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When Mumbai Was Bombay


The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 17, 2008

Photo: Gateway of India, Bombay

A city by the sea is special. The foreigner is not an enemy there, but someone to trade with, to make a buck out of. The outsider arrives in slow-moving ships and boats, not as a marauder on horses; he comes with goods to sell and buy, not to steal and plunder. Ports thrive by trading with those who look different, talk in unfamiliar languages, eat unusual food and worship strange gods (or none).

True, all outsiders aren't necessarily benign; strangers bearing gifts, arriving by the sea helped build colonial empires. But that is not the norm; the norm is benign. Trade, Amartya Sen said, is an extension of human conversation. Trading cities are built on trust: You believe in the word of the stranger by buying what he promises to sell, and by paying him on time. The transaction matters; both sides are better off. The result is prosperity, and industrial empires are built. And that wealth creates the resources that pay for parks, museums, art galleries, roads, and hospitals; the city becomes special. It creates the ambience, which lures the young and the ambitious from the hinterland to seek their fortune in the city. Their arrival enriches the city.

This worked for Venice and Genoa during the Renaissance; for Singapore and Hong Kong in the post-war years; and of course, continues to work for Manhattan, the epicentre, which some of my American friends call a global city coincidentally attached to the U.S. They say so with pride, not shame.

Bombay's story has been similar. Yes, Bombay, and not Mumbai. This is the time to remind ourselves what the great city was and must remain, and warn ourselves of what it might become if Raj Thackeray continues his destructive politics of hunting down those who are different from him.

For Thackeray, a polyglot, cosmopolitan city is something to be embarrassed about, to be afraid of his Maharashtra Navanirman Sena's campaign against north Indians is eerily similar to what his uncle Balasaheb did to 'Madrasis' in the late 1960s, blaming those who came from elsewhere for problems they weren't necessarily responsible for.

The senior Thackeray's achievement then - and his nephew's achievement now - remains in making what ought to be the decadent ideology of a fringe movement appear respectable, transforming a nuisance into a political force. In her 1979 study, Ethnicity and Equality: the Shiv Sena Party and Preferential Policies in Bombay, American academic Mary Fainsod Katzenstein presciently laid out the implications - the fraying of the society.

Nativist policies are based on the premise of discrimination. The consequences are often horrific: Think of trains taking those not German enough to gas chambers. Or recall the passes black South Africans had to carry to travel around the 'white' cities of South Africa during apartheid. At a less sinister level, Malaysia's Bumiputra policy has made educational refugees out of thousands of Chinese and Indian Malaysians. In each case, the economy operated at a suboptimal level. Worse, the society became less than itself.

That's why this is beyond economics: it is about character. Bombay has always been inclusive. In the 1960s, when V.S. Naipaul arrived in India, he felt overwhelmed seeing thousands of people looking just like him emerging from Churchgate station. He feared becoming part of the area of darkness.

But the city would have absorbed him. When you extend your hand to grab a moving train, as Suketu Mehta observes in Maximum City, you will find 'many hands stretching out to grab you on board . . . And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning. 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.'

We know how to adjust. Whether it is the bomb blasts of 2006 or the torrential deluge of 2005, in most cases people helped strangers caught in events beyond their comprehension or control. Hundreds of optimists arrive here daily; the cup never overflows. But, for Thackeray's muscled men, ethnic pride means terrorizing taxi drivers, destroying businesses of hawkers and attacking the home of Amitabh Bachchan, with complicit T.V. crews recording each blow.

Without 'outsiders,' Bombay will lose its soul. In The Moor's Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie wrote: 'In Bombay, all Indias met and merged . . . all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories, we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once . . . what harmony emerged from that cacophony!'

That noise has charm, rhythm, and beat. Which is why we should remember: Sometimes the barbarians are not at the gate, but within us. That enemy within us must fail.