“Few are aware, and most have forgotten how much the community has contributed to the growth of this city,” rued Dr Shaul Sapir, when this journalist met with the scholar, over a week ago. The visiting professor from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University was in town to put finishing touches to his opus about Mumbai’s Baghdadi Jews — a community, which in its heyday (1950s and ’60s) added up to a 6,000, at least. Today, only a handful remains in the city, he revealed.
The professor went on the mention a long list of city institutions and structures that were funded with the benevolence of one particular family — the Sassoons. This wealthy, mercantile family’s scion was David Sassoon who left Baghdad and arrived in the island city in the 1830s, and ended up creating a mini empire. Mumbai (Bombay at the time) must have been a great place for the visionary entrepreneur, to build dreams and grow rich. What the professor also spelt out later, was that the Sassoons were philanthropists, having contributed huge sums of money to build not only Jewish schools and colleges but to also fund government-run hospitals and educational institutions, clock towers and other public landmarks, which will be in full display in his soon-to-be released book.
In those times, be it the Parsis and Jews who came from other lands, or the Gujaratis, Pathare Prabhus, Goan Hindus and Christians and Banias, and countless other communities who came from the hinterland, each community was able to realise the potential of this city’s bustling, mercantile character and its refreshing, cosmopolitan air. They acknowledged this unique duality, created wealth but also gave back to the city — in the form of learning institutions (schools, colleges, libraries), landmarks (fountains, statues, promenades, clock towers) and several other public welfare initiatives (hospitals, roads, railways, mills) that shaped the city. History books on the city’s growth and development through the 1800s and early 1900s carry countless accounts of the unbelievable philanthropy displayed by its business families who cut across language, background and religion to give a distinct character and soul to the city.
Alas, the city doesn’t get the same treatment in the 21st century. Business barons and industrial houses seem busier in the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Mumbai merely happens to be a platform to get this done. The upkeep and restoration of its finest, stately buildings, some of these perhaps housing their own offices, and its landmarks — face the threat of neglect or permanent damage. The artfully restored Deutsche Bank in Fort, a few buildings along DN Road, Colaba and inside Ballard Estate make for the handful of examples of concern for the city’s fortifications. What about the rest?
Doesn’t the city that brought these industrialists their money and fame, deserve a timely rescue act? It’s one thing to build flashy glass palaces and showcase other cosmetic displays of ‘generosity’ but what about giving back to its public heritage? A sweeping look across the globe will reveal references where business families have contributed towards the upkeep of their home city, especially its public utility structures. One look at Crawford Market, Kalbadevi or the Afghan Church’s interiors make for valid case studies.
Already, with the big R – Redevelopment, the builder mafia, and mindless, dangerous (read: eyesore) renovations that have become a regular feature of our rapidly changing streetscape, one wonders how soon will it be before our city becomes an unrecognisable, pale shadow of the title it once wore as the ‘Urbs Prima In Indus’ (Latin: premier city in India)? Learning from the past was always a favourite lesson that our elders loved to remind us of but do these chopper-owning, rich-list occupants ever go back to the pages of the past, to take a cue from their predecessors who loved the city that gave them hope and a heart too? Your guess is as good as mine.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY