Bombay to Mumbai: The death pangs of a great city

Published: July 25, 2011
The writer is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and a Mumbai-based commentator on India. He can be followed on Twitter @vdehejia

The writer is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and a Mumbai-based commentator on India. He can be followed on Twitter @vdehejia

When I learnt of the death of MF Husain last month, I felt that another part of Bombay had died, perhaps a final and now irretrievable piece. The official name change to Mumbai, in 1995, was but a mile marker in a process that began at least a decade earlier. Communal riots, bomb blasts and a parochial local politics, oriented around the grievances of a majority behaving as a beleaguered minority, had already signalled the death knell of a formerly great metropolis. The passing away of Husain, living in enforced exile from this city that nurtured his art, is thus a footnote in a long and perhaps inexorable process of decline. Today, cosmopolitan Bombay has already all but become provincial Mumbai.

That lost Bombay, a romantic city of the imagination that struggles to articulate its dying existence in the quotidian commerce of Mumbai, was always premised on the coexistence of its many founding communities, ethnicities and faiths. It is the city not only of Husain, but of many other great writers, scholars and artists who have flown from its bourn. The literary critic Homi Bhabha, a Bombayite himself, writes of “this teeming hinterland of the city with layered communities” in his evocation of the old Bombay’s many neighbourhoods, with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Jews, living cheek by jowl.

My literary friends sometime forget that cultural efflorescence springs from economic dynamism, and very rarely the reverse. The roots of Bombay’s centrality as the commercial and financial capital of India, a position it wrested from Calcutta in the decade or so following independence, were laid much earlier, by the Merchant Princes in the 19th century, and by successive business houses in the years that followed. They gave Bombay the economic muscle to become the new nation’s cultural capital, a crown ceded only fitfully by Calcutta. That once-great city by the other sea tells its own cautionary tale: Secular economic decline leads eventually to intellectual and cultural decay, and a once thriving bazaar of ideas becomes a moribund curatorial culture of embalming and preserving the desiccated relics that remain.

But Mumbai’s political leaders did not heed the warning of Kolkata’s demise, and have done their best to accelerate, not attenuate, this Marathi take on the Bengali syndrome. Even a casual visitor cannot help but be struck by the city’s antiquated infrastructure, creaking under the strain of its 10 or 15 million inhabitants.

The real failure of Mumbai is a paucity of the imagination, a pettiness and provincialism in its thinking. For all of its many faults, the old imperial capital, Delhi, has always understood the intimate, even filial, relationship between economic and political ascendency on the one hand and cultural and intellectual primacy on the other. After forfeiting these first to Calcutta and then to Bombay, it has now aggressively reasserted its position as India’s premier metropolis. Whether literary, artistic, or culinary, it’s more liking to be happening in Delhi these days than in Mumbai. In a nation in which the state still plays a dominant role, this was perhaps inevitable. But Mumbai could have done more to parlay its one remaining asset —being a financial centre — into the bait that would draw back its artists and intellectuals, and foster the growth of new, home-grown ones as well. That dream, too, remains stillborn.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Deb
    Jul 26, 2011 - 3:38AM

    This business of changing names of cities is as farcical as it gets. Bombay becomes Mumbai, Madras becomes Chennai, Bangalore becomes Bengaluru….the list goes on. The people in charge can’t built new cities of grand splendor, they can’t change them for better,they can’t even maintain them, but all they can is changing the name and that too in false pretence of preserving our heritage.
    After 64 years we still carry the extra bagagge of colonial inferiority complex and try to compensate with pseudo nationalism.


  • Jul 26, 2011 - 4:00AM

    A word of advice to this author. I am a Maharashtrian [Marathi] born and brought up in Hyderabad, although my father was from Mumbai. Please donot try to compare Mumbai with Delhi. Mumbai culturally, financially, artistically, commercially etc etc is far far ahead of Delhi. The reason is we the Maharashtrians have been very understanding and our thoughts are very modern. And so are the people living in this city including Adnan Sami. Please dont use the word ‘stillborn’ here. It’s not appropriate and should not be used in any other context but the one which it fits. And to tell you the truth being a doctor and a gynecologist at that I know the meaning of it very well. And also Bombay was not the original name it was Mumbai and it has gone back to it’s original name. Would you be happy if Delhi was called by any other modern name and thus loose it’s originality. For example it is said that Hyderabad’s name was Bhagyanagar. Somebody[ a nobody chief minister who ruled once upon a time] suggested that we rename Hyderabad, Bhagyanagar. The people of Hyderabad protested and the name stayed. So, I want to tell this author what’s in a name? Everybody is still going to go to Mumbai whether it was Bombay or Mumbai. They want a piece of the cake called Mumbai.


