The enduring idea of Mumbai

But the construction projects that dot the cityscape fail to offer a new vision of India's future
Daniel Brook

When French traveller Louis Rousselet arrived in mid-19th century Bombay, he was struck by an incongruity. Socially, the city was the most dynamic metropolis on the planet; architecturally, it was utterly undistinguished. Bombay's "diversity gives to the crowd a peculiar stamp, which no other town in the world can present," Rousselet gushed. "The Tower of Babel could not have assembled at its foundation a more complete collection of the human race." And yet, this most remarkable of world cities was devoid of the grand edifices and avenues one would expect of a global hub. "It cannot be considered a city, in the full acceptation of the term," Rousselet wrote. "It is rather a conglomeration of vast districts, situated a short distance from each other, on an island which gives them a generic name."

As every Mumbaikar knows, a fortuitous economic boom coincided with the first years of Governor Henry Bartle Edward Frere's reign and the city reaped the benefits as a stunning array of Gothic civic buildings bloomed along the Oval maidan. Today, that serried Gothic line faces an equally impressive massing of Art Deco apartment buildings across the park, the result of a subsequent Bombay boom in the 1930s. It is one of the most spectacular urban spaces in the world, an open-air architectural museum in which two visions of Indian modernity ó the first largely imposed by foreign imperialists, the second largely designed by indigenous Mumbaikars ó stare each other down across the maidan. Alas, today, as yet another economic boom is transforming Mumbai's cityscape and the eyes of the subcontinent are again on its urbs prima, the construction projects that again dot the island fail to offer a new vision of the Indian future. Mumbai today is nothing more than the sum of its real estate deals. It seems to be reverting to Rousselet's lament that "it cannot be considered a city, in the full acceptation of the term".

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