2 December 2008

How Bombay Became Mumbai

The talk at my Thanksgiving table—as no doubt at every Indian-American household—was all Bombay. We watched CNN through eating, with its hysterical headline blazing, “Mumbai: City Under Siege.” Years of suicide bombings had suddenly given way to a wholly unexpected takeover of the major hotels, more typical of James Bond-villainy than latter-day jihadism. They differed in their attire as well: News reports insisted on pointing out that the attackers and hostage-takers wore jeans and t-shirts.

When I was younger, I used to travel through Bombay in order to get to my ancestral city, Bangalore. A bus would take you from the international to the domestic airport, along a vertiginous swath of blue-tarped slums. The air was oppressed by humidity; the rain didn’t wet you, it slimed you. And those slimed shantytowns, shadowed—as every traveler ritually points out—by white stalagmites of luxury towers everywhere, had always been proof to me that it was a city of absolute evil. But poverty was only one of its evils. A Hindu family friend once took me on a drive that led through a large Muslim ghetto, its streets dusty and narrow. “Everywhere the Muslims go, they make the place dirty,” he said.

It is that sentiment, which most middle-class Hindus don’t have to go beyond their families to hear, that could rise quickly to the surface in the wake of these vicious attacks. “Bombay has hundreds of very different ethnic communities, most of whom heartily dislike one another,” Suketu Mehta wrote in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004). “They have been tolerating one another for centuries, until now.” I grew up knowing about Bombay’s pogroms in 1993, instigated by Hindu nationalist boss, Bal Thackeray (the model for Raman Fielding in Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh), which followed the demolition of a five-century old mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu mobs. The head of India’s right-wing Shiv Sena group, which was founded in 1966 and based in Bombay, Thackeray would be essentially parodic if he weren’t so murderous. He was until recently focused on starting an India-based rival to McDonald’s, “Shiv Vada-pav,” with a fried potato burger as its main attraction. And it was through his initiative that the city was renamed “Mumbai,” after the city’s patron goddess Mumbadevi—which, the nationalists argued, returned the city to its Hindu past. In reality, the Sena had overwritten history with a fantasy: Bombay was originally a Portuguese (Bom-baim), and then English (Bombay), trading port. The notion that it has a particularly Hindu past to return to is false.

Until 2004, when the old centrist Congress Party returned to power, it seemed as if India’s spree in the neo-fascist supermarket, no matter how much violence it unleashed, would only encourage conservative Hindus to return the nationalist BJP to office again and again. People liked to portray it as a kind of revenge for centuries of invasion: the Moguls in the 16th century, Timur in the 14th, the Mamluks in the 13th. In one of his unfortunately frequent and dreary piques, V. S. Naipaul endeared himself to the ruling ideologues by claiming—in the midst of a tirade against the “banality” of women Indian writers—that “Islam destroyed India.” The absolute nadir of Hindu nationalism was what most of its acolytes saw as its triumph, when Prime Minister Atul Bihari Vajpayee, whose bachelor status was a bizarre focus of admiration from male Hindus, brought the country to the point of self-annihilation by accelerating and completing its nuclear program: The code-phrase for the test was, “And the Buddha smiled!” India was “shining,” the BJP said, as thousands of farmers committed suicide every year, and people fled the countryside in epic numbers to the cities, so that slums bordered each other in concentric circles. The Congress returned on a promise to help the disenfranchised, without compromising India’s status as a good place to do business—that is, a place that didn’t care what happened to its farmers.

But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, despite strong-arming a nuclear deal with the US through parliament, possibly through bribery, is widely seen as weak. And for those millions who have called this “India’s 9/11,” weakness will not be tolerated at the voting booth, as it was not in the United States. (The next elections are in 2009.) A place whose hotels are not safe from Muslim terrorists is not safe for capital; it marks a perfect time for the BJP’s re-entry, whose consequences all of us should fear deeply. The relationship between India and Pakistan had been softening in recent months, but a hard-line seems inevitable now. Mehta, in a mournful piece in The New York Times, pointed out that Bombay—or, rather, Mumbai, as his copy-editors no doubt required him to call it—was a target for religious zealots because it had always symbolized the triumph of commerce over traditional morality. He was attempting to understand the deep structure of all hatred for Mumbai—why a terrorist, seeking to make a point, would make it in Mumbai—rather than the events of last week in particular. In truth one suspects that Mumbai was just closest, could be entered, easily, by sea; and it’s also the case that for years the nationalists had been trying to assert their “traditional” morality. Kissing in public is banned and policed; several years ago, the state’s minister of culture found that park benches that seated two encouraged kissing, and so had them sawed in half.

Last week one of the terrorists gave a simpler reason for his actions: “Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims? Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?” One struggled to hear a whisper of Kashmir in the vacuous American presidential campaign; the clamor will—should—now be tremendous. Since 1947, Kashmir has been promised a referendum on its status. Its people recently voted in the third phase of a multi-part election for state assembly posts, which separatists boycotted, because they felt it was a poor substitute for a real determination of the “Kashmir problem.” All this is harder to think about now. The reason for the terrorist actions has become, through the acts themselves, both urgent and wholly obscured.

A friend pointed out to me that I can’t call the place Bombay anymore—I’ve always insisted on it, against the weird, historically suspicious nationalism of the ’90s. But now these acts of terrorism have cemented the name in the world imagination. If I continue to refer to Bombay, people will wonder, “Hasn’t he been watching the news?”

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