It’s just a nondescript shed. But if there’s a more telling descriptor of my city’s essence, of a certain schizophrenia that runs in the veins of some of us who call this place home, I have yet to find it. Tucked on a quiet lane between Elphinstone College and the National Gallery of Modern Art, the shed is smack in the middle of the buzzing downtown precinct where most tourists in Bombay—yes, I call the city Bombay—mill about. Yet it’s a good bet most of them haven’t even heard of it.
If you go, put your eye to a hole that’s at about chest level. Let your vision adjust to the darkness. You’ll notice a button. A coat. A uniform. A man in that uniform. Behind him, a second man in uniform, wearing one of those colonial-era pith hats. Two larger-than-life statues are housed in this unassuming little shed, dusty and cobwebbed.
Just a few steps away is the sprawling museum complex with its great white British-made dome. Nearby are the Rajabai Clock Tower and Bombay University’s pristine convocation hall, with sun streaming through its delicate stained-glass windows. Just beyond, you’ll find the High Court, all high ceilings, lofty turrets, and musty staircases. And thronging everywhere, nearly any time of day, are crowds of officegoers, lawyers, supplicants, vendors, college students, sugar-cane-juice sellers, and tourists.
Somewhere in all this, two statues in a shed. What on earth, you think.
These are statues of the British monarchs George V and Edward VIII that were once on public display, with several others, in this precinct. In the mid-1960s, vexed political activists toppled them from their pedestals, no doubt thinking, our British rulers left two decades ago—why are these stone likenesses still around? Most of the statues were moved to—I kid you not—the zoo. But Kings George and Edward were deposited in this shed. Can’t have these tributes to colonial rule be seen, you know. What will that do to us impressionable Indians? They’ve languished there for nearly a half century, a reminder of a certain past—but only to those who know.
There are many things to say about this. But one perhaps trumps them all. After peering into the shed, you can walk half a mile southeast to a great sandstone edifice built on the water’s edge. No nondescript unnoticed structure, this one. No, it’s the Gateway of India, standing proudly at the head of a large pedestrian plaza. And as you look up at it, consider the distance you have really traversed getting here. For you’ll easily discern, atop the Gateway, these precisely chiseled words: “Erected to commemorate the landing in India of their imperial majesties King George V and Queen Mary on the second of December MCMXI.”
It’s a monument to the same King George V.
Half a mile away, his highness is hidden in a shed because Indians must not gaze at him. But here, the Gateway is a towering, arresting monument to King George V himself, to his imperial rule over us. It says so, unequivocally. Yet no nationalistic brave heart has erected a shed to cover the Gateway. Indeed, when the French firm Baccarat wanted to hang a chandelier there some years ago, a small army of protesters formed a human chain to prevent this desecration of a “national monument”—our “Indian heritage.”
It seems to me that more than just a half mile separates King George V’s name on the Gateway from his statue in that shed.
The year 1965 saw nationalists proudly battling statues, and 1995 saw the same breed of nationalists elected to power in Maharashtra, the state of which Bombay is capital. In 1996 they had a rousing celebration to mark one year in office. “My government’s greatest achievement,” said Chief Minister Manohar Joshi at the time, “is ... ” Well, what? Cleaning up the city? Addressing the serious shortage of affordable housing? No, by Joshi’s own proclamation, his finest achievement was renaming Bombay to Mumbai, its “original” name from before the British landed in India.
The kind who find pride in merely renaming a city, it seems to me, are also the kind who both venerate a memorial to George V and hide him in a shed. Of course we did well to rid ourselves of the British. But more than 65 years on, the legacy of colonialism plays itself out in the superficiality of a name change, in the Janus-faced nationalism that George V induces in us. Will this irrationality blight us for another six decades? Will we ever find the perspective to treat the British Raj as just more history?
Now I like the name Mumbai. But when I heard Joshi in 1996, I thought: as long as I can, I’ll stick with calling the city Bombay.