an introduction to mumbai

To begin my quest-of-sorts, I enlisted help and was promptly presented with a book that was probably heavier than me: Bombay (The Cities Within) by Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehotra. All I knew about Mumbai before this came from an ICSE textbook where doodlings prevailed over what visible information there was. The city had been gifted to King Charles II as dowry by the Portuguese who promptly gave it to the East India Company. That was well known fact. What I didn’t know was that Charles leased the city to the Company for the paltry sum of 10 pounds.

10 pounds. That number really shocked me. While it’s true that 10 pounds was worth more in the 1600s- actually about a hundred pounds in today’s money, King Charles didn’t want or like the city and pawned it off without realizing its value. Of course, the city did not seem like much back then, a rough composition of several islands and a manor house belonging to the Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta. 10 pounds though- I’d have gone straight for Hawaii..

The Company wanted to equip Bombay as a stronghold against the Portuguese but realized its potential for trade along the West Coast also. The population expanded rapidly as merchants (both local and European) were encouraged to sell and ship their wares from the newly built ports. There were established connections with Persia, the Arabian Gulf, Africa, China and Malacca (a city in Malaysia that I had no clue even existed).

Due to the sudden and unexpected expansion of the city, there was not much architectural structure, but rather new settlements added and islands connected every day. This would be a factor for some of the chaos that Mumbai is in today, because of the lack of planning 100s of years ago.

I was more interested by the concept that Mumbai was a bunch of separate islands, and that even by the 1800s, most the city was under water. It’s really weird to imagine that the land that we eat, sleep and live on was probably mulchy swamp or seawater years ago. Of course a whole new level of weirdness can be reached if you stop to consider the fact that dinosaurs might have used your living room for a battleground in the Mesozoic era (I had to google that, wasn’t really channeling my inner Ross Geller today).

Centuries passed and the population of Mumbai would continue to expand to 18 million (about three times that of Singapore). Today there is so much history visible in Mumbai- from the old stations to the gothic buildings but unfortunately all that is a crumbling façade with no maintenance. I did want to find out more about   Mumbai though and decided to start with a historical walk along Ballad estate-next week.

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