Hensman on Prakash, 'Mumbai Fables'

Gyan Prakash
Rohini Hensman

Gyan Prakash. Mumbai Fables. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. xi + 396 pp. Illustrations. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-14284-5.

Reviewed by Rohini Hensman Published on H-Asia (October, 2011) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Mumbai City

Mumbai Fables recounts the history of Bombay from its colonial origins to the present in a book that is both scholarly and well written. In the first chapter, Gyan Prakash describes how he hungered for the city from a distance since his childhood, a desire fed by Hindi films. Having described the myths generated by the city, he explains,“The nostalgic ‘tropical Camelot’ and the dystopic city of slums appear as compelling bookends of Mumbai’s story because they seem to have the force of historical truth. In fact, it is a trick of history, inviting us to believe its Bombay-to-Mumbai tale as an objective reading of the past when it is a fable.... 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” (p. 23).

At this point I should reveal that I evaluate this book from the standpoint of an immigrant who moved to Bombay in 1974 with my immediate family, knowing literally no one apart from my husband’s relatives, who very kindly took us in. It is the inclusiveness, warmth, and friendship I have encountered in the course of involvement in social and political activism that endear the city to me. The diversity of the city makes it easy for anyone to feel at home; as the author remarks, “As a means of communicating across differences, the city has even concocted a hybrid but wonderfully expressive vernacular for everyday communication--Bambaiya” (p. 11). It is precisely for this reason that the anti-Muslim pogroms of 1993 caused such anguish to many residents, and why there was resistance to the change of name to “Mumbai” by the Shiv Sena, which had organized the violence. Resistance--to communal carnage, unregulated property development that contributed to the disastrous floods of July 2005, calls for war with Pakistan, and so on--is underplayed in the book. But its purpose is to “uncover the historical experiences of forging a modern collective of different religions, classes, castes and languages and undo the fables to lay bare the history of the city as society” (p. 24). And it achieves this remarkably well.

The second chapter traces the origins of Bombay in a colonial past. From 1532, the Portuguese ruled Bombay, which was then seven separate islets on which people lived by fishing, rice and coconut farming, and trade. In 1661, the Portuguese gifted Bombay as a dowry to the English when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II. Seven years later, “the Crown leased Bombay to the East India Company,” which built the fort as a well-defended walled town (p. 35). By 1838, “reclamations, the filling of breaches and the construction of bunds and roadways, had joined the seven islets into a single island” (p. 44). Initially, the city’s prosperity derived from the opium trade, but during the American Civil War in the 1860s, cotton became the main source of wealth. Cotton prices crashed after the war ended; but by then, the first textile mill had been established in 1854, and was soon followed by others. Bombay became an industrial city, attracting migrants from all over India.

Prakash presents Dinshaw Wacha’s account of Bombay’s modernity, Govind Narayan Madgavkar’s portrait of the dazzling range of communities living in the metropolis, and Naoroji Dumasia’s writings on crime, as contrasting myths from the nineteenth century. There was a more striking contrast between the European “comely city” in South Bombay and the teeming “native town” (p. 61), where “Bombay’s working classes huddled in dark, crowded, poorly ventilated and ramshackle buildings, jammed together without consideration for drainage or ventilation” (p. 68)--conditions that gave rise to the plague epidemic of 1896-97 at a time when plague was a worldwide scourge. The author observes that “The government recognized ... that the dreadful sanitary conditions in the Bombay Port Trust chawls had bred the disease. However, it could not acknowledge that the underlying cause was colonial rule” (p. 71). Yet the earliest protective labor legislation in India, the Factories Act (1881) restricting child labor and working hours among other things, was passed by the colonial government under pressure from Lancashire textile manufacturers, who feared competition from Indian mills. This was later strengthened, and other labor laws added, under the colonial administration. Accounts of European capitalism by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Emile Zola, and of postcolonial Indian capitalism, suggest that it is capitalism that is responsible for such extreme poverty, and only working-class struggle can secure decent living and working conditions.  

Bombay’s island origin makes it difficult for the city to expand, except northwards. Chapter 3 goes into efforts by the colonial state to relieve congestion by reclaiming land from the sea in the first half of the twentieth century. The first plan foundered due to incompetence and corruption, and was criticized vigorously by Parsi lawyer and prominent congressman Khurshed Framji Nariman, thus “establishing the idea that the city was an object of public interest” (p. 94). But the pressure for housing continued, resulting in the construction of upper-class Art Deco apartments on Queen’s Road and Marine Drive, and the Bombay Development Department chawls in Worli for workers. While the Art Deco crowd were entertained by “Jazz, ballroom dancing, cabarets, and the screening of Hollywood films,” (p. 105), Hindi cinema took off and prospered. It is surely a tribute to the secular, progressive mass culture of the time that one of the most popular stars in hit after hit was “Fearless Nadia,” a white woman who spoke Hindi poorly but “could beat up evil Indian men, and yet arouse no nationalist backlash because cultural modernity, rather than race, defined her identity” (p. 110)!

