There was a broad mix of students staying at the hostel. Apart from foreigners and overseas Indian students, there were local Maharashtrians, though the bulk of students came from other places around India.
Bombay was as novel for most of them as it was for me, and they were equally curious. I was soon out on joint expeditions with new friends, exploring the city’s byways and its various districts.We visited markets and bazaars, observing the way each specialised in particular items – anything from mattresses and jewellery, or fruit and vegetables, to clothing and textiles. Virtually anything one could want was available somewhere in Bombay.
Wandering around the streets and alleyways of the city’s neighbourhoods it became obvious that each locality had its own distinctive character. Workshops specialised in particular industries or crafts for instance and markets sold one kind of good rather than another.
Residential areas were equally distinctive. There might be workers of one rather than another industry living in a locality. There might be concentrations in tenements with speakers of one rather than another language, or members of one religion, or religious sect or community, might predominate. Such social concentrations often translated into locality unity. Like tended to join with like, or so it seemed.
But of course, while there was aggregation from one point of view there could be separation from another. In similarity was dissimilarity, setting up lines of inclusion and exclusion.
From these early wanderings around and through Bombay I began to develop ideas about the nature of urban space and its relationship with group identity.
What proved important in refining my thinking was what I learnt as I watched the city’s crowd events. The city’s calendar proved to be full of such occasions.
Some were religious-based observances like Diwali and Dussehra, and others that had a considerable element of entertainment to them. Among them was Makar Sankrant with its competitive kite flying, Holi with its colour wars, and the late-night stick dancing of Ras Garba.
Each religion had its own events; among them Muslims commemorated Mohurrum and there was Christmas for Christians. Such events made up the city’s yearly rhythm and were part of its life. Particularly so was the celebration of Ganesh Chathurti, which dominated the ritual year with its ten-day celebration of Lord Ganesh, whose statues were installed for the occasion in the city’s various localities and concluded when they were taken down to the sea for immersion.
Other crowd events were more secular – and equally spectacular – though they did not have locality referents in the way the religious festivals did.They were one-off occasions like the time when Yuri Gagarin, fresh from the sky, appeared before an immense audience at Chaupati Beach. There he was, a distant figure in a glinting white uniform high on a dais above the heads of the crowd, the epitome of a star man.
When the felicitation was over, the police handled the crowd expertly and easily as it dispersed.The Bombay police, of course, had experience in handling big crowds over extended time frames, as other less felicitous occasions demonstrated. In some years, crowds of demonstrators were frequently out on the city’s main streets marching towards the state legislative council or the Secretariat, shouting slogans and waving flags, all demanding redress of their current grievance.
The route often went alongside the University Fort campus, giving students vantage points from which to observe or assess the quality and size of the demonstration and its overall procedures. There were a lot of instant connoisseurs of crowd behaviour and crowd control at those times.The police used their own expertise to marshal the protestors and ensure they followed permitted routes and were controlled and restrained. Only occasionally did the crowd mood change.
It would seem to be largely the case that living in Bombay meant that one became a student of the crowd by necessity and equally acquired a sense of the patterning of group behaviour, whether organised or random in its actions. After all, the political parties, the trade unions and other activist groups were masters of street gatherings.
They had been organising or participating in such events for a long time, and had pedigrees that went back to the first campaigns mounted by the Indian National Congress and other organisations from around 1919, and in some cases, even earlier.
Street demonstrations were not always peaceful and crowd moods could change. Over my years in Bombay, as a student and later as a visitor, I witnessed some distressing incidents.The most extreme were the times of serious rioting in the city.
There were riots in 1969, when demonstrators barred the leading politician, Morarji Desai, from entering the city. Bombay went into immediate lockdown and for the next three or four days buses and cars were set alight around the city and barricades were erected in zopadpatti hutments and other localities.
At the time the riots broke out I was on the way to lunch with friends but when our taxi driver turned into a long avenue and saw a street lined with burning cars and buses, he told us to get out and abandoned us. As we walked to our friends’ place, we passed groups of men running along the street, stoning street lights, setting fire to vehicles and putting barricades up.
They seemed to be enjoying what they were doing and waved an acknowledgement as we passed them. One or two even came over to chat with us. We did eventually reach our friends’ apartment which, it turned out, was in the middle of an affected area. I stayed with them for the next three days until I was able to leave.
From their balcony we would occasionally hear what was probably the sound of gunshots, and get the odd whiff of tear gas fired by the police at people in nearby localities. From the balcony, too, we watched as distant buildings in the city were set alight, one after another, a cinemascope spread of a city burning.
Even more dramatic, and traumatic, were the riots in 1992–1993 which, unlike previous incidents from the nineteenth century on, spanned most of the city, leaving many dead and more injured. Buildings, shops, houses, hutments and places of work were destroyed or burnt to the ground in circumstances where the police seemed unable or unwilling to control the situation. Minority groups living in their own neighbourhoods became victims of atrocities hardly experi- enced before in the city.
Studying conjoint action in demonstrations, gatherings or riots provided a way to study the social history of the city. The range of crowds and the various kinds of groups in Bombay provided access to people living and working in their environment.
Records in the archives and reports in contemporary newspapers provided detailed information about individuals who had been arrested, detained, injured or otherwise involved. People and groups of people who otherwise might have been ignored could have a voice and be heard through such studies.
My experience of living and moving around Bombay as a student had attuned me to thinking about the nature of city space, the way localities operated and how they defined or expressed identity. It did not take long for me to appreciate the logic of these elements, and how to use them to analyse the operation of city structures and patterns of living.
Increasingly, I had become interested in the relationship between city space and identity, and then with the issue of how the dimension of time affected identity and awareness of place/space.The three factors went far to explain the highly complex structures of the city and the equally complex interactions between city people as they went about their business and play.
When I used the notion of templates to study urban behaviour it was possible to shift the point of view in a more focused way onto the city’s inhabitants and thus open up another means of studying people in their home environment. The crux of the notion of templates or mental maps is that they can be superimposed one over the other, and thus can be used to form a multiplex view of the city.
People moved around the city according to the particular mental map they were using and followed patterns of movement along familiar routes and at familiar times so that they were traversing what might be called accustomed space: a combination of customary time with familiar space. It was a way for people to make sense of the enormous urban conurbation in which they lived and moved.
It would seem that whatever techniques one uses to study this city there is still more to study. In that lies much of the charm of the place, even as it grows to gargantuan proportions that demand all the attention scholars are able to give it. There is so much in Bombay or Mumbai that is worthy of attention and much that can be used to build up a social history of urban living, a kind of popular history of urban life.
What gives a city life is how those who live and work in it influence it. Here the historian has a role in providing insights into how a city functions. And given the rapid growth of cities, there is always more to explore, more to say about a place that is never still. Cities, and this one in particular, are subject to constant change, always creating new layers and new qualities. Therein lies their interest and their character – as also their importance.
Excerpted with permission from Remembering Bombay: Present Memories and Past Histories, Jim Masselos, from Bombay Before Mumbai: Essays In Honour of Jim Masselos, edited by Prashant Kidambi, Manjiri Kamat, Rachel Dwyer, Penguin Viking.