Walled city? The Closing Gateways of Mumbai

Abstract : A city is often formed on the basis of a collective memory. This collective memory could be an ideal based on accounts of a city that once existed or a vision of man’s perception of perfection that draws from a set of values or an anti-thesis of another place. As erstwhile colonies came into their own, the styles of construction begin to reflect a vertical surge – an imitation of powerhouse world cities. Bombay, or Mumbai has passed through a number of collective memories and is on its way to a massive engineered attempt to refashion its current status quo. Through culture and identity defining agencies like language, statehood and ideology, the Marathi movement is going against all the hyper validated diktats of the constitution and surprisingly there are only feeble cries of opposition by the administration. This paper examines the processes of metamorphosis of culture and erasure of public memory about the way things were is what is happening today.

Keywords: collective memory, style of construction, imitation of powerhouse, process of metamorphosis, Shiv Sena, culture identity, cultural reforms

These are the best of times and the worst of times. If the globe is viewed through a three-dimensional satellite picture, it would resemble a sea anemone. The upward thrusting mega structures, towers, communication and electrical cables, large sprawls of human habitations all give the earth an image of a throbbing, under sea life form. But a closer look reveals frantic, unceasing activity. The human race seems to be enriching itself with bigger ideas and better technology, while the supporting framework—the Earth—seems to be groaning under increasing population, exploitation of natural resources and human self- destructive mechanisms.

The sites that most obviously depict this scenario are cities. Though cities have always been there, they began to evolve into their present form since the Industrial Revolution. Modern cities are undisputedly tied to the evolution of socio-political and economic consortium. The City of London of the Industrial Revolution era is an example. Poor houses, depressing accommodations for workers and the generally squalid conditions were sharp pointers. The destitute had no place in a labour- driven society, and hence were imprisoned in poor houses. Maximum profits and capitalism were the order of the day; hence wages were poor, resulting in terrible living conditions for the workers. The ‘Great City’ was seen as great because of its grand structures and new riches that poured in.

Cities often define themselves through the process of delegation, allocation and relegation. The city delegates its standpoints and positioning by means of policies and lobbies. Spaces, people and structures are allocated to drive home this position. These two steps lead to an automatic relegation of all the factors that stand in diametric opposition or are not conducive to the way the city wishes to look at itself, and the image it desires to project. The process here is akin to the system of personal grooming that humans subject themselves to gain position on the acceptance spectrum. This comes from the projected image gained through delegation, allocation and relegation functions of language, clothes, accessories, hangouts and social groups.

These factors have a symbiotic relationship with the utilisation of space and the scope of life chances and rights to the city with respect to citisens. David Harvey and Manuel Castells have stressed the value of space as vital to humans in terms of a productive and viable field of complex embedded techno-social processes. Furthermore, a number of urban sociologists such as Pickvance (1976), Savage and Ward (1993), Low (2002), Kleiniewski (2005) and Walton (2000) have, over a period of time, deliberated over the evolutionary processes of cities, the potential sources and causes of conflicts in urban spheres, the channels of control and resistance and the means of authority and cultural agencies that lend an epistemological buildup to the configurations of urban agglomerates.

Urban studies become daunting as each city is different and hence the grids of power, space, people, politics, economy and culture have to be constantly readjusted so much so that unique models that document the processes of human civilisation and psyche emerge. A city is often formed on the basis of a collective memory. This collective memory could be an ideal based on accounts of a city that once existed or a vision of man’s perception of perfection that draws from a set of values or an anti-thesis of another place. Often colonisers carried their nostalgic baggage and created a quasi-city in the colonies of which Simla is an excellent example. Colonial architecture – thanks to imposing facades and huge edifices – that radiated authority, often tended to impose themselves on native memories to such an extent that these styles came to be associated with wealth, status, and above all taste and refinement. As erstwhile colonies came into their own, the styles of construction begin to reflect a vertical surge – an imitation of powerhouse world cities. Concrete, glass, gypsum, aluminum are brought in to create a skyline that is simultaneously looming and luminescent. The stance of aggressive development comes through rather clearly in these post-colonial structures. At this juncture, the colonial buildings that till then represented imperial power assume the title of historical monuments and valuable structures. Through slave labour narratives, expense statements, transformation into museums or renamings, they are subsumed into the collective memory as part of the nation’s cultural history.

