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Mumbai Showcases India for the World


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


 abstract: These days India appears especially important to the world. It is an emerging great power with an economy that has been growing remarkably fast; it is regarded as the biggest democracy on earth; and it is a battleground in the world-wide challenge posed by militant Islam. Mumbai has been the epicenter of all of this even though, paradoxically, it is geographically isolated from the rest of the country. On the far western shore, Mumbai has been the gateway to India and the window for India to the world. It has been the financial center of the country and the home of its principal mercantile and industrialist community. It has a claim to being the birthplace of India’s independence movement as well as the most visible target of violent threats by the country’s current foreign adversary. The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai is the unique site that has had connections to all these. I went for a visit.



            I took it as a sign of the times when we were told upon landing in Mumbai that the plane would be sprayed before disembarkation “because some passengers are from the United States where H1N1 flu is an epidemic.” This was November 2009. In the past, Americans had to be on guard about health-threatening sanitary conditions in India.

            The “Arrival Card for Passengers” which we had to fill out and hand to the immigration officer had as item number 6 the following: “NRI/PIO/OCI Status (tick ~ appropriate box)”. A returning Indian passenger who was standing next to me explained that NRI meant Non-resident Indian and PIO was for Persons of Indian Origin. Even he did not know what OCI meant. He said: “Anyway, if you don’t know what it is, it is not for you.” 

            The taxi ride to my hotel gave me my first look at the dense crowds that Mumbai is famous for. The sky was very dark. The city feared a storm so ferocious that, according to my driver, offices were ordered closed for the next day. A little note on my pillow in the hotel had this from Shakespeare: “A little sleep, per chance a dream.”

            The view from my window the next morning was like a dream. Several stories below me was the famous Gateway to India. In the unexpected sunrise there was a picture worthy of a Merchant- Ivory movie . Through the mesh shielding my balcony small figures looked like dots in a painting on the plaza before this monument that was the symbol of Mumbai. Hard-to- catch images of big balloons offered for sale to the milling tourists melded into the background of sail boats, some already away from the wharfs and into the Arabian Sea.

            This welcoming role of the Gateway reversed the famous irony of its history: built as a triumphal arch to celebrate Britain’s empire in the early twentieth century it had ended up serving as the exit portal for its last colonial troops in 1948. The Gateway’s architecture, rooted in the Islamic styles of Gujarat, was matched by the Islamic and Renaissance styles of the dome of the Taj Mahal Palace which I could see just to my right. Workmen were busy repairing the damages from attacks a year earlier by Muslims militants. Security guards were now screening hotel guests at the main entrance, although the attackers had come from the opposite door for workers which opened to the garden. The battle with the gunmen had ended in the Harbour Bar of the hotel’s Palace wing where all four of them were killed. The once popular bar was open again but there were not many customers there on this day. The guest rooms in this wing were still closed. I walked into the old style atrium which reminded me of the design of ancient caravanserais. I brushed past the inattentive guard to examine the grand staircase here.

            I imagined Gandhi in the 1930s, as the hotel literature said, climbing those stairs alone to plead with the British colonial authorities that they were not treating his countrymen fairly. On the landing was the bust of Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, the man who built this still magnificent hotel in 1903, inspired when one Mr. John Watson refused to give him a room in his then most fashionable hotel saying “natives and dogs were not allowed.” That was how my tour guide related this urban legend. She took me to see Watson’s Hotel a few blocks away. Now an office building, it looked as if it was falling apart. “It is too costly to repair or renovate it because it has been declared a historic building,” the guide said.


            When the Taj first opened its doors some fifty Maharajas of India came to celebrate, one with his live tiger. The display window of the hotel’s more recent guests had a picture of the peripatetic former President Bill Clinton. The place of honor, however, was saved for a 1968 photo of the musician Ravi Shankar who had signed it with this wish: “Long live the Taj mahal Hotel! “An even earlier picture was that of a very young Shah of Iran, uncharacteristically, trailing his second wife, Soraya, who was being led by the then ruling Tata, JRD, the grand nephew of the founder.

