Arriving into Mumbai

I saw the outskirts of Mumbai in the early morning light from the window of the train. After waking up a thousand times throughout the night only to see persistent darkness outside and the re-configured mess of fellow passengers inside, I was happy to see the dawning of a new day.

The middle berth had been cruel to me. I swore that if I traveled Sleeper Class again, I would accept nothing less than the upper berth. I never quite settled into a proper sleeping position during the journey and so my body was furious with me. My neck suffered especially and had a nasty kink in it. I was already looking forward to the next bed I would find.

It was Day One in Mumbai. As we came nearer and nearer to the heart of the city and my eyes scanned the dwellings of the waking masses, I was becoming sure about one thing – this was a city. It was, at least, a city unlike I’d ever seen before. It was alive, breathing, pulsating. Though I’d never been to some of the more classic cities in my own country like New York or Chicago, I imagined that Mumbai was like an Indian version of the Big Apple. It seemed huge and harsh, but in a very subjective way I also sensed that there was something endearing about the city, something accepting. I hadn’t felt the same about Delhi on my initial visits, and Varanasi was something completely different. Even before I strolled a street or returned the smile of a Mumbaikar, it seemed to me that Mumbai was unusual in a nice way. Of course, I had no idea at that point about the depths of despair that I would experience in this city, though I could not really fault the city itself for any of my pain.

My train was to reach its journey’s end at Mumbai CST. Those three letters stand for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but apparently most locals rarely use the name despite the fact that the letters have become commonplace. Most people in the city still call the station, Victoria, or simply VT, for Victoria Terminus. The name change happened more than ten years ago and was a part of the general movement to shed colonial influences and to replace them with local flavors. This is also, of course, how Bombay became Mumbai, which is an even more slight change on the surface – three letters to be exact – but also came with its share of hassle, and was the result of much political posturing.

Changing names is complicated and really needs to be worth the effort. I felt this way even before I really considered changing my own name – and that by only two letters. It’s relatively easy to do on paper, of course, but sometimes hard to convince people to use the new name, even if the reasoning for the change is sound. In addition, different kinds of people adapt to the change differently.

Chhatrapati Shivaji was a local king in the 17th century, and a hero who successfully resisted and battled against powers from outside, namely the Mughal overlords. His name apparently makes the regional peoples, the Marathis, feel proud. But of course Mumbai is much more than a regional centre; it is nothing shy of a world-class city with a wide mix of prominent minorities, most of which have a long history in the city and thus can hardly be considered outsiders. Despite this mix, certain political parties have recently appealed to the majority element and attempted to unify the state and city around the Marathi language and the Hindu religion. Name changing has been one of their tools, or their weapons, depending on how ambitious and antagonistic their program is perceived.

In the case of VT to CST, I couldn’t really see the sense in the name change. It’s one thing to build a beautiful new airport and to honor a local legend like Shivaji by putting his name to it (which this city did recently). But when it comes to a heritage site like Victoria Terminus, it is already a part of the city’s cosmopolitan legacy. It’s not like it originally had an indigenous name and it was corrupted or wrested away. The reason for the renaming seems to be a disdain for the city’s British heritage. Maybe the original choice of Victoria was pompous – even if the structure was completed in 1888, the year of the Queen’s jubilee – but that was just the British way. Had I been asked, I would have suggested something like Stevens Station, after the chief engineer and architect of the building, Frederick William Stevens.

The great irony, of course, is that changing the name doesn’t blur the fact that the building is a perfect specimen of Victorian Gothic architecture with its impressive stone dome, and its turrets and arches. Whatever its name, the structure itself will always quietly scream of its heritage. But even then, the building is not British through and through. Like the city, it’s a beautiful blend. A lesser-known fact about the structure is that Stevens and the other British architects worked closely with local Indian craftsmen and even with students from the Bombay School of Art to achieve a unique concoction of cultural influences in the final product. It’s an amazing building by any standards and as such it was officially awarded the status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004, some ten years after the name change.

So, the incongruities of renaming persist, as is also true for the name of the city itself. The origin of the old name, Bombay, is rather confusing, and thus so are the reasons for changing it to Mumbai. In this case, it was more the influences of the Portuguese that were being thwarted. However, people both locally and globally are slowly accepting the new name. Though it is interesting to note that somehow the nickname of the city’s film industry has stubbornly survived the change – and so, as far as I know, Mollywood is nowhere in use. Maybe the strength of the name, Bollywood, is suggestive of the growing preference for a new imperial influence – that of America. Somehow, that persuasion has a different taste and many Indians, for better or for worse, seem to easily accept it, if not outright like it – to the deeper chagrin of those trying to preserve local preferences.

As the train slowed into Mumbai CST, these were the matters that were occupying my mind. Despite the complexities, I felt optimistic toward the city. But as I moved and readied myself for disembarking, my body reminded me of its aches. I stood up and reached for my bag. Beyond the pains of a bad night, I could already feel the inklings of an illness. I tried my best to resist the impulse to feel discouraged.


Anonymous said...

Where can this novel"End of Chet" be found? Seems very interesting!

Anonymous said...

This book can't be found in libraries or the internet, where can we get it from??