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The lure of Bombay, city of dreams

How you define an original inhabitant of Bombay or Mumbai (as the city was renamed in 1996) depends on how far back you go.

My mother moved to Bombay from Ahmedabad, where she grew up, in the 1940s, when she was in her early 20s. Her mill-owner father would not let her join the family business so she found a job as an industrial psychologist (what we would now call Human Relations) in a British company in Bombay.


Her parents were not thrilled but agreed to let her go if she stayed in a flat of their choosing. They bought her an apartment in Churchgate and from that point on, she became a Bombay resident: she has never lived elsewhere since then.


   By the standards of today’s Mumbai, that’s a fairly impressive pedigree. She married my father (who was from Rajkot in Saurashtra but had moved to Bombay to study at Elphinstone College and never left), a struggling writer and soon-to-be-barrister, a few years after she arrived in the city and by the time I was born in 1956, my parents were what were then called “Bombaiwallas” in nearly all sense of the terms.


   Certainly, they had moved in the city long before the parents and grandparents of many of today’s Shiv Sena leaders. As far as I can tell, the Thackerays only arrived in Bombay (from Bhiwandi) in the 1950s.


   But we were always conscious that we were not the original inhabitants of the city. In the Sixties, we moved to a new apartment building on Carmichael Road, a quiet, leafy, street on Cumballa Hill. Our building was one of the fanciest in the city but many of the older residents of Carmichael Road regarded us with suspicion and a degree of hostility.


   In those days, Carmichael Road still consisted mainly of large bungalows built for the city’s elite. Some were government buildings (the Municipal Commissioner, the head of the central bank, the chairman of the Port Trust all lived here in very fancy mansions). But most were owned by the old families who had helped build Bombay and had lived in the city for decades.


   As far as they were concerned, we were parvenus. Our apartment building was an eyesore amidst the elegant old bungalows on the street. And people like us were transforming the genteel character of Carmichael Road – and of Bombay, even.




I thought  back to the horror with which our arrival on Carmichael Road was greeted

in 1964, when I heard Raj Thackeray, head of the MNS, a breakaway faction of his uncle’s chauvinistic Shiv Sena, complain about how outsiders were ruining the character of Bombay. Raj was not even born when we moved to Carmichael Raod and his father had still to move to Bombay when my grandparents bought my mother her flat in Churchgate.


   What, I wondered, would the resident of early-Sixties Carmichael Raod have made of Bal, Raj and the rest of the Thackerays and their claims on Bombay! (The Shiv Sena was not founded till 1966).


   And the more I thought about it, I began to question the claims of even those Carmichael Road grandees to ownership of the city of Bombay.


   Traditional histories date the foundation of Bombay to 1534 when the Portuguese took effective control (via the Treaty of Bassein) of the seven islands that became Bombay. According to one theory, the Portuguese named the city ‘Bombay’ because Bom Bahia means ‘beautiful bay’ in Portuguese.


   Bal Thackeray and other Marathi chauvinists deny this claim. Yes, they say, the Portuguese did gain control of these islands. But many of the islands were already inhabited by a fishing community called the Kolis. The Kolis worshipped a goddess called Mumbadevi. The name Bombay is a Portuguese corruption of the Koli name for the city, Mumbai. And Mumbai comes from combining ‘Mumba’ (for the goddess) with ‘Ai’ (Marathi for mother.)


   It is a plausible enough explanation except for a couple of things. Whatever fishing village or whichever island the Kolis occupied, it was clearly not the city of Bombay, merely an island or a village that preceded the emergence of the city. The Portuguese gave the islands to the British in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of the Portuguese King who married the English King Charles II. The British crown leased them to the East India Company in 1668 at an annual rent of £10. While £10 in those days was worth considerably more than it is today, it was still not big enough an amount to pay for renting a whole city.


   There was a reason for this: no city existed at the time.


   In 1668, Bombay was a group of seven unconnected islands with a total population of 10,000. It was the East India Company that began the process of creating the city we now know as Bombay, transferring its headquarters there from Surat in 1687. It was only after that the development of Bombay began in earnest. The seven islands themselves were not connected or merged into a single city till 1782-4 when a project called the Hornby Vellard was undertaken.


   If you are to disregard all this history – as politicians sometimes do – and to take the line that the only origins that matter are those that involve the Koli fishermen and their village, you face another problem.


   It was not the Kolis who signed the Treaty of Bassein and handed Bombay over to the Portuguese. That treaty was undertaken by Sultan Bahadur Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate, because he feared the power of the Mughal emperor Humayun. From 1391 till the signing of the Treaty of Bassein, Bombay (or the islands that later made up the city) was actually a part of the Gujarat Sultanate.


   So is it a Gujarati city? That claim is almost as easy to advance as the boast that it belonged to the Kolis. And though the Shiv Sena plays this down, the Kolis were never the rulers of Bombay. From 1398 onwards, Bombay was ruled by Muslims. So, is it a Muslim city?


   The whose-city-is-it? game is one that anyone can play. In the third century BC, the islands were ruled by the Emperor Ashoka. Till 1260, assorted dynasties from all over India controlled the islands: Satavahanas, Abhiras, Vakatakas, Kalachuris, Chalukyas, Rastrakutas and Siharas. Some of these dynasties were based in what is now Bihar and some in what is now Tamil Nadu.


   As far as my neighbours on Carmichael Road were concerned, they regarded themselves as the original inhabitants of Bombay only because most of their families moved to the city during the economic boom (based on cotton and shipping) that occurred after 1860.


   So yes, compared to such 1940s arrivals as my parents, they had been there for many more decades. But given the history of Bombay – and of the islands on which it was located – they were also relatively recent arrivals.