            The founding Tata was named after the mythical first king of Persia (Jamshid) and its most just (Adel) ancient king (Anushiravan). A Parsi, Tata traced his roots to Zoroastrian migrants from Iran. “They were refugees who arrived in the 8th century after Iran was conquered by the Muslim Arabs,” my Parsi (from Persia) guide said. Historians may differ with her facts, but I was interested in her version of what her community believed now.

They came by boats to the coast of Gujarat. The local ruler -who was weary of the incursions by the neighboring Muslim King Mahmoud Ghaznavi – sent them a messenger with a bowl of milk filled to the brim. His message was that his kingdom was as full of people as the bowl was with milk; it could not take any more. The Zoroastrians’ priest who was their leader responded by adding sugar to the bowl and sending it back to say that his people will just sweeten the lives of those on land. The Gujarat ruler let them come after they promised to accept one condition: no attempting to convert anyone to your religion and so not allowing anyone into your temple.

            Whatever the ambiguity about the Parsis’ origin –the earliest source, Qissa-i Sanjan (Story of Sanjan), was written at least six centuries later– they began to thrive when they moved from their farming settlements to where the British established their main urban centers in India: to Surat in the early 1600s, to Bombay later that century, and still later to Calcutta when it became the capital of the British colonial government. Education is credited with the Parsis’ success in a special way. Attending English schools enabled them to represent themselves as being like the British. For this reason the British chose to deal with the other local communities through the Parsis. As the article on Parsis in Wikipedia, the electronic encyclopedia, notes: “While the British saw the other Indians, ‘as passive, ignorant, irrational, outwardly submissive but inwardly guileful’ the Parsis were seen to have the traits that the colonial authorities tended to ascribe to themselves.” James Mackintosh, Recorder of Bombay from 1804 to 1811, summarized the prevailing British opinion: “the Parsis are a small remnant of one of the mightiest nations of the ancient world, who, fleeing from persecution into India, were for many ages lost in obscurity and poverty, till at length they met a just government under which they speedily rose to be one of the most popular mercantile bodies in Asia.”

            The Tata family is now the second biggest employer in all of India. Only the government with its vast bureaucracy and state enterprises is bigger. The Tatas are just one of the famous Parsi industrial families. “There are others,” my guide started to name them. The list is long. In the last 200 years it has included these families: Sorabji, Modi, Cama, Wadia, Jeejeebhoy, Readymoney, Dadyseth, Petit, Patel, Mehta, Allbless, as well as Tata. “But we are a dying species,” my guide lamented. She was referring to the fact that in the last decades the number of Parsis has been steadily declining. Eighty percent of this decline has been attributed to the low birth rate. “Parsis are patriarchal; so if the father is not a Parsi then the children won’t be Parsis,” my guide said. As it turns out nearly twenty percent of Parsi men do not marry, as compared to ten percent of the women. “There are about 70,000 Parsis in India now,” the guide said. At the current rate of decline, it is estimated that in ten years the Parsis in India will number only 23,000; and thus will no longer be considered a “community” but will be called a “tribe,” a change with impact on their rights as a group.

            Dying is also getting harder for the Parsis in India. The Parsi tradition prohibits cremation and burial because they defile earth, fire, and water which are considered sacred. Instead, the dead are left on the roof of Towers of Silence to be eaten by vultures. As we passed the only such tower in Mumbai, my guide pointed to the overgrowth of the trees that “prevents the sun needed by the vultures.” Others have blamed urbanization, including, especially, the use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac by humans for the decline in the number of vultures. “The matter of breeding vultures has been controversial,” my guide said “and there is now a crisis because other birds have not worked as a substitute either.” Residents of homes close to the Tower have also begun to complain about the Parsis’ unusual funeral practices. Their view is influential because this area, Malabar Hill, is now the city’s most exclusive neighborhood. Ironically, the Parsis have contributed to its development; the pretty hanging garden that covers the slopes of the hill, established in 1880, is named after its Parsi benefactor Pherozeshah Mehta. The Parsis are famous for their philanthropy. The Tatas are believed to give more than sixty percent of their profits back to the community.


