Director (Strategy), Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI) Visiting Fellow,
Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Fellow, National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Contributing
Editor, Governance Now firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract: A city is a physical structure in one sense. In another sense, it is an
organic body, poetically and metaphysically portrayed as having a soul. Most urban
formations around the world, especially island cities, have a clear anthology of
narratives that mesh the physical and the metaphysical of a city-body. The island
city of Mumbai possesses characteristic socioeconomic traits have been counter-intuitively
shaped by narratives and social imaginaries that would not have emerged if not for
coastal features and forms. This aspect has been insufficiently explored. This paper
will bring three unexplored dimensions to the fore. The first is how this island
city’s main ports, historically connected to West Asia and later to Europe, become
the main entry points for material and non-material foundations of modern cultural
production. The second is how these bases became the primary nodes for narratives
that inform the city’s distinctive ethos and its inhabitants’ social imaginaries
in such a way as to fundamentally differ from the pre- and postcolonial narratives
of India. The third is how digital ports (global undersea Internet cables), initially
connected to the city because of the calm waters of the Arabian Sea, have made the
Internet a powerful and dominant mode of cultural production in Mumbai.
Keywords: digital ports, globalisation, island cities, Mumbai, social imaginaries,
Cite as: Swaminathan, R. (2015) ‘Ports and Digital Ports: The Narrative Construction
and Social Imaginaries of the Island City of Mumbai’, Urban Island Studies, 1, 35-54.
Ports and Digital Ports: The Narrative Construction and Social Imaginaries of the
Island City of Mumbai
1. Setting the stage
There are two points that the author wishes to explicitly state in advance. First,
the author’s purpose in highlighting certain narratives and discursive strands in
this paper is not to treat them as independent objects of inquiry, but to show how
their foundations are linked to the archipelagic nature of the city and its distinct
coastal forms. In essence, the author wishes to draw the attention of the urban studies
and island studies academic communities to the underexplored role that imaginaries
play in fundamentally shaping the physical and discursive forms of island cities.
Second, the author’s mix of approaches from anthropology, cultural studies, media
studies, and ethnography is a deliberate attempt to apply a much-needed interdisciplinary
lens to urban studies and island studies. The author wishes to place this lens within
the context of the production of spaces, space of flows and ideoscapes, concepts
pioneered by Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells and Arjun Appadurai respectively.
I will refer to the city in question interchangeably as ‘Mumbai’ and ‘Bombay’ in
order to intuitively indicate the cut-off point of 1995 when Bombay was renamed Mumbai.
The same logic is applied in referring to ‘Calcutta’ and ‘Kolkata’ and ‘Madras’ and
2. The shape shifter called Mumbai
Mumbai embraced free enterprise at a time when India was enamoured with state-sponsored
industrialisation, became the jazz capital of Asia in the 1950s, and had an intricately
layered club, pub, public art, theatre, and cinema culture while the rest of India’s
cultural imaginary remained rooted in a specific ‘Indian cultural ethos’. Mumbai’s
distinct sociocultural construction has been architected by exclusive access to an
interlinked set of media and communication technologies facilitated by the city’s
unique position as a historical port connecting West Asia (through it Europe), Southeast
Asia and South Asia. The port was also a node of cultural production distributing
material foundations (recording, broadcasting equipment) of mass culture and epistemological
frameworks for ideas and cultural forms (jazz LPs from New York) for the city’s articulation
of its collective self as urban, modern and global. Narratives emerging out of this
foundation created the city’s relative peripherality to pre- and postcolonial narratives
of India, ironically by architecting the city’s relative centrality to global conceptualisations
of a Western and modern city. The foundations of digital technology (undersea cables,
server farms) came first to the city not just because of its coastal location but
also due to a thriving narrative of a global, modern, contemporary and Westernised
city. This has been a dominant mode of cultural production. Mumbai’s unique narrative
construction is based on a binary framework of peripherality and centrality, linked
to the techno-material and techno-epistemological foundations of sociocultural production.
If Mumbai were a movie, it would be Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon,a 1950 Japanese period
drama set in feudal Japan. It presents an intriguing tale of violent crime in the
woods, told from the perspectives of four different characters – a bandit, a woman,
her husband and a woodcutter. Like the arthouse classic, Mumbai’s fact and fiction
merge, angles and dimensions intermingle, and science and folklore intersect. There
are always contradictory interpretations and starkly varying perspectives. This is
not to say that the city is unreal. It is real in more ways than one can imagine,
yet the nature of reality is such that one must search for it as one would use a
fine eye to pick out a particular strand from a rich tapestry of colours and patterns.
For starters, let us look at some facts, which are more in the nature of strands
of reality. Mumbai is a city of extreme contrasts with faultlines running across
conventional social divisions of class, caste, religion, gender, income and localities.
It is India’s wealthiest city, ranks sixth in the world in terms of billionaires
and has the highest GDP among the cities of South, West, and Central Asia. Yet various
estimates have placed the number of people living in slums in the city between 55%
and 70%. With close to 22 million people in the extended metropolitan region of the
city, over 1000 communities, sub-communities, religious sects, social groups, regional
and sub-regional formations, 16 major languages and 75 minor languages, the city
is as diverse as it can get.
No other city has such a multitude of diverse spaces jostling, interacting and engaging
with each other. This makes the city richly textured, exploding with flavours, smells
and colours. It also makes the city an extremely complicated and complex mix of urban
spaces and territories, with unique spatialities and territorialities. Mumbai is
a collection of seven islands that the Mughal Empire first granted to the Portuguese
in 1534 so that they could establish trading outposts. The Mughal Empire was a Persianate
empire extending over large parts of the Indian subcontinent and ruled by a dynasty
of Chagatai-Turkic origin. Mumbai’s coastal location made it ideal for colonial trading.
