Bombay... vignettes from a century-and-a-half ago

Book: Govind Narayan`s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863; Translator/Editor: Murali Ranganathan; Publisher: Anthem Press India; Pages: 386; Price: Rs.595.

What was Mumbai (sorry, Bombay) like a century-and-a-half ago? A translation of a book dating back to 1863 gives "the first full account of Bombay in any language, written just before the explosive growth and renovation of the city", to quote the blurb.

`Govind Narayan`s Bombay` has been described as a "guided tour of its wondrous social and cultural landscape" by Princeton University Dayton-Stockton Professor of History Gyan Prakash in the foreword.

"As a record of Mumbai`s 19th century history, as a text of urban consciousness, `Mumbaiche Varnan` (the original) is superb. Its unavailability in English so far has meant that this fascinating indigenous account of Mumbai has remained inaccessible to readers without the knowledge of Marathi," Gyan Prakash says.

In the book, the author offers observations of daily life, with historical details, legends and myths. Institutions, people and the built-up environment of the time are focussed on in detail.

Humanity comes across in myriad hues. Hindus, for instance, are described as consisting of over 100 castes "with no end of differences and variations". "Other castes" listed include Parsis, Mussalmans, Moghuls, Yahudis, Bohras, Khojas, Memons, Arabs and Kandharis.

Interestingly enough, there are also those called the "hatted races", which included the English, Portuguese, French, Greek, Dutch, Turks, Germans, Armenians and Chinese. This is in contrast to Indians who wore turbans or `pagdis`.

`Govind Narayan`s Bombay` focusses on the 19th century, but gives the earlier context. England acquiring Bombay as dowry from the Portuguese is now fodder for many legends. But this work gives us much more detail.

We`re told in the introduction: "By the 1860s, (Marathi) had achieved a certain level of standardization and an evolving sense of style. There were, however, hardly any books that could match `Mumbaiche Varnan` (which could be translated to `A Description of Bombay`, the original name of this book published in Marathi) either in terms of originality or compare with it in terms of size and scope."

By way of figures: Bombay had a population of just 16,000 in the 1670s, which grew to 200,000 by the early 1800s. With the capitulation of the Maratha Peshwas, the English became overlords of the Indian subcontinent and Bombay emerged as the de facto "capital of Western India".

Other interesting facts too emerge about the city.

For instance, we learn that early in the 19th century Bombay centred on the Fort. Its ramparts had been demolished in the 1860s, but its name continued. Europeans resided to the south and Indians to the north. The area north of the Esplanade was used in 1803 to accommodate locals affected by a major fire. This was the Native Town or Black Town, as against the European Town around the Fort. The rest of Bombay was largely rural for most of the 19th century.

Then, the road at Mahim is still named after Lady Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1792-1870), the first Indian woman to bear the title of Lady. Sion Fort, though dilapidated, still stands on a small hillock adjoining the Sion railway station.

Dhobi Talao was located at the northern end of Esplanade Road, now Mahatma Gandhi Road. Washermen (dhobis) worked here from the early 17th century. As pressure for land grew, the talao completely vanished by the late 19th century; yet the name remains.

Another factoid: Mahableshwar, the hill station at an altitude of 4,500 feet in the Sahyadris, acquired from the raja of Satara, was originally named Malcolmpet, after Sir John Malcolm, the governor of Bombay who acquired it as a sanatorium for the English. Its earlier name was reused.

History can be strange too: The Government House at Parel was earlier a Jesuit monastery. It was then the governor`s official residence and a hospital for treating plague during the great epidemic of 1897-98. Vaccines for plague and cholera were developed here by the Russian Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine, and since 1925 the place got named as the Haffkine Institute.

Interestingly, up till the establishment of the University of Bombay in 1857, it was not the general practice among Hindus to use a family name or caste denominator or a suffix denoting their place of origin in their appellations, says the book.

Govind Narayan (1815-1865) was a native of Goa, and moved on to Bombay in 1824. He established himself as one of the leading authors of his age. His family opted for the surname of Madgaonkar, to denote their family origins in Margao (also Madgao) in Goa. He also used the surname Shenvi.

Translator Murali Ranganathan is a Mumbai-based researcher and writer while publisher Anthem Press says its South Asian Studies series aims to provide "comprehensive coverage of all aspects of the region, past and present".

In its original form, when first published in Marathi, the book was then being promised "of about 400 pages octavo" and priced at Rs.3 to Rs.3.50. Now too, it`s a good read for anyone interested in understanding what makes Bombay Mumbai.

Frederick Noronha/IANS


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