vibrant activism of Bombay. For all its obsession with money, Bombay always nurtured a fierce sense of right and wrong. Even Bal Thackeray’s movement was born of a legitimate sense of marginalisation felt by Marathi-speaking citizens. And, with leaders like S.A. Dange and George Fernandes at the helm, the Communists and Socialists did address the issue of working class rights quite effectively.
After Mumbai, the priorities have got horribly skewed.
It’s the depoliticisation of civic culture that is at the root of the problem. It is pertinent to ask whether this was a pattern triggered by the media or an emerging trend that merely found reflection in the growing importance of mindless supplements and Page Three. Whatever the reason, it witnessed the emergence of a wave of hedonism and a socially-sanctioned disregard for larger community interests. There is something profoundly wrong when advertising agencies start setting the social agenda—and this is precisely what has been happening in Mumbai for more than a decade.
Mumbai has unleashed the powerful entrepreneurial instincts of a people and, at the same time, been unable to give them a sense of belonging. I have little or no doubt that if Mumbai’s civic crisis persists, these very dynamic forces will vote with their feet and relocate nationally or globally. There is nothing but the fear of more bombings to tie them to Mumbai.
Seen from a distance, it is Mumbai’s disinterest with itself that was at the heart of the “Mumbai spirit” which was so lavishly celebrated after the July 11 bombings. A carnage of this magnitude would, in any healthy democracy, have provoked a bout of both anger and soul-searching.
It did neither.
Mumbaikars, if media reports are any indication, tut-tutted their way home from the destruction on the tracks, exchanged horror stories and then decided that it was best to pretend nothing unusual has happened. This was no stiff upper-lip and forbearance at work; it was a remarkable display of ostrich-like behaviour—pretending that nothing has happened.
It was this growing disinclination to engage with the city that gave a licence to the jihadis in the first place. A sense of commitment to the city would have led to the red alert being sounded at least three years ago—after the Gateway of India and the Ghatkopar blasts. Those who observed the Azad maidan rally of Muslim organisations during the visit of President Bush earlier this year should have alerted people to a new radical menace.
Instead, everyone chose to look the other way. They salvaged their conscience by not rioting after 200 people died.
Killing innocent Muslims in an insane act of retribution was, of course, never the answer but the least that was expected of Mumbaikars was a focussed show of anger. What we have seen instead—rather, the TV channels have shown—are gestures of collective wimpishness. Mumbai needs to show it cares for itself and the country.
(Published in Tehelka, July 29, 2006)