Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tales of a City

Most people who live in Mumbai feel a peculiar sort of love for it. Many things are wrong with this dystopian, poorly-planned city, but most of us probably couldn’t bear to live elsewhere. If, like me, you feel this mix of emotions, then you’re going to love Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables.

The book pulls together Mumbai’s many narratives – cinematic, literary, architectural and artistic. It is a tale of the legends, poems, books, novels, mysteries, newspaper articles, film songs, advertisements, architectural styles, comic books, apocryphal stories and paintings inspired by this city. Through them, Prakash is able to distill an imagining of Mumbai that is more real than a straightforward history, simply because it is told by so many different voices.

Mumbai’s story, as it unfolds in Prakash’s narrative, is an absorbing one, with varied sources: newspapers and pamphlets, books, paintings, interviews and songs, lawsuits and art. To each set of texts, Prakash brings his unique eye. With the entertaining Marathi writer Govind Narayan Madgavkar (Mumbaiche Varnan) or the Parsi writer Sir Dinshaw Wacha (Shells from the Sands of Bombay) or the British police commissioner S M Edwardes (ethnographic sketches for The Times of India), Prakash is interested in the visual ‘reading of the city’. To Madgavkar and Wacha, the ‘kaleidoscopic but orderly’ cosmopolitanism of Bombay is riveting. Edwardes is captivated by the colourful, exotic ‘Indian’ life that unfolds just outside of the British quarter. Like his contemporaries, he too is caught up in the ‘image of otherness’ that the city’s sights offer.

There are nuggets aplenty – you’ll never look at art deco or the Marine Drive in the same way again, and suddenly, street names develop a back-story. Some of our wealthiest philanthropists, for instance, were opium traders (like Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the Wadias, the Cowasjis and Motichund Aminchund). There were committed professionals as well, like Dr A G Viegas, who diagnosed Bombay’s first case of bubonic plague. Confidence tricks and murder were a Bombay thing back then as well, as seen in Naoroji Dumasia’s crime books – one of which was based on the cases of Sardar Mir Abdul Ali, a real police detective.

The startling thing about Mumbai Fables is its sheer scope. Here you will find the story of the film studios and the secular seeds of the film industry; the rise and fall of the mill politics; the thrilling story of the Nanavati murder case and how the Blitz reported it; and unsettling accounts of the Babri-Masjid riots and the bomb blasts. Hindi film songs and Marathi Dalit poetry feature here, as do Meera Devidayal’s Mumbai-taxi-inspired paintings, the wonderful Hindi comic/graphic novel Doga, cartoons from Marathi newspapers, and the pulsating life and commerce of Dharavi. Like the creators of these texts, Prakash is an outsider and an admirer, but his prose is coloured with a sense of the beauty of this city – of its unique, alluring cosmopolitanism. Reading …Fables, you can understand what it was that drew everyone from the Konkani mill-worker to the Urdu poet here.

Prakash writes of the processes that shaped the city’s geography to accommodate human greed and industrial pressures, often at the cost of common sense. He discusses the various attempts made to ‘plan’ Mumbai, to reclaim land and ‘colonise nature’. Almost all of those attempts were either inspired or marred by greedy collusions between governments and corporates. This greed has overpowered vision, and ‘people’s needs’ have been used as an excuse to grab land or to build haphazardly.

Interestingly, the first people to think of reclaiming land from the sea were the Portuguese, but the process began only when the East India Company took over. Started in 1784, reclamations had, by 1872, added four million square yards to Bombay. Girangaon or the ‘Village of Mills’ sprouted up to meet the international demand for cotton. Unhygienic conditions and a particularly heavy monsoon led to the bubonic plague epidemic of 1896-97. The disregard for public good was of course a sign of colonial times, but seen in today’s context, it seems eerily familiar.

Prakash chronicles all of this with a novel-like quality. He describes the various blunders around the Backbay reclamation project and a campaign against it by the nationalist lawyer Khurshed Framji Nariman (supported by the Bombay Chronicle, which was edited by an anti-colonial Irishman, B G Horniman). Nariman took up cause against the mosquito-breeding ‘grand mess’ that the project had become, was sued by the British government, and went on to completely trounce them. The project was reinstated years later, and, in a terribly ironic gesture, a part of the area was named after him. Prakash details how thoughtful planners like Charles Correa and honest bureaucrats like J B D’Souza have met with similar obstacles later.

Which is not to say that Mumbai Fables does not have its flaws. While the chapter on films is probably the best in the book, the one on Russi Karanjia and the Nanavati case is a bit weak. Also Prakash tends to slip into parenthetical discussions, which make for a turgid read. The book takes time to climb into your head and explode there – the beginning, for instance, is dull, but stick with it, because explode it does!

This is an important book, especially today, when we are in the danger of not just repeating history, but bludgeoning ourselves on the head with it. The city’s loss of open, green spaces, as well as the Mumbai University chancellor’s dismissal of a book based on the demands of a politician’s young son, are indicative of the fact that we need to read this book, to revisit history and learn from it, so that we don’t look like complete fools a hundred years from now.

Mumbai Fables
Gyan Prakash
HarperCollins Publishers India
Rs 599
396 pp

(This was originally written for the Sunday DNA and can be viewed here:


Andrew said...

Hi Anita

Firstly, apologies for contacting you via the comments section, but I was unable to find an e-mail address for you.

I work for a graphic novel publisher called Campfire, based in Delhi. Having seen this book review on DNA, I thought you might be interested to hear about us.

If so, please let me know and I'll send you some more information.



Anita and Amit Vachharajani said...

hi andrew, write to me at anita (dot)vachharajani(at) gmail (dot) com