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  • Benjamin in Bombay? An Extrapolation
  • Rajeev S. Patke

Walter Benjamin read cities as if they were texts in which one could read the progressive development of the materiality of culture. He applied to this reading a form of interpretive violence recognizable as the ideal of an idea enshrined in the surrealist movement. His characteristic metaphors for the modern metropolis included the labyrinth, the maze, the rune, the fragment, and kitsch. The essay explores the uses and limits of such metaphors when applied to times and places later and other than those that provided Benjamin with his terms of reference. The aim of the experiment is to test the viability of the Benjaminian perspective as a refractive lens focused on metropolitan culture, while using it to generate a discourse about the diversity of metropolitan experiences as globalized forms of the local. The literary productions of contemporary Bombay, ranging from the fictional Parsi world of Rohinton Mistry to the polemic and political writings of the Dalit movement in Marathi poetry, are used to identify the limit factor of the extrapolation. In his essay “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin had envisioned a form of divine and bloodless violence as an apocalyptic end to history. The irony of that vision has been often noted in the context of his own subsequent flight from persecution into suicide. The present essay addresses another, and equally bitter, irony that serves to show how the history of a modern and postcolonial city like Bombay resists the Benjaminian in its bloody version of a communitarian apocalypse.

“I searched around those ruins in vain and all I found was a face engraved on a potsherd and a fragment of a frieze. That is what my poems will be in a thousand years—shards, fragments, the detritus of a world buried for all eternity. What remains of a city is the detached gaze with which a half-drunk poet looked at it.”

— Amin Maalouf, Samarkhand

The Profane Aura of the City

This essay brings together two seemingly unrelated bodies of writing: Walter Benjamin’s work on the cities of European modernity, and literary discourse emanating from the Indian metropolis of Bombay treated as an instance of Asia’s post-colonial induction into modernity. These apparently unrelated discourses are brought together with three aims in mind: first, to show the usefulness of Benjamin in recognizing affinities between geographically diverse manifestations of metropolitan experience; second, to suggest reasons why such affinities and resemblances should be seen as other than random coincidence (in other words, to show that they bespeak the divergent developments of identical processes); and third, to identify some of the ways in which an interaction between these two types of discourse invites a revaluation of both.

Benjamin analyzed the effects of commodification on urban culture and consciousness within the confines of a Europe that still retained its colonial empires. In teasing out the relation between the materialism of culture and the culture of materialism, his work continues to offer a suggestive critique of the nexus between societal modernity and urbanism. Benjamin’s interests may have been confined to Europe, but the processes he studied became asymmetrically global, especially after the “new” nations of Asia had made their urban centers the focus for the belated pursuit of a modernity denied them by colonialism. This asymmetry makes it possible to expand upon his work in Asian contexts shaped first by European colonialism and then by local nationalisms inspired by the Enlightenment rationality that accompanied colonialism. While Benjaminian lenses bring aspects of metropolitan Asian cultures into focus, these cultures have undergone belated metamorphoses from the colonial towards a kind of postmodern modernity for which there are no adequate terms of reference in Benjamin. In that sense, the European lenses he provides require an adjustment of focal length, and an immersion of Benjaminian discourse in the writing from the vastly different world of an Asian metropolis like Bombay provides a partial correction of his inadvertant Eurocentrism. In the pursuit of its triple aim, this essay will proceed through a series of thematic elaborations in which successive aspects of Benjamin’s approach to the culture of cities will be refracted through literary writing from and about...

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