A Core Difference Between Mumbai & New York

The concept that Mumbai and New York are kindred spirits is one we feel deeply and one we realize every day. They are so similar that we can move seamlessly between these two cities without missing a beat. This is why we loved the gorgeous Mumbai-New York photo project introduced to us by IndiaInk of the New York Times.

We may love but our love is not blind. We are keenly aware of the differences between the two cities, especially the difference in self respect and pride. This difference was brought home to us by a discordant note in the latest NYT article on the Mumbai-New York project. Unfortunately, that discordant note was struck by the same two authors we had praised, Nisha Sondhe and Neha Thirani Bagri.

The note we speak of is subtle. In fact, most readers may not see anything wrong in it. And that, readers, is an essential difference between Mumbai and New York. We quote:

  • “Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, formerly known as Victoria Terminus Station, built over 10 years starting in 1878, is one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in the city.”

Why does New York Times even mention the old British name? The British left 65+ years ago and yet, the New York Times insists on highlighting the British name by placing the internet link on it. If you actually click on the link, you notice that UNESCO gives prominence to the Chhatrapati Shivaji name, the name of the man hailed by British General Montgomery as one “who comes along in a thousand years“.

This is not just a Nisha & Neha practice. It seems to be a standard New York Times practice that is followed by Tom Friedman & inadvertently by Rachel Saltz, our favorite Bollywood film critic. We would have reacted with a shrug like many readers would right now. But then we wondered how New York treats its own colonial British heritage?

Unlike Mumbai, New York was actually founded as a colonial trading post by the Dutch and called New Amsterdam (1626). The British took control in 1664 and renamed it New York. Mumbai, under its name  Mumbabai, was ruled by Indian fishermen kingdoms until it was ceded to the Portuguese and then to the British who renamed it Bombay.

The iconic building of Dutch New York was Fort Amsterdam which the British renamed it as Fort James. This was not just an iconic building but a real fort built for defense of lower Manhattan.

     (Fort James in 1664 map – src wikipedia)                     (Fort Amsterdam in 1660 map src – wikipedia)

America took over this fort in 1783. Did America treasure this iconic colonial fort? Did America keep it as a historical monument? Of course, not. America tore down the fort and turned it into a promenade in 1790. They had to rebuild the fort before the war of 1812 and they named their new fort Castle Clinton.

A few decades later, America built an iconic all-American building on the site of Fort James and named it after a Founding Father of America, Alexander Hamilton. This is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Its old colonial names, Fort James/Amsterdam, are left to ashes. 

        (Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House)             (Rotunda in the Alexander Hamilton Customs House)

Walk around New York and see if you can find any trace of British or Dutch architectural heritage. You won’t. Winner societies do not leave any traces of their former colonizers, no trace of their prior defeats.

Just look at the society that has now won the respect of the world – China. Go to Beijing and see if you can find any trace of the Mongols, of Kublai Khan, the man who built the Forbidden City – a preserve of the Mongols where Chinese were forbidden. When Chinese drove out the Mongols, they tore down the Mongol buildings and constructed Chinese Forbidden City that the world now throngs to see.

But Mumbai is very different. Walk around Mumbai and you see nothing but British architecture. You see little or no trace of Indian history. All they have done is change names of some British buildings. But even the new names have not taken root. Part of it is sheer racism against the skin color and the non-business background of native Marathi Mumbaikers. And a large part of it is a desire to hold on to the British heritage. It is a way of showing that they are modern and like westerners rather than poor  downtrodden natives.

Ironically Mumbai has a pre-British history unlike New York. Shivaji Maharaj built a fort on Khanderi island to check the naval advances of Siddi or Abyssinian pirates. The name Colaba for the cosmopolitan area of South Mumbai is a Briticized version of “Colap”, the historic fort of Maratha Admiral Kanhoji Angre and the place of naval battles between Angre’s fleet & British-Portuguese fleets. The Mazgaon area of Mumbai is originally Maza Gaon meaning “my village” in Marathi and a site of advances by Angre fleets. But today’s Mumbai has no use for its own history.

This is a core difference between Mumbai and New York, a difference that transcends all the superficial similarities described by Nisha Sondhe and Neha Thirani Bagri of the New York Times. New York is a winner. If Mumbai has any aspirations to be a winner, it needs to showcase its pride for all Mumbaikers to see every single day. Perhaps a good first step should be demolition of the old Victoria Terminus and  construction of an iconic all-Indian monument in its place.

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