Column | In search of a forgotten chronicler of Bombay

Column | In search of a forgotten chronicler of Bombay
Photo: Joanna Kosinska
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The 2019 release of Bombay before Mumbai, a fine collection of historical essays about India’s great metropolis, shed light on the work of an exceptional but almost completely forgotten (and presumably Malayali) writer O U Krishnan. The essay collection cites Krishnan’s 1923 self-published book titled The Night Side of Bombay, where he vividly writes about the red-light district of Kamatipura in the southern part of the city.

In January, a reader of this column requested this writer to make an attempt to find Krishnan’s book in what is now Mumbai. None of the dealers of antiquarian books had any clue as to how to get this book. A combination of ‘1923’ plus ‘self-published’ made it next to impossible to find. 

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It was a chance meeting with Dr. Mark Steinberg, a leading American historian of Russia, who is writing a book about New York, Bombay and Odessa in the period between the two World Wars, that revealed more clues about Krishnan. The academician had managed to find out that the US House of Representatives Library had a copy of the first edition of Krishnan’s book. But before getting access to that copy, he came across the second edition, which was published in 1938, at the British Library in London.

The 1938 edition, which is believed to contain almost no changes from the original, was published by O K Sreedharan in Talap, Cannanore (Kannur). A look at a scanned copy reveals that it was printed at the Cannanore Printing Works and sold for 12 annas. It had a print run of one thousand copies. An online search reveals that there is a Cannanore Printing Works Private Ltd in Kannur. The company was registered in 1947.

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Other works

The cover of Krishnan’s book reveals he held a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree and that he also wrote two other books - A Little Laugh. Bombay and An Angel Accused. The former gets a passing mention in references to Indian short stories and novels on the websites of a few American universities. It was published in 1927 by the Karnatak Press. The second book has also vanished without a trace.

A look at the 30-odd pages of The Night Side of Bombay, which Dr Steinberg managed to scan from the 80-page book, reveals that Krishnan was a poignant storyteller, writing about Bombay from an Indian perspective.

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Almost a century after Krishnan wrote the book, there are traces of his book everywhere in Mumbai. “Here are movement, colour, din, turmoil, clashing, hooting, screaming, bellowing, tinkling, clapping, whistling, a hundred thousand faces, a hundred thousand tongues, a hundred thousand passions - a babel in a veritable hell,” he wrote describing a street scene in Grant Road. He also wrote in detail of the shady bars that were in just about every corner of the city.

Today Grant Road is undergoing major gentrification. Older heritage buildings are being demolished for new high rises and even the brothels are being kicked out to faraway Navi Mumbai.  Krishnan’s apt description of the city’s commuters reminds a Mumbai resident that not many things have changed: “Motor cars whizz along at break-neck speed, with their loads of the jewelled, the painted, the silkened, the hatted, the ill-gowned and well-gowned, to their respected resort of recreation and amusement.”

Then there is the Bombay that is already lost forever - the trams and abundant nature that was a stone throw from the heart of the business district: “You move up to the junction of Grant Road and Byculla tramlines. This is a very interesting centre. Responsible office clerks, late from office, the worries, cares, trials and the consequential fatigue visibly painted on their anxious faces are being transported to the suburbs of Parel and Dadar, there to be refreshed, refitted, revitalised by the tonic influence of Mother Nature.”

In 2020, Parel and Dadar count among the most densely populated places in the world.

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Unanswered questions

Who was Krishnan? Where did he get his BA from? How was his journey as a writer?  When he self-published his book, he couldn’t have possibly known that his narrative about Bombay would be one of the best ever written in his era. Perhaps a reader of this column has an answer? There may just be someone in Kannur who knows the family of Sreedharan, who published one thousand copies of The Night Side of Bombay? There is a great story that needs to be discovered and told.

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