            In Malabar’s Kamala Nehru Park which is named after the late Prime Minister’s wife, children were playing in a serene setting. The views of the Arabian Sea shore through the well-attended gardens were quit pleasing. There was Marine Drive, “the most popular promenade” of the city, and Chowpatty Beach, everyone’s favorite location for outing in the fresh air. “Unfortunately, the water is polluted,” my guide said.

            Two young women in colorful garb were mixing traditional medicine at the foot of the stairs to Malabar’s Municipal Park, which they sold as a cure for “sadness”. Earlier the “laughing club” had gathered in this park: “they come here every morning and just laugh the loudest they can, believing that this is therapeutic,” the guide said.

            High rises dotted the outer boundaries of the vast park. The spaciousness in Malabar was in a sharp contrast with the reputation of Mumbai as one of the most crowded cities in the world. Fifty five percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums and shanty-towns.  My guide pointed to one of the high rises and talked about another equally astonishing fact: “that building was recently finished at the cost of one billion dollars to house just one very wealthy family.”

            The “tensions” that are talked about in Mumbai are not caused by economic disparity. They are “communalist tensions.” Some trace this to the riots that followed the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in central India. Those and other riots and bombings that have followed have caused many deaths among the Hindus and Muslims of Mumbai. The roots are much deeper. The author V.S. Naipaul, who spent some time investigating this matter in Mumbai in 1989, reported in India: A Million Mutinies Now that “The large communal mood” in Mumbai was “the conflict between Hindus and Muslims”. Alienation “was the common theme.”  Everyone felt that “the other group was laughing; every one lived with the feeling of siege.” The dominant militant Hindu group, the Shiva Sena started and grew because of the feeling of ‘discrimination’ against Maharashtrians.

            Even before the Shiva Sena movement, the Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians insisted on splitting Bombay from Gujarat on “linguistic lines” to establish the new state of Maharashtra with Bombay at its capital in 1960. Shiva Sena won power in 1985 and in 1996 their linguistic pride led to the renaming of Bombay –the name the Portuguese had given it in the early 16th century because of its bom bahia (good bay)–- to Mumbai (Maiambu in Marathi for the Hindu goddess Mumba-Devi. It is claimed that this was the place’s earlier name.

            Since then the city’s international airport, its main train station (Victoria Terminus), and its biggest and best museum (Prince of Wales Museum) have all been renamed after Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha leader of the middle of the 17th century. As I read in the Mumbai newspapers, Marathi politicians were still emphasizing the need for continued promotion of Maratha language in the city.

            The Muslims also have a claim to the history of Mumbai. The Mappilas in Malabar were probably the first community in India to covert to Islam in the very early period of missionary activities by Muslims along the coast in the 7th century. On the Malabar Hill I could see a much more recent manifestation of Islamic influence. The 19th century Haji Ali’s Mosque, almost floating on the Arabian Sea and connected to the land by a narrow pathway, enshrines the body of a Sufi sage which was swept ashore after he died on the sea in an unsuccessful attempted pilgrimage to Mecca. “People of all religions now go on pilgrimage to the Haji Ali,” my guide said. The Sufis are credited for having softened the image of Islam in India. They especially attracted followers form the untouchable classes. Thus they played a major role in bridging the gap that separated Islam from local traditions.

            As we walked into the Jains’ Walkeshwar Adinath temple in Malabar, my guide said that the secret to the co-existence of various religions in India was “tolerance.” She said “religion is a personal matter here except in Abrahamic religions which are communal.” She summarized her view of the two major reform movements in Hinduism: “They both said that there were too many rules in Hinduism. Jains also said man should forgo all desires; Buddhism advocated moderation.” This Jain temple gave a prime place to the idol of the demi-goddess Parmavati. She is believed to have “rational perception.” Two commands from the Jain prophets in display on the walls attracted my attention:  “Every man is the architect of his own fortune,” and “Common sense is not so common .”

