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Book Review: Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables

The fabulous myths, tales and histories of Mumbai

18 May 2011

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The Sunday Guardian

Mumbai Fables

Gyan Prakash

(Princeton University Press
- Pages: 424 Rs. 1338)

The fabulous myths, tales and histories of Mumbai

The story of this manic city through the eyes of a historian, this wide-ranging account is enriched by the variety of sources it uses

Rohit Chopra 15th May [2011]

Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables is a thing of beauty. Trawling the archives as flâneur and walking the city’s past as historian, Prakash reads the city as palimpsest. He pays homage to the seductive power of myths about Mumbai and its earlier avatar Bombay—the city of free enterprise, the efficient city, the cosmopolitan city, the liberal city, the modern city—while illuminating the troubled histories and lowly origins from which the myths emerge. What is it, Prakash asks, that is silenced in mythic characterisations of the city? Whose histories are submerged? Whose suffering is ignored?

To answer these questions, Prakash uses sources both conventional and beyond the grasp of disciplinary history. His canvas includes newspapers and accounts of colonial administrators; novels, art and comics; lyrics of songs from Hindi films and the poignant second lives of discarded objects found in the shops of Chor Bazaar. These archives of aspiration and yearning, of pain and disappointment, yield other fables which complement yet also critique the narratives about Mumbai that monopolise the popular imagination. For instance, Prakash offers a superb reading of the comic book series Doga, featuring a vigilante superhero of the same name. Doga stands both for the necessity of the liberal political order promised by Mumbai and its resolute inadequacy. He operates outside the law to affirm its legitimacy. In his analysis of the coverage of the sensationalist Nanavati murder case by the tabloid Blitz in 1959 and 1960, Prakash draws attention to the paradox of a populist elitism by which a tale of sex and murder was transformed into a test of national values and the cosmopolitanism represented by anglicised, postcolonial Bombay.

Prakash shows us how the city was born as an act of "double colonisation," wrested from nature and seized by the Portugese. He charts the economic growth of the city in relation to the global-imperial cotton and opium economies, and documents its transformation as a center of rapid urban development marked by impressive buildings, open public spaces, and the wonders of industry. But if the economic boom meant that Bombay was home to an astonishing number of cultural and occupational groups, it also meant that large numbers of its inhabitants lived in conditions of squalid deprivation.

Indeed, the mud shanties housing mill workers that served as hinterland to the city’s elite modern areas were not an aberration of the industrial and colonial modernity of the city but a manifestation of it. But the attempt to rectify Bombay’s housing problems through a scheme to reclaim land from the sea was bedeviled by poor planning and financial irregularities. The journalist K. F. Nariman launched a successful crusade against the government’s plan in the Bombay Chronicle. This history is echoed in postcolonial Bombay, when a government-builder nexus, although challenged by citizens, resulted in the reclamation of lands in south Bombay. It threatens to rear its head again in globalised, post-liberalisation Mumbai, when schemes to "develop" Dharavi promise easy pickings for builders and the state government alike.

Prakash here dismantles the myth of efficient, corruption-free, colonial governance that continues to exude a powerful hold on the imagination of Indian elites. It is not too difficult to see that such myths reflect a barely disguised longing for an efficient, clinical modernity. Prakash, similarly, questions the idea of Bombay as a prelapsarian paragon of civic harmony before the rise of the Shiv Sena, with the fall marked by the renaming of the city as Mumbai. He describes the emergence of the Sena in the context of the complicated history of labour and union politics in the city, which overlaps with the agitation for a unified state for Marathi-language speakers. This history, in turn, needs to be viewed against the longer history of industrial capitalism in the city.

In the concluding chapter, Prakash tells us that he was led in his inquiry "to the shards of Bombay’s self-image as a shining cosmopolitan city." Yet, the book must not been seen as an elegy, for the fragments and memories of myths about Bombay also live on as powerful social forces. In that Mumbai Fables challenges the very idea of historical inevitability, it leaves us with a history of possibilities etched by Prakash that may in some form emerge again—for example, the radical intellectual culture of the city, eventually fractured by Partition, with its broad and deep political and social engagements. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes all the cities he has visited to the emperor Kublai Khan. In each of these cities, Polo finds something of his beloved Venice. Prakash’s Mumbai Fables tell us of one city, Mumbai, and of all the fabled cities that live within. The book magnificently achieves Prakash’s stated ambition of rendering Mumbai legible "as society"—not a final statement but a contested, living record of the failures and aspirations, the exhaustions and social energies of Mumbai.