The Idea of BombayPrint
Bollywood epitomized modernity for a boy in a distant province. As an adult, he sees a troubled city.
By Gyan Prakash
March 1, 2006
“Nothing is left now except to talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,” says Mr. Kapur in Rohinton Mistry’s novel Family Matters. “Let us sit upon these chairs and tell sad stories of the death of cities,” he continues, ripping off Richard II to lament the demise of his beloved Bombay. But in pronouncing Bombay’s death, Mr. Kapur also evokes its life as a shining city on the sea, “a tropical Camelot, a golden place where races and religions lived in peace and amity.” The death of the city gives birth to an imagined past.
Cities often live in our imaginations, their physical and social architecture exercising real power by conjuring up fictions and myths. This is how Bombay entered my life early and artlessly. The Island City lodged itself deep into my childhood consciousness and opened the world around me to the enchantment of its imaginations, inviting many, like myself, to live its fictions and make its pleasures and torments our own. Bombay was an idea, a figure of myth and desire. Today, we know something of its magical power from the novels of Mistry and Salman Rushdie. And to my great surprise and delight, the flashy Bombay cinema, now known everywhere as Bollywood, has found a receptive audience in the West.With the city suddenly thrust into the worldwide circuit of marketed images, I decided to visit Bombay and examine its mythic history since World War II, especially the years before its ascent into global consciousness.
Bombay is not my hometown. I was born more than a thousand miles to the east in a small town called Hazaribagh in the Bihar province. Educated in Hazaribagh, Patna (Bihar’s capital), New Delhi, and the United States, I have lived in Princeton, New Jersey, for the last 18 years. My fascination with Bombay is not that of an immigrant with nostalgia for the hometown left behind. I have had a hunger for the city since my childhood. As I was growing up, its physical remoteness stirred my imagination, rendered it a place of discovery, and sustained the experience of growing up as a fantasy of exploring what was beyond my reach, a place “out there.”
Bombay cinema generated my desire for the city. My father was an avid cinemagoer and a great lover of Hindi film songs. Whenever a new film came to town, he ushered the entire family to the theater. Usually, the plan to see Bombay’s magic on celluloid was announced in the morning, making the rest of the day full of expectancy and excitement. We rushed back from school where time did not pass fast enough, got dressed in our sharpest clothes, and waited eagerly for my father, an attorney, to return from the court. Then we waited impatiently as he unwound with a cup of tea and my mother retreated into her bedroom to don a silk sari and apply makeup. Going to the movies stirred my mother out of her habitual unhappiness; her face would lose its lines of worry and break into a smile. As soon as my parents were ready, we packed into the car and headed for the theater where we eagerly settled into the magical atmosphere of the darkened hall. Over the next three hours we sat glued to our seats. When the show ended, we bought a copy of the film’s songbook, and while driving home, my father, accompanied by my sisters, would hum songs from the film.
To my great disappointment, my older brother and I occasionally were left at home if the film was considered too adult. Even my sisters were not permitted to attend such films as Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964) because the actress Vyjayantimala bared her shoulder to reveal a bra strap. My response to such censorship was to sneak off to the theater with my friends.
Nearly everyone in Patna seemed to love Hindi films. I knew three brothers who styled their hair with a puff in front like one star, Dev Anand. Like him, the “Dev Anand brothers,” as we called them, wore their shirt collars raised rakishly, walked in his signature zigzag fashion—trouser legs flapping, the upper body swaying, hands moving across the body—and always coordinated the color and style of their clothes with those of the star in his latest film. When Dev Anand later abandoned his puff and began to wear his hair flat, they stubbornly stuck to the old puffed style, insistently proclaiming their fidelity to the “original” Dev Anand and denouncing the star’s betrayal of his real self.