Bombay, or Mumbai, as one must refer to it in these troubled times is one such city that has passed through a number of collective memories and is on its way to a massive engineered attempt to refashion its current status quo. Mumbai is no stranger to the intricate processes of changing hands, and new cultures arriving and settling down. The original inhabitants of the Mumbai islands were the Koli fishermen for centuries, who were engaged in trading items like dried fish, salt and coconut to other ports along the Konkan coast. This aboriginal race of Dravidian stock soon found itself under occupiers from Portugal who considered Mumbai as a convenience port from where trade could be expanded across the sea. The Portuguese called the place Bom Bahia or Buon Bahia or Bombaim, all meaning the ‘good bay’. The fortunes of the port settlement changed once the administration changed hands. Bombay

was part of the dowry given to Princess Catherine of Braganza on her marriage to King Charles II of England. The British were in command now and Governor Gerald Aungier recommended that the East India Company shift its headquarters to Bombay from Surat. He planned to build a walled town on Mumbai island, and thus was formed the Bombay Fort. Soon the Churchgate Street stood as a demarcation between the blacks (natives) and whites in the city. The city also had an esplanade that was widened so as to prevent surprise attack from outsiders. The threat of invasion was always looming over this port city; and the sense of apprehension over loss of privileges and territories has remained a part of the collective memory that has contributed to the mental makeup of Mumbai. Later, in the 1860s, Governor Sir Bartle Frere saw the walls as impeding further development and expansion of the port and trade opportunities. In 1864, he ordered the walls to be pulled down thereby indirectly supporting the cause of inclusion. Soon Bombay witnessed a massive boom in trade when Bombay’s cotton industry flourished in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Unlike Delhi, Bombay was rather insulated from raw politics and bureaucracy, which helped the city to concentrate all its energies on amassing wealth. Nevertheless, Bombay made significant contributions to the freedom movement. It was here that the inaugural meeting of the Indian National Congress was held in 1885. Later, in 1942, the city also hosted the launch of the Quit India Movement, yet another decisive event in the struggle for independence.

Post independence, when the Bombay Presidency State was split to form Maharashtra and Gujarat, the city of Bombay came to be acquired by the former state. Interestingly, Maharashtrians had initially not welcomed the budding city as they considered it ‘an alien intrusion upon their soil’ (Thorner xvii). Their chief grouse was that it brought about a forced mixing of diverse groups of different castes and origins leading to the traditional observances of purity being affected. The city was seen as a place of licentiousness and fast life where women behaved in ways contrary to ‘Indian’ belief. The Parsi and Gujarati women enjoyed a level of freedom and co-mingling that was taboo to the conservative Marathi women. Moreover, the degradation of Hinduism by Christian missionaries and their educational systems too created a cultural friction that pitted the ideas of Hinduism against the colonial modernity project. The non- conventional behaviour of the then residents of Mumbai was greatly

helped by the fact that it was a port city that received people from all over the world and played host to a cultural lingo that was permissive and refreshingly different. The trading mentality that comes so naturally to port towns has seeped into the Bombay bloodstream so much so that anything is a business opportunity. Drawn by tales of rags to riches, millions of migrants flocked to the city hoping to live the dream.

Numerous films have been made on this theme wherein the young man comes to Bombay with dreams and strikes it rich through smuggling or a stroke of genius or else, the city manages to destroy him. In these films, the use of spaces in Bombay displays an integration of the landscape with the public and the personal. For instance, the Gateway of India, with its quadrangle full of pigeons, stands for liberty, epiphany or the abrupt end of an era. The smoky dance bars and narrow by-lanes of slums effectively portray the brooding unease of a people who have nothing to lose and live life with abandon. Haji Ali and similar beach areas have often been beamed across as the hub of underworld activities. The use of the urban Mumbaiscape is generally intensely interwoven with narratives as these backgrounds have a history of their own, and hence contribute to the storyline and etch characters well. Prominent examples include Parinda (Vidhu Vinod Chopra 1993), Satya (Ram Gopal Varma 1998), Vaastav (Mahesh Manjrekar 1999), Company (Ram Gopal Varma 2002), Shootout at Lokhandwala (Apoorva Lakhia 2007), Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (Pradeep Sarkar 2007) and Fashion (Madhur Bhandarkar 2008).

In Mumbai, the word ‘public’ has great relevance as most of the discourses centre around what is good for or detrimental to the public. The word has proliferated among the lower and middle classes who are anyway the public. In other words, ‘public’ is a huge, solid, powerful mass that is united by a sense of common causes and expectations towards the government. The power grids of Mumbai are such that both its strengths and weaknesses are its people. Mr. S.S. Tinaikar, ex- Municipal Commissioner feels that Mumbai is facing a battle that no other city in India or the world had to face, adding that the city was really a ‘cross section of the country’ (Business Line June 07, 2001).

