Why the railway signs in Bombay changed from Gujarati to Marathi, and why it’s now Mumbai


Have you wondered whether the city is “Bombay” or “Mumbai”? Here’s the violent, xenophobic history behind the change.

I was rewatching a Bollywood movie shot in Bombay in the 80s. In this scene, the two protagonists are at the train station waiting to go home. Notice the sign behind them. It says “Marine Lines”, which is the name of the station. Above it is the same name written in Marathi/Hindi (can’t tell which because they share the exact same script). Below that is the same name written in Gujarati. The non-English versions aren’t translations – they literally are the English phrases “Marine” and “Lines” spelt in a different script. If you have ever been to London, you will notice the similarity of the design to the ones used on the London Tube stations. This is because it was the British that introduced trains to India and borrowed the platform designs and signage directly from London.

Growing up in Bombay, you ended up speaking at least 3 languages, if not more. And you were exposed to a huge subset of the 26 languages and 1000+ dialects spoken across India. Bombay used to be a state. And Bombay city was its capital (Like NY & NYC). It used to be the center of the British Empire in India. It had been a marshy no-land with scattered fishing villages which the British inherited from the Portuguese via a dowry. Over the years they slyly converted this possession into an advantage and basically expanded and took over the Portuguese held regions around (Bandra and further south). They introduced commerce and in came the merchants and businessmen and workers from all over the country and Bombay became a metropolis.

After India became independent in 1947, for 13 years Bombay state existed as a large state which only in 1960 was split into the two current states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. This railway sign in the picture reflects this history of Bombay as a city that was built by the British and had people from both Gujarat and Maharashtra.

When Bombay state was being split, there was a lot of debate on which state should Bombay city now belong to? (Imagine NY being split into two states, how would one decide where NYC would go?). Bombay was unlike anything else in these states. It was very cosmopolitan, had people from all over the world that called it home. It didn’t share much identity with either of those states. A lot of people argued it should become a Union Territory (e.g. like DC). Eventually, given that it is geographically surrounded by Maharashtra, it was decided it would become part of it. In fact, now Bombay is the capital of Maharashtra state.

It was all good for some time. When this movie was shot, you can see evidence that Bombay’s history was intact in the 80s. Things changed in the 90s. There was a political party, the Shiv Sena, that mainly claimed to represent the people of Maharashtra. They started using xenophobia, violence and strong-arming to become important. They created a narrative that people from Gujarat, people from North India and the Muslims had taken over Bombay. They started claiming that Maharashtra and the people born in Maharashtra had the first right to Bombay and if you were Muslim or Gujarati or North Indian, you were second class citizens. They argued against “immigration” into Bombay. I put that word in quotes because India, like all other countries guarantees free movement of its citizens within its boundaries. What they were asking for was unconstitutional.

They stayed a fringe para-militant political party without much power. But the more they wielded their power, the more they physically attacked people, forced shut downs, vandalized business the more they seemed to become popular. They seemed to have touched on some pulse which made enough people of Maharashtra start supporting them. Maharashtra has a very strong culture, a long history and a lot of richness in art and literature. People from Maharashtra are among the kindest, good hearted people one can know. It was shocking when the Shiv Sena, for the first time ever, got control of Maharashtra and Bombay.

Then began the ‘saffronisation’ of Bombay. They decided to re-write history and claim that Bombay always was part of Maharashtra and the former Maratha empires. It wasn’t. Maratha empires were centered around Poona and other major cities like Vasai, Bharuch etc. Bombay was a marsh land with some fishing villages that had been ignored by everyone until the British came along. But it didn’t matter. They renamed it to “Mumbai”, the Marathi word for it. Along with this, they renamed a lot of historical buildings after Maratha rulers. We ended up with the airport and the train station having the exact same new name. They rewrote all signs across the city. Businesses could no longer use English scripts on their signs unless they also used Marathi script.

I was 13 when this happened. It was shocking to everyone. How can a democracy empower an extreme right-wing party with a history of violence? How can democracy stand by as history is being erased and re-written? How can democracy stand by when everything you stand for is slowly being dismantled? The name change is a clearly quantifiable, measurable impact of the Shiv Sena. But think about all the unmeasurable things that changed as a result of this. It changed the city. It changed everyone’s sense of identity. People protested, of course. I remember that we were able to block the proposal that would have changed all the city buses from the color red to the color saffron. There were many such battles. Some were won by the people. But most were lost.