The brothers stood out in Patna, but they were not the only ones immersed in Bombay cinema. Young women also dressed and styled their hair according to their favorite heroines. Named after the film star Sadhana, the “Sadhana cut,” in which the hair was fringed in front and flopped over the forehead, was a particular favorite in the early 1960s. Life imitated film as young men—we called them Roadside Romeos—made passes at women in the style of their favorite heroes and wrote love notes dripping with the emotional spirit of the latest film songs. Neighborhood toughs copied flashy clothes worn by film villains and mouthed movie dialogue as they went about their everyday posturing and bullying. A favorite line was from Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965), delivered in a slow, menacing drawl while running a finger over a knife’s edge: Yeh bachchon ke khelne ki cheez nahin, hath kat jai, to khoon nikal aata hai (This is not a child’s plaything; when it cuts, it draws blood). Ramesh Sippy’s classic Sholay (1975) offered a treasure-trove of villainous lines to quote: Woh sir [pause], yeh pair (That head, on these feet), the do-as-I-say-or-else command uttered slowly in the gravelly voice of Gabbar Singh, the film’s cruel outlaw played by Amjad Khan; and the ominous question Tera kyaa hoga Kaalia? (What will become of you, Kaalia?). Yet another popular and clever line attributed to the actor Ajit had him instructing his sidekick: Robert, Usko Hamlet wala poison de do; to be se not to be ho jayega (Robert, give him the Hamlet poison: from “to be” he will become “not to be”). No one knew the origin of the quote, or, indeed, if it was from a film at all. Ajit’s villainous characters were so ridiculously overdrawn that he attracted a following of campy fans who invented lines and attributed them to him.
Growing up in a world where our imaginative lives were steeped in films, we drew a connection between Hindi cinema and Bombay. I, like many others, remember the actor Johnny Walker crooning, in Mohammed Rafi’s voice, Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan (This is Bombay, my sweetheart) in C.I.D. (1956), a film I saw in the 1960s when it was already a classic. I did not know then that the tune was “Oh my darling Clementine,” but even today this knowledge has not dimmed my appreciation for the song as an authentic Bombay rhapsody. Songs and films introduced me to fabulous bits and pieces of the city, although I knew little of Bombay’s actual topography. I understood the city only as a configuration of powerful symbols. Marine Drive, Chowpatty, and Juhu Beach lodged in my mind as emotive images. The shots of the gigantic Victoria Terminus—crowded with travelers, coolies, taxi drivers, beggars, touts, and con men—called to mind the city’s immense size and population. Set against these images was the evocation of the city’s wealth and style. I had heard of the grandeur of the Taj Mahal Hotel but believed that the swankiest was Sun ’n Sand because several movies had shown its swimming pool— with bikini-clad women, mostly white, frolicking in the water or lazily sunbathing on deck chairs—to set a mise en scène of glamour and sin.
Cinema stood for Bombay even if the city appeared only fleetingly in films, usually as corrupt and soulless in contrast to the simplicity and warmth of the village. The celebration of the village never fooled me; I found Bombay lurking behind each shot of the happy and wholesome villagers and the moustache-twirling, villainous Thakurs. A critic has written of Musée de l’homme in Paris that France can be read in the very exclusion of French culture in the museum’s display of all the races and cultures of the world, for it is the absent France that organizes the display of other societies. Similarly, I always understood in some instinctive way that the city was the unspoken presence in Hindi films, even when they told stories of simple village folk or medieval kings and emperors. I was not alone; everyone I knew associated cinema with Bombay. Many dreamed of fleeing there; some actually realized the dream, though we seldom heard about them subsequently.
