BOMBAY, MARCH 1923. Botanist, ecologist, and all-round man of the people Patrick Geddes reclines on a long-armed rattan chair. An unruly mop of hair sits atop his wide forehead, which is etched with many lines. We find him in the J.N. Petit reading room, in that second of clean consciousness that comes with waking. The muffled din of the street and the gentle whir of ceiling fans fill the quiet room.
He blinks as he remembers his surroundings. He observes the marble-topped tables lined with visitors as varied as the dusty books housed there: students, curious readers, elderly men poring over periodicals in English, Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati, while a handful of others are quietly nodding off. Everyday people all sitting, working and sleeping, cheek by jowl.
And amongst them, of course, sits Geddes, a big-hearted Scot of excitable character who brims with visionary ideas. Bombay has been his home since 1917 when he travelled to India at the behest of Lord Pentland, Governor of Madras. A pioneer of town planning (successful and prolific in equal measure), he brought plenteous wisdom to India from his years reforming Edinburgh’s Old Town.
His early days in Bombay were spent humbly, wandering the streets, understanding the workings of this city and her folk. “By living we learn”, he would say to his students from the University of Bombay. And so he would walk, observe, ask, listen – a cheerful nomadic flâneur buoyed by curiosity.
All who met him were enthused by the energy of this prodigious man. And yet, since the double loss of his wife and son in 1917 (his dearest Anna passed away never knowing that her boy was gone, killed on the Western Front), that energy is somewhat depleted, a flame flickering a little from sorrow. He finds quiet repose in the dusty tranquillity of his beloved reading rooms, and – though his ideas and enthusiasms were not just of his youth – he often comes here to sit awhile, an old love letter from his wife in hand. He smiles when he thinks of her, in moments of bitter-sweet reverie.
Geddes rubs his face and climbs out of the chair – involuntarily grunting as he rises. His frayed brown suit is too heavy in the close afternoon heat. Stiffly, he walks across the parquet floor and through the threshold into the hubbub of the city.
Looking about, he admires the special character of Bombay, this crowded, many-cultured, generally implausible city: hawkers peddling their wares, men cleaning ears, briefcases swinging, cows roaming. The sights and sounds are far removed from his old dwellings in Edinburgh, but the pungent smell takes him back to 1886 when he and Anna first moved to the crumbling Old Town, with its absence of effective plumbing.
Narrowly, he dodges the flick of a street sweeper’s broom. On another day, he may well have paused, enquired as to the fellow’s health, and wished him well; but not today, for he has an appointment to keep.
He is meeting his friend Khambatta in a favourite place: Kyani & Co., a so-called ‘Irani’ café opened by some of the Zoroastrian immigrants who had been arriving in Bombay since the turn of the century. On fieldwork trips with his students, Geddes would sit for hours in these delightful establishments, discussing what they saw there: families, students, professionals, elderly men – all sitting side by side – sharing the experience of daily living. Always conscientious in his observations, he notes that these cafés truly seemed to bring people together, regardless of caste, faith or social standing.
On seeing his friend – a jovial Parsi with a remarkable talent for theatre – Geddes reflects for a moment. How welcome and refreshing a space like this would be in Edinburgh… A place which could break down the boundaries between classes and provide common ground, a truly shared space. His musings did not go unnoticed by his friend Khambatta, who spotted the familiar twinkle in Geddes’ eye – a plan was afoot, and he leant in to listen.
Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was a botanist, ecologist, sociologist and town planner. Anti-imperialist in outlook and humanist in approach, he helped develop cities around the world, with much time spent in Edinburgh and Bombay.
Geddes sought to better society by improving civic facilities and creating environments where ‘people of all walks of life had common interests and shared the experience of daily living’. In Edinburgh Geddes dedicated himself to improving conditions in the run-down, impoverished Old Town, which owes him much of its present-day charm.
His work in Edinburgh led to an invitation to travel to India to advise on planning issues. He made the voyage to Bombay in 1915 and went on to produce plans that would improve living conditions in 50 of India’s cities. Geddes supported India’s quest to gain independence from the British. He challenged the prevailing orthodoxy ‘that a city like Bombay must depend on its millionaires’ and argued against the colonial authorities. He had a very broad and sympathetic outlook on life, and wherever he worked, he endeavoured to establish cultural brotherhoods irrespective of caste, class or colour.
Geddes was appointed as Bombay University’s first professor of Sociology and Civics in 1919. He has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci and praised by Einstein for his innovative thinking. At Dishoom Edinburgh, we pay tribute to Geddes’ visionary thinking and humanist ideals.
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