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Sunday, December 12, 2010

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(Published as 'A Don Traverses the Streets of Mumbai' in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 12 December, 2010)

Title: Mumbai Fables

Author: Gyan Prakash

Publishers: Harper Collins

Price: Rs. 599

Pages: 348

A queue lines up to buy tickets to watch Aitraaz. A girl looks at the camera, suspicious and scared, but pouting, as if aware that it may be one of those photographers who discovers supermodels at malls or puts exotic women with arresting expressions on the cover of National Geographic. She probably didn’t think she’d end up in a professor’s book.

Mumbai Fables is cleverly titled. You just might pick it up, thinking it’s a collection of stories set in Mumbai. The beginning prolongs the myth. A pop-fantastical account of Parsi priests and the sacred fire shuddering as a foreigner desecrates their funerary arena turns out to be from a novel called Tower of Silence that I’m now glad I haven’t read.

You wonder whether this is a nostalgic expression of longing for home by an NRI, but then you learn Gyan Prakash grew up in Patna. So, Salman Rushdie’s endorsement of the book’s ‘insider knowledge’ strikes you as bizarre, and you flip to the back. Instead of a summary, you find three testimonials from academics, and one by the author of a presumably similar book on Germany, who assures you Prakash retraces five centuries here.

You wait for the history, noting grammatico-logical errors such as ‘The commuter-hour traffic jam escalated into an exodus’ and ‘Such a figure naturally cut a divisive figure’.

After wistful reminiscences from his childhood perception of Bombay, Gyan Prakash moves on to the subject of terror. Then, he meanders off into a discussion of ‘urban theory’ which is only interesting in that it makes you speculate how people qualify and make a living as ‘urban theorists’.

When he laments the absence of Irani cafes, and alludes to the cliché of regal hotels next to slums, you begin to feel the way you did when you watched Jab We Met, Jodha Akbar or Devdas. First, you think ‘why did the creator bother with it?’ Then, ‘why didn’t someone edit it?’ And next, ‘why the hell did it cost so much?’

But then, the author hits the nail on the head with observations such as, “Mumbai, it is said, stands on lands reclaimed from the Arabian Sea, as if the city had some prior claims on what lay buried underwater. In fact, the Island City occupies lands stolen from the sea.”

Finally, he begins his account of the Portuguese invasion. Stories of demolition of temples, suppression of religion and forced conversion are peppered with delightful vignettes such as a tiger-skinned ascetic’s story of resistance – the man is pulled up by Portuguese authorities for heathenishly anointing himself with holy waters, and he responds by saying he was only emulating John the Baptist. The author muses, ‘The Hindu convert to Christianity had ended up converting Christianity to Hinduism’.

Then, he tells you the legendary Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy was basically a drug-trafficker. Later comes a poignant tale about how Chor Bazaar got its name, leaving just enough unsaid.

As you read on, you realise the author is a very intelligent man with varied interests and tremendous knowledge. This ambitious book traces the growth of industry, cinema, tabloid journalism, writing, theatre, the Shiv Sena, the rise and fall of the dream of New Bombay (Navi Mumbai), the emergence of the underworld from Varadharajan Mudaliar to Dawood Ibrahim, and the story of Doga – a desi superhero who might be the lovechild of Batman and Sunny Deol, though he dresses like Phantom – accompanied by illustrated plates, the highlight of which is Bal Thackeray performing cabaret.

The fascinating story of how the city developed captures a bygone era, whose echoes one senses along the stretch by the Gateway of India. Beautifully drawn maps accompany an exposition of how the incongruence between the posh areas and chawls existed even in the 1800s.

At times, Prakash’s painstaking work is supported by authoritative commentary and lucid writing. But his tone is almost stream-of-consciousness at others, with forays into soulful philosophising.

Prakash struggles to divorce the academic’s propensity to overanalyse. Try this breakdown of the song Ai Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahaan from CID:

“References to the Hindi-speaking ‘Bandhu’ (friend) and the English-speaking ‘Mister’ suggest a feeling of belonging in Bombay’s socially and linguistically mongrel world.”

He chronicles the Anglophilic Congressman Dinshaw Wacha’s foolishly euphoric praise for British rule, Khurshed Framji Nariman’s inspiring opposition of the corruption in the Back Bay project, the Britishers’ callous attitude to ‘natives’ during the epidemic of the plague, the race-based segregation of brothels, and an activist actor’s belief that ‘socialism’ meant ‘going to parties’, without being judgmental.

But often, he’s either confused or absent-minded – a five-page tangential discussion ends abruptly, and he reverts to the main topic without a transition. Then, he goes on to repeat phrases, making you wonder whether you lost the page. Sometimes, he demonstrates the stereotypical professor’s conviction that an audience needs hand-holding.

So, my advice to the reader is: get yourself past the first 75 pages, and then the book will get you through itself.
And my advice to the author is: hire an editor. Your research is meticulous, your language can be pithy, and your versatility is remarkable, but your book is way too long!


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