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Mumbaiwale: Can you see today’s city in this Bombay review from 1911?

What did visitors make of this city 100 years ago? One man saw commerce, equality and tolerance

mumbai Updated: Apr 29, 2019 08:02 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Mumbai history,Mumbai archives,Bombay
Bombay leads India in the sobriety of thought and breadth of view, which comes from travel and commerce and the magic influence of property, wrote a writer in 1911.

Here’s a guest column with a twist. It was penned 108 years ago, by an anonymous visitor. Even then, the city stood out. In his essay Mingling of Peoples, the writer was impressed by “the asset Bombay possesses in the character of its people”. The Bombay of the time was clean-dealing, convivial, and a model for the rest of India. Read on to see how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

In all other parts of India, society is divided into watertight compartments. In Calcutta, industry and commerce are entirely in the hand of English and Scot manufacturers and merchants, whilst the retail trade is monopolised by the keen Marwaris. The Bengali loathes the office and the desk, expending all his energies in law and journalism, and when he has money to invest he puts it in the safest four per cents. In Madras, the division between business and the professions is no less sharp.

But Bombay is a cosmopolitan city, its trade and industry are shared by every section of the population to a degree unparalleled in any other part of the Indian Empire. When the St. George’s Cross was raised over Bombay Castle the proselytising methods of the Jesuits and Franciscans had made European domination a hated thing.

The British at once established a reign of complete religious toleration, and the keenest brains and boldest characters from all Western India flocked to an island, where a security which the native rulers could not guarantee, might be had with complete freedom of conscience and religious observance.

The Parsis, driven from Persia by the Mahomedan conquerors centuries before, who had been allowed to settle as hewers of wood and drawers of water in Gujerat, were amongst the first arrivals. They brought a freedom from caste prejudice and restriction, and the quickness and clannishness bred of oppression, which made them the natural channel of communication between the English and the children of the soil, and gave them a large share in the seaborne trade shunned by Hindus because of the pollution involved in voyaging across ‘The Black Water’.

The Khojas came from Cutch, the Banias from Gujerat, the Bhattias from Cutch and Gujerat, the Konkani Mahomedans from the south, and a sprinkling of Jews from Baghdad. These are amongst the keenest trading races in the world; their natural vogue is commerce; and if they have a fault it is that they are too speculative rather than ultra-conservative, the besetting sin of most of India. It is on this secure human foundation that the commercial fortunes of Bombay are firmly based.

In most parts of India, the line of demarcation between the Englishman and the Indian is sharply drawn; in some parts it is possible for a man to pass a lifetime in the country and never come into intimate contact with an Indian gentleman! In Bombay the line is so faint that it must soon be extinguished.

Englishman and Indian, Parsi and Mahomedan, Jew and Hindu, meet in daily and ultimate commercial dealing. They sit side-by-side in the Hall of the Municipality and the Senate of the University, they foregather nightly at the Orient Club, and interdine frequently. Touch any commercial house and you find that its ramifications are so intertwined with Englishman and Indian that acute racial feeling is impossible. At any public gathering, every race and creed in the cosmopolitan city will be represented.

Whilst communal life in Bombay is strong, it is rarely bigoted. Commerce, and the amenities commerce has brought in its train, has been a mighty solvent of particularism and intolerance. In all these respects Bombay is nearly a generation ahead of any other part of India. It has acquired a unique reputation for common sense and sobriety of opinion. The Bengali is generally more cultured, he is almost always a finer orator and rhetorician; Madras has carried its educational machinery to a higher pitch and produced more accomplished Brahmin administrators.

But Bombay leads India in the sobriety of thought and breadth of view, which comes from travel and commerce and the magic influence of property. If it cannot be said that what Bombay thinks today India thinks tomorrow, it may be said without exaggeration that at all times of political excitement, India looks to Bombay for an informed opinion, and for the brake which will arrest runaway political thought.

It is to Bombay that the government looks for the reflection of the best Indian opinion on the politics of the day, and for a lead in currency and finance.

First Published: Apr 27, 2019 01:10 IST