Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Poem on Bombay, from Adil Jussawalla

I found the following in the Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry.

Sea Breeze, Bombay

by Adil Jussawalla

Partition's people stitched
Shrouds from a flag, gentlemen scissored Sind.
An opened people, fraying across the cut
country reknotted themselves on this island.

Surrogate city of banks,
Brokering and bays, refugees' harbour and port,
Gatherer of ends whose brick beginnings work
Loose like a skin, spotting the coast,

Restore us to fire. New refugees,
Wearing blood-red wool in the worst heat,
come from Tibet, scanning the sea from the north,
Dazed, holes in their cracked feet.

Restore us to fire. Still,
Communities tear and re-form; and still, a breeze,
Cooling our garrulous evenings, investigates nothing,
Ruffles no tempers, uncovers no root,

And settles no one adrift of the mainland's histories.

This poem is really a response to the Partition of 1947, but I think it has bearing on the questions people are asking a day after a particularly horrifying terrorist attack.

Jussawalla describes a rootless island city that is in some sense cut off from the "mainland's histories" -- that is on its own. But that sense of detachment has its limits, as Bombay has also been the destination point for waves of migrants and refugees from the subcontinent's recurring troubles. These immigrant Bombayites (or now, Mumbaikars) bring new life and energy to the city ("restore us to fire"), and also tie the city tightly to the mainland's darker episodes (the other meaning of "restore us to fire"). Some elite Bombayites have historically been ambivalent about their connection to the mainland, and even today, there are people who talk about instituting a kind of Hong Kong-esque autonomy to Mumbai, to prevent its being held back by the mainland's elephant slowness.

The idea of Bombay paying for traumas occurring elsewhere was probably true in the case of bombing and riots of 1993, which were triggered by the razing of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, though it's undeniable that local Muslim-led gangs and homegrown Shiv Sena thugs exploited that event for their own purposes. Something similar may be afoot now, if we assume that the bombers in yesterday's Western Line attacks were associated with Kashmiri separatist militants.

And yet, through it all, though the trauma of the tearing and re-forming of communities, and the chaos of life in Bombay (even without terrorism), there is, as Jussawalla says, the reassuring constancy of a cooling sea-breeze, which "uncovers no root,/ And settles no one adrift of the mainland's histories." Rootless, and yet yet never detached -- that's Bombay.


Blogger Shreeharsh said...

even today, there are people who talk about instituting a kind of Hong Kong-esque autonomy to Mumbai, to prevent its being held back by the mainland's elephant slowness.

i've lived in mumbai most of my life (well, 20 out of 25 years) and i've never heard of these people demanding autonomy for mumbai.

could you elaborate, please? it would be interesting to read more about them.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Shreeharsh said...

ps: loved the line "an opened people, fraying across the cut country reknotted themselves on this island". what a beautiful andn poignant metaphor!

11:56 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Shreeharsh, There was lots of talk of Singapore and Shanghai in the "Vision Mumbai" plan that came out a couple of years ago.

It was widely criticized by leftists for the plan to resettle the slum dwellers somewhere far outside of the city borders. For example, see this and this.

I haven't been able to find the actual plan online anywhere, so I'm not 100% sure how important economic autonomy from the mainland was in the plan.

I believe it's now been buried, however.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

I am not so sure if this poem by Jussawalla could be construed in any credible sense as “really a response to the Partition of 1947” or if it could be seriously viewed as having a “bearing on the questions people are asking a day after a particularly horrifying terrorist attack.”

The poem seems to me to be about the various ethnic trickles – not quite diasporic in their initial stages at least – or the (somewhat uneasy) appearance of the “outsider” within the otherwise sedate topography of Bombay.

This has been a recurrent theme in quite a few films from Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver to Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 and KA Abbas’s Shehar aur Sapna to Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman to Ram Gopal Verma’s Sathya. In all these creative engagements, the city is looked at from the point of view of the ‘outsider’. It has similarly continued to engage the attention of numerous IPTA driven plays and PWA poems. Adil Jussawalla however reverses the themativ POV, and looks at the phenomena as an ‘insider’.

