The fishermen were here first. Before the East India Company built its Fort…at the dawn of time, when Bombay was a dumbell shaped island tapering, at the center, to a narrow shining strand…when Mazgaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands, too -in short before reclamation…turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsulalike an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westwards into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval worldbefore clocktowers, the fishermen – who were called Kolis – sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fish-lovers of us all…There were also coconuts and rice. And above it all, the benign presiding influence of the goddess Mumbadevi, whose name – Mumbadevi, Mumbabai, Mumbai – may well have become the city’s. But then the Portugese named the place Bom Bahai for its harbour, and not for the godess of the pomfret folk…the Portugese were the first invaders, using the harbour to shelter their merchant ships and their men-of-war; but then, one day…an East India Company Officer…saw a vision. This vision – a dream of a British Bombay, fortified, defending India’s West against all comers – was a notion of such force that it set time in motion.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children


Bombay was not an indigenous Indian city. It was built by the British expressly for maintaining trade links with India and was perhaps never expected to become a large town. Bombay was therefore not a planned city but came into being with every step of its growth being impulsive and incremental – expressing in its forms the idea of the city as a field of human enterprise. Each new development in the city thus expressed in its physical form the needs and lifestyles of the people who created or occupied these areas.

Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra, Bombay: The Cities Within

“Bombay is a SLUM, for the rich and the poor”
–My cousin’s pithy description of the city.

Bombay was not originally an Indian city, that is perhaps why it is home to such a diverse set of communities. Parsis, Jews, Christians, Bohrahs, Iranis and all the rest call Bombay home. And the city has served them all well, except perhaps those who were there first. Yet that is the nature of great cities, they must accept with open arms all who come to them. In “Delhi” Khushwant Singh narrates a journey through time that is spiced by meetings with his hijra (transvestite) mistress Bhagmati. Bombay has no dearth of hijras and the city often behaves like a promiscuous mistress, and sometimes turns into an angry young Turk. Yet it is completely unlike New Delhi and Chandigarh. It is not the master plan of a Frenchman or a Briton. Bombay evolved, and that is perhaps why the city reverberates with the pulse of its residents, and why it lies prostrate before their passions at times. From Kalbadevi road to Subzi Mandi opposite the Borivili railway station, Bombay is never still. The city remains, but it is never the same.