Mumbai Memoirs 6: From 7 Islands to a Megalopolis! (Part III)
Mumbai’s cosmopolitan culture is a striking feature of its identity. A simple ‘Hello’ can be heard in various languages, as neighbours bump into each other after their morning walk. The newspapers tucked on every main door may be in English, Marathi, Gujarati, or any one of the 22 official regional languages of India! Over the years, people of various ethnic backgrounds have migrated here for their ‘pursuit of happiness’. During one of my morning walks, I had a wonderful insight of how seeds sown by someone else in the past, can create opportunities for many in the present. It so happened that a mango fell on my shoulder when I passed a mango tree which I had always admired since childhood. The tree is believed to have been there since a century.
As I relished the mango, I felt lucky to be the beneficiary of the mango tree that gave me an opportunity to be happy and thankful to the person who must have planted it ages ago. As I further reflected, like millions of Mumbai’kars, I could see myself reaping the fruits, whose seeds were sown in Mumbai’s glorious past.
Its not only the geographical advantage, of being a natural harbour, but also the role of pioneering institutions and visionary people, which has led the city into its present day image of being a ‘land of unlimited opportunities’.
The British rulers of Bombay were the first to sow the seeds of urbanization. Most of the Governors of the British East Indian Company wanted to give a ‘London like’ make-over to the city. With modern infrastructural set ups of those times, the Company, and later the British Crown, transformed Bombay from a laid-back hamlet into a buzzing hub of educational and commercial importance.
The Grant Medical College, named after the then Governor of Bombay, & Sir J.J Group of Hospitals were established in 1845. Through these institutions, it was for the first time Western medicinal approaches were taught and practiced in India. Sir. Jamsethji Jeejiboy, a generous Parsi Philanthropist donated huge sums of money to start four hospitals, namely J.J Hospital, Byculla, St. George Hospital, Fort, G.T. Hospital and Cama & Albless Hospital, CST. These institutions are still operational and are committed to public service.
An intellectual renaissance was brought about in and around Bombay by the establishment of the University of Bombay. Founded in 1857 by Dr. John Wilson, the university’s administrative model was designed by Sir Charles Wood. Initially the Elphinstone College building, served as the campus for the university, but soon the university got its own campus where the present day Rajabai clock tower stands in South Mumbai. The clock tower, which houses the university library, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott on the lines of London’s Big Ben clock tower. A Jain Gujrati businessman, Premchand Roychand, donated money for constructing it which was named after his mother- Rajabai.
A well known author Peter Singer quotes, “Hebrew word for charity ‘tzedakah’, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, it is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.” David Sassoon, a Bagdadi Jew truly implemented this quote into practice when he migrated to Bombay along with this family in the early part of the 19th century. Originally a banker, he later invested in the cotton, opium and real estate market of Bombay.
Since 1832, he procured huge profits from his business ventures, but at the same time also believed in achieving a full circle by positively giving back to the society. He donated huge sums of money to various institutions in Bombay namely, Magen David Synagogue, Victoria Gardens (Raani Baag zoo), Masina Hospital, Byculla, The Bank of India, Fort, to name a few. Besides this, he funded the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, located at Kala Ghoda, Fort. The library was first referred as the Mechanic’s Institution in 1847, where European employees of Bombay’s Government Mint and Dockyard use to visit for seeking technical education. A recent restoration of the library has added glamour to the heritage ambience that the library offers to its patrons. For more information: http://www.davidsassoonlibrary.com/
Bombay’s migrant population increased in the second half of the 19th century. Cotton mills had sprung everywhere in the city. People from the nearby Konkan area flocked to the city in search of employment as mill workers. Their families soon joined them and gradually the city needed better sanitation and hygiene facilities. Crisis struck when Bombay was hit with the bubonic plague in 1896-97. But Dr. Waldemar.Haffkine rose to the occasion and developed an anti-plague vaccine that literally saved 50% of Bombay’s population from succumbing to the deadly disease. Dr. Haffkine was a Russian Jew who was passionate about the science of bacteriology. He, along with the Imam (Religious head) of Ismaili Muslim community, His Highness the Aga Khan III, showed immense courage by testing the anti-plague vaccine on themselves first, purely with an intention of public welfare!
The Plague Laboratory in Bombay, where Dr. Haffkine worked for the British Government, was later renamed as the ‘Haffkine Institute’ in 1925. Inspite of the risk and challenge involved in tackling the plague crisis, Dr Haffkine quotes, “the work at Bombay absorbed the best years of my life…”! My recent visit to the Haffkine Institute at Parel (Central Mumbai) invoked in me deep admiration for Dr. Haffkine, who challenged his own limits to save the citizens of Bombay during the plague epidemic. The institute’s incumbent Director, Dr. Abhay. S. Chowdhary and his team, has been the working force behind the Haffkine Institute Museum, which has been recently inaugurated and will be open for public from the coming month onwards. For more information: http://www.haffkineinstitute.org/
In my quest to explore vintage Bombay, I realized that the modern cosmopolitan culture of Mumbai is deeply rooted in the city’s DNA. Along with the British, many members from the the Parsi, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, particularly from the Gujrati & Marathi communities, have built the city from scratch.
Jaggannath ‘Nana’ Shankershet, an elite Marathi businessman, philanthropist, social reformer and a revolutionary educationist dedicated his time and wealth to build Bombay’s culture and character.
Born in 1903, he generously donated land and money for building schools, theatre and a crematorium. His benevolence earned him equal respect from all sections of the society namely, the British, native elites and the working class of Bombay. He was the first Indian to be nominated to the Legislative Council of Bombay and was also the first Indian member of the Asiatic Society of Bombay. He, along with a fellow visionary, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad, championed the cause of women’s education, inspite of fierce opposition from the orthodox communities of those times.
My recent visits to the institutions that have been touched by people like Dr. Haffkine, David Sasson, Jameshedji Jeejiboy and Jagganath ‘Nana’ Shankershet, was nothing less than a pilgrimage. Like me, if humanity is a religion that you too believe in, then I highly recommend you to visit these institutions and soak yourself with the spirit of altruism.
I am a third generation Mumbai’kar and I see myself reaping the seeds of goodness planted by these noble people, who nurtured a sense of ownership towards the city. Today, when I see the city moving around me at jet speed, I know that everyone, directly or indirectly, are in the process of ‘paying the goodness forward’ to the next generation Mumbai’kars, who are yet to come.
*Special thanks to: 1) Managing committee and staff of David Sassoon Library & Reading Room, 2) Mr. Sandeepan Mukherjee, Scientific Officer, Haffkine Institute for Training, Research & Testing & 3) Mr. Kiran Shelar, Journalist & friend.