At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, when the national flag was hoisted over the Bombay Civil Secretariat building in Fort-which now houses Mumbai City and Civil Sessions Court-B G Kher, chief minister of Bombay State, had declared: “Citizens of free India, you are now free.” Soon after this moment, cops lost control of the masses cramming the approaches and hundreds swarmed the building “with the spirit of hundreds of thousands who marched through the illuminated streets of Bombay, shouting slogans in many tongues” as per a report in TOI, which cost 2 annas at the time and came with the disclaimer: “Do Not Pay More”.
Black marketing, scarcity and inflation preoccupied the middle-class of Bombay on the verge of freedom. Glancing through the TOI editions preceding this floodlit midnight-when bands blared and trumpets sounded in the city till dawn, traffic rules were ignored, cars drove on pavements or were marooned there, trams carried passengers on the roofs and when many returned home in special trains that ran from Churchgate to Andheri at 1.00 am and to Borivli at 1.30 am and 2.00 am–is commuting to a Bombay that was airy, wary, hungry and joyous, all at once.
Fearing shortage of milk in the lead up to the celebrations, Bombay’s Milk Commissioner pointed out to the public that milk powder would be available at the five milk powder depots in the city. On the other hand, Kit Kat restaurant in Marine Lines introduced a dish called ‘Mussaqa’ from that jubilant Friday, claiming such a dish was “never before served in any restaurant” while Rubber Industries at Andheri Kurla Road celebrated freedom from “alien rule, alien economy and alien goods” by offering rubber toy balloons.
Ad copy was often unsubtle. “What with sewing, cooking and washing, the Indian housewife has been wearing herself out,” read the copy of Rampart Row-based manufacturers of People’s Radio, an Indian-made Rs 95-worth set. “Give her a break; give her a radio set,” it told the men.
Breaks also meant catching Hollywood films such as ‘My Favourite Brunette’, a romantic comedy starring Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, which was showing at Regal and ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, in which, curiously, Sanskrit shlokas are chanted after the protagonist’s death.
Press workers of three city newspapers, who wanted a month’s salary as Independence Day bonus, were on strike on August 12 and 13. This was when Vijay Merchant, captain of the Indian cricket team which was due for a tour to Australia, had announced his resignation due to ill-health. Cricket fans were hurt while, over at the Cooperage, soccer fans turned out in full force to watch Bangalore Muslims-a barefooted team-defeat the booted Rangers Sports Club by two goals to nil on the eve of Independence.
Food and clothing were scarce commodities and escalating prices moved one Miss M Moray Kirkes to gripe in a letter to the editor: “Most middle class families have to do without ghee, butter, eggs, fruits and vegetables. These are things unknown to the children of today. The mango, for them, is a fruit found in the wonderland of Alice and not in India.”
What wasn’t scarce, though, was pedestrian space. There were roughly 25,000 vehicles on the city’s roads in 1946. Close to Independence Day, American traffic expert William J Cox had even remarked that few cities in America had streets as wide as Bombay.