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Books: Tale of two cities

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The title of this collection of essays sets up a binary that sits uneasily with the work of the urban historian this book seeks to celebrate. Jim Masselos is much more than a researcher of Bombay’s colonial past. He is also a flâneur of the city’s present, and it is through his wanderings that he…

The title of this collection of essays sets up a binary that sits uneasily with the work of the urban historian this book seeks to celebrate. Jim Masselos is much more than a researcher of Bombay’s colonial past. He is also a flâneur of the city’s present, and it is through his wanderings that he was able to delineate both communities and identities in the metropolis.

The outcome of an international conference held at the University of Mumbai in 2017, this book brings together the work of several scholars whose research on the city is well known. These essays foreground lesser-known aspects of the city related to specific communities, the spatial development of the city, notions of power and its mobilisation, both through philanthropy and social control and the specific emergence of nationalism, which coincided with the rise of modernity in Bombay. In doing so, these subjects parallel the career interests of Masselos, who sought to understand the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries through his template of ‘encapsulation and integration’, the appreciation of the nature of urban space and its relationship with group identity.

BOMBAY before Mumbai: Essays in honour of Jim MasselosEdited by Prashant Kidambi, Manjiri Kamat and Rachel DywerPENGUIN 999; 464 pages

Jesse S. Palsetia, in exploring the rise to dominance of the Parsis in Bombay, identifies the factors that transformed the city’s cultural landscape-the popularity of newspapers and the theatre, a vibrant municipal government, and greater westernisation and Anglicisation (to which I would add a cosmopolitan mindset). It is this ‘seed period’ that provides context for several of the essays. For instance, many merchant princes were, during this time, elevated to city fathers through their influence and munificence. New information about personalities like the Konkani Muslim philanthropist Mohammad Ali Rogay and the relatively unknown inventor Shankar Abaji Bhisey are particularly interesting, placed in the history of the city. The settling and integration of the ‘Irani’ Parsis in India following the famine in Persia in 1871, brings out the vital backstory to their presence.

A flip side to this consolidation is the manner in which communities were internally governed, even policed. Muslim authorities asserted their influence on the industrial workforce using exhortations of morality and temperance as a form of control. Even the wealthiest among a specific community determined who was worthy of their charity. Serving the public at large intersected with serving the needs of the community. The proletariat was particularly vulnerable. Social control was exerted on mill workers by their employers through the filtered provision of housing.

Such actions were palimpsest on the changing spatialities of the city and its appropriation in the nationalistic processes that were emerging at the time. The Civil Disobedience Movement blurred boundaries between the native town and the British areas. Even prostitution in 19th century Bombay was often segregated by class and race, but the liminality of the street often subverted the policing of the sex trade to specific localities. Ashwini Tambe contextualises this wonderfully: “The hypervisible live alongside the needy, to whom passersby and the state are willfully blind.”

These essays are standalone pieces, each with much to offer, and will be of particular interest to both archivist and completist, especially readers already embedded in the histories of Bombay before Mumbai. Masselos, in his generous afterword, asserts that whatever techniques one uses to study this city, there is still more to study. Perhaps a companion volume, updating metropolitan histories to the second decade of the millennium could be forthcoming-no doubt called ‘Mumbai, after Bombay’.

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