Review: Mumbai Fables

Shivangi Singh

The spoken and unspoken historical breakthroughs in the magnetic metropolis, Mumbai, have made their way into the book ‘Mumbai Fables’. It seems as if legendary writers, journalists, planners, architects, artists, film-makers, political activists as well as faceless inhabitants, who were instrumental in shaping Mumbai and witnessed its dramatic changes and turning points, have come together to relate the history of the city through their individual forte.

Therefore, in the historical account, ‘Mumbai Fables’ (HarperCollins) by a professor of history at Princeton, Gyan Prakash, you come across painters and cartoonists illustrating spectacle and ruin; writers exploring the mythic inner life of the city; poets likening the metro city to a beloved slut; journalists promoting a cause; film-makers projecting the city as the cosmopolitan anthem of India; starry eyed planners, cynical leaders, underworld dons, immigrants and inhabitants viewing and shaping the city according to their ideologies. And amidst all this is the distinct voice of the writer, Gyan Prakash, who deftly weaves all fables together to present a graphic and vivid narrative of the city’s past and present.

In the writer’s words, “My goal is not to strip fact from fiction, not to oppose the ‘real’ to the myth, but to reveal the historical circumstances portrayed and hidden by the stories and images produced in the past and the present.”

Historian Prakash establishes himself as a master storyteller from the very beginning as he generates interest by beginning with a dramatic passage from an unpublished book by a Parsi. Then follows his account of fascination with the city, which has always been synonymous with Hindi cinema for most of the Indians. He believes that for Indians “New Delhi was just a just a dull seat of government, heavily laden with a bureaucratic ethos, and Madras was too culturally and linguistically remote. Although far away, it was Bombay that held the promise of exciting newness and unlimited possibilities.”

But the mood changes when Prakash elaborates on the contemporary despicable plight of the city by citing ‘Outlook’ report of Mumbai in 2002.

“The lead article recited killer statistics and facts. The population already a ‘scary 11 million’, was estimated to reach 28.5 million by 2015, making Mumbai world’s most populous city; the infrastructure in this city of slums and high rises has already reached a breaking point, and the suburban trains are packed four to five times their capacity. A picture of Queen’s Necklace, Marine Drive’s signature nighttime image, on the magazine’s cover was emblazoned with a bold title: “Bombay: The Death of a Great City,” he writes.

The writers goes on to recount the catastrophic Mumbai floods, bomb blasts in Mumbai commuter trains and terrorist attacks on November 26, 2008 at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Trident Hotel and the Jewish Center at Nariman House – the events that “brought forward the frame of ‘crisis’ to represent Mumbai’s condition”.

After painting the current scenario, the author hits the streets to unearth the colonial Bombay and gather remnants of the past. He talks about the British and their efforts to develop Bombay as a city of commerce, which led to the emergence of its first capitalists, who were all great beneficiaries of free trade of cotton and opium. The story of the mythic rise of the industrialist-philanthropist Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Kavasji Nanabhai Davar, who built the first cotton-spinning mill in 1854, is engrossing.

Marine Driver appears as a powerful symbol in the book - "an expression of human artifice, of nature bent to the will of culture". The writers states, “It is a compelling image, endlessly reproduced and circulated in postcards, books and magazines. Above all, it is Hindi cinema of the 1950s – Raj Kapoor’s tramp films and the crime melodramas starring Dev Anand – that disseminated the picture far and wide.” He refers to films, songs and poems that have always presented Mumbai in vibrant hues.

The passages on Khurshed Framji Nariman, a Parsi lawyer and a Congressman who exposed the land scam through the columns of the nationalist newspaper ‘Bombay Chronicle’ and the sensational trial of Nanavati (the naval commander who shot his wife`s lover) simply stand out. Russi K Karanjia, a socialist, managed to dramatically raise the sale of his tabloid, ‘Blitz’, by projecting Nanavati as the "honour killer", who was supposed to be "avenging conscience of humanity". The tragedy of Nanavati as shaped by Karanjia still makes a powerful read, far more gripping than prominent crime thrillers.

Mumbai’s transformation from a ‘red’ city to ‘saffron’ after the rise of Bal Thackeray and the Shiva Sena is terrific. Prakash states, “Only forty years old when he founded the Shiv Sena, Thackeray presented himself as a fearless, youthful leader of a new type, one able to bend feckless bureaucrats, the older generation, the elite and evil enemies to the force of his will.” For the writer, Bal Thackeray is the original ‘angry young man’, long before Amitabh Bachchan made the screen image famous in the 1970s.

Prakash further delves into the leftover dreams and ideals of planners, dreamers and painters like Charles Correa, Pravina Mehta, Shirish Patel, Mulk Raj Anand, Meera Devidayal and Atul Dodiya. The last chapter portraying the comic book hero Doga as the saviour of Mumbaikars is masterly. According to Prakash, “The comic book presents Bombay Dying from the point of view of the streets.”

The book is an enthralling mix of events, presented through varied genres, but with the common thread of history running through it. Instead of a monotonous scholarly and historical account of the city, the book comes across as a lively and powerful account of what Bombay was and what Mumbai is.