Oindrila Mukherjee reviews City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay by Naresh Fernandes (Aleph Books, 2013)
“Bombay’s aptitude for aggregation can also be tasted in the snacks sold on its footpaths: Chinese bhel, Schezwan idlis and cheese dosas are made with ingredients (blended together with a large dollop of enterprise) that share the skillet only in this city.”
If there is a single city in India that has most accurately served the function of the proverbial melting pot then it has to be Bombay. In addition to “snacks and slang,” as Fernandes points out in his book, the city has historically proved to be an amalgamation of people from different cultures, religions, occupations, and classes. Bombay has always attracted immigrants in search of a better life and, in the past, acted as a symbol of tolerance and cosmopolitanism, not least as portrayed in the fabled cinema it produces. However, throughout much of this book the author laments the recent decline in these values, a decline that corresponds with growing signs of “progress.” He attributes much of the growing divisions between not only the rich and poor but also between religious communities, to the rise of the Shiv Sena and “ad hoc urbanism.”
Fernandes, a native Bombayite, journalist and historian of the city, provides an informative history, tracing the changes from 17th century incipient Bombay to the present day. Significant events such as the fire of 1803 which destroyed a section of the town, the construction of the Bhor Ghat Road over the Western Ghats in 1830, and the completion of the Colaba Causeway in 1838, are dutifully recorded. There are some interesting anecdotes such as the arrival of ice on a ship from Boston in 1837, an event that caused much excitement but also led to widespread colds among the guests of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy who was the first person to serve it at a party. Fernandes combines Bombay’s history with some of his own Roman Catholic family’s history. But this is not a memoir by any stretch of the imagination. It is a study of how Bombay evolved over the centuries into what it is today, that is, a civic mess.
Nowhere in India is the yawning gulf between the rich and the poor more visible than in this megalopolis. “Bombay is the embodiment in steel and curtain glass, blue tarpaulin and corrugated metal, of the inequalities of the new economic order.” Bombay’s per capita income is almost three times the national average. Forbes magazine in April 2008 ranked the city sixth among top ten global cities on billionaire count, seventh in the list of “Top Ten Cities for Billionaires,” and first in terms of those billionaires’ average wealth. And yet, one of five residents in “India’s most affluent city” lives below the poverty line. Thirty-six per cent of children in Bombay’s slums are malnourished. More than forty-eight percent of the population lives in shantytowns. Fernandes blames declining living conditions for a vast majority of people on the lack of will of the privileged. He does not hesitate to point out that their careless indifference is a stark contrast with the attitude of philanthropic industrialists of yesteryear like Jejeebhoy.
The lives of wealthy Bombayites are well-documented in India, whether through Page 3 journalism that highlights their parties and fashion choices, or larger than life Bollywood films that showcase lavish weddings, unreal homes, and international travel destinations. Bombay’s proximity to both the world’s largest commercial film industry and India’s financial sector has made it an epitome of glamour. The 27-floor home of India’s richest man, business tycoon Mukesh Ambani, named Antilia and supposed to be the world’s most expensive residence, has become the stuff of legend now, with its absurd opulence. For many young Indians who grow up elsewhere, Bombay symbolizes a more liberal and progressive mindset compared to other parts of the country, with its pioneering gay rights movement, fondness for the arts, and celebration of Westernized lifestyles. In the past it was also known for its devotion to secular principles.
However, just as the bright lights and glitter of Bombay have been celebrated in the popular imagination, so have the seamier sides drawn attention. Popular movies like Slumdog Millionaire have made the massive slum of Dharavi a tourist attraction, which itself of course is hugely problematic. According to Fernandes, the celebration of Dharavi and other shantytowns as hubs of productivity simply absolves the elites of any guilt as well as any sense of responsibility.
The divide between the obscenely wealthy and the desperately poor in Bombay is not a new topic for journalists around the world. This article in The Guardian, from November 2008, immediately following the terror attacks at the Taj Mahal hotel, is just one of many articles to highlight the giant chiasm between the rich and poor in the city.
