In the book “Bombay Imagined,” the cultural heritage of Mumbai, India’s former capital of Bombay, is examined. It has been written by architect and principal at RMA, Robert Stephens, and explores how Bombay has been envisioned and portrayed in works of fiction, movies, and popular culture. The book examines various sources, including novels, poems, cinema, and travelogues, and spans nearly two centuries, from the middle of the 19th century to the present. Stephens follows the development of Mumbai’s cultural identity through these sources, from its colonial past to its current standing as a global metropolis. The book discusses a variety of subjects, including how Mumbai has been depicted as a city of opportunity and ambitions as well as a location of destitution, crime, and corruption. Stephens also looks at the influence of socioeconomic class, politics, and religion on Mumbai’s cultural identity. 

Book in Focus: Bombay Imagined by Robert Stephens - Sheet1
Robert Stephens_©
Bombay Imagined_©

In the beginning, Stephens explores how Bombay (now known as Mumbai) has been imagined and portrayed in literature, cinema, and other cultural forms over the previous 200 years. This is covered in the initial leg of the book. A brief historical review of Bombay’s growth, from its beginnings as a tiny fishing hamlet to its rise as a significant port metropolis under British colonial authority, turns back the clock into the past. 

One of the more ambitious projects from the 19th century catches one’s attention – Docks and Back Bay Reclamation. A significant project for moving earth was suggested in 1860 by British engineer Robert Fairbairn. He intended to create a new town named after Henry Frere, the then-governor of Bombay, and recapture the whole region, which is today known as Back Bay, from Colaba Point to Malabar Point. The town, which included the termini for two railway lines, was planned to feature a complex network of ports and be 24 times bigger than Fort (the city’s commercial district). Unfortunately, no investors were found for the project. Fairbairn was buried at the Sewri Cemetery in Bombay after passing away as a pauper. Not failing short on radical was the idea of SoBo without cars conceptualised in 1973. The Times of India’s resident editor in Bombay was Ajit Bhattacharjea. Bhattacharjea devised an audacious plan to ban cars from the whole island of South Bombay. At the time, around 100,000 privately owned automobiles were in the city. Thus, it was a daring notion. And certainly, the traffic during that time has also been compared as a nightmare. Naturally, not many people were interested in Bhattacharjea’s proposal. In one of his columns, the writer lamented: “Presumably car-owning ministers and top bureaucrats, and their spouses, do not like to brush shoulders with simple walkers.

India’s architectural past needs to be revised with unrealised plans and competition entries. Surprisingly, they were conceptualised by the world’s greatest – Buckminster Fuller, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster etc. The book’s rejection of Le Corbusier‘s plan to construct the Air India Tower at Nariman Point is another startling revelation. Mr JRD Tata was unimpressed by the plan from the greatest architect of the 20th century, and everyone is left to speculate what the city would have been like if Corbusier had constructed the structure. 

 An amusing anecdote comes later, where the author describes the development of new urban planning and architecture forms. He recounts how one Indian architect, Charles Correa, proposed building Cosmopolis, a high-rise apartment towering over the city at 60 meters in height. Twenty-four duplex apartments would afford a stage of coastal vistas in all directions.  While the idea was never fully realised, it remains a fascinating example of the creative and innovative approach which would later be realised in Correa’s Kanchenjunga apartments. 

Stephens often adopts a scholarly and objective tone throughout the book. He uses a variety of sources and viewpoints to convey a richness of historical and cultural data about Mumbai/Bombay while critically evaluating these sources. His writing is often pragmatic and succinct, emphasising knowledge and analysis above bias or personal opinion. Stephens’ timeless writing, particularly in his involvement with the cultural issues and depictions of Bombay that he analyses, has a certain level of passion and excitement. He expresses in his work a clear, profound admiration for the intricacy and diversity of Mumbai’s cultural past. 

Overall, “Bombay Imagined” is an enlightening and thought-provoking book for anybody interested in the cultural history of Mumbai/Bombay. Stephens’ tone is scholarly and critical but also passionate, anecdotal and entertaining. The book provides an in-depth and intricate depiction of Mumbai, one of the world’s most dynamic and complicated cities. Anybody interested in India’s cultural history or the influence of cities on world culture would find it a suitable tool. 


  1. Robert Stephens. Bombay Imagined. 

Arushi Bhargava is a literary enthusiast and an architect! Throughout her life and education, she has been on a quest for discovering more artistic, literary, and architectural treasures.