For the outsider, Mumbai Fables holds a wealth of information; for the true-blue Mumbaiite, it merely states the obvious. Either way, it's worth reading.
If there is one place in the world that has continued to spawn vast bodies of writing over time, it has to be Bombay. Or Mumbai, to be politically correct. From Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie, down to Gregory Roberts, Vikram Chandra, Suketu Mehta and Shobhaa De, countless books (both fiction and non-fiction) have revolved around Mumbai's high society jinks, Bollywood, the city's criminal underbelly and the ever permeating presence of suburban angst.
The latest entrant to this tribe of Mumbai-obsessed writers is historian Gyan Prakash. Spanning and analysing a large chunk of the recent social, political, economic and cultural development that has occurred in the metropolis and attempting to link it to the present state of affairs, Prakash's book Mumbai Fables stands tall (and thick!).
The book opens rather unconventionally with a scene set in the Tower of Silence, a place where deceased Parsis are laid to rest. A few pages down the line, just as the goose pimples are beginning to settle down, the reader is informed that the scene is the opening passage of an unpublished book written by another writer, Phiroshaw Jamsetjee Chevalier (Chaiwala) in 1927. In keeping with this trend, Prakash brings in the words, lines and thoughts of numerous writers, poets and lyricists to illustrate the finer patterns of the bigger picture that he is attempting to paint and the overall effect is that of a charming colourful collage.
The author's fanatical fascination for maximum city is established at the very onset as he unabashedly informs the reader that he spent his growing up years (in distant Patna) watching friends trying to ape Dev Anand's puffed hairdo and succumbing to the allure of villain Ajit's immortal one-liners.
The deep influence left by Hindi films manifests itself further as with great depth (and an awful lot of homework) Prakash discusses the works of film-makers Muzaffar Ali, Chetan Anand, Raj Kapoor and those numerous others who crafted their classics against the backdrop of the city. Countless verses from songs capturing the spirit of the city, past and present, are sprung at the reader who is comfortably wallowing in nostalgia by now.
There is a deftness of touch as Prakash brings alive the magic of an era where black and white ruled supreme and the spirit of the common man was just beginning to wake up, amply aided by the films of Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni.
Through other eyes
The selection of events that Prakash assumes to have shaped Mumbai's history appears bafflingly random in the initial chapters but fall snugly into place in the second part. More than attempting a deeply personal or cerebral analysis, the author relies heavily on perceiving the city through the eyes of artists, actors, architects, politicians and poets (both English and the vernacular).
Swiftly and surely, like a man of long experience playing Chinese checkers, Prakash constructs the city's history by pulling the plug off the infamous Nanavati murder case, linking it ingeniously to the rise of the sensational tabloid Blitz and consequently, celebrity Parsi editor Rusi Karanjia and columnist Behram Contractor (Busybee), the awakening of the people's power and the eventual forming of the Shiv Sena.
The halcyon days of The Illustrated Weekly, Femina and Mario Miranda's cartoons, with their timeless appeal, are well captured as the reader is deliciously transported to another time and another place. Prakash travels in rapid obliques, closely tracing the closing of textile mills, the rise of Bal Thackeray, the subsequent power dynamics of the tiger and the after effects of the influx of North Indian immigrants seeking jobs.
Simultaneously, he touches upon some great minds like Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Sahir, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra and others, who thrived in the bubbling cauldron of the city's multi-cultural creativity.
The decline of the once grand city is sensitively traced particularly the shift from red to saffron, the spread of chawl culture and the rise in the muscle power of the Marathi manoos. The works of contemporary artists, particularly those of Atul Dodiya and Meera Devidayal, seem to epitomise the soul of the city in the author's eyes and he refers to their creations repeatedly. The book is resplendent with illustrations, plates, taxi stickers, entire pages from comic books and other period paraphernalia including a newspaper advertisement (for The Tata Iron and Steel Co. Ltd.) dating back to 1935.
A substantial section is dedicated to the popular cartoon characters Doga (a self-styled urban crime-buster), Chacha Chouhdury and Adrak Chacha and their hilarious but lofty escapades.
The book ends, quite predictably, on the premises of the infamous Dharavi slums, an address that symbolises both the best and the worst of Mumbai. Dharavi is by now synonymous with the city's grunge factor and ironically, with its never-say-die spirit and like so many others before him Prakash pays his respects to Asia's largest slum in his own inimitable manner.
This is an ambitious book, one that strives to grapple, gather together the many heads of the hydra and squeeze the creature snugly into a tank for public viewing. But the city of Mumbai, by its very diversity, defies compartmentalisation and slips out of the author's grasp ever so often. Joining the dots, likewise, fails to do justice to the attempted portraiture of Mumbai for the simple reason that the city is perennially in a state of flux. Popularly called “maximum city” (courtesy Suketu Mehta), the author introduces us to its new name, “kinetic city”, a term coined by architect Rahul Mehrotra, due to its transient flake-pastry nature. But this very kinetic quality could, paradoxically, be an author's downfall for even as he formulates his thoughts, puts them into words and the book goes to print, the city has, in all likelihood, morphed out of all recognition and become a new entity. Sometimes however, literature sees that uncanny coincidence (like Amitav Ghosh's fictitious tidal flood preceding the real life tsunami) and Prakash's fleeting reference to Rohinton Mistry's past book A Fine Balance gains special significance in context of the present day controversy raging around his other book, Such a Long Journey.
The dust jacket informs us that the author is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University but there is a child-like wonder in the quality of writing, a wide-eyed rapture more suited to an impressionable teenager than an academician. It is particularly tangible when he writes about Bollywood milestones like the rule of matinee queen Fearless Nadia, movies fuelled by the Partition theme or the desolate taxiwalla on the screen, stranded away from home and caught in the vicious cycle of a heartless city. There is genuine effort at sifting the real from the imagined with respect to a city that is now concrete, now chimera, always confusing and always confounding. Prakash's ear for the colloquial is sharp and unerring as he breaks into delightful Mumbaiyya street lingo ever so often and it is obvious that he has a very firm finger on the pulse of the city. It is this quality that gives the book a degree of freshness and prevents it from falling into a dusty compilation of historical facts and figures. One wonders what fuelled the author to go to such great lengths to do a rewind of much-known much-discussed city events but then every writer probably has his personal compulsions for erupting into words……
A lot of research has gone into writing this tome, which audibly groans under the weight of its data. What Prakash probably is trying to do here is to translate the pictorial complexity of a Mario Miranda classic into the medium of words and, if so, he succeeds mighty fine.
For the outsider, Mumbai Fables holds within its pages a wealth of information; for the true-blue Mumbaiite, it merely states the obvious.
But no matter which side of the fence one is positioned on, Mumbai Fables is highly recommended as this 300-plus pages book definitely makes for a paisa-vasool read!
Kankana Basu is a Mumbai-based writer
Mumbai Fables; Gyan Prakash, HarperCollins, Rs. 599.