Decline of a great city



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Bombay Wallahs*


Nowhere is ever home

but this may be the town

of least effort for me.

Here the idiom is known.

Saris curdle over haunch

like nowhere else. Lust

kindles in the silver dark

at the starlet’s launch

and hot from home

tin lunches clatter out

under a Gothic arch.


Seven islands soaked up

the sea to leave land

for an infanta’s dowry.

For two hundred years and

more the tides have swept

the world ashore


The thought air teems.

A bow of water curves

from slum to dream

to loose an arrow’s flight.

On the walls our blood

spills black and white.


IN the fifties, into the sixties, they all came back to Bombay, those who went abroad to study and train. Many voyaged across the seas to live here. They do not return any more, or come from other lands to stay. The young ones used to come home for the good living to be had here, but also for a commodity once as plentiful as the jobs: the hope. Where is either to be found these days, even in respectable fragments, never mind the abundance of yore?

I remember my city 50 years ago for the daily washing of its streets with chlorinated water. I remember my home in Mazgaon, one of the original hills of Bombay. Each evening, you could hear the animals at feeding time in Victoria Gardens Zoo, two miles away as the lion roars. Not any more. You hear only the bellow and snarl of traffic. We had our own gardens, as a matter of fact, with a great peepul, a raintree and an acacia among a dozen fruit-bearing trees. It was a welcoming, hopeful city in a newly free nation.

Clean streets, lions at dinner audible miles away and rambling gardens in fairly crowded localities make a point about the city. There was an amplitude about it, even in the wadis of Girgaum and neighbourhoods of Parel. They were busy and crowded certainly, but the people filled spaces that were planned for them, designed for those numbers: in BDD chawls, built by the venerable Bombay Development Department, and the ‘quarters’ for mill, city and railway employees. Citizens lived and worked to an orderly city plan, paying sensible prices for space, without land grab and vote bank politics, as at present.

Did we but know it then, these were all marks of a great city. The economics of Bombay has a history and a strong hand in its distinctive make up. Halfway through the 19th century, a new era had dawned for this huddle of fishermen’s rocks around a wonderful harbour. The Suez Canal spelled great days for Bombay as a port and allied businesses, as did the American Civil War for Indian cotton, which of course needed the port to go out to the world. After the Indian uprising of 1857 against Britain, the new imperial power chose to make an imperial statement here, as its main public buildings testify – the High Court, University, Secretariat, Municipality, the Town Hall and later the Prince of Wales Museum, then the great railway buildings rivalling King’s Cross and St. Pancras in London.

By the turn of the last century, Bombay was a world city by the sea to which international trade and commerce came; witness the Sassoon and Kadourie families taking refuge from Baghdad among countless others who came as merchants and professionals.



Wealth of a certain kind attracts the arts – public statuary and private collections of painting and sculpture – as well as the graces of secondary businesses which catch the spirit of the times, as in the proud department stores of Hornby Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road, Evans and Fraser, Whiteways Laidlaw (now the Khadi and Village Industries Emporium filled with crores worth of non saleable goods and unsalesworthy employees), the Army and Navy Stores, even such frivolities as Fucile the hairdressers and the merry Italian cafes and confectioneries – Cornaglia, Mongini, Comba, Bertorellis and, a bit later, Bombellis.

People with the option to live and move elsewhere seemed to prefer Bombay just after the war. May be independence does something for a nation, like spring for a woman’s skin and a young man’s fancy. The world was looking hard at India – and at Bombay, its best known international address. It was not at all a bad place to be.

There was an adequacy of recreational space. Housing was good, and good at various price levels, bungalows and apartment blocks. Water, sanitation and electric power supply were uniformly good. Bombay’s buses and trams got you about quickly and cheaply, often over considerable distances on an island shaped like a hand extended in greeting. Streets, roads and traffic were easily negotiable. There was Marine Drive. Then, as now, the main transport lifelines were the two suburban railways, called at the time the BB&CI and GIP Railways, both of whom had world-beating hockey teams, I remember (the rest of the world not being great at the game) and when the two met it was an epic city encounter.



It is when the basics of life are routinely delivered, as they once were in Bombay, that a city’s mind discovers itself. Hunger must be appeased daily before cuisine makes any sense. It happened here. The city attracted and held high quality people. Such talent can choose to go where it pleases. It chose Bombay substantially in the decade or so after independence. Its economics, quality of life and openness had much to do with the decisions. Mumbai no longer beckons that way. Even in colonial times, the city’s governance was much more accountable to citizens than it is now.

