Once India had a liberal city called Bombay. Its businessmen were cannier than those of the rest of socialist India, its rich more cosmopolitan, its cricketers more flamboyant. Bombay’s was a relatively pluralistic tradition, too. In faraway Calcutta, India’s British colonizers had spent the nineteenth century creating a paternalistic seat of empire with heavy-handed imitations of English buildings. In Bombay, on the other hand, prosperous native businessmen collaborated with their foreign masters to create a port city whose architecture amalgamated, with appropriate symbolism, European and Indian styles. Well into the 1990s it was possible to explain, as many did, the incidence of the city’s poverty and corruption as the natural concomitants of Bombay’s commercial dynamism. Compared with other places on the subcontinent, India’s most complex city, its window on the world, was still considered a fine place to be.
Now, India has an ugly, disturbing shrine city called Mumbai. It is a Hindu shrine, since the diverse, generally tolerant religion practiced by four out of five Indians has acquired a venomous political identity in the very city where religious minorities like the Muslims, the Jains, and the Parsees have tended to do best. Officially, Bombay turned into Mumbai in 1996, when the Hindu nationalist government of the state of Maharashtra decided to rename the state capital in the Marathi vernacular. But the context for this semantic shuffle was a rejection of the secular, universalist values espoused by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. To many residents of India’s commercial capital, Mumbai was born at the moment that this rejection reached its climax: December 6, 1992.
That was the day that Hindu chauvinists defied the central government in Delhi and tore down the Babri Mosque, a north Indian mosque that had been built, Hindus believe, on the site of the birthplace of Rama, a revered deity. The mosque’s destruction gave rise to bloody fighting between Hindus and Muslims in towns across north India. Despite lying 750 miles southwest of the Babri Mosque, Bombay was the worst affected. For five days that December and fifteen days the following month, intercommunal rioting between Hindus and Muslims cost the lives of some 900 people in Bombay, two thirds of them from the Muslim minority community and more than 350 of them killed by the security forces. Barely a month later, ten explosions, allegedly the work of Dawood Ibrahim, the city’s top Muslim gang boss—“Mumbai’s Al Capone”—evened the score. The final toll: 1,217 dead, 2,036 injured.
Even now, many Mumbaikars wonder how their city could have succumbed to a sectarian nationalism that is anathema to its traditional mercantile sophistication. After all, the millions who immigrate here do so in search of rupees: from the upstate migrants churning out T-shirts in suburban sweatshops to Tamil entrepreneurs bent over the ledgers of compact little businesses; from the eunuch prostitutes touting for business in Falkland Road to the north Indian Muslims manning the fruit stalls …