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This is why we are Mumbai

india Updated: Jul 27, 2009 22:49 IST
Aakar Patel
Aakar Patel
Hindustan Times
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Mumbai emerged from the crucible of commerce.

That separates it from those cities that came up around a religious site or a water source. Only the demands of its foundation in commerce can explain the pragmatic nature of its citizens, us. More than any other people in South Asia, we are driven to carrying on regardless.

We call this the spirit of Mumbai: it possesses us effortlessly when we come to this city, because business is intolerant of pause. This, the forward movement of our city, shapes us and changes us.

The communities that built this city began coming here 300 years ago. In 1672, governor Gerald Aungier gave land for their Tower of Silence on Malabar Hill to the Parsis of Surat. The Parsis were the greatest community of this city; those who think otherwise should draw up and compare lists of the charitable and cultural institutions each community has built.

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The British gave free land to Surti merchants — Parsi, Hindu and Muslim — to come and settle in Mumbai. They did this because the port of Surat, the biggest and most important in India till the 17th century, silted over. The British needed to find a new port, but they also needed to move the merchants of Surat, with whom they struck up what was to become one of their most enduring relationships. This is why South Mumbai is Gujarati: free giveaways of land. This migration spawned a culture not rooted in geography or caste or community, but in commerce.

The Bombay Stock Exchange was formed by brokers who speculated on the price of cotton during the American Civil War, 150 years ago.

As trade boomed, other communities came in, drawn by economic opportunity. The Catholics of Mangalore and Goa joined the East Indian community under the Portuguese to form Bandra, one of the most civilised parts of India. Bandra passed on to the British in 1775.

All Indians retain the characteristics of community; and Mumbai has parts that are coloured by local culture. Marathi Brahmins define the high culture of Vile Parle (East), where I grew up, and of Dadar. But we also have something in us that separates the Marathis of Mumbai from those in Pune; the Gujaratis of Mumbai from those of Gujarat; the Punjabis of Bollywood from those in Chandigarh and Delhi. That something is what this city has added to our identity.

The trader needed rule of law, he found it here; the Hindustani-speaking poet and actor and director needed a liberal environment to exhibit his creativity, he found that here. It is no accident that Bollywood is located in Mumbai.

In India, community means caste, language and religion. But as we become urbane, we reach for a higher identity, nationalism, but also a smaller one. We identify with football clubs and types of cinema and rock bands and diets.

The communities and kinds of people we are change with time, now more rapidly than ever. But we remain of this city. It makes no demands of us other than that we be tolerant and open-minded, because commerce has no dogma.

Our deepest identity comes from this beautiful place that has shaped us into the most tolerant, the most liberal and the most successful citizens of India.

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