In 1996, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, one Manohar Joshi, celebrated what he called his "greatest achievement" in his first year as CM. Yes, he used precisely those two words. After all, he was ecstatic about an addition to his CV that rapidly elevated Joshi to Minister of Heavy Industries in Prime Minister Vajpayee's government in Delhi, and later Lok Sabha Speaker.
Yes indeed: he got Bombay renamed to Mumbai.
Deafening applause all around. God, mine is a perverse city! And yet, and because it is, a thoroughly fascinating one. I mean, it's like this: if there's a single other city in the world where a top elected official trumpets name change as not just an achievement, but his greatest achievement, and the man is hailed for this instead of being laughed at, I'd like to know about it. About him.
Scratch that. I don't want to know about it.
In recent months, there have been two books published about Bombay. One is Bombay Meri Jaan, an anthology of writings about the city edited by Naresh Fernandes and Jerry Pinto. If you've long wanted to read what people as diverse as Duke Ellington, Pico Iyer, Paromita Vohra, Kiran Nagarkar and Uma Pocha and Chorus with Mina Kava and his Music Makers have to say about this city, this is the book for you. If you never have wanted to read them, this is still the book for you even though you didn't know it. It's a delectable collection, down to a recipe for one of earth's true delights: Bombay Duck. Which, as you no doubt know, is not particularly native to Bombay and is not a duck but a fish.
In fact, the "duck" is a British corruption of "dak", Hindi for "mail". Which, I'm sure, makes about as little sense to you as the name of a fish as "duck", but read the book to find out more. And while you're about it, give a thought to other delightful Britishisms that have roots in Indian words: mulligatawny soup, Old Blighty, tickety-boo, going doolally ...
But I see I've come a ways from Bombay and renaming, though you could make a case that those who go gaga over renaming are going doolally.
The other book is Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found". At 600 pages, this is not something you cart around to read in the trains -- though then again, that's how I read most of it and as I write this, the train strikes me as an utterly fitting place to read Mehta's book.
In many ways, Bombay has got to be the most exasperating, frustrating, potboiling, fascinating city on the planet -- I imagine NYC runs it close -- and this book gives you an idea why. Read it, among many other reasons, to comprehend what kind of lala land Joshi's (above) boss lives in, which may be a contributory reason to Joshi's own state of mind.
But read it too to get a sense of the complex rhythms of this city. People speak of Mehta's book with a touch of pride, as if to say, look at this fantastic city we live in! Join me as I gape in wonder at it! It is a fantastic city, but it's also got plenty of sordid, venal sides to it, and while I would never live anywhere else, I can't make sense of this pride bit. Then again, that kind of pride -- in such an intangible as where you live -- has never made much sense to me anyway, but that's a story for another time.
Mehta tells Bombay like it is, though you'll have to see for yourself how you react to that telling. For now, here's my review of "Maximum City" for "The Hindu."
And Uma Pocha and Chorus with Mina Kava and his Music Makers ... who are they? The dudes who wrote and sang Bombay Meri Hai:
Come from England, come from Scotland, come from Ire-land
Come from Holland, come from Poland, come from any land ...
Ladies are nice, gents are full of spice,
Come to Bombay, come to Bombay, Bombay meri hai.
Bombay: both mine ("meri") and merry, get it? Rename that!