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Circa 1863: Mumbai

Mumbai has and continues to be a subject and theme for several authors, artists and poets, past and present. Interestingly, the first biography about the city was written back in 1863 by Govind Narayan in Marathi, and was titled Mumbaiche Varnan (The Description of Mumbai). Narayan’s title gave details about the city’s daily life and the constant changes it faced in the nineteenth century. Now, Mulund resident and scholar Murali Ranganathan has translated this text into English titled, Govind Narayan’s Mumbai.


A photograph of Walkeshwar Temple complex with Banganga Tank from the book

City records
“British officials wrote about their stays here. But Narayan had lived in the city for 40 years; he was a professor at Wilson College and his view of the city, geographical and historical, were pioneering as he wrote as a resident of the city and hence discussed details which the English wouldn’t have experienced or noticed,” reasons Ranganathan. This historical text traces the growth of the city and its transition to a metropolis, “It was essential to maintain Narayan’s tone in the translation.He wrote like a kind schoolmaster and had a sense of wonder as he discussed the changes and development the city was witnessing at the time. Also, though he wrote in Marathi, several terms were archaic and I had to use dictionaries for the correct current terms,” he shares.


Author Murali Ranganathan stands on the steps of State Central Library with Horniman Circle in the background. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Treasures from inside
The oldest song about Mumbai, written in Urdu in 1790 can be found in the book. Narayan has also penned several poems describing the city. “It’s a big book — Narayan has covered several sections such as clocks of the city — since it was a luxury. Who would buy them, where did they come from, what were grandfather clocks and much more. Photography too, had just been introduced to the world — he has written in great wonder about Indians who took to photography and how this technology helped capture memories. He also explained what photography meant to his readers then,” says Ranganathan.
Narayan also wrote about the first textile mill of the city (1859). Ranganathan mentions that his account of the textile mills is like detailed industrial visit, with every detail penned down meticulously. “One of the most important topics inside, is Narayan’s views on the importance of being ruled by our own people, long before the Independence movement. The book was written a long time ago, and Narayan must be one of the few early Indians who understood the importance of freedom,” believes Ranganathan.


The old Church Gate of the Bombay Fort before its demolition in 1862

What’s new?
The original book didn’t include photographs or illustrations; Ranganathan has compiled 16 photographs that document the city from the era when the book was published. Ranganathan says that there are very few remaining copies of the original publication, one of which is at Dadar’s Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya. Attend a reading session from the book to be conducted by author and city expert Naresh Fernandes with Murali Ranganathan. The session will include a folk recital of original poems from the book.


Govind Narayan’s Mumbai, Murali Ranganathan, Anthem Press, Rs 595

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