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Review: Mumbai Fables

Writer Gyan Prakash, an urban historian, documents the city's tumultuous years of unbridled growth, society gossip, scandals, Bollywood, politics, annual deluge, terror attacks and economic boom.

books Updated: Aug 23, 2011 10:24 IST

Book

: Mumbai Fables

Author: Gyan Prakash

Publisher: Harper Collins-India

Pages: 352

Price: Rs 425

As described in an earlier work, Mumbai comes across as maximum city in Mumbai Fables too, a new release that traces the evolution of India's commercial hub from a trading port and a bastion of Parsis to an icon of India's new economic muscle.

Writer Gyan Prakash, an urban historian, documents the city's tumultuous years of unbridled growth, society gossip, scandals, Bollywood, politics, annual deluge, terror attacks and economic boom.

At the centre of the fables are Mumbai's people: a curious lot of long-suffering yet creative beings who think big and build tall buildings, thanks to the dreams that the multi-million-dollar movie industry inspires and the enterprise that gives these dreams shape.

Why does Mumbai work for writers? "Mumbai is a place of invention," US-based writer Prakash, a social commentator and professor of history at Princeton University, told IANS. "People come to the city and inherit it; this aspect is built into the DNA of the city. As a result, Mumbai seems to be a place where you can make something from nothing."

Sample this: The writer-historian, whose fascination with Mumbai began while growing up in Patna in Bihar, was walking through the crowded Bhendi Bazaar area of the city when he came across a little space with a garish signboard under an awning. "It said New York Realty," Prakash said. "The person manning it had brought the aura of New York to the little space. This is an example of someone living under difficult circumstances, letting his imagination soar. This kind of ambition is only possible in Mumbai."

If mounting problems produce despair, they also generate opulent visions, the writer observes in his book. A new vision of Mumbai began emerging in 2003, on a study by McKinsey and Company, which developed the database and framework for benchmarking Mumbai under different parameters: from "poor" to "average" to "above average" and finally "world class". It urged a change in mindset and resulted in anarchic progress that fed many myths.

"For me the image of Mumbai became richer when I went to the city for the first time since adulthood in 2000," Prakash said. "Suddenly, everything seemed more than I could imagine. On the face of it, the city is dilapidated, shabby, mildewed and bumbling, yet people create all these fantasies about Mumbai. I wanted to probe the stories people have created for themselves," Prakash said.

The Bombay cinema created this desire for the city. At times real life incidents fired the imagination of filmmakers. The Bombay tabloid Blitz encapsulated the city's naughty and brazen spirit and fanned the nation's curiosity into an obsession with the sensational Nanavati case in 1959. Prakash recounts the famous murder case that inspired a film.

The image of the city and its sub-culture was also reinforced by columnists like Busybee (Behram Contractor) and Gangadhar Gadgil. Mario Miranda's cartoons in the Illustrated Weekly also left stereotypical images such as the buxom Anglo-Indian secretary Miss Fonseca, actress Rajni Numbupani and the Catholic girl Petrification Pereira.

It is no surprise that the larger-than-life Mumbai became more resilient in the 1990s and later.

He speaks about the floods in 2005, train bombings of 2006, terror attacks of 2008 and other such incidents. "The series of catastrophes gives Mumbai the status of a city under crises and provides a kind of frame for people to think about what they can do to overcome them," Prakash said.