The forward press of its residents is called the Spirit of Mumbai. These words are used when, after a day of disaster, citizens pack trains to work the next day, showing they have brushed off the incident. We do not hear of such a spirit in Delhi or any other city, though their people also go to work the next day, and they have had their disasters. So this spirit cannot hold merely the “going back to work” meaning within it, and we know that. We mean the pragmatism of Mumbaikars when we refer to the spirit of its people.
But why is Mumbai pragmatic and where did it get this spirit from? The second question first. One source is the British, who planted European culture in the southern part of this city 300 years ago and established it as a place of rule of law, which it still is.
The other source is Surat.
There is a reason south Mumbai, the most civilized part of India, is Gujarati. The community was imported, but why? In 1608, the British landed in Surat, then India’s most important port. They were given licence to set up textile factories by the emperor Jahangir. In the years after the eclipse of the Mughals, the British took over the city’s administration, and mercantile Surtis loved them for their ability to maintain order—the traders’ only demand from government.
Surat was where Haj ships departed from. The Haj headquarters, built in 1644 by Shah Jahan in the area called Mughal Sarai (which Gujaratis mispronounce as Muglisara), later became the municipal corporation; the large red-light area that serviced Hajjis waiting for their ship to come in remained till it was shut down under Narendra Modi. In the 17th century, Surat went into decline as its port silted over. This happened because the port was actually on a river, the Tapi, which flowed a dozen kilometres out to the Arabian Sea.
By this time, the mid-1600s, British trade had warmed up and needed a dependable, and much larger, port. The move to Bombay happened, as its natural harbour was discovered. But Bombay was a wilderness and the British needed Surat’s merchants to set up the trade for them. So they decided to bring Surat to Bombay.
In 1671, when Aurangzeb became busy with Shivaji, Gerald Aungier, the second governor of Bombay, “interested himself (in the) settlement of Surat Banias in Bombay.” The Gazetteer of Bombay Town and Island, Vol. 1, noted also that “It appears that the Mahajan or committee of the Surat Bania community desired the assurance of certain privileges before risking the move to Bombay and that the company had given general approval.”
What were these privileges that the Surtis wanted? B.R. Ambedkar wrote about this in his brilliant sketch, Maharashtra as a Linguistic Province (1948): 1) Ground in or near the present town (which we know as Fort), free of rent to build a house or warehouse; 2) free exercise of religion and liberty to burn their dead; 3) freedom from “all duties of watch and ward”; 4) liberty to decide internal disputes and freedom from arrest without notice; 5) privilege of using umbrellas. There were five other demands (including the right to sell paan leaves and supari). The East India Company granted the requests in 1677, noting that the handing out of land free “is very easy, the Company having vast ground enough...” The Surti traders who came to Bombay were not just Hindus but also members of the two other great trading communities of the city: the Ismaili Khoja and Dawoodi Bohra sects; and the Parsis. Aungier gave Parsis the land for their Tower of Silence on Malabar Hill in 1673.
Now we need to explain what this spirit of Surat was that was transferred to Bombay. Three things are unique about Surat. The first is that it is a mercantile society and has been for five centuries. The second is that because of its port, it has had a mixed culture that has brought it a tolerance that no other Gujarati city has. The riots of 2002 saw very little violence in Surat though hundreds died in monocultural Ahmedabad and Vadodara. There was violence in Surat in 1992, but that was an exception.
The third is that Surat has a culture of leisure and, by Gujarati standards, refinement. All Gujaratis say: “Surat nu jaman aney Kashi nu maran” (Life is eating in Surat and dying in Kashi). Though they are hard businessmen, Surtis have a playful side to them. The afternoon rendezvous of the trader, who slips away from the shop, with his wife, has a specific word: Baporiyu. Surtis had, till Hindutva arrived, a tradition called Maitrikaran, where a mistress was legally bedded and given certain rights.
Gujaratis are not an honour-driven society. By this we mean that family honour is not reposed in the person of the woman, as it is in the north of India. This makes Gujarat a more promiscuous society than others. There is a playful phrase that describes promiscuity in Surat, and it is chhapra kuday. It means the act of jumping roofs, and is used for the young man who clambers over the common wall on to the neighbour’s terrace where a housewife awaits.
These are social examples pointing to a culture of pragmatism, a recognition of the world being the way it is. Their effect on life is extraordinary. Surat is the richest city in India by per capita income, averaging Rs4.5 lakh annually per family.
The pragmatism injected in Mumbai gave it dance bars and the liberal environment that bred Bollywood. The culture of Mumbai is not to quarrel on the road to redeem honour, as we often see happen in Delhi: It is to get on with life. Such a culture can be trained and disciplined more easily than another.
Random acts of violence in Mumbai are few; traffic discipline is better; people queue for the bus. Surat was a filthy city which was struck by bubonic plague in 1994, killing dozens. But in a couple of years the city was cleaned up so effectively that it became, and remains, one of India’s cleanest.
By the 1881 census, Gujarati speakers were only a quarter of the Mumbai’s population. Today Marathi and Hindi people dominate it, and are reshaping its culture, and that is fine.
But the pragmatism that the Surtis brought with them from Gujarat has remained in the spirit of this city.
Aakar Patel is a director of Hill Road Media.
Write to Aakar at firstname.lastname@example.org