It changed hands in 1661 when the islands were given to the British Empire as part
of the marriage treaty between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, daughter
of King John IV of Portugal. As the British colonial enterprise expanded in India,
Mumbai turned into an important port. That is when the first wave of migration took
place, as per official history. The seven islands were eventually interlinked by
bridges and reclamation projects, giving the city its contemporary geographical identity.
Mumbai’s seemingly endless possibility to morph itself physically and metaphorically
into unique urban forms, its daily multiple realities, are rooted in its specific
archipelagic genes. Existing analytical frameworks routinely find it difficult to
accommodate these daily arenas of contestations and negotiations in arriving at both
a multidimensional academic and a functional understanding of the nuts and bolts
of the city. This is even more so in the case of urban studies, which mostly leads
to flattened and simplistic explanations of the complex socioeconomic relationships
predominantly fuelled by the city’s geographical specificities. In short, the current
methodological tools and theoretical underpinnings used to understand and position
Mumbai give insufficient attention, or credit, to the interconnections between its
multiple physical and narrative forms on the one hand and its coastal geography and
islandic nature on the other. It is in this context that the emerging field of urban
island studies can provide both a fresh conceptual perspective and a functional understanding
of Mumbai. As Grydehøj (2015) argues:
Island city formation and development always occur in place.
Only by understanding the place specificity of urban space can we understand the
rise of island cities, counted among which are some of the most prominent cities
in the world. This analysis of city formation and development on small islands highlights
the need to consider not just the attributes of places and spaces of abstraction
but also specific urban spatialities. Self-agglomerating cities resist borders and
benefit from room to grow, yet […] nascent cities are nurtured by containment and
[…] cities are at their most city-like (densest) when circumscribed by water. The
fact that ‘the city’ is not a “spatially bounded entity” (Amin and Thrift 2002, 8)
does not render urban morphology inconsequential. Just as Barrowclough (2010) warns
against abstracting islands from mainlands, we must reassert the physical reality
of urban place within a globalised and increasingly urbanised world.
Recent decades have seen several fruitful attempts at introducing more qualitative,
socio-anthropological and sociocultural approaches into the field of urban studies
(Amin & Thrift, 2002; Appadurai, 1986, 2001, 2006; Mayaram, 2012; Brenner, 2014).
This has, no doubt, expanded the landscape of urban studies, introducing several
new methodological tools and lines of inquiry. Yet urban studies has not been able
to shake off the predominant influence of structural approaches that reductively
imagine the city and its urban spaces, its numerous urbanisms so to speak, as sociocultural,
economic and political specificities of places rather than as a circular historiography
of processes inextricably linked to material and physical foundations. This is where
the emerging field of island studies is quite decisively cutting through the clutter
imposed by structuralism by allowing different notions of an island and islandness
to co-exist, interact and interplay with each other, resulting in a transformation
of an “island from a noun to a verb” (Baldacchino, 2008). So an island becomes not
just a physical coastal feature, which it by all means is, but also a conceptual
rubric that accommodates unique physical and narrative constructions of a city’s
spaces, an interconnected archipelago as also “islands of the mind” (Gillis, 2004).
For Baldacchino and Clark (2013), “Once an island is sought, it has already been
discovered. There cannot not be an unknown island. Islands are caught in this vortex
of being, becoming and much wishful, projected and programmatic thinking.” As I have
written previously (Swaminathan, 2014):
Today, though, with the archipelagic nature of the city being reconstituted as a
passive commodity, readily moulded and packaged into any global form, the ports have
all but vanished from the dominant imaginary, as also from the city’s physical and
social geography. The ports were unique locales of colonial and post-colonial contestations.
They were sites of nationalist mutinies, important cauldrons of class struggle and
emergent forms of social engineering.
Anyone seeking to develop fresh insight into the intricate character of Mumbai, quite
possibly the ultimate shape shifter of a city, may well benefit from the intermingling
of new conceptual methodologies, analytical frameworks and metaphorical imaginaries
that a certain section of urban studies and large portions of island studies are
deploying and using on an increasing basis. Using this unique mix helps bring into
sharp focus landscapes and mindscapes, in our case ports and digital ports, which
are predominantly shaped and moulded by the geographical characteristics that are
specific to islands and archipelagos (Grydehøj et al., 2015).
3. The academic straitjacket
The academic world has been seeking to grapple with the complexities of Mumbai for
close to seven decades, trying to put it all within neat conceptual and theoretical
baskets. The success and failure of such attempts is still under debate and is as
much a matter of perspective as of objective analysis, much like the city itself.
Historical and contemporary academic focus on Mumbai has broadly consolidated around
a set of five binaries of colonial-postcolonial, nationalist-internationalist, local-global,
cultural-economic and migration-identity (Haynes & Rao, 2013: 317-335; Parthasarathy,
2011; Patel, 2009; Pendse, 1995; Phadke, 2007; Prakash, 2006; Punjwani, 1984; Singh
(mimeo), 2005). All five sets have dealt with questions of modernity, urbanity, secularism,
religion, urbanism and city life as well as continuing linkages to rural landscapes
and imaginaries. A majority of the scholarly work on Mumbai’s urbanity across the
disciplines of sociology, political science, urban geography and history focuses
on the ‘long nineteenth century’ (Kidambi, 2013: 561–80), a flexible chronological
scale that lasts from the establishment of the first European outpost in Bombay in
the late-16th Century to the end of the 1930s (Dobbin, 1972; Masselos, 1974; Bayly,
1983; Dossal, 1991). Much of the literature also focuses on quantitative models of
town planning and increasing spatial spread of urban sprawls, broadly referred to
as development discourse, or on narratives of migration, interaction of diversities,
identity, and assimilation (Hansen, 2001; Patel, 2003), all falling within the broad
parameters of urban ethnography and social anthropology.
