Tuesday, April 26, 2011

At Mountain Echoes next month, and at Utkal University this week

My nose is pointing east. Next month, on the morning of Saturday the 21st of May, I'll be giving a lecture called "What Novels Tell Us About Life (And About Themselves) at the second edition of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan. Among the writers whose work I'll draw on at this talk are Ashvaghosha, Vasily Grossman, Sandor Marai, Irene Nemirovsky, Chekhov, Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, and Edna O'Brien. The schedule for the whole festival is here, and if you live in India and would like to attend the festival you might want to think about a special flights-and-accommodation passage, details of which are here.

And later this week, at 11 am on Thursday the 28th of April, I'll be speaking for an hour at the English Department at Utkal University in Bhubaneswar in my home state Orissa, on two separate subjects, since universities never invite me more than once, and so many things pop up in my brain in the five-year gaps between these invitations.

First I'll speak for half an hour on "The Pleasures and Problems of Indian Literature Today", and then for the next half hour, after a short break to allow for anybody in the audience who wants to escape to escape, I'll give a talk called "Staying In Literature", about the different careers in literature available today for English literature graduates (in writing, editing, literary criticism and journalism, and publishing) that are potentially more satisfying to self and soul than work in television news, advertising, and other such expanding industries. The Department is home to several people doing excellent work in Oriya literature and its translation into English, such as Jatindra Nayak, the translator of Fakir Mohan Senapati and JP Das among others, and the literary critic Himansu Mohapatra. If you live in Bhubaneswar, you're very welcome to attend.

Senapati, incidentally, is the subject – or more appropriately the hub of a wheel with many spokes of different colours – of a fascinating new book of essays, Colonialism, Modernity and Literature, in which a number of Indian scholars and critics look at his classic novel Six Acres and a Third through a variety of conceptual lenses while also linking him to other language-literatures of his time, such as Hindi, Assamese and Telugu. To my mind Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Senapati are the first great novelists in Indian literature, but Senapati is more idiosyncratic and original than Chatterji, and Six Acres and a Third the first Indian novel that not only successfully mines Indian material but also invents a homespun novelistic mode rooted more in Indian narrative tradition than in classic nineteenth-century European realism, which most early Indian novelists adapted for their own ends. Indian literature needs more books like this to make a proper reckoning with its own roots.

If you'd like to read more about Oriya literature, a recent issue of the literary magazine MuseIndia is a special on Oriya literature and can be found here. And here is an old post on the great Oriya poet Salabega: "Tigers in the poetry of Salabega and William Blake".

Friday, April 15, 2011

On Neera Adarkar's anthology The Chawls of Mumbai

Mumbai would not be the city and the story that it is today without its chawls. These three- and four-storey blocks of one- and two-room tenements, built all across south and central Mumbai on a massive scale over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by both the colonial government and private landlords, stand at the centre of the city’s social history. Although each of the great chawl neighbourhoods of Mumbai – Girgaon, Girangaon, Kalbadevi, Worli, Byculla – has its own distinct history and religious and class composition, together they form an architectural and city-specific continuum through which many of the city's traits can be understood. The quiddity of chawls and their longstanding influence “as a historical actor” on Mumbai’s landscape are illuminated through a variety of academic and narrative perspectives in Neera Adarkar’s captivating new anthology The Chawls of Mumbai.

The word chawl is a slightly anglicised version of the Marathi chaal, which means “anklet” and by extension came to mean “corridor” or, to use the Mumbai word, “gallery”. The very etymology of this architectural form, then, reveals what kind of residential space it was meant to be – one in which the boundary between private and public space was blurred, and communal areas were as significant as private ones. “It is difficult to view a chawl as an empty built form in isolation, like a bungalow or an apartment building,” writes Adarkar in her excellent introductory essay, “because a chawl cannot be stripped bare of its occupants. Its existence in the cityscape can be seen as a theatre, imagined only with performers on a stage.”

It was this human crush, fending for itself as best as it could and devising a variety of creative solutions to problems of food, domesticity, and childcare, that turned Bombay, over the decades, into “the city of gold”. Chawls began to come up in great numbers in the “Indian quarter” of Mumbai, north of the spacious, landscaped European quarter in Fort, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards as the Indian cotton industry boomed, filling up the breach left by the Civil War in America. The colonial government and an emerging class of Indian capitalists needed labour; and migrant workers thronging the city from the Western Ghats and the Konkan coast needed cheap housing. As Bombay urbanised and industrialised, many chawls were built by private parties on what was formerly farmland.

