In 2012, while searching for books on Gujarati theatre within the collection of Mumbai’s KR Cama Oriental Institute, Murali Ranganathan stumbled upon a 400-page Gujarati-language volume with the title Rangbhoomi par Rakhad. This seemed to fit the bill: Rangbhoomi par Rakhad translates as “Rambles on the Stage”.

But the book held within its weathered pages a multiplicity of surprises. First, it was not a book on drama but rather the memoirs of Nariman Karkaria (1894-1949), a Parsi soldier who fought in the First World War. This, by itself, was a landmark find: although over a million Indians fought in the war, Rangbhoomi par Rakhad remains, as far as we know, the only published autobiographical account of an Indian soldier’s experiences during that conflict.

Second, Karkaria narrated a story which was almost impossible to believe: he served on three different fronts, probably one of the few soldiers to do so, and participated in one of the war’s most blood-soaked episodes, the Battle of the Somme. He did this as a soldier in the British Army – not the Indian – which he joined after making a mad wintertime dash in 1914 from Beijing to London via the recently-completed Trans-Siberian Railway.

The last surprise was that the book and its author had been utterly forgotten. Murali rectified this, publishing an English translation in 2021 under the title of The First World War Memories of Nariman Karkaria, thus introducing a new generation of readers to one of the most unusual pieces of literature to emerge from that conflict.

Over the past 15 years, Murali Ranganathan has made a habit of unearthing forgotten and near-forgotten aspects of the history of Mumbai and western India. Unlike most academic historians of the city, who privilege English-language sources, Murali delves into material in Marathi, Gujarati, Persian, and Urdu.

His first publication was a translation of Govind Narayan’s Mumbaiche Varnan, an 1863 Marathi work which provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of the mid-19th century urbs prima in Indis. Murali has edited two volumes of essays on the city by the historians JV Naik and JRB Jeejeebhoy. He has churned out dozens of articles on Mumbai’s print history; the city’s experiences with earlier pandemics; and the ramblings of other western Indians who, like Nariman Karkaria, left their hometowns to explore the world.

I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that Murali Ranganathan is the preeminent chronicler of a vast sweep of Mumbai’s history: from the late 18th century, when the city exploded onto the scene of global commerce through the opium trade, through the early 20th century, when Mumbai established itself as one of the world’s great cosmopolitan metropolises.

He probably knows more than anyone else about Mumbai’s published and unpublished sources, given his encyclopedic knowledge of its archives and libraries and his fluency in so many of the city’s tongues. In this episode of Past Imperfect, Murali and I delve into the city’s longer history and draw links with today’s Maximum City. What does history tell us about how Mumbai has changed and stayed the same over the past two centuries? Does the current redevelopment frenzy have precedents? Is there a longer history behind the city’s politics of naming and renaming? And what makes Mumbai such an interesting, unique, and oftentimes frustrating city to study?

Like Nariman Karkaria’s wartime memoirs, what we discover is that Mumbai’s history is full of shocks and surprises. For example, today’s politicians, building on the triumph of banishing the name “Bombay” from official use in 1995, might sanctimoniously preach about “correct” and “authentic” city placenames. But what they do not realise – and are probably incapable of appreciating – is that, in a city of such startling heterogeneity, names have always been fluid and multiple in nature.

The East Indian community called the city “Mobai”, the earliest printed Gujarati work referred to it as “Mambai.” Print history, indeed, has been a key to many of Murali’s most interesting historical finds. For Mumbai, printing was an industrial engine of comparative heft and importance to textiles, employing thousands and shaping the city’s unique cultural and literary landscape.

Despite the specter of ethnic chauvinism which has hung over the city for the past few decades, Mumbai remains at its core a city which expands horizons, bringing diverse people together and propelling movements outward. Murali – who can speak and read Parsi Gujarati better than most of today’s Parsis, and who learned to read the Modi script, unlocking sources inaccessible to readers of modern Marathi – is perhaps an exceptional example of how Mumbai’s citizens acquire the city’s heterogeneity.

The historical characters in Murali’s scholarship speak of the city’s diversity in ways which we can recognise and appreciate even today. In 1863, Govind Narayan opened his work with a local proverb which described Mumbai in wondrous terms: “fifty-six languages and eighteen castes with different head-dresses”. Nariman Karkaria – a native of Navsari who was first struck by global wanderlust while seeing steamships in Mumbai’s harbour – used the city as a constant reference point. While navigating the unfamiliar customs of a Swedish train station restaurant, he offered comparisons with Mumbai’s Irani cafes.

In these ways, Mumbai citizens leveraged the city to reduce distances between different parts of India and the world. Murali Ranganathan’s scholarship has performed a different connective function: introducing modern readers to some of the most fascinating characters from Mumbai’s polyglot past.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.