Making a Nation

            In the Gandhi Museum in Mumbai a saying by Einstein reminds the reader how uncommon Gandhi was: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth. ” Naipaul believes that it was Gandhi who made Indians “a nation.” He could do so because living “among the immigrant Indians of South Africa,” he could break from “the idea of clan or region,” and instead develop “the idea of the kinship of Indians, the idea of the family of India.” Gandhi who was born in Porbandar, Gujarat, not far from Mumbai, frequently visited here, especially in the time of his “nation building”. It was from here that he launched both the 1932 Civil Disobedience campaign and the 1942 Quit India movement which achieved India’s independence from Britain. The house of his friends, the jeweler R. Jhaveri, where Gandhi stayed is now a museum; his room remains untouched. I stood for sometime at its portal. A small mattress doubled as Gandhi’s work place. His charkha (spinning wheel) was next to it. It was here that Gandhi learned to weave and develop his related philosophy of Satyagraha based on the principles of truth, non-violence, and self sacrifice. “The spinning of wheel is for India’s starving millions the symbol of salvation,” Gandhi’s words were posted on the wall:

“Not on the clatter of arms but on the Reintroduction of the spinning wheels depends the economic and moral Regeneration of India…. It is not enough that one wears Khadi if he surrounds himself with VIDESHI … Khadi has been conceived as the foundation of and the image of AHIMSA … A real khadi wearer will not utter untruth, will harbour no violence, no deceit, no impurity.”

            I ran into several distinguished non-Indian (videshi) guests wearing various contemporary versions of khadi (handloom cotton) clothes that night in the lobby of the Taj Hotel. They came to hear the historian Ramachandra Guha who drew examples from his book, India after Gandhi, to show how “the Indian democracy has been a great success,” as the Mumbai newspapers reported. The occasion was a special gala at the Aquarius, the outdoor lounge located by the pool of the hotel, organized by “the New York based company of India-born Indra Nooyi who wanted to showcase ‘the glory of India and its issues.’” More specifically, she wanted to bring the board of directors of PepsiCo to Mumbai so that they may propose solutions for those “issues.”

            Some of India’s issues were visible just outside. The huge amount of trash and garbage only a few yards from the hotel was still being handled by the “untouchables” who used only ancient brooms . Within view of the city’s great landmark, the Victoria Station, was another symbol: on a filthy and torn banner Gandhi’s famous saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” looked desecrated.

            The laundering technology has not changed in Mumbai for generations. I stood on the overpass across from the Mahalaxmi Racecourse to observe clothes being washed by hand in concrete sinks and then left to dry in the sun at the Dhobi Ghat. It was not just the laundry of the plush Racecourse’s members. My guide said “ten thousand workers live right here. They handle one million pieces of clothes this way every day. This practice continues because it is cheaper than using laundry machines.”

            A few minutes later we saw a man on bicycle carrying lunch boxes as he wove through Mumbai’s traffic. “That is a Dabbawala,” my guide said:

“He is taking lunch to office workers, mostly from their homes far away. The workers do not bring their lunch because the trains are too crowded in the morning rush hours –sometimes the passengers have to hang out of the doors. Dabbawalas can bring their lunches when the trains are not crowded. From the train station they use bicycles to take the boxes to the offices.”

There are some five thousand such dhaba (snack bars) workers in Mumbai who deliver about 200,000 lunches everyday. Mostly illiterate, they use a system of colors to match the home sources of the boxes with their office destinations. 

            Dabbawalas make less than ninety dollars a month, but they were the subject for praise by India’s tycoons at the glory of India reception at the Taj. This was because their system, established in the 1890s, was awarded the “Six Sigma process efficiency and supply chain management,” for achieving “99.99% accuracy” in delivering all those lunch boxes. No less a figure than Ratan N. Tata, the current head of the family, reflected on the work of the Dabbawalas when he talked about his own strategy of “exploring the bottom- of- the-pyramid opportunities,” with a slide show on his two-thousand dollar Nano, the world’s cheapest car.