But after an outbreak of plague in 1898, attributed to unsanitary conditions in the native neighbourhoods, the colonial government stepped in, in its own interest, to build chawls on a large scale. The massive Bombay Development Department (BDD) Chawl in Worli, for instance, a colony of over a hundred chawl buildings, were built by the government in what was then cheap uninhabited land in north Bombay, now turned by the advance of history into Mumbai’s centre (There is a marvellous joke about this phenomenon of moving centres in the recent Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory, in which the struggling Dadasaheb Phalke squanders so much money on his cinemania that his family have to sell their house. The Phalkes are seen receiving the sympathies of their neighbours as they move to some distant place "out in the wild", which turns out to be...Dadar.)

From the very beginning, then, the chawls were marked by human plenitude, by an enormously resourceful attitude towards space, and the assumption of openness to continuous negotiation and “adjustment”. Although (some would say “because”) chawls threw great numbers of people together, they tended to be socially homogenous, each chawl marked by the stamp of a particular religious or caste group and brought alive by the same festivals and mores. Though often remembered now with the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia, they were often fractious places, from quotidian squabbles over space, water, and access to the communal toilets to murderous communal disharmony during times of crisis, as evinced by some of the heartbreaking testimonies collected by Sameera Khan (co-author of the recent book Why Loiter?) in an essay called "How The Mumbai Riots [of 1992] Changed Life for Muslims in Chawls".

Elsewhere, Adarkar observes acutely that the chawl corridor, centre of its social life and the space that effectively turned the building into a kind of neighbourhood, “brought a spirit of buoyancy to the interface of the chawl and the city, and diffused the boundaries between them.” This “chawl spirit” has been extensively investigated and celebrated in the city’s literature, from the short stories of Sadat Hasan Manto and PL Deshpande’s famous Marathi work Batatyachi Chal (“The Potato Chawl”) to Kiran Nagarkar's Ravan and Eddie and Manu Joseph’s recent novel Serious Men.

Among the pleasures of Adarkar's book is its exceptionally attentive historicization of the changing status of chawls over time in terms of their religious and gender composition, relative position in the various classes of property available in Bombay, and self-image. After the passing of the Rent Control Act of 1947, which froze existing rents and granted many more rights to tenants than previously, the  humble chawl-room suddenly acquired a great cachet as “property”. Many renters chose to evict other men whom they entertained as sub-tenants and bring in instead their families from the villages, completely altering the social character of the chawls and throwing up a fresh set of problems of adjustment to the needs of women.

The Rent Control Act also spawned the city’s indigenous pagdi system of property sale, whereby longtime tenants who could not be shaken by landlords could sell their tenancy rights to a third party as long as they passed on a third of the sale price to the landlord. The tenancy structures of chawls eventually became so complex that often developers seeking to buy up the entire property so as to build it anew threw up their hands in despair. This was because, as Prasad Shetty explains in his essay, of the number of ownership claims registered for every square foot of the chawl, from "subtenants who had forcibly taken over from original tenants, multiple children of deceased tenants wanting different houses, a divorced wife occpuying a room that was in the ex-husband's name, loft occupiers, staircase occupiers, shops within homes, homes inside shops, etc."

With the closure of the textile mills in the eighties, Bombay became a postindustrial city, and in succeeding decades home to the new wealth of a post-liberalization “new economy”. Defenceless against the march of history, the chawls became the site first of the despair of joblessness, and then the object of the profit-seeking eyes of developers. Many chawls today stand uncomfortably in the shadow of tall apartment buildings that were only recently themselves chawls. Creaky with decay and disrepair, sometimes crashing down completely in the gusts of monsoon, they still comprise a large portion of the available housing stock in the island city.

From Shetty in his superb essay “Ganga Building Chronicles”, a history of the fortunes of a chawl building over several generations, to the Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal in “My Old Neighbourhoods”, a memoir of his childhood across several chawls in Bombay, the contributors to Adarkar’s book do an excellent job of characterising not just how the chawls made up the motley social fabric of the city and were home to many of its root energies, but also what they have contributed to the city’s vocabulary, from the word “gala”, or dormitory, to the concept of the “gallery gaz”, or a measure as wide as a chawl corridor. Somewhere in the story of almost every migrant family in Mumbai – and most people in the city are migrants – lies a chawl. The place of this architectural form in Mumbai’s history is extensively mapped in this chawl-like concert of energies, one of the most warming books ever produced about the city.

Some links: the photographer Atul Loke remembers his childhood in a Mumbai chawl and gives us some pictures here, and the film director Mahesh Manjrekar supplies his own memories of chawl life here.

And here are some older essays about books on Bombay: "The film writing of Sadat Hasan Manto", "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games", "On Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables", and "Rage and Love in Manu Joseph's Serious Men".