My uncle, who lived with us, had once run away to Bombay, or so I had long believed. I reminded him of it recently. Retired from government service and looking younger than his 60 years, he blushed, broke into a shy smile, and corrected me. He had tried to run away in a fit of anger to Calcutta, not Bombay. I was puzzled. How could I have substituted Bombay for Calcutta and carried this mistaken memory for years? As I thought about it further, I came to understand why my memory had played a trick on me. I remembered that my uncle playfully tried to provoke my grandmother with threats of fleeing to Bombay. It would begin as a joke, and then, with his eyes turning dreamy, he would outline his fantasy life in the city: “With my right hand I will clutch loads of money and place it in the left breast pocket inside my jacket, and with my left hand I will steer my car toward Juhu Beach, with Asha Parekh [the buxom heroine with a reedy voice who was popular in the 1960s and 1970s] sitting beside me.” The words would be accompanied by his right hand moving to the inside left breast pocket of an imaginary jacket, the left hand placed on the illusionary steering wheel, the head turned toward a make-believe Asha Parekh, and the face lit by a smile. By the time he finished with the gestures that, with repetition, acquired a signature form, he would be afloat in his dream world. My grandmother always responded to her youngest son’s pretended threats of escape by rebuking him gently and indulgently, but he would return a few days later to bait her with the same fantasy, the same dreamy eyes, the same movements of hands, and the same turn of the head. So regular and so charming was my uncle’s evocation of Bombay that I substituted Bombay for Calcutta as the destination of his actual attempt to flee. But I was not really mistaken; his attempt to run away to Calcutta was a decision taken in a fit of anger, not the fulfillment of a fantasy. One escaped to Bombay not because one was running away from something or somewhere but because the city itself seemed to epitomize escape.
I understand now that underlying our fascination with Bombay was the desire for modern life. Of course, the word modernity was not in our vocabulary then; we spoke of Bombay with signs and gestures, with wistful looks and sighs acknowledging deprived pleasures. No other city embodied modern life in quite the same way as the Island City. We had heard of New York, Paris, and London, but they were foreign, exotic places with no emotional resonance for us. Bombay, on the other hand, was our own. I felt its tug in spite of the fact that Biharis had very little physical connection to Bombay. The big city most familiar to us was Calcutta, to which many in Bihar, particularly the poor, went to work. But the Bengali cultural arrogance worked against our developing a love for their city. New Delhi was just the seat of government, and Madras was too culturally and linguistically remote. Bombay, too, was far away, but its promise of exciting newness and unlimited possibilities reached across the physical and cultural distance. Even my father, I learned after he passed away, was not immune to Bombay’s magnetism. When he got the family house built in Hazaribagh, he designed the façade to look like the rounded balconies of the art deco apartment buildings along Marine Drive that he had seen in photographs.
Accounts of the city heard from its residents or visitors rendered Bombay’s promise vivid, but they were rare and all the more treasured for that reason. When a distant relative who worked as an assistant director in Hindi films visited us in Patna, everything about him struck me as sophisticated and cosmopolitan. He dressed fashionably and elegantly; the fabric of his clothes and the neatness with which his trousers and shirts were tailored indicated high quality and high price. He spoke softly and in cadences that suggested refinement; his words appeared to float in the air weightlessly and expressed meanings with effortless ease and immaculate economy. It was reassuring to learn that he was a completely self-made man who had acquired every inch of his urbane bearing in Bombay. I clung to every word he spoke during the two days he spent with us, listening intently as he described the city as a fable of self-making, freedom, and rationality. In Bombay, he told us, who you were, what you did for a living, who you loved and married—all were unencumbered by conventions. Everything in that city was self-made, the product of an entirely autonomous will and sensibility, of wit and guile, and of industriousness and imagination. This meant, he explained, that the city was a place of clashing ambitions and social strife, but also a place of order—of reasoned judgment and enlightened consciousness. Therefore, Bombay managed to balance individual freedom and ambition with a robust sense of collective responsibility and order. It was the most dynamic and organized of all Indian cities.
Stored in words, images, and interpretations, Bombay dug deep roots in my consciousness. When my eldest brother, Jyoti, started work as an engineer in Bombay, I felt the roots grow stronger (even though he worked in Kurla, which was then a distant northern suburb). And so I was crushed when my parents decided to leave my older brother and me behind in Patna while they, accompanied by my sisters, went to visit Jyoti in Bombay. We would have ample opportunities to travel when we grew into adulthood, we were told, but my sisters would be at the mercy of their future husbands who might not be modern-minded enough to show them the world. I did not think the explanation was adequate, particularly as it was so patently designed to prevent me from boarding the train to Bombay with them, but its high-mindedness left no room for protest. My disappointment was relieved only when they got back and spoke excitedly of the city and their experiences. The deep impression the city made on the family was most visible on my youngest sister, who returned with her hair cut really short. I listened with rapt attention as my sisters talked about walking on Marine Drive, frolicking in the waves of the Arabian Sea on Juhu Beach, watching a film in production, which they said was boring, and catching a glimpse of Dev Anand. All the feelings of resentment and envy disappeared when my mother opened the suitcase. What took away my breath were not the gifts—“Beatle boots” and the signature hat that Dev Anand wore in the film Jewel Thief. As the suitcase opened, it exuded a delightful fragrance; the objects inside had a distinct scent that did not feel homegrown. This, too, I stored in my memory as Bombay’s flavor.