  • Farhan
    Jul 26, 2011 - 7:52AM

    Unfortunately, Mumbai has its leaders coming from Amravati, and not from Mumbai, which do not quite understand the slow cultural death happening in the city. Like Delhi, if Mumbai had its leaders coming from the city, the city would have sustained better. It would help if it becomes a union territory. Also owing to land sharks the city has grown too costly for its own good.


  • bevivek
    Jul 26, 2011 - 8:36AM

    Bombay was created by the elites of many communities, british, parsi, muslim, gujarati and maharashtrian. Its ethos reflected the value system of the elites. Post independence Bombay inherited this ethos but this has been increasingly challenged by the growth of non-elite regional identities which have their own value system often at odds with the modernistic, emancipated, secular, multi-cultural, dhandha minded perspective of the former. What is happening in Bombay / Mumbai cannot be understood without understanding this conflict. Since the latter are (or at least claim to represent) the lower rungs of the developmental pyramid, their populist perspectives and priorities are often different. These are often less about development and more about staking their claim over the city and its resources. The city is ours they say, we run this city. It will be a while before they move from the latent insecurity of this point of view to realizing, owning and driving the changes needed in Mumbai.


  • Vicram Singh
    Jul 26, 2011 - 11:22AM

    @Deb: ” … After 64 years we still carry the extra bagagge of colonial inferiority complex and try to compensate with pseudo nationalism. …

    Deb – why do you see colonial inferiority complex or pseudo nationalism in a name change. I say it is about time, we revert to the real names of our cities. I find it easier to pronounce Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, etc.


  • Chacha
    Jul 26, 2011 - 12:49PM

    Bad call to start on an MF Hussain note. He painted Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude and then cried artisitic freedom. His co-religionists, have pronounced innumerable fatwas on someone who drew a cartoon of thier most venerable messenger from God (at least the cartoonist kept his figures fully clothed, MF Hussain did not). Not one muslim has denounced it. But at least we did not threaten to kill him neither did we send any Headleys to do any recce.
    MF Hussain, for all his greatness, lost it in the last few years.


  • Rock
    Jul 26, 2011 - 4:06PM

    I don’t know whether you lived in India or not. Mumbai, chennai, kolkata, delhi, bangluru each and every city is so different and I love them. Visit these cities and tell me what all things you learn then I will tell you what you miss and what not.


  • Rock
    Jul 26, 2011 - 4:07PM

    Mumbai is still magic open your eyes.


  • Thinker
    Jul 26, 2011 - 6:07PM

    what’s the point of posting this article in paki news portal???????


  • Deb
    Jul 26, 2011 - 6:20PM

    @Vicram Singh

    Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, all these cities had different names before they were named as
    such. For example Calcutta ( renamed Kolkata) was made up of three villages, Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kalikata (note it was not Kolkata even then). Now if we talk about reverting to old names why don’t they divide the city in three parts and restore their old names as they were before they became Calcutta or Kolkata.
    Similarly Bombay was made up of seven separate islands each with it’s own name.
    I am sure digging a little deeper will bring out a similar pattern in case of all other cities not only in India but around the world over.

    The point is how far back we should travel to revert (to whatever)? Where does it stop and who decides? Those names that we want to change are a part of history, we can deny it if we so wish, but can’t change it.
    It is a sub-continental tendency here, that is in play. We pick and choose that part of history we are comfortable with and deny,ignore or trash any part that we are not.