All of these analytical frames, especially the lens of postcolonial studies, use
modernity, urbanity, secularism and notions of the global city. These are complex
concepts that trace their epistemological roots directly to the historical specificity
of 16th and 17th Century Western Europe. These concepts are seen as modular pieces
that can be fitted into any context, independent of time and space. Such reductionism
leads to interpretations and analyses of unique urban experiences as non-conformal
and hence constitutive of in-between spaces. It also positions excavated subaltern
narratives as cultural sites of contestation that fundamentally negate notions of
modernity, urbanity and secularism. Such sites are then seen as islands of nonurbanism
that, ironically, further strengthen specific notions of modernity and global city
as a modular urban framework. In all of these approaches, however, the archipelagic
nature of the city as an entry point for research to understand the unique configurations
of urbanity and urban imaginaries is either marginalised or completely ignored. Even
when it is acknowledged, it is located within the context of the city’s colonial
experience where “the physical form of the city invites reflection on its colonial
origin […] in fact, the Island City occupies land stolen from the sea […] and it
bears the marks of its colonial birth and development” (Prakash, 2010: 26-27).
4. Trying to fit
Every city has its unique set of material, non-material and epistemological foundations:
the pillars of urbanity so to speak. Every city also has a local, regional, national
and transnational context. Mumbai is no different. The existing methodological frameworks
being used to analyse Mumbai must be located within the larger context of urban studies
within India, which identify three forms of urbanism-modernism at work: colonial
(Lutyen’s Delhi is the high point of such a discourse), nationalist (Le Corbusier’s
Chandigarh was the original object of study while the cities of Gandhinagar and Bhubaneswar
are contemporary focus areas), and global(encompassing micro- and meta-narratives
of urban renewal, refurbishment, technological upgrades, smart spaces, hybridised
technoscapes and “any transformation of cityscapes and city use patterns” (Chalana,
2010: 25-37) foundationally underpinned by larger processes of globalisation and
shared urbanisms). Each of these frameworks manages to capture vignettes of the city
in granular detail. But a vignette is like a photograph: It captures the moment and
sometimes even its story, yet when all said and done, it is just a slice of a multivocal
city, always prone to fossilisation and ossification.
There are critical differences between European and Asian island cities. The fundamental
imperatives of European island cities were architected by a desire to be physically
and geographically secure through the construction of defensive structures. In fact
islands were seen as strategically defendable and manageable units, a crucial and
critical ingredient for notions of sovereignty and political control. This in turn
allowed European islands to extend their spatiality and territoriality, even their
specific archipelagic logic, to other geographical and physical places, many of them
not really islands in the conventional sense. The specificities of a European conceptualisation
of the island city fundamentally determined the nature, scale and scope of socioeconomic
activities, cultural forms and articulations and political and power frameworks:
The islandness of cities like Amsterdam, Paris, and Copenhagen is not incidental.
Historically, forces of organised authority have selected small islands as sites
on which to centre their power because small islands facilitate the maintenance of
territoriality for purposes of trade with or political control over a wider area.
That is, the ideal of the city (defended against incursion yet capable of projecting
power out beyond the urban core) dovetails with the attributes of the small island
(spatially distinct, easily defensible, and with access to waterborne transport).
Where small islands did not exist from the start, they were often created: Brussels,
Gdansk, Geneva, Groningen, Nicosia, Valletta, Vienna, and countless other European
population centres were systematically walled and islanded in the Middle Ages and
the Renaissance. Even where small islands already existed, as we have seen, further
more-or-less circular islands were constructed around them (Pigou-Dennis & Grydehøj,
Most of the Asian island cities, on the other hand, were fundamentally shaped by
their colonial experience. Some such experiences were benign and others extremely
exploitative. The overarching philosophy of the European colonial powers was to replicate
the island city dynamics of their hemisphere into the Asian archipelagic centres.
There was, however, a major departure. The notions of centrality and peripherality,
organically evolved in the European context, were artificially defined in an a priori
manner to fit the framework of global colonial trade. So while railway infrastructure
and ports, for instance, developed both in European island cities and Asian island
cities, the manner of their development, the nature of their deployment and the eventual
impact on the spatial, territorial, architectural and demographic spread and the
consequent narrative and metaphorical construction of the city were radically different.
The city is also a problematic. There are two deep-rooted sets of issues with the
current scholarly and academic approaches towards studying the city. The first one
lies in the manner in which the dominant theoretical frameworks of study – modernity,
urbanity, colonialism, postcolonial cityscapes or technosocial global cities – are
used as one-size-fits-all structural scaffolding, despite their Eurocentric origins
and historical specificity. This creates unintentional hierarchy, and a widening
gap, between theory and the organically produced multivocal and intersected narratives
of the city. The conventional approaches, by default, first position the theoretical
rubric and then try to fit the city’s experiences within it as one would the piece
of a puzzle. The second set deals with the marginalisation of the city’s archipelagic
roots and its coastal genes in the creation of the city’s stories: the manner in
which the organic narratives of indigenous communities have been subsumed by dominant
storylines is a distinct case in point. What is even more startling is the complete
absence of any serious scholarship even acknowledging, let alone studying and analysing,
the archipelagic, coastal and littoral nature of the city as valid material and non-material
foundations for the territorial, spatial, cultural and the technological construction
of the city. An archipelagic lens is flexible enough to become an organic frame of
reference as well as a theoretical structure for analysing the city. It is also robust
enough to integrate itself with dominant theoretical frameworks; in fact, the lens
has the potential to bring a much-needed sociocultural context and organic flexibility
to the existing approaches of urban studies. It is within this context that two of
the most deeply entrenched archipelagic forms – ports and digital ports – are being
used as material and non-material entry points to excavate a fresh insight into the
narrative construction of Mumbai.