The presence of people from all over the country in Mumbai has enhanced its cosmopolitan imagery. Gregory David Roberts, in his autobiographical fiction Shantaram observes:

Then there were people. Assamese, Jats, and Punjabis; people from Rajasthan, Bengal and Tamil Nadu; from Pushkar, Cochin and Konark . . . Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Parsee, Jain, Animist; fair skin and dark, green eyes and golden brown and black; every different face and form of that extravagant variety, that incomparable beauty, India (4)

Today, however, the pendulum has swung back. The days of an inclusive city zone seem to be shaken. The earlier cries of ‘adjust please’ in chawls, trains, water tank queues etc seem to have become just a tad timid as the city is now gradually trying to close down the gats that Sir Frere had thrown open a century ago. The city had experienced domicile issues way back in the 1960s as Maharashtra and Gujarat hotly argued for the city to be housed in their respective territories. Here is a unique situation where the state is built around the city. After all, Bombay had existed much before Maharashtra and Gujarat were formed. The newly embedded city thus had a history of fractures and fissures that lay right beneath the surface. In the tussle for the city, the Maharashtrians were represented by the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, which was opposed by the Bombay Citisen’s Committee. The Samiti was constituted by Marathas from all walks of life, while the Citisens’ Committee was made up of the city’s eminent personalities who were chiefly Gujaratis and Parsis. The Samiti sought to unify the Maratha regions of the Bombay Presidency State into the single linguistic state of Maharashtra. It claimed Bombay as capital on the grounds that several parts of the city were inhabited by Marathi speakers, and that the city was highly dependent on the Marathi hinterlands for labour needs. The Bombay Citisens’ Committee, in defense, cited historical, geographical, economical and demographic reasons and statistics to emphasise the cultural plurality and multilingual character of the city. The Committee dignitaries could not imagine the city being part of either state as the city was their home to such an extent that it seemed an independent entity. Therefore, they were more in favour of Bombay being a separate territory as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had once envisaged. However, the Citisens’ campaign soon frittered away owing to the absence of a strong leadership. Thus Bombay as a distinct city grew out of conflict and covetousness, the echoes of which it retains even today.

No discussion on the closing gateways of the city can be complete without analysing the role of one of the chief architects of Mumbai- oriented regionalism of recent times – Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. So named with the intention of invoking Maratha pride through reference to the local hero Shivaji, the Shiv Sena and its chief have at various points been symbols of power, menace and of culture and history in the making.

In 1960, Balasaheb Thackeray brought out Marmik, a magazine modelled on Punch that carried his cartoons on the front page. In 1965, Marmik began to give statistics of Marathis and non-Marathi population in Bombay. Soon, this exercise was stepped up a notch as it began listing names of people at the helm in business and bureaucracy. ‘It was clear that the majority of these were South Indians; very few Maharashtrians featured among these names. The list ended with the terse one-liner: vacha aani thand basa (read and be silent)’ (Menon and Adarkar 235). These lists gained in popularity among the unemployed youth, who began to contribute their own lists as they became more aware of a sense of inequality.

In 1966, Balasaheb Thackeray launched the Shiv Sena. The Sena tapped into the huge base of discontented Marathi youth who were channelised through active campaigns involving social service and mild political activism. The Marmik brought out a new slogan – vacha aani utha (read and rise). Thackeray, an ardent admirer of Hitler believed in having a similar figure at the helm of affairs. Though initially the Sena activities were seen as an extension of the Left’s politics, it soon took on a hue all of its own. Built on foundations of intense regionalism and feeding on the legends of Shivaji’s exploits, the Sena sought to bring to the Marathi Manus a life of dignity, and a possibility of a decent job. Naturally such a call was difficult to resist and thousands of youth signed up as members of the Sena. The Sena ideology was spread through community centres such as gymnasiums, mills and lanes. Thus, the areas of operation of the organisation were clearly among the people who felt they needed a hand- up socially. The grassroots approach appealed to the Marathi Manus who felt that he too was represented in the mélange of voices that rose from Mumbai. Through the potent mix of ideology, action, dialogue and clever organisation, the Sena began to present the city as a reverse prism

– wherein multiple voices entered the prism but only one came out – that

of an overbearing Marathi voice as symbolised by the Shiv Sena tiger’s roar. Over the years the Sena has diversified its style of operations. Through street plays and massive community celebrations during Ganeshotsav, the Sena has brought together the raw energy of the youth who were shown the promised land of Mumbai, and a chance to take administration into their own hands. The branches of the Sena in various blocks of the city increased the organisation’s clout as they began demanding protection money from shop keepers and vendors, and took massive cuts in land deals. The concept of Maratha pride took on a different hue when placed in the context of action. Joining the Sena became a process of coming-of-age – the masculinising of a people who had been till then suppressed by elitist parties like the Congress. The acts of offering protection in lieu of money, settling disputes and organising festivals harkened the youth to a feeling of emulating the acts of Shivaji, and thereby becoming rulers in their own rights. The most popular legend about Shivaji is about how he duped the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and escaped to continue his guerilla warfare. Predictably, the Shiv Sena’s fight for rights is aligned to Hindutva brand of ideology. The stress on group activities gave the workers a sense of belonging and helped to keep on stand a band of men who could be readily mobilised. These strong arm tactics actually paid off and for a long time, the Sena gave the Marathi Manus a sense of pride and protection against the South Indians, Gujaratis and non-Hindus who often refused him accommodation, job and respect.

