JRB Jeejeebhoy – The Google of Bombay!
Mumbai has forgotten the ‘leading historian’ who once highlighted its forgotten past
JRB Jeejeebhoy, who wrote numerous pieces on the city and its heritage from the 1920s to the 1950s, has met the fate of his subjects.
History unfortunately has been superseded in favour of flighty novels and trashy periodicals, with the result that the investigation and research into the ancient annals of cities and villages have been entirely neglected. It is sincerely to be hoped that this branch of the study will interest the present and the future generations and that they will continue to concern themselves with the history of the origin and rise of their ancient cities and towns and with the narratives of the hardships, enterprises, successes and misfortunes of their adventurous and intrepid ancestors.— JRB Jeejeebhoy, 1927.
If one were to think of a household name in Mumbai that has endured for over the last two centuries, it would most likely be Jeejeebhoy. There is no escaping the name in the city: it graces hospitals, schools, colleges, dharamshalas, and everything in between. And the person most associated with the name is Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783-1859), the famous philanthropist and opium merchant, who made his fortune in the Bombay Country Trade with China in the first half of the 19th century. Given his contributions, any namesake was bound to be burdened with his reputation.
Now imagine if Jeejeebhoy was your first name and last – the chances of being confused with the original Jeejeebhoy would surely double. Improbably, such a person did exist. Born in 1885, he was Jeejeebhoy Rustomjee Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, a scion of the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy family, then the leading industrialists of Bombay with a range of textile mills and heavy industries under their control.
With such a privileged background, Jeejeebhoy could have very well led a life of leisure and luxury. But he had other plans. For nearly four decades, from the 1920s to the late 1950s, he wrote numerous long and short pieces on Bombay and presented facets of its history to the public for the first time. Linking the past to the present, he was perhaps one of the first to be concerned with city heritage and its loss.
Practically everything about the city of Bombay and its history interested Jeejeebhoy and often provoked an article or two. It could be its famed mango trees, which not only had exquisite taste but also fruited twice a year, in May and December. Or the first time an elephant came to the city – Richard Bourchier, governor of Bombay from 1750 to 1760, was gifted an elephant by Peshwa Balaji Bajirao. The East India Company was so alarmed by the elephant’s food bill that the governor was asked to get rid of it forthwith. The first consignment of ice in Bombay (imported from Boston in 1834) interested Jeejeebhoy as much as the manufacturing of aerated waters (again from the 1830s). Subjects as diverse as keeping the Sabbath and the practice of witchcraft caught his attention. From describing the advent of moving pictures and complaining about the perennial problem of rash driving to remembering the long-forgotten first Indian judge of the High Court of Bombay and recalling the prevalence of slave trade in the city, Jeejeebhoy’s range was wide.
Jeejeebhoy went to St Xavier’s College for his undergraduate studies but did not bother to acquire a degree. After a brief stint at the London School of Economics, he turned to politics and joined the Congress in 1914. Upon entering public life, he preferred to be known as JRB Jeejeebhoy. A close associate of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Jeejeebhoy was aligned with the party’s liberal faction, which advocated a less confrontational policy against the British. By 1919, the National Liberal Federation had been formed in direct opposition to the Congress and its new leader, Mahatma Gandhi. Actively working against Gandhi’s campaigns, Jeejeebhoy took the attack to the enemy camp by writing a pamphlet titled Non-Co-operation: Its Pros and Cons in 1921. Though pushed to the sidelines by the charisma and public appeal of Gandhi, the National Liberal Federation continued to pursue its policies, and Jeejeebhoy was associated with them at least until the late 1930s.
But it was just as well that active politics did not consume him. It allowed him to devote his time to his first love: writing about the city of Bombay, its history and its heritage.
Jeejeebhoy was perhaps one of the first people to lament the rapid destruction of built heritage in the city. During his own lifetime, Bombay lost hundreds of structures built in the 19th century, including his birthplace, the famed Mazagaon Castle, which was the residence of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, his maternal great-grandfather. The destruction of the historical Police Court Building in Mazagon in a fire in 1942 resulted in a piece of nostalgic writing. The closure of iconic institutions, whether they were educational institutions like the Deccan College (in 1934) or judicial institutions like the Honorary Presidency Magistrate’s Courts (in 1947), troubled him, and he used the opportunity to talk about their history in the hope that others could be perpetuated. The Parsi community, to which Jeejeebhoy belonged, was an area of special interest to him. Not only was he concerned with their history, including their settling in Bombay from the 17th century and their achievements in numerous fields, he also documented the rapid cultural reforms that the community adopted during his lifetime.
Scouring decaying volumes of old Bombay newspapers, such as the Bombay Courier, the Bombay Gazette and the Bombay Saturday Review, Jeejeebhoy excavated nuggets of information, which he polished into entertaining articles. He was the first person to attempt a history of the law and judiciary in Bombay, which resulted in a corpus of writings that can serve as a standard reference on the subject. Crime and punishment held a great fascination for Jeejeebhoy. While he worked hard to rehabilitate released prisoners in the Bombay Presidency, he also traced the gruesome history of corporal punishments and executions in the city with a certain gusto. His magnum opus, Bribery and Corruption in Bombay(published in 1952), is concerned with the same subject.
Many of his Bombay writings appeared in the special Pateti and Nowroze issues of Anglo-Gujarati periodicals like the Sanj Vartaman Annual and Kaiser-i-Hind that have completely vanished from the public eye. He also wrote for the leading English newspapers of Bombay: the Times of Indiaand the Bombay Chronicle. Though positioned on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, both dailies opened their columns to Jeejeebhoy gladly.
During his lifetime, Jeejeebhoy enjoyed a reputation as “Bombay’s leading historian”, but after his death in 1960, his numerous writings gradually disappeared from public memory. Jeejeebhoy thus shared this fate with many of the subjects of his articles, who had long been forgotten until he wrote about them. And like them, Jeejeebhoy can also hope to enjoy a second lease of life through the works of 21st century writers.
JRB Jeejeebhoy’s select writings on the history of Bombay have been collected in a volume titled J R B Jeejeebhoy’s Bombay Vignettes: Explorations in the History of Bombay (edited with an introduction by Murali Ranganathan). Published by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, it is priced at Rs 950.ADVERTISEMENT
All photos courtesy the Asiatic Society of Mumbai.