5. Ports: Reconstituting the city’s DNA
There are two major ports in Mumbai today. The dripping-in-history Mumbai Port (formerly,
Bombay Port) has seen the likes of the Maratha, Portuguese and British navies; anti-colonial
resistance and struggle; and myriad class and caste contestations. It is now home
to several of India’s most advanced warships and still logs in as one of India’s
busiest ports. Bombay Port is a natural deep-water harbour spread over 400 km² and
protected by the mainland of Konkan to its east and north and by the island city
of Mumbai to its west. Mumbai Port is primarily used for bulk cargo, while most container
traffic is directed to the second major port, Jawaharlal Nehru Port, better known
as Nhava Sheva Port, across the water, which is fast becoming a favoured destination
for exporters and importers. It is the largest container port in India. Located south
of Mumbai, this port on the Arabian Sea is accessed via Thane Creek. Its name is
derived from the names of the Nhava and Sheva villages that were situated here. Mumbai’s
ports and jetties have been the lifeline of the city, pumping in goods and technologies,
ideas and cultures, people and communities and multihued stories and narratives.
They have also physically and territorially shaped the city, sometimes in a direct
and visible manner, and often in an unobtrusive way, almost like how the sea shapes
Less than 600 years ago, neither Mumbai nor its previous avatar Bombay existed as
a city. It was just a collection of seven islands and several islets used by the
local Koli fishing community as an outpost and resting point. The global city emerged
quickly out of a motley collection of geographical features, with its own nuanced
sense of history and complex patterns of intersected narratives. Six hundred years
is not even a passing moment in urban historiography. In that fleeting moment, seven
disparate islands and several islets were connected with each other through a mixture
of reclamation of land from the sea and a rapid expansion of rail and road networks.
There were colonial imperatives of trade and transport of raw materials to Europe
behind this process. But those imperatives were fuelled by the unique archipelagic
nature of Mumbai, especially its coastal location, the availability of several natural
ports and a unique melting pot of different global cultures and influences from Central
Asia, West Asia and Europe. In the words of Grydehøj (2014: 183), “Island spatiality
exerts developmental influence in urban contexts not just historically but also in
terms of development and redevelopment of cities and neighbourhoods today, even in
the presence of bridges, ferries, trains, and buses.”
Asian colonial cities are typically seen as enterprises of a dominant external power,
usually European, crafting an undistinguished mass of land into distinct cityscapes
and urban spaces that are reminiscent and reflective of the hegemonic aspirations
and articulations of the colonial power (King, 1991, 2007). Bombay, as it was then
known, was different, as were the other Indian colonial cities of Calcutta (now Kolkata)
and Madras (now Chennai). All of them had strong and deeply rooted indigenous mercantile
and trading communities. The Marwaris of Calcutta (Parson, 2012) and the Chettiars
of Madras, for instance, routinely funded the East India Company’s military and business
forays into the hinterland of India. In Bombay, the Indian capitalist class pushed
as much for the construction of the port as did the East India Company and the British
On 5 March 1839, five prominent native businessmen of Bombay proposed a scheme to
the government that would cost over two hundred thousand rupees, a huge sum in those
days. The scheme consisted of the building of a wharf and basin at the Cooly Bunder
(dock) for the landing of grain, and the extension of this wharf as far as the Bori
Bunder for the landing of cotton or any other merchandise. In their letter the merchants
added, “We doubt not that considering the importance of the undertaking to the interest
of a large portion of the community; and the expense that will be involved in the
completion of it, upwards of two lacs of Rupees – as also the improvement it will
confer upon the island of Bombay – an improvement the furtherence of which we have
always understood it to be a particular object of attention to the Government of
this Presidency to have effected through private enterprise…” In other words, business
leaders understood that the colonial government believed that private enterprise
would play an integral role in the development of the city (Chopra, 2011: 320).
Bombay Port was also instrumental in directly influencing the development of the
suburban railway network. It is today Mumbai’s most important arterial overlay, a
system that not only transports people and commodities but entire lifeworlds, narratives
and dominant and countercultural discourses. A single railway line was laid down
in 1853 between Bori Bunder, where a large wharf was constructed for the loading
and unloading of big containers and high volume bundles, and Thane, a strategic point
around 33 kilometres away, with access to the Western Indian hinterland, especially
the black soil rich Deccan Plateau, known for its high-quality cotton crops. That
single line, an artery if one will, soon branched into a tightly patterned criss-cross
of nerves and veins with its own hubs, transforming into what contemporary Mumbaikars
know as the Central, Western and the Harbour railway lines. The urban development
of Mumbai, especially its territorial contouring, has been fundamentally shaped by
these railway networks:
The first passenger railway in the east (in Asia) ran between 21 miles of Bombay
and Thane stations on 16 April, 1853, laid by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway
(GIPR) that was originally set up under the Parliament of England Act. Citizens of
Bombay celebrated the day as a public holiday. The same ‘experimental line’ of the
GIPR is today the lifeline of suburban Bombay, now called Mumbai, India’s financial
capital, ferrying a record 3m suburban passengers every single day. It is called
the Central Railway today. As the line even today runs on the same old blueprint.
(A snippet of a personal conversation with journalist and rail historian Rajendra
Aklekar, conducted on 24 July 2014, where he quotes from his forthcoming book Halt
Station India, to be published by Rupa).
The extension of the rail network was also influenced by the supply of cotton, as
several textile mills were established in the central part of Bombay, leading to
a massive influx of people from the Indian hinterland to work in them. It also led
to a massive expansion of the rail network across the Western Ghats, creating a narrative
of work and commonality, resulting in a nascent national Indian identity:
For the construction of the Bhor Ghat section, which is now known as the Khandala
railway line between Mumbai and Pune, workers came from all castes and communities,
from near and far, to work as per their expertise. The breaking of the barrier of
the Sayhadri mountain range was an important milestone (A snippet of a conversation
that the oldest living historian on Indian Railways, Ian J. Kerr, has with 90-year-old
veteran Indian railways expert R. Venkataraman; cf. Aklekar, 2014).
The development of the city into a textile centre led to two specific distinctions.