The energy of a city is based as much on the toil of its workers as on its intellectual muscle and authority. Certainly, Bombay was partly a product of the surpluses generated by its workforce. But just now, I am concerned with its other vital forces. A fellow worker of mine who ended up heading India’s scientific establishment once said, ‘If we don’t have our aristocracies, we can’t have great thinking.’ To continue in this vein of controversial thought, Goethe has said somewhere, ‘A fig for your majorities! Wisdom never dwelt but with the few.’ We must look at the minorities of that Bombay. It is they who caused the city to live up to the motto on its escutcheon, valid for a century and more, ‘Urbs prima in Indis’ (First City of India).



In the late forties and all of the fifties, Bombay offered a roll call of enduring eminence. Homi Bhabha, polymath father of our atomic energy initiatives, and Vikram Sarabhai, early researcher into space and satellites, were city men honoured in the world science of their times. The Progressive Artists Group near Kala Ghoda, (an equestrian statue of Edward VII on Rampart Row) brought modern art to India. It was inspired by refugees in the city from Hitler’s Europe, Walter Langhammer, who became Art Director of The Times of India, and Rudi von Leyden, who entered commercial life in Volkart’s, then Voltas. The PAG men who mixed the first colours of modern art in India included M.F. Husain and Ara, brilliant painter of still life whose nudes suddenly caused jaws to sag in the brand new Jehangir Art Gallery; Raza, later to make a notable mark in Paris where he lives now; though not a member of PAG, a painter was at work in Grindlays, a nearby bank, Krishen Khanna.

In the city’s realms of industry and finance were the youthful J.R.D. Tata and Keshub Mahindra, to say nothing of G.D. Birla himself, the Wadias and Dalmias (in a remarkable coup, Ramkrishna bought The Times of India, which is like saying he picked up the British Empire while shopping one Friday). Shakila Bano Bhopali sang regularly to rapidly growing audiences on Lamington Road; Omkar Nath Thakur enraptured music lovers in pandals on Azad Maidan; Uday Shankar was unveiling totally new dance forms.



Bombay was the bastion in India of western classical music. Where else were there enough Goans to play second violin and the violas in an orchestra? This was the home of Mehli Mehta, father of Maestro Zubin and leader of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. It was conducted by the Belgian Jules Craen who often featured his concert pianist wife, Olga. First Egidio Verga, then Colaba’s very own George Lester brought the magic of the cello to the city. Walter Kaufman was here before returning to his native Vienna to help, then lead, the postwar development of the Vienna Philharmonic Society. It was Mehli Mehta and Verga who composed and executed the haunting time signal of All India Radio, a soaring violin heard over a cello drone pretending to be a tanpura.

Mulk Raj Anand worked with spitfire energy on new novels post-Coolie, essays and criticism in literature and art. Nissim Ezekiel, back from cheerless London in the mid- fifties, was finding his own and India’s voice in English poetry. His contribution was already beginning to be significant, as much in his generous support of fellow-writers as in his own prolific work.

As the PAG did for modern art, Ebrahim Alkazi brought modern European theatre to India. Kuwaiti by parentage but Poona born and raised, Alkazi was introduced to theatre by the remarkable Sultan Padamsee in his Theatre Group, Bombay. Padamsee died at the age of 24. But by then he had upturned the city’s life in theatre, poetry and painting. Alkazi snatched up the fallen standard of new theatre that Padamsee had raised. In the early sixties he went to New Delhi where, even if he did not actually found it, he set the high traditions and style of the National School of Drama as its Director. In Marathi theatre, P.L. Deshpande and Vijay Tendulkar were surprising audiences with anything but conventional work, to wit Deshpande’s one-man ‘Batatyachi chaal’ (Potato Chawl).

Watson’s Hotel, Bombay is where the movies came in 1897, barely six months after the brothers Lumiere had presented their epoch-making Cinematographie in Paris. That’s how high Bombay ranked worldwide for innovation and commercial value. It never left the vanguard of cinema. Today, it is the world’s most active city in film production.



The fifties were the high point of the black-and-white masterpiece. Much influenced by Italian neo-realism, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan and Navketan (Dev Anand) reigned when the lights went down in the nation’s theatres. They functioned out of Bombay. Pre-eminently, it was the age, at least the coming of age, of Raj Kapoor.

His name links immediately with the magical Nargis, his co-star in Barsaat (1949) and Awara (1952). With the first, he also established his signature ensemble, composers Shankar and Jaikishen, lyricists Shailendra and Hazrat Jaipuri and singers Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh. Like Barsaat, Awara was box office bonanza. B.D. Garga in his authoritative work So Many Cinemas, says of Awara: ‘…an astonishing, even ingenious mixture of melodrama, romance and a Ziegfield style dream sequence (it) seduced audiences (everywhere). In postwar, post-partition India, when the entire socio-political system was under strain and thousands of migrants poured into the cities, identification with Raj Kapoor’s dispossessed, rootless Raju was plausible and easy.’



