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.


Gyan Prakash said...

Congratulations for cracking the code that I am an anti-capitalist!

No disagreement on Mumbai's extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit and energy, the soaring ambitions of its people. Its what drew millions of migrants, pursuing a dream. Some realize their aspirations. Most do not, but persevere, sustained by the belief aaj nahin to kal. Ideology is a wondrous thing.

Regarding Navi Mumbai, I wonder about a "civic idealism" that failed to consult the peasants whose lands were appropriated. By the way, you missed noticing that I am in excellent company in my use of terms like dream and utopia --Mulk Raj Anand entitled his laudatory essay on the New Bombay plan, "Bombay: Planning and Dreaming."

Finally, may I reassure you that I know not only about DCR Rule 58, but also Rule 22 and many other DCR rules. As you know, authors are selective in what they include.

Not- said...

Provocative review. I must agree with Prakash though as regards Anand and Correa. There was something quite undemocratic about the entire project to discipline Mumbai. The very idea that Mumbai needs a stiff dose of straightening parallels other high modernist projects for instance, the straightening of the Rhine in order to make it less 'chaotic'. Predictably, most of these projects draw sanction from a very narrow, self-consciously modern section of the population and invoke the Protestant horror of waywardness, non-linearity, and unpredictability.

I found your criticisms of how Prakash uses art and novels in his book very interesting. Could you elaborate what you meant by 'materiality before meaning', or when you asked what is happening 'inside' the painting?

Chandrahas said...

Not - Very simply, what I meant by my remarks about the reading of artworks is that something essential is lost when they are written about without respecting the medium in which they are fashioned. We may speak about the effects of a painting on the observer in a single sentence, but we cannot treat it as if were basically a viewpoint or a hypothesis in an argument without also saying how one feels it does this. This is also a safeguard against the citation of inferior artworks which somehow "make a point" and are therefore useful in ideological arguments.

There is presumably a difference between my depiction of a riot and Sudhir Patwardhan's depiction of a riot, else I would be within my rights to ask why it was his painting that was cited and not mine when I, too, was angry about the rupture (to use a word greatly favoured these days in the academy) of the city's social fabric, and can show a work that proves it. Further, very few artworks, on close inspection, prove to assert something as unambiguously as their interpreters sometimes insist they do, and one sign of someone taking the easy route is always when we hear nothing about a work's methods but only something about what it signifies.

Gyan Prakash said...

I see you tweaked your review. The prerogative and power of the blog owner!

You can always find something to criticize if you are looking to. For example, I could surmise that you are a champion of unbridled neo-liberal capitalism who believes that everyone comes to Mumbai to test their entrepreneurial mettle and set up their own multinational companies. But that wouldn't be very useful and may not be accurate.

So,you could find a line in the book, as you do, to assert that I am very enthusiastic writing about leftist movements. But, of course, that would have to overlook paragraphs showing their blindness (e.g., their subservience to the Soviet Union, opportunistic endorsement of Shivaji, etc.)

Or, you could pick a line about Sudhir Patwardhan, which is there really to only indicate a certain mood that came to surface after communal riots, and hold forth on the pitfalls of the social scientists' interpretation of ART. But then, you would have to ignore what the book says about the materiality of the medium of comic books, or the the medium of mixed and recycled materials that Meera Devidayal uses in her artwork, or the function of the short story form in Manto.

I have no argument with you about the general principles of respecting the medium of artworks. I would be interested, however, in your general principles on the medium of historical writing beyond putting certain words in scare quotes.

Varun Yadav said...

"I very much doubt Dhasal has this intention; if anything, this seems like something that Prakash would like Dhasal to say."

Chandrahas, I think the word you were looking for is "interpreted". Isn't that the point of any written work - literary, academic or travelogue, and what any original author tries to produce - to interpret and present their view?

(The question mark is rhetorical).