Princeton University Press, 2010
One of the most enduring images of Mumbai in recent popular memory is that of ten gunmen storming the Taj Hotel and various other central locations in 2008, killing or wounding more than 400 people in a hostage drama that played out over four days and across international media outlets. Jostling alongside this image of the city as a site of violence in the global imagination is the vision of a postcolonial metropolis: witness the panoptic vistas of Danny Boyle’s and Loveleen Tandan’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008). As the two brothers in Slumdog return to Mumbai, the camera pans from the luxury high-rise buildings of the city to the “slum” of interlaced rooftops which previously stood on the site. This visual linkage of vertical structures to horizontal beginnings is a symbolic summary of the rags-to-riches plot: Mumbai is seen as a city of opportunity where the poor can rise, albeit only if it is written “in their destiny”.
These images of Mumbai—as centre of terror and fulfiller of capitalist dreams—are myths which Gyan Prakash seeks to interrogate in his latest study Mumbai Fables. Embodying the history and social fabric of a 500-year-old city, home to some 14 million people, is a mammoth task that calls for a strong conceptual focus. In view of this, Mumbai Fables carves out a niche as a counter history, an intervention into the development narratives which frame Mumbai’s history as a transition “from the bounded unity of the city of industrial capitalism to the ‘generic city’ of globalization, from modernity to postmodernity, from cosmopolitanism to communalism.” Prakash sets out to do so through reviewing the different discourses (or myths) at play in various cultural forms—fiction, media, architecture, legal proceedings, film, and popular music. Starting with Bombay’s mythic colonial status (gifted to Charles II as Catherine de Barganza’s dowry), Mumbai Fables covers everything from Bombay’s rise as the centre of the cotton and opium trade during the British Empire and the political conflicts between its socialist movements and the religious populist Shiv Sena to the political assassinations and infamous scandals which have rocked the city along the way.
Published at the same time as a spate of histories and critical analyses of Mumbai as a metropolis (Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope by M. Dossal; Mumbai: Political Economy of Crime and Space by A. Shaman; Mumbai post 26/11 by R. Puniyani and S. Hashmi, to name but a few from 2010), Prakash’s Fables distinguishes itself through its varied cultural source material: Portuguese epics, Dalit poetry, Manto’s partition stories, and the Hindi comic Doga all make their way into the book. However, Prakash’s insights gravitate toward the social rather than the cultural, a bias that obviates a more astute analysis of the many narratives the work draws on. For example, Prakash’s own writing leans heavily on two cultural predecessors—Suketu Mehta’s memoir cum social study Maximum City (2004) and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981)—without sufficiently unpacking either for their contributions to the mythmaking of the city.
For all the ostensible cultural material incorporated in the work, Prakash himself likens his task to archaeology—an “unearthing” of the fabled status of the city—and perhaps this metaphor is more apt than intended, as Prakash’s analyses of land development and urban planning are some of Mumbai Fables’s strong points. Prakash paints a convincing picture of a city that has been shaped by different forms of colonial projects, modernist dreams, and industrial urban realities through engaging analyses of Bombay’s/Mumbai’s architecture and a detailed study of the planning commissions’ work under both the British Raj and the municipal government of the 1960s. From Khurshed Nariman’s nationalist campaign against the colonial administration’s corrupt land reclamation schemes (the success of which was honoured by the naming of Nariman Point) to the similarly underhanded business deals which plagued the local government’s development of the same bay four decades later, Prakash shows how the conflicts between the local communities and various profiteering governments have been played out in the public sphere.
Moreover, this is not the only instance of hypocrisy highlighted in Mumbai Fables. Prakash’s Mumbai is a city of ironies, in which an actress in the new leftist theatre of the 1940s answers the question “What is socialism?” with the nonchalant exclamation “going to parties”, and in which Air India wouldn’t think twice of hoisting a banner claiming “Nariman had a point and we’re on it!” on a building that occupies land allegedly reclaimed to solve a housing crisis. True to the book’s title, Prakash is not just reciting comical anecdotes but making a moral point: Bombay/Mumbai has taken shape as a metropolis at the expense of its millions of migrant workers whose labour and culture, though a crucial part of the fabric of the city, is often overlooked.
With this in mind, Mumbai Fables does succeed in extenuating the commonly held view of Mumbai’s history as a simple trajectory from a golden cosmopolitan past to a regressive sectarian present. However, Prakash’s text itself struggles at times to overcome the binaries he seeks to challenge. The dual focus—on the glitz and glamour of Mumbai’s merchant classes and its underbelly of socialist millworkers and organized crime—fails to intersect in Fables, and Prakash’s own academic bias runs at times too far into the realms of social history to really examine the city itself as a subject of analysis. Prakash’s conclusion that Mumbai’s largest and most famous slum Dharvani is “pure Bombay”, a place where innovation, entrepreneurship, and community still flourish, may well be true. But he fails to qualify the legitimacy of this lyrical claim against a backdrop of routine myth-debunking.
As a member of the Subaltern Studies group of Indian historians who seek to prize history from its nationalist bias, it is disappointing that Prakash does not trouble the paradigm further to question how the various images of Mumbai have come to carry currency or how they may in fact feed into one another. Prakash’s assertion that Mumbai is a “layered city” does not in fact preclude the “stories of a rise and fall”, as his reference to Chor Bazaar demonstrates. A bazaar for old and used commodities called “Thieves’ Market” is posited as both a testament to the multilayered “debris of Mumbai’s modern life” and to the historical fluxes which render it nominally illegitimate. Prakash’s history alternates between offering an almost proselytizing social critique of the injustices of urban life and being an ode to a city whose mythic quality has attracted so many. It is difficult not to be charmed by this mythic Mumbai of endless multiplicity, but as an unearthing of its fabular status, one cannot help but feel Mumbai Fables has merely begun to scratch the surface.
Charlotta Salmi is reading for a DPhil in Postcolonial Literature at Linacre College, Oxford.