  • Balma
    Jul 26, 2011 - 6:37PM

    Dehli’s rise is better for the Urdu culture in India.
    Bombay at least used to make good Urdu movies but recent movies from Salman Khan and Farah Khan type people are down in thedrain. Horrible movies are coming out of Bombay these days.
    I have always liked Dehli over Bombay. I have been to Bombay a few times, liked it….but Dehli should be the premier city of India.Recommend

  • Jul 27, 2011 - 1:53AM

    Dear Vevek Ji,your sentiment is right,diction and English too o.k. but as far as Mr M.F. Hussain,exile was concerned there was one word ‘Extra’ FORCED EXILE,I know most people in their zeal often unconsciencely betray, their biases.No one forced him to leave and seek exile,IN fact the GOI bent backword in fact, S.C. bunched all cases against him into one(an extra ordinary gesture),but for reasons best known to him he chose otherwise.I know little about him,but enough to know he was suavey businessman with keen sense of marketting skill,he fed,fads,such as walking bare foot in cold Londan.,go figure !!I expect people to do their home work and not peddle 1/2 truth and falsehood to prove their bonafied credentials to their conservative/libreal biases,you fool some not all,as Lincoln said.It is said words are window into our soul,if not used carefully,you expose yourself.No malice intended.


  • Jul 27, 2011 - 2:20AM

    @Dr Priyanka:
    Where did you go away?I read your comment,I’m blessed with keen memory and hence remember minor details,I’m from proper Hyd, from college of Engineering,Valab vidya nagar,about 50 years ago,our penchent for altering names,I do not know if it still Valab Vidyanagar,yes there is temple “Sankar mutt’ near by.What cought my attension about you,your regrets about poor parents,whom we could not help.It is my life time regret that is why I can not forgive the Regime of Nehru/Indhra Gandhi who kept lot of people in poverty for no fault of theirs.They simply(like present Commies who kept west Bengal and Kerala in misery,because of their misguided ideology).day politicians,I do not come to India,these days,for various reason.Continue to write,strange, you too found ‘The Tribune” worth while,it is a very nice publication with least and minimum bias.Mumbai is fun town,a great metropolice like very close to ambiance with NYC,I used to land in Mumbai and go to to taj to eat’ Cashew pokodi”Those days ‘The gate way of India’was not cordoned is off limit now,due to terrorist threat,still Mumbai Chat at ‘Chow pati ‘was best.I’m so out of touch,it is sad and pathatic,I sometime dream about it though.Take care.


  • Jul 27, 2011 - 2:35AM

    It ,the name Hydeabad,was not the original name,it was named after a beautiful damcel “MRAG NAYNAI”,Bhayya Laxmi,who came to this town,no body knows when,In fact my wife who hails from Hyd is named after her,one major point in me for getting tangled up in wed lock,it is a lock with no key,if you think of it,one advantage I have she never goes to Tribune site,least of her guess,I frequent this lovely Pakistani site.I’m too old,otherwise I would love to visit Pakistan,the nortern part of Hindukush mountain is breath taking.Some day Inshallah.Life is too short and fragile to waste time,energy in futile negetive emotion like hate,it is very corrosive.It too much in bloggs freequented by both across the border.It does not help promoting harmony in sub-continent and world at large,I’m blessed.


  • Balma
    Jul 27, 2011 - 6:23AM

    I will recommend to Indian authorities that just like they have changed spellings for Calcutta nd Bangalore, they should officially revert to Dehli. What the heck is Delhi….a typo by some East India Company’s clerk?


  • Balma
    Jul 27, 2011 - 6:26AM

    Hyderabad is named after Bhagyamati’s title Haidar Meha who was a tavaaif (dancing girl). The city when founded was known as Bhagmatinagar or something like that, but Quli Qutub shah then gave her the title Haider Mehal and hence the new name of the city.Recommend

  • Deb
    Jul 27, 2011 - 1:13PM


    Thanks. A very perceptive suggestion. I wonder why it didn’t cross my mind all these years.


  • Abhi
    Jul 27, 2011 - 2:23PM

    I think people who are trying to project that the name change from Bombay to Mumbai is something bad should know that the name in Marathi has alwasy been written as Mumbai, Similarly in Tamil the name is always written as Chennai rather than Madras. It is just about correcting the spelling. The example of Delhi given by Balma is also point in case. The city is pronounce as Dilli by all its inhebitants and in Hindi it is written as such. Just keeping this rubbish spelling makes no sense.


  • Balma
    Jul 27, 2011 - 6:32PM

    Oh, now that I have wsome supporters for name change..why stop at Dehli.
    Why not change the English spelling for Lakhnaoo. What is Lucknow, Luckpast, Luckfuture?


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