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Review: Mumbai Fables

books Updated: Dec 23, 2010 08:42 IST
Asheesh Sharma, Hindustan Times
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Mumbai Fables

Gyan Prakash

Harper Collins

Rs 599  pp 396

This is a story that probably wouldn’t have begun without Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer seeking Christians and spices on Indian soil, dropping by in 1498. If history is your game or if biographies turn you on, Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables is a must-read. This book reveals interesting and detailed facts about a city we all know of but not quite enough, and which may be hard to find in a standard book on the history of the megalopolis.

Mumbai Fables describes all that happened in Bombay a.k.a. Mumbai. Like a Once upon a time in….' or a What lies beneath story, this book will hopefully fulfill your appetite for a biography of a city — from ‘getting rich quick’ stories by trade in opium and cotton to how a set of seven islets became one island; from the lasting impression left by the British Raj as indicated by detailed descriptions (including pictures) of several buildings, landmarks and structures that still adorn the city, to the tragedies that marred the city in the 21st century (floods, blasts, political violence, terror attacks) and much more.

But the key point that Prakash tries to make from all these detailed stories and his own take on the history of the city is that narratives on Mumbai have often been mythical — thus, the word ‘fables’ in the title — and this book examines questions such as: what had led to the city’s image as a ‘tropical Camelot’ in the past? What has led to the existing portrait of a “dysfunctional, out-of-control city” today?

The author points out that writers “acted less as realist witnesses and more as mythmakers… offering the observer’s view of the cityscape rather than the subjective experience of the urban dweller”. The numerous examples of past narratives on Mumbai highlighted in this book may be considered analogous to, say, a human body. It looks attractive (or otherwise) from the outside. But what lies beneath the skin may not be a reflection of the exteriors.

There are a few downsides to Mumbai Fables though. The reader may at times feel overloaded with too much information, given the fact that references have been made from several hundred sources and some of the narrations from movies and comic books seem to be stretched too far.

Whatever be your take on  Mumbai, Mumbai Fables definitely stands out as a well-told, detailed account of what all went into the making of the city of Mumbai, India’s most populous — and as some might put it, most popular — city.

(Abhishek Akhouri, Hindustan Times)