It has also been raised as a political divisive issue by the the local parties projecting themselves as the original natives of Bombay. In the recent past the Shiv Sena has been particularly vicious in not only feeding and inflaming the anxieties of the so-called “original inhabitants” but, in fact, going a step ahead and actually attacking the Bihari students at the very moment of their arrival in Bombay to appear in civil services recruitment exams. They had earlier done it to the South Indians and it is widely rumoured that the Sikhs had bought their peace during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots by paying a hefty sum to the Shiv Sena. This question has been raised time and again to articulate their imagined fears and anxieties about the alleged demographic imbalance and damage that these continued exodus have caused to the life of the metropolis.

The “outsider” in the first stanza is obviously the partition-displaced Sindhi; the banker-broker in the second stanza could be a somewhat tolerant reference to the Gujaratis but the twist is in the tail where not a very comfortable allusion seems to have been made to the Bihari and Upite labour trickling in through the 60s and the 70s. The third stanza refers to the arrival of the Tibetans who fled Lhasa after the Chinese captured that mountain state towards the very end of the 50s. The response to the outsider has never been very generous and I see no traces of a drastically changed position even in this poem except in the last stanza where a somewhat strained attempt is made to applaud Bombay’s great nurturing potential. The ‘restore us to fire’ quite obviously is about the generous, all encompassing ‘insider’.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Jill said...

beautiful poem, Deep.

10:05 AM  
Blogger maya varghese said...

couldn't have described the place better

5:27 AM  
Blogger Mihir said...

The Vision Mumbai plan is here (PDF).

Lovely poem, thanks!

1:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have questions that are somewhat tangential here, but I don't know where else to ask them. Feel free to not address them if you feel that's appropriate---no blood, no foul, as they say in American basketball.

In all the pictures that I have seen of the aftermath of the attacks on the Mumbai railways, the only cars that seemed to have been damaged were those that were labeled "first class." Is that the case, or have I seen several pictures of one car from many angles? If my observation is correct, why? Is it easier to gain access to first-class cars? May there be an underlying assumption that those who ride in first class have more power to right the wrongs that are being protested or that they benefit more from the existence of those wrongs, and they therefore deserve to suffer more? Is there another reason that those particular cars may have been targeted, if indeed they were?

I know only enough of the political climate of India to know that it's far more complicated than I can guess at. I'm interested; what books and other resoirces would you advise a neophyte to use to begin to learn about Indian history?

---Anne O'Nymous

2:05 PM  
Anonymous vk said...

The bombs were all placed in first class compartments. First class compartments are somewhat less crowded than the ordinary ones, and hence leaving behind baggage can avoid notice. Second class compartments are always crowded and someone leaving behind stuff would very likely have some other passenger remind them of this. The economic distinction between the
travelers in first & second class is not significantly large.

With regard to the contemporary Indian political climate, I don't know of any single book/source that would help in its understanding. Perhaps others may know. A good introduction to
Indian history that I know of is "India, a history" by John Keay.

3:29 PM  
Anonymous suyo said...

This Mumbaikar spirit etc. is a big rhetoric. Mumbaikar's bouncing back from the attacks as if nothing has happened is
really a false claim. Average Mumbaikar has no where to go except to move on with life. It is the rozy roti problem not any
special mumbaikar spirit as people claim.

11:10 AM  
Anonymous suyo said...

Mumbai is misnomer. It should be renamed
as 'Thakeri'. Shivasena single handedly destroyed Bombay. If not for Shivasena the rise of Southern cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad would not have happened at such a brisk pace. Bombay lost out to friendly cities(during the boom times) like Bangalore because of this percieved outsider problem. This issue of Bhumiputra is on rise in many asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore also.

11:44 AM  
Anonymous baby girl said...

Its fortunate that Adil writes in English so that we can get the actual feel of the poem without having to resort to translations.

Thank you for sharing this piece.

2:17 AM  
Anonymous Gift said...

Simply wonderful! Thanks so much!

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Working Woman said...

I just read the poem again and it's even more beautiful! Great poem!

8:11 PM  

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