Few modern cities can owe as much to those who came from other places – the so-

called ‘outsiders’ – as Bombay. In some sense, nearly everybody who lives in the city is an outsider, or belongs to a family that was once regarded as being outsiders. And yet, without these ‘outsiders’, Bombay would be nothing.


   Integral to Bombay’s success has been its image as the city of dreams. In 1853 the first passenger railway line was constructed, linking Bombay to the mainland. A few years later as the American Civil War plunged the global cotton trade into a crisis, Bombay took over as the centre of the trade. In 1869, less than two decades after the railway line had made Bombay more accessible to the rest of India, the Suez Canal was opened.  This made Bombay the largest port on the Arabian Sea.


   Had it not been for these seemingly unconnected events – the train line, the US Civil War and the opening of the Suez Canal – it is unlikely that Bombay would have grown to become one of India’s most important cities.


   But with trade – in cotton, and after Suez, nearly everything else – taking off, Bombay became the city of gold. India was moving forward from being a largely agrarian economy to becoming one that was now also dependant on trade and industry and Bombay was the centre of that transformation.


   It was the people who were drawn to Bombay during that transformation in search for money and fortune who gave the city its essential character – one that has largely endured to this day. Because trade was the basis of the creation of this avatar of Bombay, it quickly became India’s commercial capital. The large British companies were headquartered in Calcutta but the entrepreneurs, the risk-takers and the leaders of the emerging Indian trading class all lived in Bombay.


   The early residents of post-boom Bombay were those who understood business. Gujaratis had been quick to recognize that there was money to be made in cotton and textiles; they flocked to Bombay. The Muslim communities of the Gujarat coast (the Bohras, the Khojas and the Memons) were natural traders. They made Bombay their home. The Parsis had originally settled around Navsari in Gujarat after their arrival from Iran. Now they moved to Bombay. Their willingness to accept Western ways made them favourites of the British and natural international merchants in the era of global trade. Many used their business savvy to move into industry and the great Parsi business houses of India – the Tatas, the Godrejs, the Wadias, etc. – not only survive to this day but are still headquartered in Bombay.


   As the business class set about transforming the seven islands into India’s city of gold, a second wave of professions emerged. The stock market was essential to any capitalist activity and so the Bombay Stock Exchange – now among the most important bourses in Asia – was set up. Lawyers were required to settle disputes and eventually the Bombay High Court boasted one of the most respected bars in the continent.


   By the 1920s, Bombay was India’s most prosperous city and the envy of the rest of Asia. While other great Indian cities boasted of an elite with strong ethnic roots – Madras was Tamil-dominated, Calcutta belonged to Bengalis and the leading families of Delhi had been there for several generations – Bombay had the vibrancy and vitality that came from its lack of ethnicity. No one community dominated the city. No family could trace its history in the city back through the centuries. And the elite was a shifting, amorphous body, offering entry to anybody who made it.




I think I only realized how different Bombay was from the rest of India when I went to

boarding school in Ajmer, Rajasthan in the North. At that time, I spoke three languages. At home my parents spoke to me in Gujarati and English and I was fluent in both, able to think clearly in either language. My Maharashtrian nanny (ayah) had spoken to me in Marathi as had some of my friends in Montessori school so I spoke reasonable colloquial Marathi.


   I believed that I spoke Hindi as well. But within weeks of starting at school in Ajmer I realized that my Hindi bore only a passing resemblance to the language they taught at school. My teachers told me (scornfully) that I spoke no Hindi. The language that I spoke, they said, was Bombay Hindi, a hybrid of Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and some South Indian languages.


   They were, of course, right. When classes began I realized that many of the words that I regarded as being part of Hindi were entirely alien to native Hindi speakers. What, they asked, was meant by ‘ghotala’? What did I mean by ‘boom maro?’ (Ghotala means a problematic situation and boom is the Gujarati word for shout.)


   Even as I struggled to forget my Bombay Hindi and learn the real thing, I was startled to discover that other boys frequently spoke to each other in Hindi. My school in Bombay had been run by Jesuits and staffed largely by Catholic teachers (with names like Gomes, Britto, Couto and Alves), all of whom spoke no Hindi. The students had come from diverse ethnic backgrounds and so English was the one language that everybody understood.


   But here, in a North Indian boarding school, where students were drawn from all over the country, Hindi was the dominant link language. And nobody understood my Bombay Hindi.


   It was then that I realized how ethnically and linguistically diverse Bombay was. Even a pan-national boarding school could not match the diversity of a Bombay school.




Then, there was the food. My parents had been brought up as vegetarians but had

taken to eating meat when they were in their teens. The one dish my father could make well was a mutton curry though his infrequent visits to the kitchen entailed so much drama and so many petulant demands for ingredients that were hardly staples of our larder( “where’s the tomato puree?”) that my mother dreaded the occasions when he would declare that he was cooking us dinner.


Besides she had discovered a Muslim restaurant behind Wilson College whose mutton curry was to his taste so it was far easier to send out for food than to allow him to run riot in the kitchen.


   The fact that my parents, both Gujarati Jains (and therefore forbidden to eat even onions or garlic by their religion) should love a small, unfancy Muslim restaurant that made a greasy mutton curry with boiled eggs says something about the gastronomic diversity of Bombay.


   While my father was in college, he had joined the Communist Party of India, had gone to jail for nine months for his beliefs (in those days, the CPI was outlawed) and had ended up living in a small room in a crowded central Bombay locality. In the ground floor of the building where he lived was a small South Indian canteen whose owner became his friend.