The first distinction was to clearly demarcate the colonial part of Bombay (now known
as South Mumbai) from its native parts, a demarcation that is visible to this day
where South Mumbai’s dominant imaginary is architected by its colonial architecture
(Art Deco, Victorian, Gothic, Indo-Saracenic), cultural formations (clubs) and narratives
of Eurocentrism (English education, definition of high society culture), while the
native parts comprising Mazgaon Docks, Byculla, various Khau Gallis and small trading
hubs like Charni Road are positioned as sociocultural emergences of nativity and
the city’s spirit of indigenous entrepreneurship.
The second distinction was to territorially and physically contour the development
of the city’s suburban areas into western and eastern parts, on either side of the
railway lines, through a mix of colonial town planning, administrative zoning and
influx of population. The western parts of the city housed the emerging managerial
elite and the petty bourgeoisie, while the eastern parts were predominantly populated
by the working class. It was a clear class demarcation, even if it was not spoken
of in those terms. This distinction was also manifested in differential provision
of civic infrastructure: For instance, open spaces and gardens are invariably more
numerous and better provided for in the western parts of the city. Similarly, there
are visible differences in levels of citizen participation in structures of governance.
There are also distinctions in the forms of informal cultural articulations and notions
of work. Together they created distinct physical structures, for example chawls,
that led to unique metaphorical narratives and a unique sense of meaning of the daily
lifeworlds of the city. They also created several gendered discourses that have allowed
women to become an integral part of the mainstream economic activities. The life
of chawls has been used extensively in popular culture to create an imaginary of
a diverse multitude united by the cooperative get-it-done ethos of the city:
The building form of the chawls contributes substantially to the close-knit social
life that the residents lead. The combination of all common areas like courtyards,
corridors, staircases and so on provide ample scope for social interaction in these
cohesive chawl communities. This social network is the support system of the residents
and needs to be maintained. This dense social network is one of the main reasons
why the residents have not moved out of the chawls. This building form provides an
example of successful affordable community housing in urban areas of Mumbai for the
middle class (Karandikar (mimeo), 2010: 3-4).
Some aspects of this distinction continue to this day. It is not evident in the profile
of the people or cultural landscapes, especially in the context of an overarching
global city culture. It is, however, stark in the rental and capital values of commercial
and residential property. Such values in the eastern parts of Bandra, for instance,
are at least 30% lower than in the western parts of Bandra. Bombay Port was also
an instrumental point of entry and exit for non-material and epistemological foundations
of modernity and urbanity. The narratives surrounding the Bombay Presidency Radio
Club and the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, both established near the Gateway of India,
a colonial monument celebrating the city’s archipelagic nature as much as British
triumphalism, are indicative of this transformation. The radio club was established
in 1932 and was one of the first meeting grounds for technophiles of that era. The
first programmed radio broadcast in India was made from the club, and until 1927
it was the country’s only radio station The Royal Bombay Yacht Club (RBYC) was founded
in 1846 and is the oldest yachting club in Asia:
The Radio Club was a meeting ground for technologically astute Indians and, of course,
the British expatriates who ran the colonial administration of Bombay. It was established
next to the Gateway of India because the club wanted itself to be seen as representing
a Bombay that was on par with European capitals of London and Paris. It was a time
of exploration, new ideas, and scientific discoveries and advances. It was also a
time when rules of nature did not seem to apply. Voices could travel distances, trains
were cutting down time and art deco houses were redefining urban living. Establishing
the radio club near the Gateway of India was also a practical decision. The club’s
activities depended on the availability of radio channels for hamming (sic). The
Gateway of India was also symbolic of Britain’s naval presence and was near the British
naval bases. This allowed the members access to clear and powerful signals. They
would spend hours tuning to distant stations, listening to the latest news, radio
dramas and music (Excerpt froma personal interview with 71-year-old advocate Mohan
P. Mirchandani, three-time president of the radio club, on 03 March 2013.).
The history of the Royal Bombay Yacht club is fascinating. It is the oldest yachting
club in Asia and was established to give British naval and military personal an opportunity
to indulge in the leisurely activity of sailing and yachting. The club was also quintessentially
European, with its own culture of old boys’ network, continental bars, reading rooms
and butler service. The philosophy of sailing is one of leisure, conquest, discovery
and a spirit of adventure. These are attributes that one commonly associates with
refined, modern and civilised living. The local Kolis were employed by the Club,
as they are today, and they know the sea like the back of their hand. Yet many of
them can never understand how sailing could be an activity of leisure. For them the
sea is life; it gives them food and is a divine gift. They have their own set of
dos and don’ts. When I first embarked on my trip to circumnavigate the world my Koli
sailing mate gave me charms and bracelets to grace me with divine protection of the
sea gods (Excerpt from a personal interview with 74-year-old Gulshan Rai, president
of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club (RYBC), on 07 August 2011. Rai has been awarded two
of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padmashree, and Arjuna awards, and circumnavigated
the globe in the 32-foot cutter Jaykus II).
Both conversations highlight the subtle means by which a non-Western archipelago
narrative is increasingly intersected by Eurocentric conceptions of modernity and
urbanity, informing daily imaginaries of leisure, adventure, exploration and conquest
(Swaminathan, 2014). Alongside Kolkata and Madras, Bombay was among the Indian cities
in which Long Playing (LP) records and moving pictures (our present-day movies and
films) made an early entry due to the presence of a port. In fact, the narrative
and discursive transformation of Bombay into a city of dreams, of paths paved with
gold and of a land of a million opportunities, was primarily architected by the creative
industries and can be directly traced to the easy import of cinematic and audiovisual
equipment. The Hindi film industry, popularly called Bollywood, is today worth US$5
billion annually (FICCI-KPMG Entertainment Report, 2014).
