The scion of a leading business family was among the first historians to document the city’s hidden stories, and was deeply affected by the loss of its heritage.
If one were to think of a household name in Bombay that has endured for over the last two centuries, it would most probably be Jeejeebhoy. Hospitals, schools, colleges, dharamshalas, and whatnot: the Jeejeebhoy name is ubiquitous in Bombay. This name is associated with Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (1783–1859), famous philanthropist and opium merchant who made his fortune by trading with China in the first half of the nineteenth century. Any namesakes were sure to be burdened with the reputation of this famous man.
Now imagine if Jeejeebhoy was both your first and last names; the chances of being confused with the original Jeejeebhoy doubled. Improbably, such a person existed and he was Jeejeebhoy Rustomjee Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, who, upon entering public life, preferred to be known as J R B Jeejeebhoy. Born in 1885 with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, JRBJ was a scion of the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy family, then leading industrialists of Bombay with a range of textile mills and heavy industries under their control. With such a privileged background, JRBJ could have very well led a life of leisure. However, he had other plans for his life.
Jeejeebhoy went to St. Xavier’s College for undergraduate studies but did not bother to acquire a degree. After a brief stint in London, he first turned to politics and joined the Congress in 1914. A close associate of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Jeejeebhoy was aligned with the liberal faction that 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, JRBJ 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 Liberal Party continued to pursue its programmes, and JRBJ was associated with them at least until the late 1930s.
It was just as well that active politics did not consume Jeejeeboy. He could devote his time to his first love: writing about Bombay, its history and its heritage. For nearly four decades, from the 1920s to the late 1950s, Jeejeebhoy wrote numerous long and short pieces on Bombay, and presented various facets of its history to public view for the first time. Linking the past to the present, he was perhaps one of the first to be concerned with the city’s heritage and its loss.
Practically everything about Bombay and its history interested Jeejeebhoy and often provoked an article or two. It could be the famed mango trees of Bombay which fruited twice a year, in May and December, or the first elephants in the city — Richard Bourchier, Governor of Bombay from 1750 to 1760 was presented an elephant by the Peshwa Balaji Bajirao. The East India Company was so alarmed by the food bill which the elephant ran up that the Governor was asked to get rid of it forthwith.
Everything about Bombay and its history interested Jeejeebhoy. Subjects as diverse as rituals around the Sabbath, and the practice of witchcraft in the city, caught his attention. J R B Jeejeebhoy (inset)
The first consignment of ice in Bombay (imported from Boston in 1834) interested him as much as the manufacturing of aerated waters (again from the 1830s). Subjects as diverse as the rituals around the Sabbath, and the practice of witchcraft in the city, also caught his attention. From describing the advent of moving pictures in Bombay and complaining about the perennial problem of rash driving in the city, 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 wrote on a variety of subjects.
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 nineteenth century, including his birthplace, the famed Mazagaon Castle, which was the residence of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, his maternal great-grandfather. The destruction by fire of the historical Police Court Building at Mazagon in 1942 resulted in a piece of nostalgic writing. The closure of iconic institutions be it 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. Not only was he concerned with their history, including their settling in Bombay from the seventeenth century and their achievements in numerous fields, but 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; this resulted in a corpus of writings that could serve as a standard reference on the subject. Crime and punishment also 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 with a certain gusto. His magnum opus, Bribery and Corruption in Bombay(published in 1952), is also concerned with the same subject.
Many of his Bombay writings appeared in the special Pateti and Nowroze issues of Anglo-Gujarati periodicals such as the Sanj Vartaman and Kaiser-i-Hind that have vanished from the public eye. He also wrote for the leading English newspapers of Bombay: the Times of India and the Bombay Chronicle. Though positioned on 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 faded 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 twenty-first century writers.
J R B Jeejeebhoy’s select writings on the history of Bombay have been collected together in a volume titled J R B Jeejeebhoy’s Bombay Vignettes: Explorations in the History of Bombay (edited with an introduction by the writer). It is published by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai
Jeejeebhoy’s writings were published in Anglo-Gujarati periodicals such as Sanj Vartaman and Kaiser-i-Hind; (R) A depiction of the Parsi Tower of Silence at Bombay. Jeejeebhoy documented the community’s history and cultural reforms