While in college in New Delhi, I had friends from Bombay who spoke of their native city as a class apart. They found India’s capital dull and heavily laden with a bureaucratic ethos, which it was, and they described Bombay as energetic, adventurous, and dark. The Bombay tabloid Blitz seemed to represent the city’s mischievously modern spirit. The only one of its kind in India, this provocative tabloid unabashedly presented itself as the voice of the common citizenry, excoriating officialdom with over-the-top reports and articles. I looked forward to K. A. Abbas’s column on the saucy last page. Less important than the content of his column (placed beside the photograph of a halfclad model) was the pose he struck—a man of the world, commenting on national and international affairs in strong, colorful tones. R. K. Karanjia, the flamboyant founder-editor of Blitz, defined the tabloid’s character. A figure larger than life, Karanjia was often entangled in defamation suits and public controversies because of his wildly contradictory and provocative stands. He was a populist, an open supporter of Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialism, who also felt a tug of sympathy for the widely reviled Shah of Iran, ruler over the original homeland of the Parsi community to which Karanjia belonged. He published reports hinting of dark Western plots against India, and yet he traveled frequently to Europe. Blitz carried stories that placed him at the center of Bombay’s glitzy social life, but he also dug into the affairs of the rich and the powerful to unearth scandals. These contradictions infuriated his opponents, and he had many. I admired his nerve.
Of Bombay’s intellectual life, I knew that the city was home to artists, but I did not know their names or works. In my father’s house, Bombay’s famous lawyers, particularly its Parsi legal luminaries like Nani Palkhivala, were better known. My father spoke of them with awe and thought of the Bombay High Court as the nursery of constitutional law. It was a major event whenever a famous Parsi lawyer argued a case or appeared before the Patna High Court. My father often took me to court to hear the legal greats utter words of constitutional wisdom; he and other lawyers tried to catch a glimpse of the celebrities, and the judges struggled to control the crowds of fawning onlookers. The fact that they were Parsis exalted them further. The Parsis were viewed as Indians but not indigenous. This was only partly because of the community’s origin in Persia and its Zoroastrian faith. An equally important reason was the Anglicization of the Parsis, or at least of the most famous members of the community. My father’s clerk would say that when these lawyers roared with authority in English, as the British judges and barristers had done in colonial times, the judges trembled and became speechless.
The image of the Parsis as Anglicized, educated gentlemen added to their aura of being Indian and different. Of course, the most well known Parsis were the Tatas. I had read about J. N. Tata, the founder of the Tata industrial and commercial empire, who built the Taj Mahal Hotel in the early 1900s, supposedly because he had been refused entry into a European club on account of his being a “native.” But he was a distant figure. The immediate presence was the leader of the family’s business since the late 1930s. Though I knew that J. R. D. Tata headed a string of companies, what stuck in my mind was that he was a pilot himself and had founded Air India, which, along with its mascot, the Maharajah, were symbols of national pride. These feats made him appear in my mind as more than just a capitalist. He certainly seemed different from the Birlas and the Dalmias, two other major business families, whose modern capitalist empires connoted a faint whiff of money lending. J. R. D. Tata, on the other hand, cut a swashbuckling figure, thoroughly modern and highly individualistic. It seemed fitting that these famous Parsis belonged to Bombay; their vocations, ideologies, and personalities were defined by a modernity whose location could only be the Island City.
