Thursday, January 12, 2006

What a city!

With a volcanic birth dating back 5 crore years, a rich heritage of 15 centuries and more than 600 years of foreign rule, Mumbai is nothing short of an enigma. Bursting at the seams it may be, but this bustling city still keeps its charm alive- thanks to its seashore psyche, innovative enterprise and an all-embracing outlook. But to me, what truly sets it apart is its unique obsession with contradiction. Abundance & deprivation, hygiene and filth, virtue and vice, black and white…. all extremes mingle together with inimitable magnanimity. Run, live and let live is Mumbai’s mantra but in the maddening pace is an unmistakable rhythm. The ears that catch this music also see method in madness, order amidst chaos, clarity with confusion and more importantly hope despite the despair.

Would it be a surprise then…. that Mumbai’s monuments, buildings, roads, ……all have such tales to tell…stories of people who made history, stories for people who care to look back. Each time I pass by the Esplanade mansion in Fort, I marvel at its rich history.

Situated next to the illustrious Army Navy stores, this building housed the erstwhile only-for-Europeans Esplanade Hotel – then considered a deluxe hotel with as many as 130 suites. The “premium” room tariff of the year 1889 would seem ridiculous today – Rs. 7 for the ground floor (a rupee less for every floor upwards) inclusive of breakfast, lunch, dinner, ice, hot/chilled water besides an attendant.

Quite ironic that Malabar Hill, now a mute spectator to the dark deeds of white- robed politicians every time the modern-day pirates raid the sprawling Governor’s bungalow, has its name rooted in piracy… after the infamous Malabari pirates who invaded the Mumbai shoreline during the seventeenth century. In reality, these pirates were a mix of Americans, British, Arabs and Sri Lankans. The Walkeshwar Hill was used for monitoring their nuisance. They were eventually driven out in 1695 but the name stuck.

As I rushed each day to the umpteen offices in each of my countless stints in and around Fort, I have always managed a chuckle for the statue of Late Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade near Churchgate. Not many know the story behind the sculpture that looks away, avoiding an eye-to-eye contact with countless commuters and tourists each day. With a squint in his right eye, Justice Ranade invariably ensured that all his photographs ignored this twisted anatomy. The sculptor Ganapat Mhatre, known for his outstanding dexterity, was truly in a fix. Gasping in the tug of war between the loyalty to his art vis-a-vis Ranade’s sentiments, he carved a perfect replica but erected it facing the High Court, and not the road. As a result, pedestrians to this day remember him, if they ever do, exactly as he would have liked.

And who said libraries worm their way on the back of book lovers alone. The Native General library of Dhobi Talao, next to the Framji Cawasji Institute, the oldest library of Mumbai, was set up through the pioneering efforts of a Military Board clerk called Raghoba Janardan. A man of modest means and credentials, it was his burning desire to see younger generations catch the reading habit. Is it poetic justice that he is not around today to witness the stark reality?

Crawford Market, Old Secretariat, Central Telegraph Office, Mumbai High Court, Sailors Home (today’s Police headquarters) – what do they remind us, first glance? Well, I am not sure of that. What it should, however, is Gothic architecture. Following the English empire’s adoption of the then emerging European style as its national norm, Mumbai became a convenient guinea pig for Gothic creations. Thus were born the fabulous structures… now left to house the soaring ambition of a sleeping bureaucracy, the prejudiced verdicts of a lop-sided judiciary and the whims and fancies of a ruthless police.

And in striking contrast to the growing gender wars around us, the 1875- built Prince’s Dock & the Princess Street inaugurated in 1905, both are fondly remembered day in and day out as one gender – male or female – that’s anybody’s guess. But the choice is free of ugly debates and fanatic claims. While the dock was named after Prince of Wales (later crowned Edward VII), the street is in memory of Princess of Wales who accompanied Prince of Wales (later crowned George V). The difference in gender is eclipsed by the common pronunciation but the royal aura remains.

PS: The snippets of history, I borrow from my dad, historian & archeologist and an ardent Mumbai lover. If not heredity, parentage does help. The piece itself is a rehash of an article I wrote for a magazine brewed to match the tastes of coffee table reading…. to be buried under the table after the coffee, as jet-lagged passengers shrug off their stupor to board their flights of fancy.