Learning about 'aamchi Mumbai' through historical fiction

Children’s author and naturalist Deepak Dalal shares unusual facts of Mumbai's history to inspire kids to spin fables

Imagine Mumbai as it existed in the 1800s, at a time when viral Internet ads were still fiction. So, if a boat had to sail from Bombay to Ratnagiri in the wee hours of the morning, how did the sailors advertise it? “The port had employed a boy, who would run around making the announcement. Now imagine the mind of this young announcer and write a story about it,” suggests children’s author and naturalist Deepak Dalal. At Dalal’s Weaving Tales workshop next Sunday, children will find a chance to encounter more such historical fiction and breathe life into the city of yore.

Dalal, 56, a chemical engineer by profession and a writer by passion, has authored more than six books for young adults, including The Snow Leopard and The Ranthambore Adventures. Most of the research, he says, was done in the hallowed halls of the University Library at Fort.

A view of the Town Hall near Horniman Circle
A view of the Town Hall near Horniman Circle

For Dalal, historical fiction is a way of learning about aamchi Mumbai, outside of textbooks. “Schools are so preoccupied with math and science that history and art often get neglected, particularly the history of your own city. Kids barely know anything about old Bombay,” he says. The writer hopes to bridge this gap by introducing fact-into-fiction scenarios at the three-hour long session.

“Nobody remembers historical dates and events if they are asked to learn by rote. This is a fun way of learning the city’s interesting past,” says Dalal.

Deepak Dalal will show vignettes of 19th century Bombay to inspire young authors
Deepak Dalal will show vignettes of 19th century Bombay to inspire young authors

Using a series of vintage photographs and maps, Dalal will show vignettes of 19th century Bombay and trace the city’s evolution from the seven mosquito-infested islands it was to the vibrant metropolis it is today. These nuggets of history will be the starting point for children to spin their own yarn. Better than a drab history chapter, right?

But, the fantasy trip through the city’s past is not without the necessary lessons. Dalal will throw light on the nomenclature of different localities, and cites the Fort area as an example. “This bastion had three gates, one of them beside a church, hence the name Church Gate. Fronting this Fort was a massive open ground known as the Esplanade. The open spaces of the Esplanade still exist, and are now known as the maidans of Mumbai (Cross, Oval and Azad).”

Dalal, who now lives in Pune, says that Mumbai never ceases to fascinate him. “There’s always something more to discover about this city,” he says.

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