People often said that Bombay was a city organized like none other in India. The suburban trains were efficient and ran on time, the buses were frequent and covered the city comprehensively, and the work culture was thoroughly modern. But Bombay’s modernism was not without its dark side. Indian capitalism was well developed there, and the working-class tenements, packed tight with humanity, were legendary. Representations of the class divide and oppression in such Hindi films of the 1950s and the early 1960s as Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955) and K. A. Abbas’s Shahar aur Sapna (1963), all of which I saw later on Sunday mornings when they were double-bill features, made lasting impressions. The lyrics of film songs, penned by progressive poets, inveighed against the unjust social order based on money. Johnny Walker romped on the breathtakingly beautiful Marine Drive in the film C.I.D., wooing his girlfriend in the singing voice of Mohammed Rafi. The song warned of the perils that awaited the unwary in Bombay and offered a biting critique of the industrial city’s soullessness: Kahin building, Kahin tramen, Kahin motor, Kahin mill, milta hai yahan sub kuch, ek milta nahin dil, insaan ka hai nahin namo-nishan (In this city of buildings and trams, motor cars and mills, everything is available except a heart and humanity). The films and their songs created a vivid and richly textured picture of injustice.
Even crime in Bombay had a different economy. A crime of passion that in my imagination had Bombay written all over it was the scandal surrounding the murder of a Sindhi businessman named Ahuja by the naval commander Nanavati, who caught Ahuja in an affair with his English wife. I was too young to remember the scandal when it broke in 1959. (In 1963, a film, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, which was supposed to be loosely based on this incident, came to town. My father did not permit me to see it because of its “adult” theme, but an uncle described the case to me in great detail.) Apparently, the Bombay newspapers had been consumed with the scandal. Its spicy ingredients seemed appropriate for Bombay: Ahuja, a rich bachelor and playboy; Nanavati, a Parsi and a dashing naval officer; the exotic English wife, Sylvia; the party circuit where Ahuja and Sylvia began their adulterous affair; and Ahuja’s posh Malabar Hill flat where Nanavati pumped three bullets into his adulterous rival. I have yet to see Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke and do not know how closely based it was on the Nanavati case, but the mere hint of an association between the film and the crime of passion was powerful enough at that time to link both with Bombay.
This is not to say that crime did not surround us in Patna. From hearing about my father’s thriving practice in criminal law, I knew that murder and violence were common in Bihar. However, crime had a non-ambivalent directness and rawness to it and was largely associated with land disputes and armed robbery. Crime and violence in Bombay, on the other hand, seemed circuitous, caught up in webs of stock frauds, bankruptcy, counterfeit currency, adulterated medicines, real-estate deals, the black market, adultery in high places, and everyday illegalities on the streets. The complex social architecture of the city seemed to dredge up and ooze dark impulses. Dev Anand’s film noirs were the most expressive examples of Bombay’s urban and dangerous cool. Never playing the role of a country boy lost in the city, he was always urbane, hip, and worldly; whether a police inspector or a petty criminal with a heart of gold or an impoverished and unemployed young man with a university degree, he appeared as a person able to negotiate the city’s darker corners. The villains in his films wore sharp clothes and dark glasses, exuding elegance while plotting wickedly. Indeed, the lines between refinement and roguery were deliberately blurred to set a mood of sophisticated and suspenseful skullduggery. Dev Anand’s noir Bombay, set off by Bombay’s glittering promise, added definition to the city.
Just as striking were the inspiring accounts of struggles to make Bombay a better and more just place. The city was known for its powerful mill-worker unions controlled by the Communists. I had read in my history textbooks that the trade unions in Bombay had formed a radical component of the nationalist movement. During the late 1960s and the 1970s, news from the city was often about
labor strikes. There were also reports about the rise of a militant nativist party founded by Balasaheb Thackeray, who named it the Shiv Sena (Shivaji’s army) after the 17th-century Maratha chieftain, Shivaji. But its influence was still limited, and its hostility to working-class radicalism served to enhance my impression that leftist politics was important in Bombay.
