City Adrift by Naresh Fernandes
In his most recent novel, ‘City Adrift’, A Short Biography of Bombay, well known author and journalist Naresh Fernandes captures the key essence of Bombay that once was and shares his assessment of the city through the book.
Every chapter in the books reeks of some gripping and lesser known facts about Bombay that one has not heard of. Completed over a period of several months the book includes extensive research and references to earlier books chronicling the history and culture of Bombay. The biography from page to page is inspiring and captivating throughout. It is a literal walk through Bombay’s humble beginnings and details how Bombay grew from strength to strength.
The book begins by trailing along what the city offers in terms of housing and the recent real estate projects that have been cropping up across the landscape of Bombay to a city that is gradually losing its soul. The city today is a contrast of multi storied glass towers, British era and art deco buildings and one to two storey shanties that stretch along its periphery. Naresh notes, as Bombay soars higher, the shared spaces that make the city human, its pavements and playgrounds and beaches are gradually shrinking and re-development, is the new lingo to describe the phenomenon of older buildings and industrial estates giving way to malls and glass towers.
City Adrift takes a step back to how and when the seven islands of Bombay were fused over time for smoother commute and which in turn paved the way for the city’s development. These islands were occupied by a diverse set of people with different ethnic backgrounds and varied cultures. Most of the people were invited to the city by the British to practice their trade, sell their wares and advance finances of the city. They moved to the city centuries ago and settled in within the fort walls. This in turn led to rampant construction of residential quarters, mostly in their own native style of architecture. It would also be fitting to mention here that administrators began to import Englishwomen as well to marry British settlers, although this act went a bit askew. The city’s population was estimated to have moved to 60,000 at this time.
As the cotton trade began to flourish and there was an increasing demand for cotton from Europe, weavers from the nearby towns of Thana and Bhiwandi were also invited to Bombay. To accommodate these city migrants, new houses were built in the fort area, concessions were even offered to foreign merchants: Armenian traders were afforded warehousing facilities and exempted from anchorage charges. A UNESCO report on India’s internal migrants and their status released earlier pointed to the reality that such people – not specific to Mumbai – seen as outsiders who inflict a burden on places where they move to, are in fact, a reason for all manner of growth, more importantly, economic growth.
When the city exchanged hands from the Portuguese to the British during the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Catherine of Braganza, it is interesting to note that the first time Prince Charles met the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza, he is said to have exclaimed, ‘My God! They have brought me a bat’ to marry. For many this is out of the ordinary and does not find a mention in most text books too. To pacify the marriage pact it is said that the Portuguese not only offered the islands of Bombay as dowry but also enticed him with Tangier in North Africa, trading privileges in Brazil and the East Indies, and two million cruzados.
The book then deep dives into the Gandhi period in Bombay, the Non-Cooperation Movement and the beginning of the freedom struggle. It also talks about the great and respected stalwarts of Bombay like Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy who during his life time spent around 2.5 million on charity. Sir J. J. has also been referred to the old time China Trader and it was as a result of his numerous crossings that blue Chinese plates and vases made their way into the homes of many locals.
As you continue reading the book, the city of Bombay comes alive while Naresh trudges along the frequented and desolate, unheard places scattered in the island of Bombay. For e.g., Few know about an isolate corner which lies in Colaba, just behind the Colaba Police Station that marks the island of Colaba when it was an island by itself and not merged with its six other sisters. A pink plaque marks the site of the former crossing of about 300 yards of creek that separated the island of Bombay from Old Woman’s Island, it declares. ‘The creek was filled in 1838.’ It also mentions that Nallasopara was a very important port that traded with Mesopotamia and Egypt and even got the fancy of King Ashoka. (Relics found indicate that in the fourteenth year of his reign, the emperor dispatched preachers to the area) In fact the port even finds a mention in the Bible as Ophir which was famous for its wealth. It notes that King Solomon received a cargo of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks from Ophir, every three years. One may also have heard about the Buddhist caves at Kanheri in Borivili (E) and Mahakali in Andheri (E) but Buddhist caves can be spotted at Jogeshwari and Borivli-Mandapeshwar too. The Mandapeshwar caves in reality sport an etched cross and also a Shaivite motifs. The book brings to light many other interesting tid-bits of the city too like a three metre tall monolith with seven representations of Shiva located at Golanjji hill or stone relics from the thirteenth- century battle between Bombay’s Silhara rulers and Yadava invaders- which today lies within a residential quarter.
Another interesting trivia is the transformation of Antop Hill, the hill which was once home to a burial ground for varied ethnic communities. It was not only the final resting place for Sunni Muslims and a crematorium for Hindus but also a burial ground for the Armenians, the Chinese, the Baha’is, the Prarthana Samaj and the Jews, in particular- Jewish prostitutes.
Today the city as the title suggests is at loose ends and is certainly going against the tide with no concrete development plans. Reclamation projects continue to encompass mangroves and the city’s shoreline, while numerous shanties continue to flourish with the support they receive from our local politicians.
Renowned architect Charles Correa, notes that, ‘Bombay is a great city and a terrible place. No matter how burdensome life in Bombay seems to become, it’s almost impossible to leave’’. Many would agree with Charles that the city does have a strong hold on you, even if you haven’t stayed long enough. As the city continues to grow and more concrete structures continue to emerge, we hope that the city does not lose its soul and continues to be close to our hearts.
City Adrift is published by Aleph Book Company and is available at all leading book stores for a mere INR 250/-. It was launched on November 15, 2013 at the Experimental Theatre, NCPA by Charles Correa amidst the presence of well known economist Ajit Ranade, housing rights activist Simpreet Singh and architect-writer Mustansir Dalvi and many others.
It is certainly a must read as it is packed together with so many interesting anecdotes and specifics that cannot be possibly put together in this brief review. For those who love the city and are keen to discover its glorious past, please do pick a copy and treasure it. You will certainly not be disappointed.