As someone who belongs wholly to Bombay through several generations of Portuguese ancestors, Fernandes cannot help but contrast the city of his childhood to the present times and what he sees as a grievous decline in both amenities and values. He uses the high walls that have been erected around homes in Bandra, the neighbourhood of his childhood, as evidence of the boundaries that have sprouted between communities. Once, not so long ago, the city was “that magical Bombay thing — ‘a cosmopolitan place.’” Now, it is not only uninhabitable for a vast number of people due to developmental negligence, but, perhaps more importantly, it has deviated from the ideals of secularism, freedom and equality that it once upheld.
Fernandes draws a familiar comparison between his city and New York, “whose most iconic district, Manhattan, is, like Bombay, a peninsula that makes a disproportionate contribution to creating the myths of the nation in which it is situated.” Any biography of Bombay, therefore, must necessarily be a kind of unraveling of the myths. For Fernandes this process of unraveling becomes a personal lament, a underlying but palpable sense of loss at the contrast between a global city of the past and its decline into provincialism.
The 1992 religious riots in Bombay came close on the heels of economic liberalization in India. These two events seem to have conspired to bring about radical transformation throughout the fabric of the city. Thousands of people have been evicted for slum rehabilitation, and thousands of other “Project-Affected Persons” (the official term for this group) have been removed because they were in the path of rail or road initiatives. Their living conditions in the poorly-developed 225-square feet flats in the Markhand area, invite contrast with those of posh gated communities such as the Island City Centre with their temperature-controlled lobbies, private roads, and flats starting at a price of seven crore rupees (around 1.1 million dollars,) with which this book opens. The upsurge in real estate development for the upper middle classes has resulted in the obliteration of shantytowns, and, with them, of their residents.
But the crisis of Bombay is not only economic. The legendary “spirit of Bombay,” we are told, is also a myth. “Bombay’s indomitable will has been hailed by its politicians and socialites with such regularity, it has become obvious that they’ve used this resilience as an excuse to absolve themselves of the need to take the difficult decisions necessary to actually make the city more liveable.” The rise of the fundamentalist Hindu political party, the Shiv Sena, headed by Bal Thackeray, the self-appointed “Hinduhridaya Samrat — Emperor of Hindu Hearts,” led to increasing discrimination against Muslims, Dalits, and other minorities. Against this backdrop, Fernandes and his cohorts view, the Shiv Sena’s act of rechristening the city to Mumbai, in an attempt to refute its colonial identity, as “a refutation of Bombay’s inclusive history.”
In the popular imagination of Indians, Bombay signifies not just a melting pot but also a fantasy, an iridescent bubble that is the product of the largest film industry in the world. “The city of interlocked islands, it’s widely acknowledged, is the place that manufactures India’s dreams.” Mainstream Hindi cinema, even prior to its acquiring of that nickname, Bollywood, that has made it seem like a cheap derivative of American cinema, helped create the aura of glamour for the city where the poor arrived in hordes from the heartland in hopes of turning their dreams into reality. This clip from the 1956 movie C.I.D. famously depicts actor Johnny Walker singing about the difficulties of trying to survive in the ruthless, soulless metropolis.
The words in the title, “Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan” (“This is Bombay My Love,”) refer to the woman Walker is courting as “My love,” and yet the irony of the epithet that could easily refer to Bombay as well is inescapable. It may be a challenge to survive in Bombay but those who arrive there as well as those whose families have lived there for generations are in love with it or at least with the idea of it. They will continue to be lured to the flame of Bombay perhaps, only to get lost in its labyrinth. And yet, City Adrift, as the title suggests, describes a city that has lost itself and the core values it once stood for. At a time when India itself is suffering from economic and social changes, never have the lights of wealth, glamour and freedom in Bombay shone brighter across the sea, and never have they appeared more illusory.
Oindrila Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. Oindrila writes fiction and non fiction, and enjoys translating Bengali literature to English. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, Salon, Vandal, The Oxford Anthology of Bengali Literature, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter at @oinkness.