This is why liberals in India still refer to the city as Bombay. It can feel very confusing to foreigners who want to do the right thing. My advice is, don’t worry. Just call it Mumbai and no one will mind. But don’t be surprised if many Indians still call it Bombay. “Bombay” stands for the cosmopolitan, global city that was taken over and stripped of its identity by a regional political party. To this day, if a celebrity uses the word “Bombay”, or if it’s used in say a movie, the Shiv Sena threatens, vandalizes or punishes them. Saying the word “Bombay” is also an act of defiance, of resistance to the violent, xenophobic narrative that doesn’t represent Bombay or its people.

See how that same train station signed changed in the 90s. Now, the largest size text is in Marathi. The text above is in Hindi (they look identical because the script is identical). The English text is now at the bottom. And there is no Gujarati anymore.


Moral dilemma when trying to help street children in Mumbai


In Mumbai, you experience a lot of poverty everywhere. It’s a very hard place where we have to confront our darkest and most difficult truths.

Jeremy Horner/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Most traffic lights have panhandlers who walk around asking for money. The ones who stand out are the women with babies in their arms. You feel terrible for the children and you give money to those mothers, hoping it would give the child an opportunity at a better life.

Talking with friends and acquaintances who do humanitarian work in this space, I learned that this is just a business. Panhandlers have a “license” to “work” a neighborhood. And a percentage of their revenue goes to the local underworld. Babies get rented out, drugged, and used to increase the earnings by the panhandlers. Often times the babies are abducted. Many times they are hurt and intentionally disfigured and maimed as that means even more collections at the traffic lights.

This made me realize that my actions coming from a moral dilemma of trying to help a child can sometimes be putting more children in danger and not doing much to solve the real problem behind the issue.

A peek view of the Bandra Worli Sea Link

General, Photo

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link is a cable-stayed bridge with pre-stressed concrete-steel viaducts on either side that links Bandra in the Western Suburbs of Mumbai with Worli in South Mumbai. It has a total length of 5.6 km (3.5 miles). In this pic you see the largest pylon towers which are 128 m (420 ft) high. At the base of the bridge, in the water, you see fishing boats that are not too different from the original ones used by the Koli fisherman who, less than 200yrs ago, originally inhabited this marshy region of seven islands. Most buildings in this frame are under construction, even the one with the glass windows. Enjoy this view, it’s going to disappear soon – see the slabs piling on down below? Love how the setting sun hit the skyline so selectively!

Arundhati Roy’s response on the Mumbai Terror attacks


Arundhati Roy makes very interesting points through a view at the larger context of the history and incidents in the Indian subcontinent.

Some interesting excerpts:

If you were watching television you may not have heard that ordinary people too died in Mumbai. They were mowed down in a busy railway station and a public hospital. The terrorists did not distinguish between poor and rich. They killed both with equal cold-bloodedness. The Indian media, however, was transfixed by the rising tide of horror that breached the glittering barricades of India Shining and spread its stench in the marbled lobbies and crystal ballrooms of two incredibly luxurious hotels and a small Jewish centre

All these years Hafiz Saeed has lived the life of a respectable man in Lahore as the head of the Jamaat-ud Daawa, which many believe is a front organization for the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He continues to recruit young boys for his own bigoted jehad with his twisted, fiery sermons. On December 11 the UN imposed sanctions on the Jammat-ud-Daawa. The Pakistani government succumbed to international pressure and put Hafiz Saeed under house arrest. Babu Bajrangi, however, is out on bail and lives the life of a respectable man in Gujarat. A couple of years after the genocide he left the VHP to join the Shiv Sena. Narendra Modi, Bajrangi’s former mentor, is still the chief minister of Gujarat. So the man who presided over the Gujarat genocide was re-elected twice, and is deeply respected by India’s biggest corporate houses, Reliance and Tata.

In this nuclear subcontinent that context is partition. The Radcliffe Line, which separated India and Pakistan and tore through states, districts, villages, fields, communities, water systems, homes and families, was drawn virtually overnight. It was Britain’s final, parting kick to us. Partition triggered the massacre of more than a million people and the largest migration of a human population in contemporary history. Eight million people, Hindus fleeing the new Pakistan, Muslims fleeing the new kind of India left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba is from Shimla (India) and LK Advani of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh is from Sindh (Pakistan).

Anti-terrorism laws are not meant for terrorists; they’re for people that governments don’t like. That’s why they have a conviction rate of less than 2%. They’re just a means of putting inconvenient people away without bail for a long time and eventually letting them go. Terrorists like those who attacked Mumbai are hardly likely to be deterred by the prospect of being refused bail or being sentenced to death. It’s what they want.

What we’re experiencing now is blowback, the cumulative result of decades of quick fixes and dirty deeds. The carpet’s squelching under our feet.

The only way to contain (it would be naïve to say end) terrorism is to look at the monster in the mirror. We’re standing at a fork in the road. One sign says Justice, the other Civil War. There’s no third sign and there’s no going back. Choose.

[via Guardian]