[A shorter version of this essay appeared recently in Mint Lounge, with the most pointed byline I've ever received: "Chapter Six of Chandrahas Choudhury's novel Arzee the Dwarf is called 'The Old Wadia Chawl'"]

Saturday, April 09, 2011

On Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables

“Bombay, it has been said, is not a city, but a state of mind,” enthuses the journalist and screenwriter Khwaja Ahmed Abbas in his autobiography I Am Not An Island, one of many Mumbai-obsessed texts that the historian Gyan Prakash draws upon in his book Mumbai Fables. “It is the state of a young man’s mind, exciting and excitable, exuberant and effervescent, dynamic and dramatic.”

Abbas’s words, smoothly transmuting the city into a mental rather than a physical landscape, demonstrate, further, that a great metropolis is not just a state of mind but also a story – a work in progress in both the physical and the narrative sense. In Mumbai Fables Prakash, previously known for his work on Indian labour history and the intersection of colonialism and science, brings his interpretative skills to bear on the many visions of Bombay/Mumbai nurtured and asserted by a colourful cast of characters across the centuries. Colonial governors and cotton kings, opium traders and tabloid barons, muckrakers and trade unionists, poets and politicians, thugs and town planners, all summoned up and guided by the sometimes too overbearing presence of the author himself, lend their voices to a series of tableaux stretching from the early colonial regime to the present day.

A set of small, swampy, spottily inhabited islands on the west coast of India that over the course of  the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were turned into a thriving port city and a geographically contiguous landmass by the British, Mumbai is of course a city with a past deeply implicated in colonialism and the asymmetric power relations that it vigorously exercised. For even the most charitable observer, this would be a story brimming with iniquity and prejudice. But some indication of Prakash’s overly negative attitude towards Bombay’s colonial history becomes visible when he speaks of the city’s “doubly parasitical birth and development”, as land simultaneously colonized by the British and also reclaimed from the sea by the force of modern industrial technology. The founding of the city represents for Prakash, a double sinning: not just a significant episode in the colonization of India by the British, but also “the colonization of nature by culture”.

But isn't this second claim not particular to Bombay, but true of just about any great city in the world? It is hard to see how any city could be founded and then allowed to expand without tampering with nature in some significant way. This line of argument allows Prakash, though, to interpret the story of Bombay somewhat too simply and adversarially as one of “colonial and capitalist spatialization”. This sets up a persistent strain in the metanarrative of Prakash’s book where the word “capitalism” is reflexively associated with the exploitation of land, workers, and natural resources and with injustice, misery, and subterfuge. The history of capitalism in Bombay is viewed entirely negatively, without any wonder at the remarkable energies it unleashed and the prosperity it generated. 

This approach allows Prakash to point out, entirely fairly, the extent to which Bombay’s economy in its early years was dominated by the British-run trade in cotton, which fed off cheap Indian labour, and the profits generated by local opium lords. But Prakash’s eyes are closed to the extent to which Mumbai’s presiding spirit is essentially an entrepreneurial one, and that its reputation today continues to be that of the one city in India where a man (or, significantly, a woman) may advance not because of his advantages of family or education, but for his capacity for hard work and enterprise.

Not all profit-making is iniquitous, and some kinds of capitalist success may themselves be viewed, as much as labour agitation or radical historiography, as instances of anti-capitalist resistance. Capitalist innovation gets short thrift in Prakash’s book, for which reason there is something grumpy and grudging about long sections of his narrative. The narrator of his book seems most enthusiastic when writing about left-wing movements in the city over time, whether the Progressive Writer's Movement of the nineteen-fifties or the agitations of the mill workers in the eighties, and here it would sometimes seem that all skepticism is abandoned ("The Communists worked furiously to keep up the workers' morale, organizing eight hundred public meetings"; "Sucked into the exciting whirlpool of Communist political and intellectual vision, Raj and Romesh [Thapar] became active in party activities."

Some of Prakash’s most interesting stresses have to do with space (or, as he might put it, “spatialization”). He paints a lovely scene of the early city around present-day Fort and Colaba, self-consciously designed as a European and colonial neighbourhood, being something of a mystery to Indian natives in the layout of its roads, the look of its buildings, and the strangeness of its mores. Meanwhile, a short walk from the Fort area brought the resident Englishman into the teeming and chaotic native quarter of Kalbadevi and Girgaon – a space just as puzzling to him, and one that served as the ugly underbelly to the ordered city dreamed up by the colonial imagination. Much of the story of Mumbai is not just about the expansion of the city northwards and eastwards into the Indian mainland, but also southwards and westwards, in the form of land reclaimed from the sea by governments functioning as a fig leaf for private interests.

