The city, captured through pictures, prose and poetic objectivity.
I have approached my object of fascination — Bombay for some strange reason — in different ways. Jeet Thayil’s landmark novel Narcopolis made me hallucinate. Sampurna Chattarji’s Dirty Love made me nostalgic. Bombay/Mumbai Immersions, the latest book on this monster city, makes me calm and approach it with objectivity and grace.
The mind-boggling variety of information in this meticulously researched book by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor justifies why another book on Mumbai isn’t too much. The genre — photo essays that are part narrative, part poetry — adds to the book’s allure. Bombay/Mumbai Immersions brings together the duo’s journeys through the city’s skin, heart and belly, with Sarukkai Chabria’s texts accompanied by Taylor’s simple photographs in black and white.
Cricket, crime and detailed accounts of commerce — themes that have characterised other books on the city — aren’t there in this one. Instead it has five sections, each immersing itself in a Mumbaiyan characteristic: ‘Concrete to Basalt’ that lays down how the city formed over the centuries; ‘Mosaics of Movement’ that dissects everything that lends the city its fast pace; ‘South to North: From Old to New’ on the city’s expanding contours; ‘Immersions’ that take the reader to Mumbai’s less known neighbourhoods; and ‘Cab ride through Bombay/Mumbai’ a one-sentence poetic account that has been featured in Sarukkai Chabria’s earlier poetry collection, Not Springtime Yet.
‘Concrete to Basalt’ is most fascinating for the reverse historical narrative. Sarukkai Chabria begins with the projected population for 2015 (23 million), goes through landmark periods such as the 2000s, the 1990s, the 1980s, working backwards all the way till c.200 BCE when the Satavahanas excavated the hollowed mass of Buddhist Kanheri caves. All the while, the city kept changing its shape. I wonder if it would recognise itself.
In ‘South to North: From Old to New’, Sarukkai Chabria says that Mumbai is every urban planner’s nightmare. Not because it needed to grow, but because it “grows without resolution of current civic problems; it grows without heed to the future. (It is) like a dinosaur run amuck...”
This section, the longest in the book, is striking for the etymological roots of the city’s name: Boon bay (1690), Bambaye and Bombaiim (1666), Mombaym (1644) ... and for its hauntingly simple photographs of Khotachiwadi, Afghan Church in Navy Nagar, Kala Ghoda, Ballard estate, Dhobi Ghat, a cemetery in Sewri, and so on.
‘Immersions’ plunge the reader into accounts of how the city’s cotton industry crumbled, leading many a mill to shut shop, rendering many jobless. Sarukkai Chabria recounts how the locality of Girangaon was a space for an “artistic culture and poetry in Marathi in which words were woven with the looms.” These accounts are accompanied by stark photographs in black and white of the facades and interiors of abandoned cotton mills.
Yet my favourite section has to be ‘Mosaics of Movement’, especially the bit on ‘Tides’. Flowing in an almost aphoristic, poetic narrative, it explores the tide from different angles: High, low, in water, in air and on sand. The short verses here seem like telling descriptions of what follows in the next chapter — the tales of migrants, the “inflections of spoken tongues, bubbles blown by bubble-liquid sellers.”
Nearly all descriptions and accounts are lined with thorough detail and facts. But what makes the book alluring is the occasional personal anecdote from Sarukkai Chabria’s and Taylor’s travels through Mumbai’s labyrinth. My quibble is that I longed to read more such personalised accounts.
Perhaps the authors wanted the city and its dark alleys to narrate their own stories, without nostalgia or short-lived sentiment. And this poetic objectivity could be the reason we want to immerse and not drown in the book.