The kaleidoscope has many colours and shapes. But the details may fail to depict an essential and larger phenomenon going on in the city, the fusing of the city’s disparate elements into its cosmopolitanism. High quality minds and spirits became greater because, like elements with unsatisfied valencies in an environment of constant collision, they combined to form valuable new compounds.

‘It was all a bit like a continuous party,’ says poet and writer Dom Moraes, ‘Never planned. But it never stopped.’ He was speaking about what went on in the home of his father, Frank Moraes, first Indian to be editor of The Times of India, war correspondent and a personality of many vivid hues. Dom remembers their flat in ‘Green Fields’ on the Oval at Churchgate. It was a scene of perpetual comings and goings of everybody from D.G. Tendulkar, the definitive Gandhi biographer, to Jawaharlal Nehru and British civil servants, down to a fleeing nationalist wanted by the police. This gentleman was tracked down one evening to the flat by a British police inspector. The cop left after a drink with the assembled revellers, among whom he had recognized his quarry. They shook hands. No arrest was made. Nobody cared to disentangle the linkages and forces responsible.



Such networks were numerous. Camellia Punjabi, lately of the Taj hotels, tells of friendships with Jayant Narlikar and Vikram Sarabhai. ‘I asked Narlikar, much to my embarrassment when I thought about it later… I mean, there I was with this world famous cosmologist and I said, "Tell me do you believe in astrology?"’ She recalls a conversation with Sarabhai as long as half a century ago. He said to her, ‘One day, Camellia, we’ll put satellites into space that will fill India with milk.’ She is still mystified by the reference to Operation Flood. But he was right about the satellites.

Strangely, I became aware of religion, caste and community only as independence approached. It was impossible to ignore the demand for Pakistan and its rationale. In school, we knew each other by surnames and a surname, whether Crawford, Habib, Udwadia, Jain or Chatterjee was just that, a way of yelling out to someone across a playing field. The rest of the town was much the same, a melting pot of communities. I now know there was a consciousness of community. But the differences did not mean the separateness and threat that some elements pose to others today.

I graduated from St. Xavier’s College. In my day, it was powered by some remarkable Jesuits and some no less distinguished non-clerics. The day after the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Fr. R. Rafael, head of the Physics department, told us in a hastily convened lecture how the split atom delivers its colossal energies. This was not an unknown subject even then. But he went on to suggest how it might all have been put together, a much less trafficked aspect of the bang. It was rumoured that he knew in his pre-Jesuit days one of the men who worked on the Manhattan project in New Mexico.

Fr. F. Vion was a world class mathematician. Fr. H. Santapau was a botanist, good enough, despite being a foreigner and a priest, to be named the first head of the Botanical Survey of India. There was Fr. J. Duhr, a hard to situate individual who ranged in his lectures from Aristophanes and exploits of Hammurabi to the Napoleonic wars. He had a section all to himself in the college magazine entitled ‘Duhr among the books.’ Fr. H. Heras, of the Indian Historical Research Institute that he established in the college, is credited with having cracked the written code of Mohenjo Daro. Professors Kothari, C.D. Pinto, Theophilus Aguiar and Mhatre made waves that were not just citywide but went well beyond. The hot focus of effort was of course the students of these men in the century-old place at Dhobi Talao.



While this was true of St. Xavier’s, other institutions were no laggards, Elphinstone and Grant Medical, the JJ School of Art and Architecture and the University Department of Chemical Technology. All this is meant to suggest the academic clime of the period. It was stimulating and nurturing, with a figure like Vithal Chandavarkar presiding over the affairs of the university as Vice Chancellor.

A great city’s academics must obviously be doing the right thing at two levels, as faculty and as graduating students. They were pretty much all that they should have been in the fifties and early sixties. This did not fail to have an impact on the city’s intellectual and professional life. I bring this up because of the depths to which this facet of city life has plummeted, where leaked question papers, marks scams, postponed examinations and results, admission irregularities amid centralized tests, worthless political appointments to headship of departments and ideologically tainted textbooks pass unnoticed as routine.

Today, Mumbai University is a degree factory, a necessary marshalling point for departures to foreign universities. Worst of all, the portents suggest yet tighter centralisation, greater financial lacks and further deterioration in academic standards.



This is a world away from all that characterized a city of great talent and thrust, with many globally competitive advantages, as we might put it today. What went wrong?

In three little words, the city’s politics.

They have turned a good thing into something that yields bad outcomes. Democracy is being used for competitive populism and to protect the corrupt and the malefactor. A lecture I watched on late-night TV recently coined the term ‘democratic excess’ for me. A professor of political science in Toronto said this refers to perfectly legal acts passed by a legislature, or government regulations, that in fact are not in the general public interest but mainly serve narrow political, sectarian or the legislators’ own ends.

