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City Adrift


from bom bahia to bombay
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: February 16, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : City Adrift | Naresh Fernandes | Vikram Chandra | Salman Rushdie | Suketu Mehta |

For hundreds of years Bombay held India in thrall. A metropolis, ‘reclaimed from ocean and iniquity’, it effortlessly manufactured the dreams that captivated a nation and drew fortune-seekers to it by the million. So much so this megalopolis has been immortalized, seduced, idolized and loved by our authors, writers and film makers in Bollywood. Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games and Salman Rushdie’s books have the city as its focal point. More than a dozen films have been produced with Mumbai as the central theme. Mumbai meri jaan has been the leitmotif.

But there is more to Mumbai. That is the burden of an arresting new biography City Adrift: A short biography of Bombay, by award-winning writer and journalist Naresh Fernandes. He gives us a very deep understanding and appreciation of one of the world’s most iconic cities.

Yet reeling under the explosion of pollution, crowd and noise with its ever increasing vehicular and population growth it is a nightmare for everybody. And the nightmare will only worsen every year: that is Fernandes’ pessimistic prediction. But then why are people still flocking to the city of interlocked islands? This is because, as it has been widely acknowledged, it is the place that manufactures India’s dreams and a large dollop of enterprise.

Fernandes begins the book by tracing the genesis of Mumbai not in the recent past, but in pre-history and quotes naval officer and amateur archaeologist KRU Todd’s 1932 paper titled ‘Prehistoric Man Round Bombay’. Todd had chanced upon a shale hand axe that was perhaps 2.5 million years old. Despite the limitations of writing the history of the city over 168 pages, the author has chronicled the subject well from pre-historic to the recent times, ending with the 2012 death of Bal Thackeray, who held the city in his grip for more than four decades since his rise in 1960s.

The book has several interesting anecdotes. Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy was the first person to serve ice at a dinner party. Bombay witnessed its first forward trading scam when Pemchand Roychand, the richest stock broker of  1860s Bombay, went bankrupt. Since then the financial capital of India has witnessed many scams, the latest being the forward trading scam by Jignesh Shah. Whether it is hit by scams or blasts, the city hits back.

True to being India’s first city, all castes, religious communities and even different nationalities coexisted here-the Hindus, the Armenians, the Chinese, the Parsis the Bahais… as far as back 16th and 17th centuries.

The author’s own grandfather Ammon Rodrigues, who had owned a small piece of agricultural land in Bandra, died battling cancer before taking control of his ancestral land. An apartment complex-Orchid Breeze has come up on the same land owned by Shahid Balwa, who was arrested for bribing a minister to obtain licenses to run mobile services.
There is an interesting chapter describing the relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and Bombay. Bombay played an important role in shaping Mahatma’s thinking. Equally so Bombay had despite its babel of tongues and visions, found a way to agree on a singular purpose during the freedom movement. However the book ignores Mumbai’s dream factory Bollywood, mafia and cricket atmosphere. Similarly gastronomical delights offered by Bombay too fail to merit any attention.

Divided into two sections, the City Adrift focuses on the rise in the first part. In its second half, the writer highlights the state of the city’s current decline. Fernandes asserts that the city’s middle class is to blame for what has gone wrong. “They were so eager to demand their rights, they’d completely forgotten about fundamental duties. They shop in “access-restricted malls, exercise in parks operated by private developers… and aspire to live in gated communities” without “engaging with the system – and their poorer neighbours”.

The re-islanding of Mumbai does not bode well for Bombay’s future. A city can flourish only if it has common ground to make common cause,” he observes. With increasing globalization and high tech consumerism the greater common good has been forgotten. This is reflected in creaking infrastructure and the decline in morality.

No doubt Fernandes writes with a mixture of passion, exasperation, poignancy, empathy and great elegance about his beloved Bombay—giving us a sense of not only its history but also its worsening present and endangered future.  For those who have a stake in the city, part of it reads like a cautionary tale. But some portions of the book might seem boring for general readers as it has the feel of an academic text.

Author : Naresh Fernandes
Publisher : Aleph
EDITION: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-93-822-7720-0
PAGES: 168
PRICE: Rs 295


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017