There is a fascinating side story of how Calcutta, which had its own port and wharfs
and was exposed quite early to audiovisual equipment, lost the race to become India’s
dominant film centre to Bombay, while Madras become an independent centre of its
own. One of the pioneers of Indian silent films was Calcutta-based businessman and
moving pictures aficionado Hiralal Sen. In several ways his work mirrored the development
of cinema in Europe. He was often ahead of the curve in comparison to Bombay. By
October 1917, due to massive speculative losses in commodity trading during World
War I, Hiralal Sen was sick and bankrupt. It was then he received the devastating
news that his brother’s warehouse, where he had stored all his work and the entire
stock of the Royal Bioscope Company, was on fire. One can only speculate, but he
died just a few days after receiving the shocking news. Hiralal’s death and the devastation
of his company drove all of the talent and technical expertise to Bombay. This is
one of the reasons why some of the biggest Bollywood legends of the early times –
from directors, actors to technicians – were Bengalis or were from Kolkata:
Movies first came to Mumbai on 7 July 1896. The Lumière brothers sent a man named
Marius Sestier to screen their short films to a mostly British audience at the swanky
Watson hotel. […] Local photographer Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar (popularly
known as Save Dada) was at one of those first Mumbai shows – and he was promptly
moved to order a camera of his own from the UK. Bhatavdekar’s first movie, and the
first by an Indian film-maker, was shot in 1899 – he captured a wrestling match in
Mumbai’s Hanging Gardens. The reel had to be shipped back to the UK for processing,
but Bhatavdekar’s career in the motion-picture business, and Indian film production
itself, had begun. By the time The Wrestlers returned to Mumbai ready for exhibition,
he had bought a projector and was screening foreign-made films. He supplemented his
imports with the films he made himself. When maths scholar RP Paranjpe returned to
India from Cambridge, Bhatavdekar captured the moment – and this may well be the
first Indian news footage. Bhatavdekar continued to make films until the mid-1900s,
when he made a sideways move and bought the Gaiety Theatre in Mumbai – which he ran
successfully, and lucratively, until his death (Hutchinson, 2013).
The postcolonial imperatives of the city were different. They revolved around the
development of Mumbai and its hinterland into an industrial and pharmaceutical hub
and a decongestion of the city’s colonial-era housing and business centres. One can
directly trace the development of the western suburbs (from Bandra to Borivili) and
the eastern suburbs (from Bhandup to Vikhroli and Chembur, Wadala to Trombay) to
these twin imperatives. Interestingly, the western suburbs in daily narratives of
sense and meaning of urban complexities are often called ‘sea view localities’ and
the eastern suburbs referred to as ‘harbour fronts’ (Swaminathan, 2014). The ports
played an important role in hard-nosed business decisions to establish certain industries.
Bombay Port was, in more ways than one, a competitive advantage for certain kinds
of manufacturing industries, and this led to an overarching paradigm of development
and progress based on private enterprise and free markets that was radically different
from the post-independence Indian state’s vision for development that was based on
state-led industrialisation, regulation and licenses:
Walchand Hirachand Doshi established India’s first modern shipyard, first aircraft
factory and first car factory besides setting up construction companies, sugar plantation,
sugar factory, confectionery, engineering companies and other businesses. He established
the Premier Car factory in Kurla (a suburb in Bombay around 15 kilometres from Bori
Bunder) because Fiat Italy said they would ship the parts only to Bombay. His initial
plan was to set up the factory in Kolkata because of better skilled labour force
there. For Fiat shipping to Bombay worked out cheaper. The same was the case with
Mohammed & Mahindra (later on Mahindra & Mahindra) which was manufacturing tractors
and jeeps at Kandivli (another suburb around 20 kilometres from Bori Bunder). Several
industries like chemical factories, pharmaceutical companies and paint companies
[…] all of them established industries in and around Bombay because the port provided
a clear competitive advantage. Do you know that Bombay is a leader in anti-corrosion
and water proofing paints because it is constantly buffeted by sea winds and rain
and the demand here is the greatest? The port created a liberal market economy in
Bombay and this led the Indian industrialists support the Indian independence movement
[…] In fact the Bombay Plan [the World War II-era A Brief Memorandum Outlining a
Plan of Economic Development for India giving proposals for the development of post-independence
India, submitted by leading Indian industrialists] came up because the people like
my great grandfather and other industrialists wanted to protect the unique economy
of Bombay (Snippet from a personal conversation with 35-year-old Chirag Doshi, great-grandson
of Walchand Hirachand, conducted on 24 September 2014. Doshi today runs two extremely
successful nightclubs and restaurants in Mumbai.).
Ports have directly and indirectly contoured and shaped the city of Mumbai in many
ways; indeed they are shaping it even as we read this by continuously transmitting
and transporting not just goods, but entire worldviews. Ports are also a direct reflection
of the city’s archipelagic nature: a physical portal loaded with possibilities and
influences that can fundamentally and definitively shape a city.
6. Injecting a digital logic into the city’s genes
Popular narratives of India’s stupendous information technology growth automatically
begin at Bangalore, a leading global hub of software algorithms, cutting-edge financial
services solutions and information technology companies. Today Bangalore is without
doubt India’s software engine. But India’s first computer company was established
in Bombay. As a matter of fact, until the 1980s, Bombay was India’s leading computer
hardware and software market. The initial ecosystem for setting up computer companies
came from the electronics hardware market that was created due to the import and
illegal smuggling of electronics goods from East Asia by the sea route. Mumbai’s
underworld was internationalised and globalised by this illegal sea trade in electronics,
which later expanded to include West Asian gold, drugs from Thailand and Indo-Burma
and then weapons from international arms markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By
many accounts Mastan Haider Mirza, popularly known as Haji Mastan, was the city’s
first underworld don. He became a major crime figure after becoming partners with
another crime lord Sukur Narayan Bakhi. They started smuggling electronics goods
from East Asia, especially Japan and Hong Kong, and gold from West Asia and divided
territories among themselves. Mastan handled Mumbai Port and Bakhia handled Daman
Port. The booming legal and illegal trade in electronics, with Bombay literally and
figuratively becoming the first port of call for the extremely popular Phillips radio,
Panasonic tape recorders, and Sony Walkmans, created an electronics components, repair
and refurbishment market that produced a natural ecosystem for the adoption of computers
and calculating machines:
The IT journey of India started in 1965. I take some credit for this. I had returned
to India (Bombay) in mid-1965 on a summer vacation, after having completed my MBA
from MIT. I spoke to Mr. H. Ramnath Rao, my neighbor, who was then the Marketing
Manager of Tata Fison. He suggested I meet Professor Rustom Choksi, a Director at
Tatas and headed HR at the Group level. Professor Choksi sent me to meet Mr. P. M.