Political Economy

            Ratan Tata, who replaced JRD Tata in 1991 after his reign of 53 years, radically changed his predecessor’s policies in accordance with the new, market oriented economic policy of the government. This adjustment to changes in politics while shunning political office has long been the key to the Tatas’ enduring success. Ratan’s first target was to oust the socialist era men who dominated the family’s four major companies: Tata Tele, TCS (Consultancy Services), Tata Chem, and THOC (Tata Housing Development). The last company, characteristically, is now pioneering low-cost homes in India.

            Ratan is the great grandson of the founder JN Tata but leaves no children. In his 70s now, he has never been married. A taxi driver told me that he “once liked a woman who was a receptionist at the Taj Hotel.” She declined “his offer of marriage, because she chose another man.” My Parsi guide said that Ratan lived not far from the Taj, he was practically her neighbor. “I see him drive his car with his dog. He is a quiet man, a shy man.”

            The Coolie who approached me in the Crawford Market was not shy. He explained with pride that, “licensed” since 1952, he was not a Broker -another position also dating from the British colonial era when it was bestowed on the likes of the Tatas. A Coolie was simply a porter who arranged for the delivery of what you purchased. Today he proposed himself also as my guide to this market, named after the city’s first “municipal commissioner” in 1865, which had once been the center of commerce in the old Bombay. Now it was just an old bazaar, like the ones you see in Middle East cities. What the Coolie seemed to consider as points of interest here — the Kipling’s Fountain and the bird market –- looked out of place. Other merchandise was more familiar: fruit –mostly apples, oranges and watermelon –, produce — cauliflower, eggplants — meat, canned foods, Boxes of Kellogg’s Special K and other cereals,  and toys. Signs were in three languages, English, Hindi, and Urdu, but occasionally also in Arabic . Not that it mattered: at the flower shop with the sign Abdulkarim va Olad Abdulkarim & Son I asked the shopkeeper what the sign in two languages said. He did not know; he just said his name was Rashid.

            The Crawford market spilled into the surrounding streets. On these streets I also saw the sign for the new type of brokers, trading in Mumbai’s stock exchange which is India’s most important. In handwriting, the sign on the half-open iron door of the small storefront office said: “Kindly read the Risk Disclosure Documents carefully before investing in Equity.” Other types of trade took place right on the sidewalks of Mumbai streets. Make-shift restaurants   were far busier than the MacDonald’s in their midst. Nearby, scribes were occupied writing on old typewriters what their illiterate clients dictated.

            My memory of the pungent smells of the streets was overcome by a different smell in the hotel lobby. I thought some kind of insecticide had been used. I asked the fashionably dressed clerk at the reception desk about this. She said it was sandal-wood oil. Behind her was a large painting that seemed inspired by various cubist masters. She told me that it was a masterpiece by M.F. Hussein, India’s famous painter who had “exiled himself to Kuwait because his depiction of nudes met protests in some quarters.” The smell continued in the hall of the floor where my room was located. The attendant there told me that they had painted parts of the hall in preparation for the glory of India event. In my room the smell was overpowering. When I called the front desk they explained that the room across from mine had been painted, apologized, and arranged to change my room.

            On my pillow that night the little note read: “Some of the nicest people I know have insomnia. – Anonymous.” Now wide awake, I opened the drawer of the night stand and found two books, Gideon’s Holy Bible and Bhagavad Gita As It Is. I began reading the latter. When I took it with me to breakfast the next day, the Maitre d’ was surprised. It was a slow day and he began a conversation by asking me what I thought about the book. From the little that I had read, it seemed that the book claimed to be about how the majority of Indians today understand the Gita  (Song of The Blessed Lord): “the first contact with the true India, the ancient India, the eternal India.” It made an almost a monotheistic god out of Krishna (the eighth reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu)  and presented the author,  A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,  as the only disciple through whom you could understand Krishna.