   Many years later, long after we had move to Carmichael Road, the family would go back to that canteen (now grown into a full-fledged restaurant) and eat masala dosas, idlis and upma. Often, when the cook was on leave and my mother could not be bothered to cook, we would send for dosas from that restaurant.


   Imagine my surprise then to be confronted with the gastronomic narrow-mindedness of my school friends. The vast majority had never eaten an idli and had no idea what a dosa was. (This was in 1966.) When I started talking about greasy Muslim mutton curries, they looked ill. They were used to boring meat curries made by their mothers at home. And when I mentioned the joys of a good steak at Bombellis, a popular Bombay restaurant of that era, many of them looked as though they would be physically sick. Had I really eaten beef?


   Then, there was the problem of something called ‘chaat’. I had no idea what this was. They explained to me that it consisted of things like ‘golgappas’, which I had never heard of. I was properly mystified till one day, as a special treat, the school announced that we would get golgappas.


   The moment they were served, I recognized them immediately. What we were being served was that old Bombay staple Pani-Puri, made with very feeble ‘paani’ (tamarind water) that lacked the oomph of the Bombay version.


   I pointed this out to my friends. They looked bemused. What was paani puri, they asked. I explained that it was one of the things that bhelpuriwallahs served.


   What is bhelpuri they wanted to know.


   I gave up.




Though I did not fully realize it during those early years at boarding school, the fact

that I came from such a gastronomically diverse background had less to do with any foodie adventurousness on the part of my parents and more to do with Bombay. The dosa is a South Indian staple found in some form (as the Andhra pessarattu, the Malayali dosha etc.) in all four states of the South. In the 1960s however it was largely unknown outside of South India – except in Bombay.


   Though we think of the dosa as being Tamil in origin (as the dosai, a popular tiffin snack), it came to Bombay because of restaurateurs from Karnataka. In the 1940s and 1950s, large number of South Indian men (from all four states) migrated to Bombay to look for employment: this, after all, was the city of gold and of dreams.


   Most of them left their families behind. Many were not married (that had to wait till they found stable jobs) and others promised to send for their partners when they had made enough money. They lived in dormitories or small rooms and found white-collar jobs becoming clerks, accountants and salesmen.


   Somebody had to feed them because a) none of them knew how to cook and b) even if they did, they had no kitchens. Moreover, they needed food in the areas where they worked, in the centre of town, far away from such suburbs as Matunga where they spent their nights.


   The task of providing food to the hungry South Indian white-collar workers was taken on by migrants from Udipi in Mangalore (in the old Mysore state). They set up cheap eateries (called, naturally enough, Udipi restaurants) all over Bombay and served thali meals (rechristened “rice plates” because the meal was based around the mound of rice at the centre of the thali) for lunch and dinner. In between meal times, they served Udipi snacks: dosas, vadas, idlis, uttapams, etc.


   While the rice plate remained a favourite of the South Indian salary-men, the snacks (and the idli and the dosa in particular) became great favourites with Bombay’s many other communities. They were cheap, they were easy to make and they tasted great. By the early 1960s, it was hard to find anybody in Bombay who did not know what a dosa was – and most people ate the Udipi snacks fairly regularly.


   The Udipi restaurants – mostly run by a single community, the Bunts – prospered and then, in the Seventies, finally took their businesses to the rest of India. Now, the dosa is a canteen staple in North India but its launch pad was not South India but Bombay where it incubated for three decades.


   So it was with bhelpuri. The term ‘chaat’ is a generic for North Indian snacks, usually involving chutney and beaten yoghurt. The dishes probably originated in Delhi or Lucknow (both cities claim parentage) and then travelled to the rest of India. In some places, the old favourites were successfully tweaked (the puchka in Calcutta is an improved version of the Delhi golgappa or the Lucknow batasha) but rarely did they come to epitomize their new homes.


   The exception was Bombay. When the chaatwallahs, usually Brahmins from UP, arrived in Bombay they found that the city had only a limited interested in their dishes – as they then existed.


   Bombay’s Gujaratis took a long, hard look at the techniques of UP chaat and decided they could do better. Bhelpuri is a Gujarati invention based on the principles of North Indian chaat. Ragda-Pattice (potato rissoles with channa) takes off on the North Indian tikki-channa. And so on.


   As the dishes became more and more sophisticated in the hands of Bombay’s communities, the UP-ites abandoned their old recipes. They invited their brothers and nephews to come and join them – there was money to be made in Bombay! – but they also taught them such Bombay dishes as bhelpuri, sev-puri and dahi batata puri.


   On many street corners and on the public beaches of Bombay today, you’ll find bhelpuri-wallahs. Usually they will be North Indians – at one stage two out of three bhel stalls on Chowpatty beach were run by men called Sharma – but their food will have little to do with North Indian chaat.


   They came to Bombay. And Bombay got to them.




Bombay may have spawned its own language – Bombay Hindi – and its own cuisine

but its primary claim to fame over the years has been as a magnet for everybody with a dream of making it big. Few industries epitomize that dream as completely as the film industry.


   These days, Bollywood – named because it is Bombay’s Hollywood, a term that many stars from Amitabh Bachchan to Saif Ali Khan say they despise – is regarded as a global phenomenon. It is the world’s second largest film industry after Hollywood and the popular culture it has spawned remains the only serious rival to the global influence of American cinema.


   It has also become Bombay’s advertisement to the world. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical (songs by A.R. Rahman) Bombay Dreams was about Bollywood. The Oscar wining Slumdog Millionaire (also about Bombay) contained nods to Bollywood. And week after week, Western journalists and TV crews land in Bombay to do features about the Bollywood phenomenon.