However, in one of the book’s many tendentious passages, Prakash attacks an influential group of intellectuals and urban planners in early post-independence India, including the novelist Mulk Raj Anand, founder of the influential architectural magazine Marg, the architect Charles Correa, and the urban planner Shirish Patel. These men dreamt of a Mumbai that was more ordered, friendly, and equitable in the form of a satellite city, just east of the main one, called New Bombay or Navi Mumbai

The planners saw the new city as a space that would counterbalance the old city’s congested north-south axis, relieve the pressure on its land by making cheap housing available, and supply an zoned set of spaces for habitation, work and recreation instead of the harum-scarum sprawl of the old city. They also envisaged the state legislature moving base to Navi Mumbai to encourage migration to the new city. This was a grand vision that, persistently held up by red tape and apathy, has only seen partial realization over the last half-century, and might indeed be thought of as a tragic failure.

But, attacking this project for wanting to “engineer an organic urban space to meet the needs of capitalist industrialisation”, Prakash leaches the movement of much of its civic idealism, and presents it instead as yet another imposition upon the masses by those in power. Drawing upon Freud, he argues that “Politics and society, which the planners had suppressed, returned with the rage of the repressed to sour the modernist dream of postcolonial geography.” Indeed, any kind of planning by governments or urban planners is inevitably described by Prakash with loaded words like “dream text”, “fantasy”, or “utopia”. Sometimes this jeering becomes infantile (“The grand plan was now a grand mess...”).

Surprisingly, even as he criticises the Navi Mumbai plan of the sixties, Prakash is entirely silent on, or perhaps even ignorant of, a recent episode that might much more justifiably thought of as a scandalous capitalist landgrab in connivance with the government: the amendment by the Maharashtra Government of clause 58 of the Development Control Regulations in 2001 (whereby "land" was changed to "open land"), so that only a fraction of the defunct mill lands in the centre of the city were returned to the government for public use and for housing projects, and the rest was cleared for sale or development by the mill owners.

Various oppressed entities are persistently, though not always persuasively, seen extracting their revenge in Prakash’s narration. For instance, we are told, in the context of avaricious land reclamation in the posh neighbourhood of Marine Drive in south Bombay, that “The sea had avenged its loss by blasting the surface of Art Deco architecture with unsightly blotches of mildew.” I didn’t want to be the one to point this out, but the sea blasts buildings with mildew even on unreclaimed land, or that occupied by the poor. The sea is avenging nothing here, merely being itself.

Moreover, Prakash’s prose, often swinging unstably in its registers from the academic to the journalistic and back, is often guilty of practising a kind of colonisation of its own. Since his book is based primarily on archival research and a synthesis of secondary sources, he frequently enlists artworks – paintings, poems, films, and comic books – to buttress his points. Often, as with many academics in the social sciences attempting to read artworks, this happens at the cost of denying their specificity, their embodiment in a medium.

Of a painting by the Mumbai artist Sudhir Patwardhan we are told only that, “In Riot (1996) we see communal vitriol at its rawest. The image of society as a collective recedes.” But what happens inside the painting? Doesn’t its materiality come before its meanings? This is a very slapdash way of thinking about art. Quoting from “Mumbai, Mumbai My Dear Slut”, a poem by the fiery Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, Prakash argues that Dhasal “exhorts us to revisit the Island City’s past to disclose Mumbai’s history as culture’s triumph over nature”. I very much doubt Dhasal has this intention; if anything, this seems like something that Prakash would like Dhasal to say. Although it is interesting in patches and harnesses a wealth of unusual material, Mumbai Fables, once its own code is cracked, is finally too predictable and too negative to be a persuasive lens on the energy and enthusiasm of the city that it takes for its subject.

And some links. Chapter One of Mumbai Fables, "The Mythic City", is here, and a version of one of the most interesting chapters in the book, an account of the Mumbai tabloid Blitz and its role in the famous Nanavati murder case, is here in "Blitz's Bombay".

You might also be interested in reading "Regional Planning For Bombay" by Shirish Patel (this requires an institutional log-in) and his recent essay "Dharavi: Makeover or Takeover?", Ranjani Mazumdar's "The Bombay Film Poster", Zeno's "Ahmed Ali and the Progressive Writer's Movement", an essay on the film star Ashok Kumar by Sadat Hasan Manto, "Decline of a Great Ciy" by Gerson Da Cunha, "City of Dreams", a special issue of Seminar on Bombay from 2003, "Russi Karanjia, Living Through the Blitz" by P. Sainath, and "A Pile of Dirt Worth Its Weight In Gold" by Farah Baria. Some of these links appear in Prakash's very valuable bibliography.

And two older posts on capitalism and its critiques in an Asian context: on Muhammad Yunus's autobiography Banker To The Poor and Satnam's memoir of his time among Indian Maoists in Bastar, Jangalnama.