Agerwala, then Managing Director of Tata Electric Companies, an Electrical Engineer
from Rourkee. I narrated my background to Mr. Agerwala. I had taught Statistical
Decision Theory while doing my MBA. Mr. Agerwala said “Why don’t you join? Look around
you and write-up some papers on what we can do related to computers”. At that time
computers were virtually unknown in India. I thus became an employee of the Tata
Electric Companies. The first project was the automation of the Load Despatch System,
which was done by buying computer time at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
(TIFR), which had a CDC 3600 at that time. A year thereafter in 1968, this enterprise
was taken over by Tata Sons and renamed as Tata Consultancy Services. It started
by leasing two IBM 1401 computers from IBM which were installed at Nirmal Building,
the first high rise building at Nariman Point. We recruited a large number of qualified
and competent professionals. There were around 20 PhDs at the start itself which
gave a tremendous impetus to this enterprise (Kanodia, 2012).
Some of earliest institutions to use computers were research institutions, namely
the Bhaba Atomic Energy Research Centre (BARC) (BARC), Indian Institute of Technology
(IIT) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Historically, however, the
first two companies to set up what is currently known as software services were Hinditron,
which was founded by Hemant Sonawala in 1966; Datamatics, HCL, started by Shiv Nadar
and Arjun Malhotra; and Patni computers. Except for HCL, all of the other companies
were located in Bombay. India’s most prominent Information Technology mascots – Narayana
Murthy and Nandan Nilekani – learned the ropes at Patni in Bombay. There is a larger
context behind how Bombay became the first choice as the peering destination for
the international fibre optic network. In the 1970s, the Professor MGK Menon Committee,
a select group of policy makers tasked with suggesting a technology path for India,
recommended that India start developing a computer industry. The initial focus was
to set up indigenous chip design and fabrication facilities, but this proved difficult.
All of the Indian companies, from TCS to Wipro, which were looking to develop indigenous
capacities in hardware manufacturing, slowly shifted focus to software programming.
In 1991 the Government of India sought to leverage the programming boom taking place
in the United States, and one single decision gave rise to the outsourcing revolution:
In 1991 the Department of Electronics created a corporation called Software Technology
Parks of India (STPI) that, being owned by the government, could provide VSAT communications
without breaching its monopoly. STPI set up software technology parks in different
cities, each of which provided satellite links to be used by firms; the local link
was a wireless radio link. In 1993 the government began to allow individual companies
their own dedicated links, which allowed work done in India to be transmitted abroad
directly. Indian firms soon convinced their American customers that a satellite link
was as reliable as a team of programmers working in the clients’ office (Adugu et
Bombay’s coastal location and its strong port infrastructure were the primary considerations
for making the city the peering point for the undersea international fibre optic
network, which is the backbone of the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW). To a
lesser extent, the city’s formal and informal electronics market and its existing
ecosystem of computer companies also played a part. Internet, in the public sense
of the term, officially arrived in India in 1991 when a set of last-mile fibre optic
cables were taken to the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) technical office, already
strategically located within five kilometres of Bombay Port. VSNL introduced Gateway
Electronic Mail Service in 1991, a 64 kbit/s leased line service in 1992, and commercial
Internet access on a visible scale in 1992. It is next to impossible to explain the
material, territorial and non-material implications of the introduction of Internet
and World Wide Web for a city like Mumbai without resorting to anecdotes, especially
from the movies, as this snippet from a conversation with 49-year-old Zaki Ansari
I am a diploma in automobile engineering and was working in the Mahindra & Mahindra
tractor factory as a tooling and machining engineer and freelancing for newspaper
Mid-Day on electronics repair queries when I heard about Internet. There were no
cybercafés then, but VSNL had a very expensive plan where you could buy a modem and
attach it to your telephone line and access the Internet. From my childhood I was
always fiddling around with radios, transistors and tape recorders. I had just assembled
a computer on my own using locally sourced parts. I connected it to the Internet.
It just opened a new world for me. I was like Dr. Banner after being exposed to Gamma
radiation! I felt so powerful. Soon I was devouring everything. I heard that a top
advertising guru was thinking of setting up the first Indian news portal, and I got
in touch with him. That’s how rediff.com started in 1994 in a small two-bedroom house
in Kemps corner. Over 15 years I rose to become the CTO of the company. Bombay’s
Internet created India’s first batch of self-taught digital professionals (Personal
conversation with Zaki Ansari, a former colleague at rediff.com for close to four
years, conducted on 06 July 2014).
Mumbai’s exposure to digital pipelines – and what they carried and could potentially
carry – created a fresh landscape for a host of creative industries, especially advertising,
digital photography, social media management and short films. Most of the people
involved, the city’s knowledge bank, including people like Zaki Ansari, were self-taught
pioneers who experimented again and again, sometimes succeeding and often failing.