As Prakash writes, “By the 1930s, Bombay was the place to be if you were a writer, an artist, or a radical political activist” (p. 119). A stellar array of writers congregated around the Communist Party of India--led the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association, both of which enjoyed a significant presence in Bombay. These were not just front organizations: “Many writers who were influenced by progressive and socialist ideas were neither CPI members nor followers.... But all these writers expressed a genuine social and intellectual ferment” (p. 130). They combined an orientation towards the working class with high artistic standards. Thus Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (Lowly City), for example, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946. Written by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, with music composed by Ravi Shankar, the film tells the story of “the nonviolent struggle of the underclasses against the rich” (p. 136).

However, all this was disrupted by Partition in 1947. Not only did these intellectuals scatter in different directions--for example, Saadat Hasan Manto went to Pakistan while Ismat Chugtai and Abbas remained in Bombay--but they found their radical politics challenged by nationalism. And, as Prakash points out, “The about-turns in the CPI’s strategy did not help.” Abbas was even more scathing about his Communist friends “who were ready to divide India into two or twenty pieces in pursuance of their theory of self-determination,” remarking that the Communist Party, along with Hindu and Muslim fanatics, had killed India (p. 148).

The Communist Party’s sympathy for linguistic nationalism, encouraged by Stalin’s writings on the national question, was also implicated in the transition “From Red to Saffron,” as chapter 6 is named. With the emergence of the Communist Girni Kamgar Union as the dominant force in the textile mills in 1928, the CPI had turned Girangaon, the mill district, “into a red bastion not just with industrial actions but also with attempts to form a progressive culture” (p. 212). This advantage was partly frittered away by Comintern-inspired lurches to the right and left during the war and after. But the fatal blow came when Shripad Amrit Dange, who had been sidelined as “right-wing” during the left turn, was back in the leadership, and joined wholeheartedly in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement of the 1950s, demanding a unified state of Marathi-speakers with Bombay as its capital. Working-class politics gave way to Marathi chauvinism, and the main beneficiary was the Shiv Sena, founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966. Its defense of “Marathi culture” entailed, in its early period, attacks on South Indians and Communists, culminating in the murder of CPI activist Krishna Desai.

Muslims were the next target. In the late 1980s, the Shiv Sena joined other right-wing Hindu groups in the Ram Janmabhoomi (Ram’s Birthplace) movement, which destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992. This was followed, in January 1993, by the most shameful episode in Bombay’s history: the anti-Muslim pogroms in which the Sena, with police collusion, murdered defenseless Muslims in cold blood. The official death toll is 900, the unofficial one much higher. The violence was followed by retaliatory violence: the bomb blasts of March 12, 1993 that killed over 250 people.

Chapter 7 returns to the theme of urban planning in the mid 1960s, and the dream of a twin city on the mainland. The author’s explanation for the failure of the twin city plan was that it had “no place for the heterogeneous and conflict-ridden urban life, no room for chawls as spaces of community and memory, and no room for the rich and varied life on the streets” (p. 285). This may be true, but a more mundane explanation might have suggested itself if he had looked at the public transport system of Bombay. Until the recent extension of the Harbour Line to Navi Mumbai, suburban trains ran only in a north-south direction. Given the struggle to get on and off trains in the rush hour, commuters understandably prefer to do it only once per journey. There have been buses going east-west for many years, but they are much slower. Therefore people wanting more living space moved further and further northwards rather than moving eastwards.

In the last chapter, “Dreamworlds,” a similar contrast is drawn between the vitality and resourcefulness of the inhabitants of Dharavi and the disparaging description of it as “Asia’s largest slum.” Prakash is absolutely right to criticize the “real estate magnates and middle-class heritage activists” who seek to displace these hard-working and enterprising migrants in their pursuit of profit or beautification (p. 239). But it does not follow that nothing needs to be changed. The lives of women and girls would be immeasurably better if they did not have to spend hours queuing up at water-taps, risk humiliation or worse when they needed to go to the toilet, or have malicious neighbors spreading gossip about them. Ensuring that people have running water, sanitation, and a modicum of privacy while preserving a sense of community is the challenge facing planners.

In conclusion, Prakash states that “Mumbai’s everyday practice rejects history written as a linear story and presents it instead as a tapestry of different, overlapping, and contradictory experiences, imaginations and desires” (p. 348). This complex reality is presented skillfully in an eminently readable narrative. There are a few gaps, however. For example, there is no mention of the establishment of new industries (engineering, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.) from the 1940s onwards, and the development of employees’ or workers’ unions in them. While many of the early units have disappeared as employers closed them down and shifted production to other locations, the movement has grown into a nationwide federation, the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), which ranks among the most impressive examples of union democracy in the world. Nor is there any mention of the autonomous women’s movement, which took off in the late 1970s after the Supreme Court acquitted a policeman who had raped Mathura, a sixteen-year-old tribal girl.

While these movements focus on workers’ rights and women’s rights respectively, they have also made a point of safeguarding Bombay’s diversity. Thus the NTUI and others organized a meeting just before the High Court judgment in the Babri Masjid title suit in 2010, appealing to workers to protect Muslims in their neighborhoods and workplaces in the event of a backlash to the judgment. And in 2008, in the midst of a campaign of violence against North Indians carried out by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj, the International Women’s Day march in Bombay condemned the ethnic cleansing drives of both the Shiv Sena and MNS. If the myth of Bombay as an inclusive city survives to this day, it is thanks to the efforts of such activists.   

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Citation: Rohini Hensman. Review of Prakash, Gyan, Mumbai Fables. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. October, 2011. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=32218

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