   For me, the most interesting aspect of Bollywood is that it is almost entirely the creation of people who came to Bombay from other cities.


   There was always a film industry in Bombay. In the silent movie era, Parsis played a large role in the movie business and a few Maharashtrians (among them Dadasaheb Phalke whose Raja Harishchandra was the first Indian feature film) helped found the Indian film industry.


   But Bollywood, as we know it today, is largely a Punjabi creation. The Punjabis – usually producers and directors – came to India from such cities as Lahore (now part of Pakistan; the Partition, led to a huge exodus away from Lahore and into Bombay) and set out to deal in dreams.


   These days, the film industry is corporatised, well organized and financed by banks, multinational corporations and venture capitalists. But back in the days when I was growing up, it was a much more hit–and–miss operation.


   The top stars tended to be poor boys or those from lower middle class backgrounds who had made the trip to Bombay to make it in the movies.


   During my childhood, Sunil Dutt was one of the top stars of Hindi cinema. Because my father knew him, I got to see Dutt at the peak of his glory. What I did not know till much later was how desperate his circumstances had been. Dutt was a victim of Partition. He had seen Hindu-Muslim bloodbaths and his family had lost everything in the riots. His father was dead and he had been brought up by his mother.


   He came to Bombay to become a star with virtually no money in his pocket. He found accommodation in a sort of dormitory run by an old lady in the suburbs for aspiring actors. Each day he would wake up early and make the rounds of the producers’ offices, looking for work. But none was forthcoming.


   He found a job as a radio presenter and made just about enough money to pay his rent. But even then he managed to send Rs 10 or Rs 20 every month to his mother. “If she felt that I was sending money home”, he later recalled, “then she would feel that I was well settled. So I would go without meals just to be able to send the money to her.”


   Dutt struggled in an alien city till finally he got the right break. Not only did he make it big, he also married the top actress of his era, Nargis, who was slightly older than him. (In their first movie together she played his mother.)


   They soon became the golden couple of Bombay movies (the term Bollywood had not been invented then) and Dutt’s ambitions grew. He began producing and directing his own films. One of the more unusual films he made was called Yaadein and starred only Dutt himself. Naturally it made no money in India but was widely shown at film festivals abroad.


   Many of the movies he made (among them the epochal dacoit saga, Mujhe Jeene Do) became huge successes and eventually Dutt decided to put all his money into a desert romance called Reshma aur Shera. The film sank at the box-office and wiped Dutt out.


   In a matter of months he went from being Bombay’s hottest star to becoming a minus millionaire as his debts accumulated. Things were so bad, he later remembered that there came a stage when he was only able to feed his family by collecting all the coins lying around the house and putting them together.


   But even as the creditors circled, Dutt never stopped believing. He signed two films with producers who were so low down in the industry’s pecking order that they could not afford to hire bankable stars. Everyone knew the movies would flop and the producers had no money to pay Dutt. But at least he was working.


   Then, against the odds, both films became hits. Suddenly Sunil Dutt was a star again.


   Once again, the producers lined up to sign him and as the hits returned so did the millions. He went on to become one of the industry’s elder statesmen, eventually winning election to Parliament and becoming a Cabinet Minister in New Delhi.


   When things had returned to normal and when he was on top of his game again, I asked him about the dark days. Why had he risked everything on a single film? “Because I believed in it,” he said simply.


   And were there times, when things had got so desperate, that he wondered if he should do something else?


   “Something else?’ he asked, “What else? This is all I know. I live and die by films. This is my industry.”


   He lived the dream. And the dream lived up – finally – to his expectations.




When people talk about the film industry as a place where dreams come true, they

are partly right. But what they forget is that, to stake everything on a dream, you have to be a gambler.


   And gamblers never cash out after a single win. They roll the dice again and again. And often they lose everything.


   Amitabh Srivastav was the son of Harivansh Rai Srivastav, a well-known Hindi poet who became close to Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of the Congress party. Harivansh Rai took Bachchan as his pen-name (all Hindi poets use pen names) and his children used it as a surname.


   Harivansh Rai did not want his children to follow in his footsteps so he insisted on a sound education. Young Amitabh and his brother Ajitabh went off to Sherwood College, a public school in Nainital. From there they went to Delhi University. Amitabh to KM College and Ajitabh to St. Stephens. Both found well-paid jobs in British firms: Amitabh in Bird & Co. and Ajitabh in Shaw Wallace. They became rising young executives in Calcutta.


   But Amitabh wanted to act. He tried amateur theatricals in Calcutta and though his performances were widely appreciated, he recognized that this was hardly the big-time. To get there he would have to go to Bombay, a city he barely knew, and join Hindi films.


   With Ajitabh’s help he planned the journey to Bombay but work was hard to come by. He got a small role in a non-commercial patriotic film called Saat Hindustani and then, a brief cameo in Reshma aur Shera (the same desert romance that bankrupted Sunil Dutt.)


   Neither helped him land more work and friends suggested he return to his well-paid executive job in Calcutta. He had given films his best shot, he had proved that he could act. Now it was time to return to real life and to his proper job.


   But the dream refused to die. Years later, he told me about the days of desperation and hopelessness. He had no place to stay. He often crashed at a flat on Marine Drive belonging to family friends. One evening he arrived there to find the house locked; they had gone out of town. Amitabh had nowhere else to go so he spent the night sleeping on a park bench in Marine Drive.


   What would he have done if his luck hadn’t turned? “I was sure that I was not going to go back to Calcutta” he said. “I had brought my driver’s license with me. If nothing else worked, I was going to become a taxi-driver.”