Most important to my concept of the city as an incubator of radicalism was the fact that it harbored many leftist writers and artistes. I was all the more aware of this fact because my parents were Communists and my father was active in the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). My father would proudly name famous film personalities who had earned their spurs in the IPTA or the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA): Balraj Sahni, K. A. Abbas, Prithviraj Kapoor, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Shailendra, and Salil Chaudhuri. Mention any prominent film writer, actor, or director, and that person turned out to have an IPTA or a PWA association. Even Dev Anand, my father claimed, had acted in IPTA plays. The household possessed a well-thumbed copy of Sahir Ludhianvi’s book of poetry, from which my father would often read aloud. I recognized some of the poems as popular film songs. Many times they were about injustice and struggle, and they helped to fix Bombay’s image as a city with a radical spirit. This image became real when Amar Shaikh, a prominent Bombay IPTA singer and actor who was active among the mill workers, came to Patna in 1968. The whole family awaited his visit with much expectation. He was a man of the people, my father said, a true artist who lived and worked among the working class and staged plays about their struggles and revolutionary desires. He did not disappoint. Shaikh turned out to be a man with immense charm who won us over with his flamboyantly democratic spirit. Though I cannot recall the content of his performance, I remember that it was a roaring success.
This, then, was my Bombay. It was a city that I did not actually visit until the early 1990s—and then all too briefly. Yet it was a large part of the landscape in which I grew up. In later years, the city receded somewhat from my attention, only to return with Rushdie’s novels. His inventive prose captured Bombay’s energy and ingenuity and portrayed it to the world. As I read his novels, I recognized the motives and sensibilities of a native evoking memories of a place he had left behind. Captivating as it was to see Bombay through his eyes, I also found his city different from mine. His characters belong mostly to the elite world, and the neighborhoods where the plots unfold are solidly upper-middle class. The mill districts are absent, and so is any hint of radical activism. The Bombay he cherishes is a genteel island in a sea of angry tides of ethnic strife churned up by cynical and corrupt politicians. In his satire of the culture and politics of contemporary Bombay, there emerges a deep sadness at the passing of the cosmopolitan city that had provided ample room for eccentric individualism and eclectic identities.
Lament for Bombay’s past became widespread after the communal riots of 1992–93 when the Shiv Sena–led gangs targeted the Muslim residents. Strains in Hindu-Muslim relations were not new to Bombay, but they intensified in December 1992 when a mob led by right-wing Hindu nationalists tore down the 16th-century Babri mosque in north India. Stray incidents escalated into explosive conflagrations. The violence left nearly 800 dead and many more injured, most of whom were Muslims, who accounted for 15 percent of Bombay’s population. The Bombayites in New Delhi whom I encountered at that time were stricken with shock and grief. They told gruesome tales of Hindu mobs hunting down Muslims while the police either stood idle or, worse, aided the attackers. More was to come. One day in March 1993, 10 bombs—plastic explosives packed in cars—targeted the Bombay Stock Exchange in the busy commercial district, the Air India building on Nariman Point, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world, and other prominent sites in Bombay. More than 300 people died. It is widely believed that a Muslim underworld don masterminded the explosions in revenge for the Muslim deaths in the riots following the Babri mosque destruction. The Indian government alleges that the don fled first to Dubai and then to Pakistan where he lives under the protection of its intelligence agency.
The communal violence and bomb blasts left many people wondering if Bombay’s cosmopolitanism had been just a façade. India’s political commentators spoke sadly about the passing away of Bombay’s self-image as a modern, sophisticated city. For a place that prided itself on its cultural diversity and staked its claim to being a capitalist center where the worship of Mammon trumped the worship of all other gods, the riots and bomb blasts appeared atavistic. Three years later, when the Shiv Sena officially renamed Bombay as Mumbai, the re-christening seemed to formalize the transformation that had already occurred.
