When Bombay welcomed its earliest migrants

Updated: Jun 01, 2020, 08:02 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

In a city that prided itself in rolling out the red carpet to migrants and refugees for centuries, heart-wrenching scenes of migrants leaving for their hometowns during the lockdown must never be forgotten

Fiona FernandezOnly a few months back, February to be precise, mid-day had taken a select group of its readers for a guided walk by yours truly through the Bora Bazaar neighbourhood. This microcosm of a universe, located near the General Post Office and Victoria Terminus (now CSMT), played a huge role in enabling Bombay to earn the tag 0f 'melting pot,' a space that the city contributed in many ways to its mercantile as well as cosmopolitan fabric.

Circa 1862. Bombay was emerging as a naval stronghold, thanks to the Wadia Shipbuilders who had earned a name across the seas for their sturdy, seafaring vessels. It was also the time when the rule of the Indian Subcontinent had moved from the hands of the wily and outrageously corrupt East India Company to the British Crown. Enter Sir Henry Bartle Frere who was appointed as Governor of Bombay in the same year. He realised that he was sitting on a fortress-bound city that had the potential of becoming a commercial centre for the Empire in the East. In a masterstroke, he brought down the walls of the Fort and opened up the city so its burgeoning population could earn their livelihoods and live in civic environs. Such was his vision. Something our present-day babus and lawmakers can learn from.

An equally enlightened move by Frere was to invite mercantile folk from all parts of the subcontinent to do business in the fast growing mercantile city. Located along the outer rim of the original walls of the Fort, the Bora Bazaar neighbourhood was one such area that was a fine example of this outlook that went on to define the character of this growing city. From the Bhatias and Banias to the Bohri Muslims and the Parsis, members of these communities lived, worked and worshipped in the same area. Even today, over 150 years later, you will find remnants of those times, from the signage and facades to its residents; thankfully, its character remains largely unchanged.

Today, [and I mean whenever it is safe to head there, post lockdown], you'll see how it's easy to lose your way in its winding gullies and streets, a true maze of blind alleys; in fact, some even have multiple names for the same road (!) as well as vernacular architecture that is a blend of a heady mix of local influences untouched by time, thankfully. Don't miss looking out for a Parsi agiary and a Jain derasar that act as reminders of how religion played a key role in keeping communities together in those parts. They were migrants engaged in all kinds of commercial activities — big and small — and their descendants continue to live in these very same spaces. It's a beautiful coexistence that acts as a rubber stamp to prove how migrants helped in the prosperity and progress of a city.

But when we see frames and visuals of lakhs of migrants struggling to leave the city to head to their hometowns, ever since the lockdown was announced back in March, it was inevitable to think of that neighbourhood, and draw comparisons between both scenarios, separated by centuries and different circumstances. It's a telling contrast - from a fast-growing city keen to increase its entrepreneurial zeal to a city grappling under a strict lockdown, and yes, unable to keep its migrants fed and safe. Every day, the headlines scream about lives lost in their ordeal to get home.

One can only hope that Bombay as a city can rebuild the goodwill and trust it always represented to its migrants when it's possible to fully emerge from this pandemic. It will be a long while before that happens. Of course, will they – battle-scarred from now — be keen to return to the city they once called home is a tough prediction to make.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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