Of course Amitabh made it. In 1972, he had his first hit. Two more followed in 1973 and

by 1975 he was India’s biggest star, a title he held on to for over a decade. In 1982, when he nearly died following an accident on the sets, India came to a standstill as the whole country prayed for him.


   Then, in 1984, when he was at the very top of the film industry, he decided to join politics because his friend Rajiv Gandhi (grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru – there was a family connection) asked him to. Bachchan agreed, won his seat by a landslide and threw himself into the political whirl.


   Alas, he was sadly out of his depth. Other politicians, jealous of his popularity, ganged up on him. He was implicated in corruption scandals. His reputation went through the shredder and in 1987, he resigned from Parliament.


   By then, his film career, once seemingly indestructible, had begun to tank. One by one, his films crashed at the box-office. It was as though his audience believed that he was corrupt and that, by compromising on his honesty, he had let down his fans.


   The flops lasted for four years till both Bachchan brothers decided to sue a Swedish newspaper that had accused them of corruption. Minutes before the case was due to come to trial in a London court, the Swedish newspaper caved in, apologized and agreed to pay damages. The Bachchans had been vindicated; Amitabh’s reputation was restored.


   Almost instantly, his film fortunes reversed themselves. The hits kept coming and suddenly, he was an even bigger star than ever before. He had gambled by suing a Swedish paper in a foreign courtroom. And he had won.


   That should have been the end of the story but like all dreamers, Amitabh was not willing to let things be. A few years later, he launched an entertainment company named after himself and went into TV, film production and event management.


   The company failed. So did the movies. And Amitabh was worse off than he had been in the phase where he resigned from politics. He was so deep in debt that banks began proceedings to seize his house and producers refused to take his calls.


   Almost the only interesting offer he got was to host the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, an international TV game show. Against the advice of his friends and his family – and largely because there was nothing else on the horizon – he took the job.


   The results surpassed everyone’s expectations. The show became the biggest hit in the history of Indian TV – its ratings have never ever been topped. Amitabh became a national rage all over again. The producers were back outside his door. And he was back to being king of Bollywood – however much he hated the name.


   It wasn’t just that finally, his dream had come true. It was that the original dream had never died. And no matter how bad things became, Amitabh held on to the power of the dream.


   And the dream delivered.




Bollywood is fascinated by gangsters. And gangsters in turn, are fascinated by

Bollywood. Some of the best Hindi moves of recent times have been about underworld dons. Amitabh based his performance in Agneepath on the South Indian don Vardha. Ram Gopal Varma based Sathya and his subsequent movies on the changes in the Bombay underworld. Shootout At Lokhandwala was based on a real life incident when the Bombay police gunned down gangster Maya Dolas.


   But long before these movies became hits, there was Deewar, the movie that sealed Amitabh’s reputation as the king of Bombay.


   Deewar was based on the life of Haji Mastaan, a coolie at the Bombay docks who went on to become leader of the city’s underworld in the 1960s and the 70s. Bizarrely, Mastaan then went on to become a politician, a would-be movie star, a successful builder and a philanthropist before suddenly dying in the early 1990s.


   He had been the model for Deewar because his was the archetypal Bombay story of that era: rags to riches even if the path to wealth ran on the wrong side of the law.


   By the time I first met him in 1979, six years after the release of Deewar, he claimed he was retired. We met in his crumbling bungalow off Warden Road, near the tony Sophia College and he seemed shy, almost gentle. I was editor of the soon-to-be-launched Bombay Magazine, I told him, and I wanted to put him on the cover along with a host of other Bombay figures. Did he mind?


   Mind? Far from it. Did I need colour transparencies? He had plenty. Some were from a movie he was making about his life (starring himself, not Amitabh, this time) and he wore make-up and a wig. Did I want prints? He had photos of himself with Dilip Kumar and other top stars.


   It took a few more meetings but eventually, he got talking about the old days. Yes, it was true that he had started out as a coolie on the docks. But he had never made as much money as people thought out of crime.


   He was a smuggler, he said. His principals from Dubai (he named a well-known Dubai family) would send dhows laden with gold to the edge of Indian waters. Mastaan and his men would go to the dhows in small boats, load the gold and then smuggle it into Bombay. Others would collect it from them and distribute it. In a sense, he joked, he remained a coolie even when he was a smuggler.


   So how did he explain the wealth he now possessed? Mastaan laughed. Oh, that came from his new profession: real estate. There was much more money in legitimate business than there was in crime.


   I have to say I liked Mastaan. Yes, he was a gangster and yes, he had probably killed people (or had them killed) in his time. But I bought his contention that a) gold smuggling was a victimless crime and b) the only people who ever got hurt in his line of work were other smugglers. He and his ilk had a rule: never attack civilians.


   Five years later as gang wars broke out all over Bombay, I began to wonder about Mastaan’s claims. Gangsters were shooting each other at traffic lights. Witnesses were being assassinated in courts. There were ritual executions at petrol pumps. Builders were being kidnapped and held for ransom. If the ransom did not come, they were brutally murdered.


   I went to see Mastaan again. How did he explain what was going on? Surely he could see that this was a disaster for the city of Bombay?


   Mastaan nodded sadly. Bombay had changed, he said. And so had the underworld. Smuggling was no longer a money-making activity. There was money to be made in real estate but it boiled down to extortion and intimidation.


   The Bombay Rent Act, a piece of socialistic legislation passed in 1973, made it virtually impossible for landlords to raise rents or evict tenants. So, they sold their properties (usually for a song) to gangsters. The new owners then told the tenants that they could either leave quietly or take a bullet in the face. When the tenants departed, the gangsters sold the vacant properties to developers at market price and exited the deal, having made a tidy profit.


   Other gangsters made their fortunes from shaking down shop-keepers, extorting money from builders or straight-forward kidnapping. When rivalries broke out, they were settled by the gun.


   At present (he was referring to the mid-80s) there was a gang war on between a family called the Ibrahims and a gang led by two cousins, Alamzeb and Amirzada.


   He had been so distressed by the open violence that he and the other senior dons had called the leaders of the two gangs to his bungalow. He had made them promise not to take their battles to the streets. Both sides had sworn on the Koran that they would end the public killing.


   But the promises were worth nothing. Within days the killing had resumed.


   The old underworld as he knew it was dead, he said sadly.




Though Mastaan only spoke of the Ibrahims in general, he was referring to the leader

of the gang, Dawood Ibrahim. In those days, Dawood was just another gangster. But he had displayed a chilling willingness to kill anybody who stood in his way.


   The Bombay police managed to arrest Dawood on a murder charge. A pliant judge granted him bail. Dawood took the first flight to Dubai and he has never been back – at least not officially – to Bombay since then.


   Instead, he has run his criminal gang from Dubai, using such modern communication tools as mobile phones and the internet to communicate with his henchmen. When the government of India turned the heat on Dawood and asked the Dubai authorities to extradite him, Dawood turned to Pakistan’s ISI.


   The Pakistani spy agency offered him shelter in Karachi, fake passports and many other facilities if he would allow his gang to be used for the purposes of espionage.


   Dawood agreed and while at first the nexus between the gangster and the spooks was relatively innocent, everything changed after the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1993. That was when Hindu thugs, led by Shiv Sena members, waged war on Bombay’s Muslims, killing many hundreds in the space of a few days.


   Though we have no way of knowing this for sure, many Muslims from Dawood’s neighbourhood are said to have complained bitterly about Dawood’s refusal to protect them.


   Whether it was a desire to win back the respect of his neighbours or whether it was just the price he paid for ISI hospitality we will never know but what is clear is that in March 1993 Dawood’s gang planted bombs at several locations all over Bombay. Thousands died or were injured in the blasts which were widely regarded as a reprisal for the deaths of Muslims in the riots.


   Suddenly, the underworld did not seem so romantic any longer. Dawood still hides out in Pakistan. He still controls his gang by mobile phone and internet. And his status as India’s most powerful underworld figure endures.


   Each year the government of India asks Pakistan to extradite him. Each year, Pakistan denies that it knows where he is.




When I think of Dawood’s murders, I think back to another of my conversations with

Mastaan. He believed that the underworld of his times had remained within check because the money was relatively small. As the returns had increased, he said, so had to ruthlessness of the gangsters.


   Because he was in a talkative mood, Mastaan agreed to discuss the way in which contract killers operate. In the old days, he said, if you needed a score settled, there were one or two Pathans (I imagine he meant Karim Lala, another major don of that era) you went to.


   For instance, Mastaan had been cheated by Yusuf Patel in a business transaction. To teach Yusuf a lesson, he asked a Pathan to organize a hit on Yusuf. The hit man was a trained killer and he riddled Yusuf’s body with bullets. (Miraculously Yusuf survived his injuries and Mastaan reconciled with him claiming dramatically that he could not fight with a man Allah had saved.)


   That was one kind of contract. It was executed by professionals and it happened relatively rarely. If the killer was caught then his Pathan boss was obliged to look after his family.


   These days, however, a new system operated. The new gangs recruited young boys from such UP towns as Gorakhpur. Usually, these were young Muslims with few job prospects. They were lured to Bombay with the dream of becoming the next Haji Mastaan or (these days, increasingly) Dawood Ibrahim.


   Within a few weeks of their arrival in Bombay, long before either the police or other gangsters registered who they were, they were given guns and sent off to assassinate somebody. Most of them had no gun training – some had never fired a shot before – so they were told to go close to the victim and to shoot him at point-blank range. That way, there was more chance of the bullets causing instant death.


   In the old days, professional hit-men would refuse to shoot anyone at close range because this increased the prospect of capture. But these illiterate young boys from Gorakhpur were so green and so naïve, that they did whatever was asked.


   Of course, most of them were captured and thrown into jail. But how did it matter? They knew nothing. They had usually never even heard of their victims before. There was nothing they could tell the police.


   As soon as one hit-man was locked up, another six would board the train from UP to take his place. After all they were all eager to come to Bombay, city of gold, city of dreams.


   As long as young people from out of town kept being drawn to the Bombay underworld, Mastaan said, the killings would never stop.


   He was right. The murders go on to this day.




While Bollywood fascinates the world, the gangsters of Bombay have yet to evoke

much international interest. Instead, it is the city’s rich who command the global headlines. India’s most famous industrialist is one of its shyest. Ratan Tata owes much of his fame to his surname. The Tatas were among the wealthy Parsis who sprang to prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century when Bombay suddenly become a major trading and commercial centre.


   The most famous of the Tatas was Jamsetjee, in many ways the founder of modern Indian industry who set up plants making steel and also found the time to built the Taj Mahal Hotel, India’s grandest deluxe hotel and as much of a Bombay landmark as the Gateway of India which stands opposite it. (The Taj came first. The Gateway was built afterwards.)


   While Jamsetjee was the grand old man of the Tata empire, the Tata Indians admired the most was JRD who ran the empire for half a century, befriending Jawaharlal Nehru and watching his grandson Rajiv Gandhi take over as Prime Minister.


   That JRD was a brilliant industrialist, a man of vision and a God-like figure to all those who worked for him is well-known. But his stature in the minds of ordinary Indians came from his integrity and strength of character.


