Mumbai: Please Call It Bombay

Article excerpt

Byline: Dilip D'Souza

It's just a nondescript shed. But if there's a more telling descriptor of my city's essence, of a certain schizophrenia that runs in the veins of some of us who call this place home, I have yet to find it. Tucked on a quiet lane between Elphinstone College and the National Gallery of Modern Art, the shed is smack in the middle of the buzzing downtown precinct where most tourists in Bombay--yes, I call the city Bombay--mill about. Yet it's a good bet most of them haven't even heard of it.

If you go, put your eye to a hole that's at about chest level. Let your vision adjust to the darkness. You'll notice a button. A coat. A uniform. A man in that uniform. Behind him, a second man in uniform, wearing one of those colonial-era pith hats. Two larger-than-life statues are housed in this unassuming little shed, dusty and cobwebbed.

Just a few steps away is the sprawling museum complex with its great white British-made dome. Nearby are the Rajabai Clock Tower and Bombay University's pristine convocation hall, with sun streaming through its delicate stained-glass windows. Just beyond, you'll find the High Court, all high ceilings, lofty turrets, and musty staircases. And thronging everywhere, nearly any time of day, are crowds of officegoers, lawyers, supplicants, vendors, college students, sugar-cane-juice sellers, and tourists.

Somewhere in all this, two statues in a shed. What on earth, you think.

These are statues of the British monarchs George V and Edward VIII that were once on public display, with several others, in this precinct. In the mid-1960s, vexed political activists toppled them from their pedestals, no doubt thinking, our British rulers left two decades ago--why are these stone likenesses still around? Most of the statues were moved to--I kid you not--the zoo. But Kings George and Edward were deposited in this shed. Can't have these tributes to colonial rule be seen, you know. What will that do to us impressionable Indians? They've languished there for nearly a half century, a reminder of a certain past--but only to those who know.

There are many things to say about this. But one perhaps trumps them all. After peering into the shed, you can walk half a mile southeast to a great sandstone edifice built on the water's edge. No nondescript unnoticed structure, this one. No, it's the Gateway of India, standing proudly at the head of a large pedestrian plaza. …