Bombay, the hub of Britain's Indian Ocean empire, hosted a ceaseless flow of humanity: sailors and lawyers, street performers and royal refugees. When fate set obstacles in their way, the residents of this teeming metropolis petitioned colonial officials, looking on them as patriarchal providers of last resort. These petitions, which this article terms ‘personal pleas’, adeptly braided different, often contradictory, idioms of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperial governance, from stylized imitations of traditional authority to bureaucratic proceduralism. Their functional contribution to Raj governance, however, remains a puzzle since the vast majority of petitions were rejected. For the British, the steady flow of rejections threatened to unmask the disjuncture between the expectations and realities of Raj paternalism. As a result, colonial officials viewed personal pleas with a mixture of ridicule and concern. Yet, while unsettling for officials, personal pleas rarely spurred the collective politics associated with anti-colonial resistance. Thus, where other articles in this special issue focus on petitioning's functional contributions to the consolidation of state bureaucracies and the formation of new publics, this article traces the genre's more emotive dimensions. Even as they failed to consolidate colonial discipline or resistance, personal pleas provided a vehicle for the airing of the lived contradictions and tensions of empire. They allowed rulers and subjects alike to fantasize about the possibility of a more benevolent order, and to vent their frustration when those fantasies crumbled in the face of imperial indifference.