One hundred and fifty years ago: In 1863, a man named Govind Narayan Madgaonkar published an astonishing Marathi book on life in Mumbai. It was titled Mumbaiche Varnan, or a description of Mumbai. The book created a minor storm when a centenary edition was published, with local scholars such as A.K. Priolkar, N.R. Phatak and Gangadhar Gadgil bringing the book to public notice again. It has been recently translated into English as Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863.

The nine-year-old Madgaonkar had moved north from Goa with his family in 1824, just six years after the East India Company had won its last victory against the Marathas. Much changed after that. The Mumbai that Madgaonkar wrote about was at a crossroads. The first war of independence in 1857 had left it relatively untouched. The city was growing rapidly. People from all parts of the world were pouring into it. New infrastructure was being built. A great economic boom lay ahead of it as the American Civil War increased the demand for Indian cotton.

What has always struck me about the book is its utterly modern sensibility. Madgaonkar welcomed the changes wrought by rapid urbanization, thus steering clear of the old Indian habit of glorifying village life. Gandhi was a prime example of such pastoral nostalgia, something that angered Ambedkar because he had direct experience of the oppressive social system that Gandhi sought to salvage.

Madgaonkar was enthralled by the new way of life, with its buzzing markets, international trade, the melting pot of people and the new factories. Consider this passage: “All the cultured people of this city of Mumbai should make it a point of visiting these docks and factories with their families, at least once a year. Instead of just wandering about during festival days and wasting one’s life, one is better advised to see these places and increase one’s fund of knowledge." And here is his observation of the train service between Mumbai and Thane, the first in India: “The vehicle left Bori Bunder at five and reached Thana at around six in the evening… Many wise men are of the opinion that it is the beginning of the new age in Bharat Khand".

But Madgaonkar was not just in awe of the new industrial civilization. He welcomes the new Bombay University set up in 1857, the native journals and societies that sought to spread modern education, the generous philanthropy of merchant princes, the mingling of diverse people, as well as an antipathy towards the caste system.

“Most of the Hindus in this city seem to be under the sway of their caste, and believe it to be supreme over all other castes. The Hindu patriarch… feels it beneath his dignity to associate with others. This idiocy infects everyone from the Brahmins to the Shudras, but the factual situation is obviously very different. No single caste is dominant in Mumbai and all this huffing and puffing is just vain pride. It just generates hatred, jealousy, ill-will and a perpetual state of strife, and people are circling each other, snarling like fighting tigers. There is nothing to be gained from this. This caste system has prevented the Hindus from bonding together."

A stellar cast of characters gets a mention in the book: the Parsi merchant Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, the Baghdadi Jew David Sassoon, the Marathi journalist Balshastri Jambhekar, the British administrator Henry Bartle Edward Frere, the early reformer Dadoba Pandurang and the Elphinstone College principal Alexander Grant, for example. But some of the most fascinating insights are when Madgaonkar writes about the lives of ordinary men and women, in the streets, the bazaars and factories. He brings a journalist’s eye for telling detail: “In the mango season, one can see fifty different kinds of mangoes in as many colours here"; or: “In recent years, workshops which use the power of sunlight to produce pictures are dotting the landscape. The machine that produces there pictures is known as the camera".

Madgaonkar was obviously a man of his times. His book reveals his limitations as well. He has no sense of national identity but a more limited sense of community. He devotedly welcomes the stability provided by British rule. His description of the new textile mills glosses over the fact that young children are being put to work; his more optimistic view is that the machines are offering even the illiterate to compete with trained artisans. And one gets no sense in his book that Mumbai was then a bubble economy headed for a resounding crash.

However, the broader point is that Madgaonkar offers us a delectable glimpse into the astonishing economic changes and intellectual ferment of his times; he avoids the obvious temptation to look back with nostalgia to a lost world. He welcomes the era that eventually gave us the first generation of Indian nationalists. His ability to spot the dynamism of the new industrial civilization, his enthusiasm for modern education and his sharp observations of the caste system…all of this is a delight to read.

Twenty-six years after Madgaonkar published his wonderful biography of Mumbai, there was another lovely Marathi book on the city: Mumbaicha Vrittant, by Balakrishna Bapu Acharya and Moro Vinayak Shingne. The city had changed further since 1863, not just in terms of its economy and social practices, but also because of growing political awareness. The Mumbai Municipal Act was passed in 1888, a year before the second book was published. The contours of the city as we know it today were forming. Mumbaicha Vrittant also deserves to be brought to a wider audience that reads English.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns

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