The fragmentation of our polity yields such fragile majorities on the floor of any House that democratic excess is rampant and no difficult decisions get taken. Yet all the decisions needed to address our problems are difficult ones. Impasse. This is true and the current fate of today’s Mumbai.

A very large proportion of public life has been made to serve sectarian ends, to the point where a world city is today a provincial backwater, rapidly dwindling in any stature at all, except possibly in cricket. Even there, the Ranji Trophy, which had taken up more or less permanent residence in the showcases of the Cricket Club of India, travels to other states with worrisome frequency.



The other difference from the past is Mumbai’s lawlessness. This does mean the cops and robbers aspect, guns and gangs. But perhaps more importantly, we speak of a privileged political class whom nothing can touch, flouting of municipal and police regulations with impunity, disregard even of High Court orders when it affects political lobbies, arbitrary transfers of officers and officials. We have laws whose only articles are defined by corruption. There is a breakdown of governance. The city could not fail to pay the price.

Tragically, Mumbai’s politics and its economics are on a collision course. In the last four years, the growth rate of Mumbai’s GDP has fallen well below India’s and even Maharashtra’s. Meanwhile, political leaders talk merely of slum ‘regularisation’, and ‘Mee Mumbaikar’! That’s their response to the troubles of India’s Locomotive City, its Money Metropolis.

Per capita income in the city has dropped dramatically. Population has ballooned but jobs have simply not kept pace. Against a national average of 40% employment in the informal sector, something like 70% of the employed in the city are hawkers, casual labourers or workers in anything but regulated employment. Socioeconomic experts note the obvious: the city’s social fabric is under increasing tension with so many on the fringe of joblessness.

At the same time, businesses and head offices are leaving Mumbai for Dubai and Singapore, now even Hyderabad and Bangalore. Already, of Rs 40,000 crore that Mumbai contributes to state and central revenues, only some 16% comes back.

A city is the sum of its economic opportunities and quality of life. Mumbai finds less and less favour internationally. In a quality of life rating by Forbes, we are ranked as low as 163 out of 218 cities worldwide. In another survey, on what is called the Hardship Index, we were near the bottom, 124th out of 130 cities.

And why indeed not? The city’s infrastructure is strained. Water supply and sanitation are in bad shape. Where this was once the country’s best served city for transport, jammed suburban trains and overcrowded buses deliver exhausted people to their jobs in the morning. Yet the increase in cars far outstrips any increase in road kilometres. Traffic congests, there are problems of mobility and some of the lowest average speeds of vehicles on the street in Asian and world class cities. The impact on the air that the city breathes can be imagined.

Housing? Mumbai is one of the most expensive cities in the world for business and residential space, but you get a poor deal in quality of housing. Nearly three-quarters of our households live in a single room. Over half the population lives in slums, more than in any Asian or world class city.



We have destroyed India’s cutting-edge city of the fifties. We have slowly got used to a city that works less and less well. But today’s national economies depend on how well their cities work. If Mumbai and India are to get anywhere, Mumbai must get globally competitive, and we are nowhere there.

The situation is of course by no means hopeless. Hope lies in the city’s financial and commercial importance. The Reserve Bank and State Bank headquarters are here, as are those of virtually every major commercial bank. The main stock and commodity exchanges are here. There are more head offices of the country’s top 100 corporations located here than in any other city. All of this is beginning to generate the jobs that the city’s people need so desperately. The pace must double. The entertainment industries including cinema (Bollywood!), of which Mumbai is the informal capital, show no signs of decelerating growth, despite piracy and short-sighted tax policies. The information and software industries are as full of promise and challenge as ever they were, needing perhaps midcourse corrections in some sectors which they are well able to handle.



It is these ‘new’ industries that turn the spotlight on to the city’s most precious and promising resource, its young people. Their energy and talent are if anything more surprising than ever before. The competition is greater. You’ve simply got to be better. But all of this demands discussion at another time and place. I could not bring the present piece to a better pause than with words from that quintessentially Bombay voice, Behram Contractor, the unforgettable ‘Busy Bee’, first of The Evening News of India, then Mid-day and finally of Afternoon Courier and Despatch, all city eveningers.

‘I have lived in Mumbai all my life, and in Bombay before that. I have made many permanent friends. Most of the time I am not aware of their communal identities, as most of the time I am not aware whether I am eating a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian meal. It is like travelling in a crowded railway compartment in the morning, we are all passengers, and we are all going to Churchgate.’



* ‘Bombay Wallahs’ has been taken from So Far: a collection of poems by Gerson da Cunha.