Monday, 25 July 2011

Prakash spins Mumbai Fables

Books about the ‘real’ Mumbai/Bombay are less available than one might think for such a major and interesting city.

I thought Gillian Tindall’s one (City Of Gold) was fascinating as an introduction to the area’s history (and full of quirky anecdotes that make trudging through history a little more bearable!).
Maximum City is of course the fashionable book about Bombay at the moment, but in essence it bears down on the salaciousness of the city as seen through one man’s eyes. At least that man is a very good journalist.
And the coffee-table book ‘Bombay The Cities Within’ (Dwivedi/Mehrotra) – the story of the building and continuous rebuilding of Bombay – is basically a book of fabulous photos.

New book

So Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash is welcome, simply because it’s nice to have a very authoritative voice talking about the story of modern Mumbai, and because his book does add something – a very well researched socio-political & cultural account of the history of the city over the last 200 years (and more).
Incidentally, ‘socio-political’ as a term sounds dry, but Prakash cleverly uses certain incidents in the life and times of Bombay/Mumbai to make his accounts all sound rather more gossipy – and thus entertaining… He even alludes to the popular films that describe the experience of the city’s underbelly.

But… it all doesn’t feel engaged enough.
Prakash himself appears to live now in the US, though he tells us he spent some of his childhood in Bombay. And it does feel like an expatriate’s book, as though he’s peering through a lens at the city, not actually experiencing it as part of it.

He prefers to stick to a procession of references to original documents, rather than do what we really want – tell us what it all means!
Okay, that would have to be only his opinion, but I for one would like to hear his opinion! Instead his author’s ‘vision’ is blurred, as he prefers to have his thoughts refracted through lumbering accounts of the city’s literature, art, and popular-journalism.


Trouble is – as well – that he seems so frightened of going out on a limb with original personal interpretations that, when he can’t refer to any archive documentation, the book starts to limp. For example, his reflections on the city’s vast flea market, Chor Bazaar, are, well, blindingly obvious.

His attachment to quoting original documents is frankly one he resorts to as though it were a crutch. The endless (ENDLESS!!) account of the famous Nanavati ‘society’ trial of the late 1950s is way over the top. It’s as though a PhD history thesis (and we know how those doctorates are all about nosing through piles of dusty original references) had been inserted into the book.

The myths of Mumbai – the story of its gangster underworld for instance – are faithfully recounted from the sources… but does Prakash want to winkle out the deep truth that may be in the sources? Doesn’t seem to. You almost feel that his scholarly nature disallows him – he prefers to allude to the “tapestry of different, overlapping and contradictory experiences”.
Fair enough, but a historian needs to help us stand back and see the bigger pictures that form in the ‘tapestry’.

I wanted desperately to know the answers to certain questions – for instance, why (exactly, please!!) did Shiv Sena arise? Prakash gives us dates, times, serendipities, but, no, not deep interpretations.
Now and again, there are (you can sense them as a sub-text!) scholarly disputes over what he thinks someone meant by such-and-such, but, goodness!, such hair-splitting! Give me big, bold statements any day.


Oh… and by the way – an irritation. There’s not a decent map of the city in the whole book (outlines, yes - detailed map, no) which is a bit odd, don’t you think? We read of the city’s districts, and yet are left to imagine how the city’s districts and suburbs form a geography. Grrrrr!
I shall not mention the low-resolution, badly-printed photos, which are… a disgrace.

Okay, Mumbai Fables is scholarly, and, thankfully, gossipy enough to make it readable. I’m glad I’ve read it; and glad it exists.
In it the skeleton of the city is accounted for; but Mumbai’s living flesh is untouched by this book.

Good for Prakash for spending so much time studying in library archives; but he could have some more of his time just simply walking the city’s streets.

Links: Mumbai Fables (Princeton Press); Mumbai Fables - review on Middle Stage ; Mumbai Fables review on The Oxonian

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