Signs of Bombay

In December 2016, Public Books Editor in Chief Sharon Marcus spent a few days in Mumbai, participating in the Times of India Literary Festival and walking around the city. Mumbai, also known as ...

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a series of observations on city and place curated by Ellis Avery.

 

In December 2016, Public Books Editor in Chief Sharon Marcus spent a few days in Mumbai, participating in the Times of India Literary Festival and walking around the city.

Mumbai, also known as Bombay, has had many faces: it has been a British Empire trading town, a national textile center, home to a major university for science and technology, and the capital of the Indian film industry.

These photos highlight mid-20th century signs and inscriptions. Their mix of Roman and Devanagari fonts expresses the era’s forward-looking optimism after Independence in 1947, as well as post-Partition uncertainty about the city’s linguistic fate, which was undecided until the formation of Maharashtra and Gujarati states in 1960. Some of these signs bypass language altogether: the clocks for sale at one kiosk advertise themselves, while hardware store signage features detailed images of drills, saws, and other light machinery.

We’ve also added a picture of a Bombay cat on a Vespa, because the internet. icon