The ways that the Shiv Sena took its political alliances and subsequent presence in coalition governments are well documented. Torn by internal strife and groupism, the Sena was fast losing its appeal when the Marathi Manus received a shot in the arm through the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the breakaway group from the Sena. The party in a loud, raucous, violence-filled manner gave its cadres a taste of the importance enjoyed by members of the Shiv Sena. The MNS has greater relevance when examined in the context of the social implications of the responses to its war cry. With the government sanctioning an 80% reservation in colleges for students from Marathi medium schools, there is a clear effort towards building a class of people who are well versed in Marathi history and struggles so as to appreciate the opportunities given

to them and thereby translate into grateful votes. Once this takes place in a few generations, the process will move out of the political realm and become an integral part of practical life where the Marathi interest groups will look out for their people and present them with life chances that were so far available to non-Marathis as well.

The processes of metamorphosis of culture and erasure of public memory about the way things were is what is happening today. Through culture and identity defining agencies like language, statehood and ideology, the Marathi movement is going against all the hyper validated diktats of the constitution and surprisingly there are only feeble cries of opposition by the administration. Citing dearth of resources to support a burgeoning population that is leeching the city of its remaining life chance, the Marathi Manus is being shown the danger of becoming a minority in his own state – the city of Mumbai here being equated to the state. In this scenario, the denisens of the city have two options – one is of helplessness leading to acquiescence; the other is a privilege that is obtained by being born a Marathi. The first is a result of a number of causes like fear, wish for security, life style goals etc. This has created a schism between a different kind of haves and have nots based on linguistic connections rather than economics. The gaze then assumes the stance of a glare as those that look in from the Marathi hinterland realise their power of ‘action’ and control while those within the current power grids find themselves struggling to maintain the status quo and find it hard to meet the glare. The process of creating a cultural history is to lend credulity to the narrative of the Marathi and establish a fresh public memory that will be fed tales of glory and the necessity of the policy of exclusion. The future can hold the possibility of profiling along regional lines together with what is taking place now on the basis of caste and religion. These trends are rather ominous for the Indian Union as one knows it; because so far it has been a narrative thread of one-nation-one-government that has been holding this vast tract of land together. The insurgencies in many parts of the country are put down to ‘terrorist’ attacks and crushed. But the kind of demands that the denisens of Mumbai are making seem to be meeting with little or no opposition.

Though questions were raised against Raj Thackeray in the wake of the 26/11 attacks, the Manus are back on track. The veneer of resilience

that the city is supposed to sport is wearing thin as Mumbaikars come face to face with increasingly crowded roads, rails, interview queues, frequent power cuts, water shortage, and the energy of ambitions that are waiting to take wings. The city is moving outwards in an attempt to space out its crowds. But with low cost homes being provided by reputed companies like the Tatas, the real estate prices are falling and the housing problem is getting less problematic, thus making the city even more crowded. With 80% reservation for Marathis in jobs being actively promoted by political parties, the situation becomes fraught with tension as it becomes a case of state interests versus national interests. Also, the instructions to change sign boards and shop signs to Marathi defamiliarise the city and make it inhospitable for those not familiar with the language. Such people stand out and are easy targets for sponsored, unpunished violence. Issuing of smart cards to labourers is a step in profiling so as to ensure that migrants do not get jobs that could very well be done by the locals. The situation is akin to the Gulf wherein as part of nationalisation, the expatriates are initially taken in on jobs; they train the locals and are then sent back to their respective countries. But at least they were expatriates. What can one say about Mumbai where in spite of being compatriots, people are treated as expatriates! The concept of nationhood needs to be questioned and a long term vision of the country seems startling when one tries to trace the fault lines along the sociological tectonic shifts.

At the beginning of this paper the city was compared to a sea anemone that carries multiple structures on it. But in Mumbai’s case, the city is like a supernova – stellar explosion that releases a huge burst of energy and shines with an energy that is brighter than an entire galaxy but it cools down gradually and subsides into a black hole or into a combusting white dwarf. The city has clearly gone past its glory days when there was a charm or fascination around it. Now there is a seething mass of emotions that range from defiance to wistfulness. If the powers that be have a choice, the nostalgia will be lost in the celebration over reservations and the undermining of constitutional rights. But then, whose city and which constitution? Possibly as part of the many modernities that one has been experiencing, concentric nationalities could be a defining one.


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ANUPAMA VARMA. Is M. Phil student at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

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Is M. Phil student at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

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