   The headquarters of the Tata empire are located on a small street in Bombay’s crowded Fort area. Lest anyone miss the connection between the city and the empire, the Tata headquarters are housed in a building called Bombay House.


   JRD Tata epitomized the values of Bombay’s boom-times: sheer professionalism, a live-and-let-live attitude to neighbours and business rivals, a disdain for underhand means of doing business and a stubborn refusal to pay bribes even when it damaged the interests of the Tata group because rivals were paying politicians off to do down the Tatas.


   Just before JRD died, he nominated Ratan, the son of Naval Tata, a distant cousin he was estranged from, as his successor. It was not a popular choice. The gossip within Bombay House was that Ratan was a mediocre, under-confident businessman. Certainly, Ratan’s shy, unassertive manner did nothing to dispel that impression.


   Fortunately for Ratan, his ascension to the top of the Tata empire coincided with the liberalization of the Indian economy and the era of globalisation. More than any other Indian businessman, he sensed that the environment was changing faster than anyone realized.


   In some sense, he went back to the values and spirit of Jamsetjee who functioned in a period when Bombay was a centre of global trade and when international events (the US Civil War, the opening of the Suez Canal etc.) provided opportunities for Indians.


   In 2001 when I had dinner with him at the Tata-owned Taj Mahal Hotel, he told me that his ambition was to take the Tatas international. At the time this seemed like an idle boast. Many people wondered how the Tatas would fare within India let alone abroad.


   But to my surprise, Ratan has pulled it off. Today the Tatas get a larger proportion of their revenues from outside India than from within the country – and they are still India’s largest industrial group. What’s more, the Tata name is now respected globally for its guarantees of quality and integrity.


   Not everybody who dreams of making it big in Bombay is an outsider. Some come from within the city. It’s only their dreams that soar all over the world.




Which brings us back to where we started. Who is an outsider in Bombay and who is

not? And does it matter anyhow? When I was growing up, the working class in Bombay was unionized either by Communist trade unions or by such charismatic leaders as George Fernandes, a Catholic from Karnataka (Mysore as it was then) who had come to the city to work as a proof reader for The Times of India before becoming first, a trade unionist and then, a politician.


   In the 1960s, the Congress ruled the city and the state and was run by such political bosses as S.K. Patil. They viewed the emergence of the communist trade unions and of such figures as George Fernandes with mounting dismay. (Patil at least was right to be dismayed. In 1967, he lost his parliamentary election to George Fernandes).


   Eager to finish off the unions, they propped up a cartoonist (for the Free Press Journal newspaper) called Bal Thackeray who wanted to start a Maharashtrians-only movement. There had been an upsurge of Marathi sentiment in the 1950s, when the Samyukta Maharashtra movement had successfully demanded the carving out of Maharashtra from the old Bombay state. But when Maharashtra was created in May 1960, that sentiment dissipated.


   Thackeray believed he could revive some of that spirit by running a campaign focusing on the unemployment and frustration among Maharashtrian youth. Patil and the Congress thought he could be useful. They used Shiv Sena workers in the 1967 election to disrupt the campaign of Congress rebel V.K. Krishna Menon. The Sena painted Menon as a Malayali who had no business representing Bombay and beat up Malayalis all over North Bombay.


   Then it attacked South Indians in other parts of the city. Tamil shoe-shine boys were assaulted outside Churchgate station, for instance. Next, it campaigned against Gujaratis who, it said, still owned too much of Bombay even though they now had their own state. The Sena’s union fought pitched battles with Communist trade unions and soon became a violent presence to be reckoned with.


   As far as the Congress was concerned, all seemed to be going according to plan. Thackeray never did the Congress any damage and though he was a charismatic figure and a witty orator, he remained a local leader with few state-wide ambitions.


   In 1975, when the Emergency was declared, the Shiv Sena had been in existence for nearly a decade but it could do little when a new Chief Minister (S.B. Chavan, who was opposed to the old Congress bosses of Bombay) closed down Thackeray’s press and locked up key Shiv Sena figures.


   Ironically, when the Emergency was lifted and the Congress lost the election, Thackeray remained a vocal supporter of the out-of-power Indira Gandhi, openly making fun of the Janata Prime Minister and making no secret of his loyalties.




In 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi swept the country in the parliamentary election that

followed Mrs Gandhi’s death, Bal Thackeray had been around for nearly two decades without leaving any lasting impact. His union wing had been pushed aside by such new non-ideological unionists as Datta Samant and he was given little respect by state leaders.


   Yes, the Shiv Sena counted for something in the municipal corporation and Thackeray’s thugs had the power to enforce a bandh or to force booksellers to stop selling a book (otherwise they would destroy the book shop) but nobody thought the Sena would go much further.


   All this changed towards the end of the 1980s. Two factors led to the change. Sharad Pawar who was then the main challenger to the Congress merged his party with the ruling Congress vacating the Opposition space.  And a pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim wave swept India.


   Thackeray seized his opportunity and recast the Sena as an anti-Muslim party.


   Events then played into his hands. When the Babri Masjid was demolished, Muslims rioted in Bombay. A few months later, the Shiv Sena led another series of riots in which Muslims were massacred. Thackeray said his “boys” were acting to preserve the honour of Hindus. When the serial blasts followed a few months later, Hindu opinion polarized and Thackeray emerged as the leader of the non-Congress, pro-Hindu forces. With the BJP as his junior partner, Thackeray led the Sena to what once seemed impossible: victory in the assembly elections and power in Maharashtra.


