While reading the book Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (2003), the first thought that came to mind was: every major city in the world deserves a book like this.
The book includes a variety of articles that even if you haven’t visited the city, you could still imagine it and understand different aspects of its unique culture.
As for others like me who’d been touring the city ages back and fell in love with it instantly- including the humongous rats that we mistook for kittens the first time they crossed our paths- your dreamy view of the place will gradually be replaced by a more realistic one as you realize how multifaceted the place is, and just like the Arab world: only understood by its own people.
The editors of the book (Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes) had gathered different writings about the city, including articles, cartoons, pictures, poetry, a cooking recipe; even an act from a play to make sure that you get what it feels like to be in the city in different eras.
Famous contributions include Rudyard Kipling’s childhood memories growing up in the city, Aldous Huxley’s arrival to the place on a ship, V.S Naipaul’s experience getting a liquor permit and Duke Ellington playing there (check out the Bluebird of Delhi piece on YouTube. Interesting music inspired by the continent).
One of the articles that I enjoyed very much was Sitara: Dancing Tigress from Nepal by Saadat Hassan Manto, where he talks about the story of Sitara the infamous dancer from the 1940’s and her many partners that the writer considered as love-struck, bewitched victims. Another interesting article was Special Providence by Salim Ali, a prominent ornithologist who talks about how his childhood passion for birds led him to visit the Bombay Natural History Society in 1908 and later become “The Birdman of India”.
The book also has loads of historical aspects of the city, such as how it was found and why was it called Mumbai, the struggle that it went through to gain its independence from England and where it stood when it came to the World Wars. The book even shares feminine views from different eras: from the 1700s where English ladies came looking for suitable English husbands and endured long sea journeys that lasted for months under unpredictable weather, to the 1990’s where single Indian females struggle to rent flats as it followed the Leave and License rules, which didn’t guarantee a renewal of the contract after ten months and left them at the mercy of their landlords.
The book also gives an introduction to amusing cultural facts such as the jazz movement in Mumbai that started at the end of the 1930s by musicians arriving from Goa. This part also includes stories of local singers and different venues of performance. In fact, being an international hub meant that Mumbai had a constant flux of migrants from other Indian states.
This gave rise to a social movement in the 1960s that revived the local language Marathi and forgotten religious celebrations that belonged to Mumbai alone. It also gave rise to anti-migrants’ feelings that the Bomabyites always felt but never expressed, which led at times to deadly clashes, especially against Muslims. The book also sheds light on the city’s struggle with different mafias and how Mumbai’s Crime Branch deals with it as mentioned in Manjula Sen’s fascinating article Licensed to Kill.
Reading this book was like watching a tourist video with a difference: this one covered the good, the bad and the ugly. A compelling book that crosses literary genres. Highly recommended.
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer
and the author of: The World According to Bahja. firstname.lastname@example.org