There isn’t one Mumbai, there are several. Analysing how various classes and creeds have lived cheek by jowl, yet managed to preserve their identities, is important in understanding the city as an evolving organism and its role in a wider national context.
Many historians today are engaged in just this sort of activity, reflecting the so-called ‘urban turn’ in the study of modern South Asia. As Gyan Prakash has said, there’s a “growing recognition of the city as a spatial form of society itself – not simply as a place that contains social groups and relations, but the city itself as a structure of social forms and experience.” This is the task that Bombay Before Mumbai sets itself. It’s a collection of academic essays in honour of Jim Masselos, whose books, essays and pioneering research have done much to reshape the way historians think about Mumbai’s past.
For five decades, he’s written about the city’s hidden histories, coming up with new and valuable perspectives in the process.
The book is the outcome of a conference in Mumbai University’s Kalina campus in January 2017 devoted to using Masselos’s perspectives as tools of investigation into the past. Edited by Prashant Kidambi, Manjiri Kamat, and Rachel Dwyer, it explores the ambiguities, contradictions and tensions in the way Mumbai’s diverse groups negotiate shared spaces.
Divided into four themes, it reflects Masselos’s oeuvre. The book delves into how urban communities were historically reshaped in the modern city; the uniqueness of urban space and the ways in which it is perceived and experienced; how power shapes social relations; and how one form of power — that of nationalism — acquires dominance.
Thus, to take respective examples, Jesse Palsetia explores how Parsis in 19th century Bombay integrated into the broader urban fabric while retaining the weave of their unique interests, creating the template of the modern, cosmopolitan Bombay citizen. Abigail McGowan writes about how shops such as the Army and Navy Stores, Bombay Swadeshi, Kamdar, and Godrej and Boyce shaped an image of a desirable home in interwar Bombay.
Preeti Chopra delves into the contrasting nature of government and private charitable institutions. And Robert Rahman Raman investigates the shifting, sometimes tense, relationship between the Congress party and Bombay’s working class in the 1930s.
Again and again these microhistories bring out the way in which the cores of diverse identities were preserved even as their external natures shifted. One sees this in Simin Patel’s essay on Parsi refugees and the making of Irani identity after the Great Persian Famine of 1871 — a side-effect of which was the establishment of the city’s famed Irani restaurants.
Other essays venture into less-known aspects of the city and its people. Ashwini Tambe shows how class and race brushed up against each other in his study of Kamathipura sex workers at the turn of the 19th century.
Vanessa Caru throws light on workers’ housing in interwar Mumbai, when there were significant interventions by the authorities as a result of the plague of 1896.
And Dinyar Patel focuses on the inventions and patents of the gifted Shankar Abaji Bhisey (including a ‘spirit typewriter’ for seances), exploring how he was funded by those such as Dadabhai Naoroji and Ratanji Jamsetji Tata. In an afterword, Jim Masselos writes about how, from his first visit to Mumbai in 1961, he began to develop ideas about the nature of urban space and its relationship with group identity. His wanderings around the city were matched by wanderings in the archives, and he also became ‘a student of the crowd’ in its secular and religious manifestations.
The templates and procedures he developed in the process, such as that of ‘integration and encapsulation’, inform much of the work in Bombay Before Mumbai. This makes it an entirely appropriate and welcomefestschrift.
Bombay Before Mumbai: Essays in Honour of Jim Masselos; Ed. Prashant Kidambi, Manjiri Kamat, Rachel Dwyer, Penguin India, ₹999.
The reviewer is a Mumbai-based critic.