   While Thackeray did not join the government (“I run it by remote control” he declared proudly), he sanctioned several pro-Marathi measures including the renaming of the city in 1996 to Mumbai. This was the city’s original name, he declared, and accurately captured it’s “Marathi origins and character.” (As we have seen, it is not quite as simple as that).


   Though the Sena’s spell in office was not such worse than what that gone before in three decades of Congress rule, the pro-Hindu fever dissipated as quickly as it had started and the Sena lost the next election. It retreated to the opposition where it has remained ever since and where it seems set to stay.




Once Bal thackeray had finished beating up South Indians and railing against

Gujaratis, he lost interest in the sons of the soil agenda. It remained on the Sena’s manifesto but it rarely found any substantial expression.


   All that changed when the feud between his son Uddhav, his chosen successor, and his nephew Raj erupted.


   Raj is a cartoonist like his uncle, has his oratorical skills and has inherited much of his charisma. He therefore felt that he had the right to be named as Bal Thackeray’s successor. Instead, his uncle named Uddhav to the post.


   After a few months of sulking, Raj left to start his own party, the MNS. Having heard of how his uncle started out, he followed exactly the same formula. He declared that North Indians were entering Bombay and taking away jobs meant for the city’s original inhabitants. (This was a dodgy claim to make. Maharashtrians account for less than 40% of Bombay’s population and they were hardly its original inhabitants as we have seen.)


   MNS workers attacked paanwallahs, beat up Bihari taxi drivers, and mugged for the TV cameras (Raj had also inherited his uncle’s flair for knowing how to play the media) and declared that Mumbai was for Maharashtrians.


   In the 2009 elections, the MNS won only a dozen or so seats in the assembly but it won enough votes to act as a spoiler for the Shiv Sena which fared poorly.


   Of course, history had repeated itself because like his uncle before him, Raj was encouraged by the Congress. The Congress had accurately reckoned that Raj would split the opposition vote and allow it to win the election.


   The consequence of the rise of Raj Thackeray is that the sons-of-the-soil agenda has now been rediscovered by the Shiv Sena as well. And so India’s most cosmopolitan city, one that celebrates diversity and one that has grown though the efforts of people who could be regarded as outsiders, now finds its essential character under threat.




Because I went to boarding school at the age of nine I forgot my Marathi. I can no

longer speak the language though I can understand most conversations. Less significantly, I also forgot my Bombay Hindi. I now giggle when I hear somebody say things like “Khaali-pilli boom marta hai” whereas once I would have replied in kind.


   We still have that flat on Carmichael Road and have been there long enough not to be regarded as parvenus any longer. In any case, South Bombay is no longer the heart of the city. As the suburbs have become more important, the centre has shifted to the north. All of us South Bombay types now seem to live in another city, separated from the booming suburbs by two hours of traffic.


   Other things have changed too. Bombay was always about conspicuous consumption of one sort or another – how can any city that contains the film industry claim any different? But now the sums of money that you see flung around at restaurants, at shops, on weddings and on jewelry have reached levels that stagger me.


   There are those who contrast this vast, visible wealth with the deprivation of the slums. According to some figures, around 69% of the population of Bombay now lives in some kind of slum.


   I don’t know if those figures are right but they seem to me to miss two points. The first is that a surprisingly large proportion of the people who live in the slums seem to prefer to live there than in fancier accommodation some distance away. Schemes to re-house slum dwellers tend to fail because they sell the homes they have been allotted and return to the slums.


   The second is that many of those who end up in the slums are newcomers to the city. They come to Bombay even though they know they will have to live in a slum. So the high proportion of slum-dwellers is as much a reflection on the rest of India as it is on Bombay. If people prefer to live in a Bombay slum than in a small town or village in UP or Bihar, why blame Bombay alone?


   So why do people keep coming? Some estimates say that between 500 to 750 families arrive in Bombay each day. Many come from hundreds of miles away, from as far as Punjab and Bangladesh.


   It can’t just be that they are looking for employment. Given the economic boom of the last decade, more jobs have been created in other towns and cities than have been created in Bombay. None of these people really needs to travel all this way only to find employment.


   The only conclusion possible is that they don’t come only for jobs. They come for Bombay.


   It is the lure of this fabled city that draws them. Bombay: city of gold; city of hope; and city of dreams.


   Not all of them find what they are looking for. Some are exploited. Some are assaulted by MNS workers. Some go hungry. Some fail to find work. Most have to live in squalid accommodation, at least when they first arrive.


   But still they come. And they will keep coming.


   Because they know: in Bombay, dreams never die.




Note: I wrote this essay around two years ago for a book of Raghu Rai’s pictures of Bombay. The pictures are amazing and Raghu is a genius but the semi-literate editors at his publishing house made so many changes to my original essay that I finally threw in the towel and told them they could publish whatever version of the piece they liked. An essay written by me appears in the book, which is still on sale and continues to be a best-seller. But I think that the book’s success is due to the brilliance of Raghu’s pictures and not the mangled version of my essay that the publishers carried.

The piece above is the one that I originally wrote. I recently rediscovered it and believe that it has stood up to the test of time even though it was written some years ago.

The tragedy is that I cannot use it in any other book or publication because parts of it have already appeared in print. But here, on the site, you can read it as it was originally written.






  • Adhisma Das 11 Sep 2018

    Beautifully articulated. Loved it! Came across this article after reading

  • Mehak Aggarwal 20 Apr 2018

    Stumbled on this article. Lovely read. Informative and enjoyable

  • Isha 19 Sep 2015

    Though I do not nearly hold the claim on the city that you do in terms of how long I've been here, the message that this city adopts everybody and doesn't have to be claimed by 'original' inhabitants is a refreshing and endearing concept. Thank you so much.

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