Mumbai Fables

The historian Gyan Prakash seeks to reveal the many different versions of Mumbai. Instead, a fixation with the city's colonial history blinds him to the true character of the city.

Mumbai Tales

Gyan Prakash

Princeton University Press


"Bombay... is not a city, but a state of mind," enthuses the journalist and screenwriter Khwaja Ahmed Abbas in his autobiography I Am Not An Island, one of many Mumbai-obsessed texts that the historian Gyan Prakash draws upon in his new history. "It is the state of a young man's mind, exciting and excitable, exuberant and effervescent, dynamic and dramatic." By transmuting the city into a mental rather than a physical landscape, Abbas further demonstrates that a great metropolis is not just a state of mind but also a story - a work in progress in both the physical and the narrative sense.

Prakash has previously been known for his work on Indian labour history and the intersection of colonialism and science. In Mumbai Fables, he brings his interpretative skills to bear on the many visions of Bombay (called Mumbai since 1995 - this is a story in itself) imposed and nurtured by a colourful cast of characters across the centuries. Colonial governors and cotton kings, opium traders and tabloid barons, muckrakers and trade unionists, poets and politicians, thugs and town planners: all are conjured to lend their voices to a series of tableaux stretching from the early colonial regime to the present day.

A set of small, swampy, spottily inhabited islands on the west coast of India, Mumbai was turned into a buzzing port city by the British over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Its past is deeply implicated in colonialism and its asymmetric power relations. For even the most charitable observer, this would be a story brimming with iniquity and prejudice.

Yet Prakash takes an extreme attitude towards Bombay's colonial history. This becomes visible when he speaks of the city's "doubly parasitical birth and development". Land was simultaneously colonised by the British and also reclaimed from the sea by the forces of modern industrial technology. The founding of the city represents a double sin for Prakash: not just a significant episode in the colonisation of India by the British, but also "the colonisation of nature by culture". This second claim is true of just about any great city in the world. It is hard to see how any city could be founded and then allowed to expand without tampering with nature in some significant way.

Nevertheless, this line of argument allows Prakash to interpret the story of Mumbai simply and adversarially as one of "colonial and capitalist spatialisation". Capitalism comes to be reflexively associated with the exploitation of land, workers and natural resources, and with injustice, misery and subterfuge. It is viewed entirely negatively, without any wonder at the remarkable energies it unleashed and the prosperity it generated.

Prakash point outs, fairly, that Bombay's economy in the early years was dominated by the profits of local opium lords and by the British-run trade in cotton, which fed off cheap Indian labour. Yet his eyes are closed to the essentially entrepreneurial character of Mumbai's presiding spirit. Even today it enjoys a reputation as the one city in India where a man (or, significantly, a woman) may be handsomely rewarded, not for his advantages of family or education, but for his capacity for hard work and enterprise. What's more, profit-making is not necessarily iniquitous. Making goods and services cheaper or better makes everyone wealthier in the same way as raising wages or improving labour conditions do. But innovation gets short thrift in Prakash's book, which gives large sections of his narrative a grumpy, resentful air.

Some of his most interesting observations have to do with space (or, as he might put it, "spatialisation"). He paints a lovely scene of the early city around present-day Fort and Colaba. The area was self-consciously designed as a European and colonial neighbourhood, making the layout of its roads, the look of its buildings and the strangeness of its mores a mystery to Indian natives. But a short walk from the Fort area brought the resident Englishman into the teeming and chaotic native quarter of Kalbadevi and Girgaum - a space just as puzzling to him, and an ugly underbelly to the ordered city of the colonial imagination.

Prakash also emphasises the fact that Mumbai's story is about expansion, both northwards and eastwards into the Indian mainland, and south, as land was reclaimed from the sea by governments functioning as a fig leaf for private interests. The greed for land continues to make and break careers in Bombay, most recently claiming the head of Maharashtra's Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, who was involved in a housing scam. However, in one of the book's many tendentious passages, Prakash attacks an influential group of intellectuals and urban planners in early post-independence India who advocated an eastward drive.

The group included the novelist Mulk Raj Anand, the founder of the influential architectural magazine Marg, the architect Charles Correa and the urban planner Shirish Patel. These men dreamt of a new Mumbai that was more ordered, friendly, and equitable than the main one: a satellite city called Navi Mumbai, or New Bombay, that would be built in the east. The planners saw the new city as a counterbalance to the old city's congested north-south axis. It was to relieve demand on land by making cheap housing available, and supply a zoned set of spaces for habitation, work and recreation instead of the harum-scarum sprawl of the old city. They also envisaged the state legislature moving to Navi Mumbai to encourage migration to the new city. This was a grand vision that has only seen partial realisation over the last half-century. Bogged down by red tape and apathy, it might be thought of as a tragic failure.

Yet Prakash attacks the project for attempting to "engineer an organic urban space to meet the needs of capitalist industrialisation", leaching the movement of its civic idealism and presenting it as yet another imposition upon the masses by those in power. Drawing on Freud, he argues that: "Politics and society, which the planners had suppressed, returned with the rage of the repressed to sour the modernist dream of postcolonial geography." Indeed, any kind of planning by governments or urban planners is inevitably described by him with loaded words like "dream text", "fantasy", or "utopia". Sometimes this jeering becomes positively infantile ("The grand plan was now a grand mess...").

Throughout Mumbai Fables, various oppressed entities are seen persistently, though not always persuasively, exacting their revenge. We are told, in the context of land reclamation in the posh neighbourhood of Marine Drive in south Bombay, that: "The sea had avenged its loss by blasting the surface of art deco architecture with unsightly blotches of mildew." It shouldn't need to be said that the sea blasts buildings with mildew even on unreclaimed land or land occupied by the poor or the middle classes.

It is also arguable that Prakash's prose, swinging as it does from the academic to the journalistic and back, is guilty a kind of colonisation of its own. Since his book is based more on archival research and a synthesis of secondary sources than on direct observation, he frequently enlists artworks - paintings, poems, films, and comic books - to buttress his points. As is often the case with academics in the social sciences who attempt to read pieces of art, this happens at the cost of denying their ambiguity or specificity.

Of a painting by the Mumbai artist Sudhir Patwardhan, we are told only that: "In Riot (1996) we see communal vitriol at its rawest. The image of society as a collective recedes." But what happens inside the painting? Doesn't its materiality come before its meanings? Quoting a poem by the fiery Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, Mumbai, Mumbai My Dear Slut, Prakash argues that: "[Dhasal] exhorts us to revisit the Island City's past to disclose Mumbai's history as culture's triumph over nature." This seems suspiciously like something that Prakash would like Dhasal to say.

Mumbai Fables harnesses a wealth of unusual material and is interesting in patches. But once its own code is cracked, it seems too predictable and negative to match the energy and enthusiasm of the city it takes for its subject.

Chandrahas Choudhury's novel Arzee the Dwarf, set in Mumbai, was recently selected by World Literature Today magazine as one of its "60 essential English-language works of modern Indian literature".

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