Mee Mumbaikar

Lady Sweeper Gateway of India Mumbai by Arun Shanbhag
Portrait of a Mumbaikar: Sweeper at the Gateway of India

Reading the blogs, I notice a subtle tension between those who refer to themselves as Mumbaikars and Mumbaiites. When our city was called Bombay, we were all Bombayites. We are no longer Bombay.

In 1509, returning from a conquest in Dabul, the Portuguese first landed in the bay off Mumbai and massacred the local kolis (fisher folks); then in 1534, took control of nearby towns of Mahim, Thana and Bassein by treaty. They referred to the tiny island of Mumbai, as Bombaim – ilha da boa vida (Bombaim – island of the good life). Bombaim itself did not mean “island of the good life,” it was simply how the Portuguese said Mumbai. After more than a century during which they fired canons at the exquisite sculptures at Elephanta Caves, the Portuguese turned over the city to the British as dowry in 1661. The British called it Bombay. The British left in 1947 and in 1995, Mumbai got its name back. Colonial sympathizers need to just get on with the program.

But what do you call a resident of Mumbai? I have previously used Mumbaiite. It does not sound right. As the word rolled over my tongue, it seems to catch. A cultural misfit – an elitist “ite” grudgingly grafted onto a gritty “Mumbai.” So incongruous. I would have preferred Mumbaikar.

pic of Aamhi Marathi sign by Arun Shanbhag Mumbaikar has a certain resonance, characteristically Mumbai. In hindsight it’s so obvious – a perfect match of the indispensable Marathi bai and the enigmatically reserved 'do-er', kar.

The “-ite” ending on Mumbai seems elitist, particularly in this graft. A pseudo-phoren lingo, best vocalized with a western drawl and a flourish of the stylishly held cigarette. Walk down the streets of Mumbai today; can you see that paan wallah, fruit wallah, dabbah wallah or zhaddu wallah mouthing Mumbaiite? Guess not! Mumbaiite seems the exclusive domain of the Peddar Rd-stomping, Barista-sipping, crowd.

Yes, Mumbaiite is exclusive, in that it excludes the likes of Ramu, busing tables at the tea shop, or these laborers pulling Haath Gaadis, or these vendors selling street side vada paav and sandwiches. It excludes all those who make the city go, albeit in fits and starts! Excludes those police – men and women, picking up the 'pieces' after the 7/11 and 26/11 terrorist attacks. It excludes that fabled, but tired, Mumbai spirit.

Mumbaikar absolutely!
It is democratic, a social leveller, inviting everyone irrespective of which school you studied at – if at all, irrespective of your social class. Mumbai belongs equally to those who ride posh cars and flick cigarette butts out the window, as it does to the sweepers picking up the butts. Mumbaikar, invites you to this city of broad shoulders and a big heart.

A few of my favorite Mumbai Posts:

15 thoughts on “Mee Mumbaikar

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  1. Anurag,

    The Portuguese did not call Mumbai Bombay because they could not pronounce Mumbai. The word Bombay is made of two word Bom and Baim. Bom means good and Baim means bay. Hence Bombay.

    1. That was a later explanation.
      At first it started out as:
      Bombaim – ilha da boa vida (Bombaim (for Mumbai) – island of the good life).

      Note, in the beginning, they only had access to the southernmost island. It was much later they gained the other islands and the control over the entire Bay.

      Thanks for the comment.

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