Mumbai's Lasting Legacy

Uma Lele


Uma Lele


Uma Lele is a former senior adviser at the World Bank and currently serves as an adviser to a number of international organizations.

Editor's note: This article is a slightly adapted version of an original that was published by the Far Eastern Economic Review, December 6, 2008. It was written in response to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. One of the major points of attack was the Taj Mahal hotel. The author says: "Like millions of others I have been angered and saddened by what has happened to Mumbai, victim yet once again of acts of terrorism. While watching the television reports in the US, where I have lived for several decades, I wondered how close friendships and love among peoples of many cultures can be reconciled with surprise acts of violence against helpless innocent people. Memories of my own early life experience in Mumbai which critically shaped the rest of own life, have unfolded in rapid succession, filed away in a folder, unopened for years."

Named after goddess Mumbadevi, we Maharashtrians (people from the state of Maharashtra) have always known the city as Mumbai. When my father, a judge, was transferred to Mumbai in the 1950s, I was in my early teens. A large three-bedroom government requisitioned flat assigned to my father in Waterloo Mansion, a four story apartment building in the same grey stone as the Taj Mahal Hotel, owned by the Maharaja of a Princely State, was not yet available. It was next to the Regal cinema, overlooking the Museum, across from Cowasji Jahangir Hall Auditorium and next to the Elphinstone College, which my brother and I later attended. So, for a year my parents lived in a flat in Colaba, one of the areas of Mumbai that was attacked.

Our neighbour was a wonderful Jewish family. I did not know at the time what Judaism was, and no one felt the need to explain. The wife was a kind soul who used to serve me a variety of non-vegetarian snacks after school, which my Brahmin mother did not prepare at home. She wore a sari, like all others of her age, and taught in a school, but did not wear a red mark called Kumkum on her forehead, as do most Hindu women. Her husband managed the automatic laundry at the Taj Mahal Hotel. My mother used to say, "Now that the British have left, with few foreigners coming in, there is little business for the Taj Mahal Hotel and its laundry."

We moved to our flat located smack between the Taj Mahal Hotel on the right, Bombay University in front and the Nariman Point on the left, the location of the Oberoi Hotel, also under attack last week, which was built since then. St. Ann School, one of the best English schools was next door, but my parents sent me to a Marathi school, Ram Mohan High School, started by one of India's social reformers.

With a huge influx of refugees streaming into Mumbai after India's partition in 1947, my father had been appointed Custodian of Evacuee Properties. He was in charge of settling property claims of refugees between India and Pakistan. We called the refugees Sindhis, although some were Punjabis. We did not know the difference.

I used to learn classical music. My music teacher had many students from the Parsi community, a Zoroastrian sect that migrated to India from Iran in the middle ages. (Mr. Tata, the owner of the Taj Mahal Hotel and one of India's foremost industrialists, belongs to this community.) Being the youngest, I was a favourite of my music teacher. I could be groomed into a budding artist. I also learnt Natya Sangeet - light classical music - from Marathi plays. Natya Sangeet was very popular in the 1930s and 1940s. The greatest exponent of Natya Sangeet was Bal Gandharva, an honorific title, meaning a young singer in the court of gods. Bal Gandharva had a beautiful Muslim mistress. He was old and paralyzed, and without much money. He used to come to see my father to seek help for his mistress to settle her properties in Pakistan. My father asked him once if he would like to visit us and hear his daughter sing.  Bal Gandharva was in tears when I sang some of his famous songs. His beautiful mistress, with large brown eyes, blessed my good voice and style. She said it would keep Bal Gandharva's memory alive.

We witnessed language riots from the third floor of the balcony of our flat in 1957 when the Chief Minister of the state, Mr. Morarji Desai, was a Gujarati\; at that time, Gujarat had not yet been split off from Bombay state. But, it was clear that Gujaratis wanted their own state, and Maharashtrians wanted Mumbai for Maharashtra. I then noticed the anti-non-Maharashtrian sentiments fanned by the protestors, which persist to date. After the split of Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1960, many people used to say Mumbai would never be the vibrant business centre it was. Most businesses were owned and operated by Gujratis and Parsis, not Maharashtrians. But Mumbai thrived. Maharshtrians became successful industrialists, businessmen, politicians and IT entrepreneurs. Caste and religion mattered less than the thrill of being in a bustling city with tolerance for diversity and talent of all.

In 1961 when I went to Cornell, a manager from the Taj Mahal hotel was training in the Cornell Hotel school, the world's best. He became a good friend. Mr. Tata too is a graduate of Cornell and has recently given it a grant to bring the best of Cornell faculty to work on the problems of India's agriculture and rural development. When I studied agricultural economics as a Ph.D. student at Cornell, India was the largest food aid recipient. I would have never imagined that in my lifetime, the University's largest foreign donor would be an Indian, inviting the best expertise to India to work on its rural poverty.

Whenever we returned to Mumbai, my husband and I always stayed at the Taj, as we fondly called it. Lunches and high teas in the Sea Lounge, overlooking the Gateway of India and shopping in the Taj Arcade used to be a favourite pastime of my high school friends whom I would meet routinely in Mumbai on my visits.

My friends live in cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, which are mixtures of Jews, Parsis, Muslims, Sindhis and Christians, mostly from Goa and Kerala. Of course the Maharashtrian community of castes, too numerous to keep track of, dominates in numbers. It has a thriving culture of theatre, books, visual arts and architecture. We routinely enjoyed sweets brought by Muslim friends during Eed and Christian friends during Christmas. In return, we shared goodies with others during Diwali.

After coming to the US as a student at the age of 18, people began to ask me about the Jews, the Christians, and the Parsis of India. My curiosity about the people I grew up with, but never really knew as very different, exposed me to the communities in my hometown. I continue to marvel at India's diversity and ability to accommodate and thrive on all cultures, something that I took for granted growing up.

It is clear Mumbai's legacy goes well beyond its being a financial centre, a Bollywood, the hub of Indian industry, and the largest Indian port city. Mumbai will stand on its feet again. Its spirit of peaceful co-existence will thrive, spread around the world and will remain its lasting legacy.

© Uma Lele 2008


Dear Lele, thank you for your Comments and Post

Add new comment