Sunday, July 06, 2008

The square in the circle

Countless books on Mumbai have charted its vast and versatile spaces which have come to signify different things to different people in this bustling metropolis. Zero Point Bombay makes an important addition to that list by homing in on Horniman Circle in the Fort area, a place replete with history and culture.

The zero point in any city is the place from where distances are measured, and in the Bombay of yore, that privilege went to St. Thomas Cathedral in Horniman Circle (it was later shifted to the GPO). Kamala Ganesh, Usha Thakkar and Gita Chadha, social scientists and confirmed Mumbai-wallahs, pay tribute to this landmark in Mumbai's history.

This collection of 20 essays takes us through the bylanes and open spaces of Horniman Circle, from its economic history to its architectural splendours. In the introductory piece, "The Intangible Heritage of Horniman Circle", Ganesh informs that the idea for the book germinated in a series of heritage walks that the editors took in 2004. Given the "spectrum of work cultures" and "a fecund reading culture", Horniman Circle, she says, makes natural choice for a book of this kind.

In his essay on the genesis of the Bombay Stock Exchange, Neeraj Hatekar recounts the quaint story of twenty-two stock brokers who traded under a banyan tree in the Bombay Green, in 1851. Investing a "not really princely" sum of Re 1 each, they came to form the Native Share and Stock Brokers Association. It's hard to imagine such modest beginnings of an exchange that today has a market cap of close to Rs 50 trillion.

In "Beyond Orientalism", Ganesh traces the roots of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. Housed in the majestic Town Hall building, the Asiatic Society was founded by Sir James Mackintosh, a distinguished English public figure, in 1804. Known then as the Literary Society of Bombay, the Asiatic Society went through a series of ownership changes in the Raj era. More democratic in its current avatar, the Society houses over a hundred thousand books, periodicals and scholarly journals.

Prithvi Theatre's Sanjna Kapoor writes lovingly on the chance association that her group came to have with Horniman Circle. In 1998, she was on the lookout for an open space to host the production of a visiting English company. After scouting several locations, her hunt ended "in the happy finding" of the Horniman Circle Garden. Kapoor ends her essay on a plea that the power-that-be recognize the importance of well-managed public spaces in developing a vibrant and dynamic urban cultural life.

My favourite essays in the collection discuss the bookstores and street food of Horniman Circle. In "Going A La Carte", Saroj Merani walks us through such charming avenues as Khau Gully and Street Food Mela. Sample what she says about the famed brun maska chai:

"Sensing that I was a novice at this ancient Yazdani ritual, the owner informed me that the only way to really savour it was to dip the buttered brun in the sweet Irani tea. And while I can't guarantee you that you will hear the music of the heavenly spheres, you will at least leave Yazdani Bakery with the distinct feeling that God's in heaven, and all's right with the world."


Gita Chadha, in "Mirroring the Precinct", dips into the history of the reading corners in the area. From the iconic Strand Book Stall to the newly refurbished The Bookpoint, Horniman Circle must boast the most number of book stores per unit area anywhere in the country. Did you know that the idea of opening a book shop came to TN Shanbhag, the owner of the Strand Book Stall, during the screening of Cheaper by the Dozen at Strand Cinema? Chadha writes:

"Having been humiliated in a reputed bookstore of the time for touching a book, the young Shanbhag wanted to start a bookstore where the access to 'Saraswati' would not be restricted to the elite, but would be open to a wider section of the people. Shanbhag approached Keki Mody, the owner of Strand Cinema with his idea, and that is how the Strand Book Stall came into being on the premises of the cinema hall."


Richly illustrated and artfully packaged, Zero Point Bombay is an essential compendium on the history and ethnography of a cornerstone in Mumbai life.

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This review appeared in Business Standard.

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