This spirit of entrepreneurial ownership can justifiably be traced back to the physical
ports that amplified and accentuated the spirit of trading and market dynamics in
the city (cf. Khoo et al. 2015). In explaining the ‘creative edge’ of the city of
Mumbai while recounting her popular social media campaign to clean the city’s Mithi
River, 30-year-old Mahafreed Irani, who calls herself a “digital warrior and a Twitter
tiger,” reveals the various digital strands that today constitute the complex narrative
articulation of Mumbai:
I never forget my phone (iPhone) when I go out. I would feel lost without it. One
day I was asked to do a story on the leather artisans and khumhars (potters) of the
Dharavi slums. When I went there I saw that several of the houses were just next
to Mithi and they were using its waters for everything [...] from cleaning utensils,
morning ablutions, washing clothes. I also found that several small home factories
dealing with chromium and heavy metals used for tanning leather were directly dumping
their untreated effluents into the river. I started taking pictures and uploading
them on my blog. After a few days, I shot videos, did multimedia presentations [...]Soon
other friends and people from social media joined. Some were architects, other engineers
and they started mapping locations and using a lot of Google maps. They also started
posting historical data and satellite maps using the Google historical maps feature.
It became big and my newspaper picked it up and we ran a campaign for a year (Excerpts
from personal interviews conducted with Mahafreed Irani, July 2013-April 2014).
The emergent dynamics of the digitally mediated spaces in Mumbai are powered by a
unique combination of physical infrastructure of electronic components, servers,
telecommunication lines and embedded intelligent logic of codes, algorithms and predictive
software. Taken together, they constitute the material support for these spaces:
In fact, the spatiality and territoriality of such spaces of can be directly traced
to the archipelagic nature of the city, especially its coastal emergences. So the
spatial form of a digitally mediated space could equally be a ‘city’ one moment and
a ‘global region’ the next. This architects a unique relationship of quantum mutation
where space and spatiality seamlessly interchange, co-exist and merge. Such entanglements
create shared experiences that are virtual and real, as this conversation with Sunil
I love European football and follow it very closely on Internet and television. I
don’t miss any matches of Bundesliga, English Premier League and La Liga. My favourite
teams are Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United. We have a small football
team in the neighbourhood. We don’t have a park to play, so we play on the roads.
I love the shoes and the kit the players wear. All these teams play in such nice
stadiums and I really love watching those snippets where they do a quick tour of
the city. It’s so neat, nice and clean. The roads are broad and everyone seems so
modern. I have never been to a football stadium. There are no football stadiums in
Mumbai. There are only cricket stadiums. One day I hope Mumbai also becomes like
those cities with clean, wide roads and football stadiums (Snippet from a conversation
with 25-year-old Sunil Dalvi. He has never been to Kolkata, which is considered India’s
football capital, yet has acquired the nuances of football and a global logic of
what should constitute a totality of urban experience. A similar imaginary was shared
by Zubin Mehrotra, who is a banker educated in the United Kingdom and works with
a multinational finance company in Mumbai).
The narratives of Zaki Ansari, Mahafreed Irani, and Sunil Dalvi are indicative of
how a digital logic and its specific systems of transmission, projection and mindscaping
is creating a certain discursive singularity of urban life and living, drawing as
much from the global dynamics of power as much from local context. Such intermeshing
is architecting a hybridised system where cultural values and material foundations
are not necessarily rooted in any specific territorial or physical context. If Mahafreed’s
drive to clean the Mithi River is powered by Seoul’s successful cleaning up of the
Cheonggycheon, a material foundation mainly transported through digital pipelines,
then Zaki’s notion of empowerment and sense of opportunity is something than can
be traced to the physical ports of Mumbai and their amplification of the spirit of
entrepreneurship over the last two centuries. Cheonggyecheon is a public recreation
space in downtown Seoul in South Korea. But less than two decades back, it was little
more than an open drain. The massive urban renewal project, worth US $900 million,
initially attracted much public criticism but after opening in 2005, it has become
popular among city residents and tourists. Sunil’s global aspirations have no local
material foundations, but the complex sociocultural imaginary of a ‘neat, global
city’ in itself becomes a powerful substitute. Mumbai, in a sense, shares a distinct
commonality – itself an oxymoron – with several other island cities of the world:
In the case of densely urbanised small islands, island status can also be of both
historical and continuing importance. Thus, for instance, Macau became a Portuguese
trading post because it was an archipelago near an economically organized mainland
interior. However, the acute land scarcity arising from its island status contributed
– and still contributes – to intensive urban densification and land reclamation processes.
Miniscule Macau is an extreme example, but in megacities like Guangzhou, Manila,
Mumbai, and Tokyo, the urban challenges brought about by island spatiality are, in
a sense, scaled up in light of such cities’ enormous populations (Grydehøj, 2014).
7. Answers and some more questions
The case for reorienting the scholarly and academic approaches towards an independent
archipelagic framework and lens to study the city of Mumbai is now quite well established.
The Mumbai of today is a complex collection of islands and islets, physically joined
by reclamation, roads, trains, vehicles and bridges and metaphorically linked by
narratives. Such has been the scale of the territorial reconstruction of the city
that the bodily feeling of crossing from one island to another is simply gone. Today,
millions criss-cross the multiple islands and islets without giving it a second thought.
Mumbai, then, is no longer an island in the territorial or physical sense of the
term; it is at best a city with coastal features, multiple sea views and amazing
That which architects an island out of Mumbai today is its set of distinct and multivocal
narratives, several of them directly traceable to the unique configurations of the
city’s physical ports and its digital imaginaries. To study these narratives through
the lens of a single methodology would be grossly inadequate. They have to be understood
and analysed by a multitude of methodologies coming together, from ethnography, social
anthropology, political science, economics, human geography, social construction
of technology, film studies and media analysis. Mumbai’s ports and digital ports
have architected such a unique narrative architecture of the city that not only does
it stand out in relation to the larger Indian narratives of urbanity, city, citizenship,
economy and the nation, but also in relation to the larger global narratives of the
ideal city and notions of urban living. Maybe, like Rashomon, the city must be understood
and analysed as a movie. To understand Mumbai, one must delve into its stories. To
understand its stories, one must dive deep into its characters. To understand its
characters one must unravel their motivations. To understand their motivations, one
must excavate their foundations. Mumbai’s foundations are its sea, coasts and ports.
Understand them, and you will possibly understand Mumbai better.
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