Inside India #41: From Bombay to Mumbai: India’s city of dreams

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Contrary to the expectations of many, Mumbai – formerly Bombay – is not an ancient city.

Once a series of seven islands occupied for millennia by Koli fisherfolk, it was the Portuguese who gave the city its earliest identity, establishing a trading centre there in 1534 and calling it Bom Bahia – meaning ‘Good Bay’ – from whence the name Bombay is derived.

Image credit: Arian Zwegers, CC 2.0

A century later the Portuguese gifted the territory to King Charles II of England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. Charles, presumably less than impressed with this marshy offering, promptly leased the islands to the East India Company – for the measly sum of ten pounds of gold per year.

The East India Company immediately set about transforming the disparate islands, silting in the marshes to create a single landmass, and commencing their grand project of building an important entrepôt on India’s western coast.

By the end of the 1700s, Bombay, with its deepwater port and established trade routes, had become the ‘Gateway to India’. A few short decades later, the first railway was built, connecting Bombay to the country’s vast interior. With settlers arriving from Britain – and her many colonies – in pursuit of the Empire’s expansionist mission, and native residents drawn to Bombay by the prospect of employment, the city began to grow at breakneck pace, such that, today, there are twenty million residents living cheek-to-jowl within the greater municipal area that demarcates Mumbai from its environs.

In 1995 Bombay was rechristened, to be named after Mumbadevi, the stone goddess of the original Koli fishermen. There is both nostalgia and a certain perversity in the renaming: the Koli fisherfolk have been driven by the city’s relentless growth into a narrow enclave in one corner of the great city, all but forgotten in the jumbled tapestry of Mumbai’s recent history.

Like most Indian metropolises, the past two decades have seen the city face a cultural onslaught from the twin forces of globalisation and westernisation. Mumbai has changed almost beyond recognition: malls, skyscrapers, coffee shops, and shiny new apartment blocks have proliferated, transforming the city’s architectural physiognomy, and aimed at accommodating the aspirations of a burgeoning middle class. With one of the youngest – and hippest – populations of any major city in the world, Bombay is India’s ground zero for the latest fashions and fads, both homegrown and imported.

And yet the past continues to exert a tangible hold. Religion and tradition still play an enormous part in the lives of most Mumbaiikers. This dichotomy is also visible in the city’s physical landscape. New multiplexes and flashy call centres sit side-by-side with slums and older buildings built by the city’s various past occupiers, each of whom have left their imprint – from ancient Hindu temples, to Mughal architecture, to a slew of Raj-era colonial edifices built by the British.

Modern visitors to the city often talk of a relentless assault on the senses. The colour, the heat, the noise, the smells, the spectacle, and the sheer exuberance of so many people packed into such a small area.

It often takes a trip through the city’s less salubrious enclaves, the slums of Dharavi, for instance, to see beyond the immediate and recognise that this is a city – like most world metropolises – where life exists as much in the shadows as it does in the light.

In the slums, poverty is endemic, but what is more endemic is the acceptance of poverty – by both the residents of such enclaves and the city’s overseers. There is a seemingly unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, and betterment – for those on the lowest rungs of the ladder – proceeds at a snail’s pace.

And yet there remains something mythopoetic about the city.

Mumbai is India’s city of dreams. People come here to make their fortune. They come to become famous, glorified on colourful billboards as the latest stars of the world’s most prolific movie industry – Bollywood. They come to start businesses, often one-man, one-woman operations whose premises are hidden away in the slums, and whose staff are urchins with little more than bright smiles, ragged shorts and an insatiable work ethic.

In between the glamour and the gutters there is something uniquely human about the great monster-city. This intangible quality is perhaps best summed up by a quote from Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, who describes Mumbaikers running to catch a train, being hauled aboard by waiting hands: And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable, or whether you were born in the city or arrived only this morning, or whether you live in Malabar Hill or Jogeshwari; whether you are from Bombay or Mumbai or New York. All they know is that you’re trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough. Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.”

My latest novel, The Lost Man of Bombay, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the body of a white man found frozen in the foothills of the Himalayas with only a small notebook containing cryptic clues. Soon, more bodies begin to pile up in Bombay, India’s city of dreams … Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

One thought on “Inside India #41: From Bombay to Mumbai: India’s city of dreams

  1. Brilliant article Vas and thank you. I learn something really interesting with each one. The more we learn of the past equips us for the future with relevant knowledge.


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