The anguish and soul-searching of intellectuals inside and outside Bombay about the meaning of the grisly events of 1992–93 made me begin to question what was lost. Certainly, that time was a watershed for many in the city, but was the descent from Olympian heights of cosmopolitanism to the netherworld of nativism an overdrawn depiction? Underlying this narrative, it seemed to me, was a vision of Bombay’s past that saw the city as polis and, much like modern Western cities, founded by the universalistic forces of capital and class. My own understanding of Bombay and its promise of modernity were also deeply rooted in this image. When placed against this idea of the city, communal riots seemed to erupt unexpectedly from an altogether different arena to invade and dismantle the treasured representation of Bombay as a cosmopolitan space. The concepts of capital and class simply had failed to take into account other historical forces. If modernity meant the colonization of everyday life by commoditization and bureaucratization, surely the space of everyday life also contained traces of other memories, social practices, and political desires. This realization made me reflect on the films that had largely made Bombay part of my own experience. Bombay cinema has not worked strictly along the concepts of capital and class, but instead has drawn on a larger repertoire of forces: desire, fear, gender, sexuality, cultural tradition, and even, though obliquely, caste, language, and religion. Its mix is richer and darker than that allowed by the language of capitalism that supplied the vocabulary of cosmopolitanism.
The central challenge that modern cities face is how strangers can live together harmoniously. Modernity brings with it a fragmented and deeply fissured social life, rapid transformations, the steady influx of migrants, and fleeting interactions and experiences. Under such conditions of uncertainty, inequality, amorphousness, fragmentation, change, and transitory relations, how do the city’s residents live together? With what material and symbolic practices do they organize and represent the city space that they inhabit? Bombay’s extraordinary diversity makes this challenge even greater. For, attracted by the city’s position as the hub of manufacturing, finance, and the film industry, people from all over India have washed up on the island. They speak different languages (Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, and English) practice different faiths (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Judaism), and belong to different castes and classes. Historically, immigrants from villages and towns managed to assimilate into the metropolis by maintaining their native tongues and cultures in their homes and neighborhoods. Bombay’s map became a jigsaw puzzle of discrete neighborhoods marked by community, language, religion, dress, and cuisine. As a means for bridging cultural differences, Bombay concocted a hybrid but wonderfully expressive vernacular language, Bambaiya, for everyday communication.
The recent eruption of nativism and communalism has led many to dismiss Bombay’s modern image as a myth. Yet, the image has been part of our perception of Bombay for decades. If it is true, as some observers contend, that ethnic hatreds were always simmering under the lid of cosmopolitan calmness, it is equally the case that Bombay also fashioned a style of living that allowed for social and cultural differences. Beyond the mutually confirming mirror images of high-minded cosmopolitanism and lowly nativism, there exists a makeshift and everyday art of dealing with diversity and discord. It never evolved, however, into a full-blown philosophy or ideology or gained the visibility of the elegant and elite ideal of cosmopolitanism. Mr. Kapur’s tropical Camelot in Family Matters, a place where races and religions lived in peace and amity, may never have existed, but the idea of Bombay as a modern city has always been lived in everyday encounters and reconciliations with the unfamiliar and contradictory.
I went to Bombay to get a feel for these tactics of the everyday. Once there, my mind reeled back to C.I.D., in which Johnny Walker’s girl friend responds to his evocation of Bombay’s capriciousness and contradictions by rewording the song’s idiomatic refrain. In place of Ai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan (it is hard to survive here), she sings Ail dil hai aasaan jeena yahan, suno mister, suno bandhu, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan (Friends and gentlemen, it is possible to survive here; this is Bombay, my sweetheart). She does not deny his sentiments about hypocrisy and injustice in the city, but she counters them with an optimistic one of her own. One can still hear the undertone of his refrain in her optimistic version, but the mood changes. There is a sense of being at ease with the city’s conflicts and contradictions. References to the Hindi-speaking bandhu (friend) and the English-speaking gentleman (mister) suggest a feeling of being at home in the socially and linguistically mongrel world of Bombay. With the song from C.I.D. playing in my head, and my thoughts primed to revisit and re-vision the landscape of my memories of the city, I hit the streets of Bombay.
Gyan Prakash is a professor of history and diretor of the SHelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University.
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