Sunday, 18 November 2007
Farewell, crown jewel
Bombay has been interesting, I definitely enjoyed it more than Delhi. It's so much easier to get a handle on, being as centralized and compact as it is. I’d say Bombay is like New York and Delhi is like DC, both in terms of their layout and their vibes.
Exploring all of the Victorian architecture here in Bombay is a real trip. It’s also nice the way it’s laid out all along the Arabian Sea. The air quality is still horribly bad, but at least in Bombay you get a breeze off the ocean, unlike in Delhi where the dirty air just seems to hang there. Either way I’m eager to get a gasp of fresh air once I get back to London.
One of the most interesting things about this city is how very British it is. South Mumbai is filled with Victorian architecture which looks almost identical to the buildings you find in London of the same era. The Victoria Terminus is particularly striking. It’s Bombay’s main train station and it’s absolutely massive. It was built by the same architect that designed St. Pancras station, just down the street from where I live in London. The similarities between the two buildings are striking. It’s like someone picked up St. Pancras and dropped it in a jungle.
Interestingly I’d say this trip has helped me to understand the United Kingdom better as well as India. After all, India was the crown jewel in the British Empire and Bombay was the crown jewel of that crown jewel. It’s amazing the scale of the building campaign that was initiated by the British in the late 19th century right up to the 1930’s. You can’t help but chuckle to yourself at how amazingly short-sighted it all was. The British really thought they were going to be in India forever. In fact the massive Gateway of India, the defining landmark of Mumbai and the backdrop of countless Bollywood dance numbers, was built only in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King George V in 1911. Just 23 years later, the British would lose India. Oops! Similarly amusing is New Delhi itself, built by the British and completed in the 1930’s, the empire had it for barely a decade before it was handed over to a newly independent India.
Anomaly or Exaggeration?
The similarities between the Mughal and British occupations made me think a bit about the way we view the European colonial period today. It occurs to me that the period is often discussed today as some sort of historical anomaly, as if the peoples of the world were living in peaceful self-governing bliss before Europe conquered the world. But of course, rule by foreign powers has been the historical rule rather than the exception to it. There are many socio-political theories as to why centralized rule by foreigners can often end up being more stable and productive than local self-governing rule, but no matter why it occurs, it’s an interesting historical phenomenon. Of course the case of the colonization of Africa demonstrates that the system is often only productive for the occupier, but it is true that the colonial period in Africa was paradoxically more stable than the period before or after. Throughout human history, rule by a centralized foreign power (or ‘rule by strangers’ in modern socio-political parlance) has kept local in-fighting at bay and provided stability to conquered areas.
But being in India, a land that has continually been under the control of foreign invaders, one is reminded that the European colonialism of the 19th and 20th century was merely an exaggeration of a historical constant. In fact the only element of colonialism that was an anomaly in human history was the rapid technological revolution that accompanied it and enabled its scale.