Bombay of old

Published : Jun 29, 2012 00:00 IST

On the marketplace of religions and the customary purveyors of enchantment in Bombay as the 19th century progressed.

Professor Nile Green is a scholar of high credentials and with many erudite books to his credit. A global history of Sufism is in the works. This book, based on stupendous research, is tailored to a thesis at which the subtitle hints. There is a religious market; organisations, even those like the highly respected Anjuman-e-Islam founded by the liberal Badruddin Tyabji, and dargahs (shrines) are firms. Muslim saints, whose shrines draw people of all communities, are not revered for their saintly qualities. Their shrines were propped up to cater to needs. At least a couple of the saints are branded mad. The miracles which their devotees cite are treated as proof enough of false credentials. The dargahs are firms installed to cater to religiosity in the marketplace of religions.

The book begins with the collapse of Sitaram Building, near Crawford Market in Bombay, in 1903. It stood opposite the shrine of Pedro Shah, a Portuguese sailor, who, legend has it, was converted to Islam two centuries earlier. Since the building had a bar, it came to be said, by the ignorant of course, that it fell because of a curse by the saint. Believers do not attribute curses to saints.

From his shrine's location in the heart of Bombay's bazaar district, his spectacular miracle was symptomatic of the larger pressures of cosmopolitan modernity that helped create a marketplace of religions in the city surrounding him. The implications of Pedro Shah's story that the moral life of the metropolis was regulated by supernatural policemen, that capitalist cosmopolitanism could be undone at the whim of a dead Muslim have profound implications for the ways in which the trajectories of religion in the nineteenth-century Indian Ocean should be understood, and it is the goal of Bombay Islam to unravel these implications. For Pedro Shah's cult was not the superstitious detritus of an earlier age, but part of a larger supply of religious productions being generated by the experiences of modern urban life. If such supernatural interventions as that seen in the punishment of the Windsor Bar drinkers [in Sitaram Building] are not part of the familiar story of the industrial city, then, like the internationalised Yoga of Swami Vivekananda in Chicago and the scientific table-tappers of Victorian London, they comprised the ruptures and reprises of culture that accompanied the ascent of the no less invisible powers of capital.

This thesis is elaborated with impressive field work, from Teheran to Durban, research in libraries and consultation with works in Persian, Arabic, Urdu and English. Bombay once had Arab, Iranian, African, Central Asian and a host of other communities. They led separate lives as did the local Muslim communities, each within its own mohalla (locality).

It was a Dubai. Travellers came for layovers. Drawing Muslims from far and wide, in the mid-nineteenth century Bombay emerged as the cosmopolis of the Indian Ocean, a global city in which Muslims were forced to deal with the competitive pressures that also shaped its Atlantic counterpart, New York. Bombay's industrialisation was signalled to these Muslims in many different ways. Its mechanical advances offered urban visions of a progressive future; its iron printing- presses produced books in Persian and Arabic, English and Urdu, Malay and Swahili; its steam-fed factories created a jostling of new Muslim proletarians; its sheer size allowed Muslims to alternatively discover the collective unity of the umma [community] or to learn instead that they were above all Indian'. By the mid-nineteenth century, not only was Bombay urbs prima in Indis (as its proud citizens were fond of calling it), but also a primary city of Islam.

Green relies a lot on the earliest major source on Bombay Islam, Jan-e-Bombai, a Persian work written in 1816. It deserves an English translation. In the earliest major source on Bombay Islam, the Persian Jan-e-Bombai (Bombay soul), written in 1816, the port was already presented as the crossroads of the world. In addition to the English, Portuguese, Greeks, Dutch, Zoroastrians, Jews, Chinese and the many sects' (farqa) of Hindus described as residents of the city, Jan-e-Bombai spoke of a bewildering range of Muslim groups who also lived there: Arabs and Turks, Iranis and Turanis, Sindis and Hindis, Kabulis and Qandaharis, Punjabis and Lahoris, Kashmiris and Multanis, Madrasis and Malabaris, Gujaratis and Dakanis, Baghdadis and Basrawis, Muscatis and Konkanis.

The book covers the period 1840- 1915, the heyday of the city's commercial and industrial eminence. Reformists lost to the firms. Scholars suggest that the 19th century belonged to the Muslim Reformists. Bombay Islam places them in the same marketplace alongside the customary purveyors of enchantment who were no less attuned to the industrial age.

The author writes: The self-conscious modernism that was symbolised by the hybrid Anglo-Oriental architecture of the Anjuman-e-Islam School ultimately played a limited role in Bombay's religious economy. For the members of the labouring classes who made up the majority of the city's Muslims the appeal of a scientific and scriptural Islam was limited, and their own patterns of religious consumption were as distinct as they were widespread. For many of these labourers from rural and small town backgrounds, the growing number of shrines that emerged in Bombay as the nineteenth century progressed offered the chance to reconnect with the secure roots of custom and so enter a more reassuring cityscape enchanted with the powers holy men made available at their gravesides. The Anjuman deserves better treatment than this.

Still and all, the book must be read for the mass of information it contains about the Bombay of old, its saints and sinners and its cosmopolitan society. The Mumbai of today is a painful reminder of that Bombay.

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