& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Mumbai Fables

Gyan Prakash
You develop a strong bond with a city after you’ve lived in it for a while. As the city becomes home, the bonds grows stronger with time and a sense of space and smell of the city envelopes you.

Somewhere along the way, it magically transforms into an object of admiration.

I love Toronto, my home for the last three years; although, as many immigrants to the city will confess, on several occasions that love is unrequited.  

Then there is your hometown. You are mostly indifferent to it. It’s a part of you in more ways than you want it to be. It shapes your thinking and it makes your mind. It grows inside you as you grow up.

Somewhere along the way, it magically transform into an object of loathing.

I’m Mumbai even when I don’t want to be; although, I leap to its fierce defence when anyone is even mildly (and objectively) critical of it.

We think we know our hometown, and often we don’t tolerate an ‘outsider’ sitting in judgement over its character, even when the verdict is favourable.

Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables is a passionately written book by an ‘outsider’.

As someone who has lived all but the last three years of my life in Bombay-Mumbai, and worked as a journalist for 15 years in the city (including at Blitz, with the legendary R.K. Karanjia), Mumbai Fables is deeply satisfying because it is so familiar.

The book has many things going for it – for instance, a remarkable narration of the Art Deco revolution of the early 20th century that gave an architectural identity to the city’s cosmopolitanism. “...the curved and stamped form of Art Deco signified the dynamism and rationalism of industrial capitalism.”

The Cosmopolis and the Nation is strongest section of the book. The story of Manto and Chugtai and IPTA is one that needs retelling to a younger generation that is unaware and uncaring of the rich syncretic traditions of the city that is stereotyped as a business capital that has little patience with culture.

I also discovered Doga in the book; Prakash analysis of the comic book antihero and its quintessential Mumbai character is brilliant.  

On the other hand, Mumbai Fables is deeply annoying too, because it doesn’t follow the path that I want it follow.

For instance, there is next to nothing about Mountstuart Elphinstone or Nana Sunkersett, or the role of Bombay stalwarts including Sunkersett and Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy in the development of the Great Indian Peninsula (GIP) Railway, and even more surprising is the absence of Pherozeshah Mehta.

While narrating K. F. Nariman’s indefatigable battle with the city’s colonial rulers against the reclamation of land from the sea, Prakash misses the internecine squabbling within Bombay’s Congress party that led to Nariman’s sidelining by Sardar Patel in favour of K.M. Munshi; the Gujarati lobby in the Congress apparently argued that Nariman wasn’t completely clean himself.

Again, there is no mention of S.K. Patil, and GeorgeFernandes is mentioned once, only in the passing. And Datta Samant is referred to mainly in the context of gang wars over mill lands.

But to be fair, it’s Prakash’s book and he has the right to choose his direction.

Prakash’s style is interesting because he weaves the past and the present, combines history with reportage to narrate his story. I place it in the same category as Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, although they are very different books.

Image: http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/gyan-prakash/

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