Written by a renowned journalist and writer who is president of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, this book is largely a compilation of lectures given by him between 1997 and 2007 on de-intellectualised Mumbai. For a concerned citizen of Mumbai today it is painful to watch helplessly the withering away of the intellectual life within a few decades of gaining political Independence. Mumbai in the pre-Independence period had not only been the commercial capital of India but had provided intellectual leadership to other cities of India.
Whether in social reform or in cultural renaissance, in literature or in theatre, in films or in sports, Mumbai led the way. It had to its credit the sobriquet of “the most progressive of the cities of India.” People from all corners of the country flocked to the city. In barely four centuries of its known history, a sleepy village grew into a metropolis and started bursting at the seams due to overcrowding. A city which was well on the path of renaissance suddenly began showing signs of exhausting and wearing out. Its composite culture started showing cracks due to inadequate civic amenities, resulting in social tensions.
The author laments that his Mumbai has lost its original lustre today as most citizens look at it as a place where material rewards come quickly. “Any talk of culture in Mumbai has become almost puerile and impotent. The rabble has become the deciding factor.” Politicians and the public watch the situation helplessly and ineffectually. The author asks, “Is there any redemption for Mumbai from the cultural malaise or is a cultural demise the city’s fate?”
Going back into Mumbai’s past the author says that the moment the British set their eyes on this naturally protected harbour, they decided to develop it as a trade-centre in the East. They wanted to develop it as the London of the East. Robert Knight, editor of the Bombay Times, noticing the quick financial growth of the country, changed his newspaper’s name to The Times of India. The city and its seven islands developed at a speed without parallel in Indian history. From a sleepy hamlet within a few centuries Mumbai emerged as a busy international commercial town where fortunes were made and lost overnight. Mumbai had the best teachers and visionaries and administrators like Mount Stuart Elphinstone, Sir John Malcolm and Sir Bartle Free. At the beginning of the 19th century, the nascent modern city of Bombay was walking to a new sensibility due to contacts with Europe and especially Britain.
The author talks of Mumbai’s intellectual leadership before Independence which included revivalist Vishnubava Bramhachari, Agarkar, a pure rationalist, and ‘traditional’ intellectuals like Jambhekar, Ranade, Jotiba Phule. But the author says that it would have been better if the founding fathers of our Constitution had picked up the aphorism ‘humanise, equalise, spiritualise’ from one of the speeches made by Ranade as it would have been more appropriated for a state that aimed at its achieving social justice and universal brotherhood. “With this declined the intellectual tradition in western India, slowly but ceaselessly,” says the author.
Over the years industries grew, the city pulsated with a new life and even its northern limits were continuously extended. Mumbai came to be known for commercial expertise, became the chief industrial and financial centre of the country with a disproportionate share in the economic activities of the national economy. But today editors, writers and analysts have ceased to leave any impact on Mumbai’s society. He says, “The state government should in fact, worry about the society whose new icons are only from Bollywood or from a money-spinning sports like cricket. The Bollywoodisation of society is indicative of its de-intellectualisation.”
This is a book which Mumbaikars would love to read as most of them do have a genuine complaint against the decline of the original culture of Mumbai.
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