            The Maitre d’ said the author had many followers, famously including those in the Hare Krishna movement, “but only forty percent are serious, the rest are fake followers.” He continued: “All Indians have a holy book of their own at home. The hotel uses this one in the rooms because it is open and neutral.”  The Maitre d’ also said: “This book is taught at Taj’s management classes, for its 80 hotels, on the subject of how the ruler can manage from behind the scene. Like Alexander the Great who said one of his father’s oldest advisers should be the king and Alexander himself ruled from behind the scene.”

            Compared with ruling India, Alexander’s task in managing Macedonia must not have been difficult. The reason for this thought was a column that I read by a memorialist in that day’s Mumbai newspaper. He recalled that the Indian parliament deputies from the South had begun a serious attempt to secede just before the Chinese invasion of 1962. He argued that this was prevented only by that invasion as it united the Indians. In the picture of the then Prime Minister Nehru, which I saw later that day in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, he was smiling avuncularly. Students were playing cricket in the park where Chacha (Uncle) Nehru was memorialized as a “Passionate advocate of Education for India’s children and youth, believing it essential for India’s future progress.” In another part of the park grown ups were still protesting against China.

            The occasion this time was the Dalai Lama’s week-long tour of the border province of Arunachal Pradesh, a visit to which China had vociferously objected.  (This province was the sensitive area that the Chinese had temporarily occupied in 1962.) As I approached a group of thirty men with banners and a bullhorn, one of them came up to tell me that they did not belong to a party but, inexplicably, to an “NGO.” He continued, “our President is here” and asked me if I wanted to meet him. Before I could answer, he went to a man in the middle of the crowd and said something. He came back and took me to him. We shook hands as the President took time off from talking into the bullhorn. He asked me where I had come from, and upon hearing that I was from the U.S., he said that “America shared with India the threat from China.” Then the President repeated the same in the Bullhorn. Now he asked my name and invited me to say something into the bullhorn. I declined. He insisted. I said “I just want to wish the Indian people luck and happiness.” Someone was taking pictures.  I thanked the President and left.

            On the walkway near the Arabian Sea the focus was another foreign adversary that unifies the Indians. This was just a few days before the first anniversary of India’s “26/11 (November 26),” the day of the attack on the Taj Hotel for which India blames Pakistan. A television crew was filming the nearby Hotel as the background while a reporter spoke into the camera. Bollywood was not far behind. Posters about a new movie called Kurbaan were plastered all over Mumbai. It was about terrorism. The star was India’s latest heart-throb, Saif Ali-Khan. In interviews, he denied any connection between 26/11 and the film, saying that the movie had been in the making earlier, and the time of its release was “sheer coincidence.” Apparently of almost equal interest to the Indian audience was the fact that, according to movie critics, Kurbaan had “already made waves with its steamy promos featuring the longest Bollywood kiss” between Saif Ali-Khan and his co-star, Kareena Kapoor. Indian movies, it turns out, are prudish by Hollywood standards.

            The Regal Cinema is a Mumbai institution that predates Bollywood’s fame. It is located on yet another new memorial to Shivaji, whose statue is nearby, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Marg (Road), but the Regal Cinema is so venerable that the locals still refer to the area as the Regal Circle. The chaos of the crowded and noisy circle, which is crisscrossed at irregular angles by several streets full of daring drivers, exemplifies Mumbai. I gathered my courage and crossed the hazardous streets in the direction of the Regal Cinema. Posters all around promised the typical armies of Indian dancers and singers in the featured film of the day. It was late in the afternoon but I was denied admission by the dour salesclerk at the ticket window because the show would not begin for another hour. I could only have a peek into the elaborate mirror work interior of Regal’s famously art deco building. It occurred to me that this was indeed how Mumbai was: it allowed me a glimpse but remained yet to be fully unveiled.


This article, entitled Showcasing India for the World, was published on the following website of on March 24,  2010 with related pictures: