- Mumbai Fables: A History of an Enchanted City by Gyan Prakash
Less than a decade ago, Gyan Prakash coined the phrase “urban turn” to signal a new orientation among scholars of South Asia. The study of urban India, he argued, could overcome the limitations of Indian nationalism’s spatial imagination, best exemplified by the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru, who made village India the subject of anticolonial projects.1 Prakash’s Mumbai Fables follows that reorientation by placing the city of Mumbai at the center of his analysis. In this widely accessible monograph, Prakash provides a splendid tour of the city through the many stories, legends, and myths that have operated among its inhabitants as the city propelled through time. He focuses on [End Page 973] the narratives told about and within Bombay, the conditions that produced such narratives, and the textures of people’s negotiations as the city transformed both its name and character from “Bombay” to “Mumbai.” Each chapter is populated with personalities who Prakash brings to life colorfully, so much so that it can be easy to forget one is reading a book that is also staking ground in the historiographical debates over the colonial urban form. Assessments on the impact of colonialism, nationalism, and the rise of identity politics in postcolonial Bombay/Mumbai frame the book’s parts.
Beginning with a chapter aptly titled “The Mythic City,” Prakash introduces us to the concern that forms the methodology for the book: namely, that official sources, demographic statistics, maps, and other such containers of “hard facts” conceal as much as they reveal. Prakash’s main goal is to interrogate the “fable” of Bombay’s transition to Mumbai, that is, the story of Bombay’s transitioning from modernity to postmodernity, cosmopolitanism to communalism, industrial capitalism to globalization, or its change from the “tropical Camelot” to a dystopic city of slums. That story of Bombay to Mumbai, according to Prakash, is itself a fable cast by the “spell of history” that depends on an ideal embedded in the modernist assumptions about the city which were, in reality, never actualized anywhere, in any city in the world.2 His goal is to “reveal the historical circumstances portrayed and hidden by the stories and images produced in the past and present,” so that we may know why certain stories are told and others untold (pp. 21–23). This strategy opens up a large and commendable archive of movies, films, songs, comic books, short stories, novels, and oral sources, the latter collected through valuable interviews Prakash conducted with important figures in Mumbai’s contemporary social landscape.
The second through fourth chapters focus on Bombay during the colonial and nationalist periods. In these chapters, the city becomes an arena in which European conquest achieves a particularly colonial modernity and subsequent Indian nationalists contest colonial authority. Prakash informs us that while the Portuguese came to Bombay in search of Christians and spices in the sixteenth century, the British used Bombay as an entrepôt for commercial aims in the eighteenth and [End Page 974] nineteenth centuries. The opium and cotton trades connected Bombay to its rural hinterlands and provided paths for merchant mobility. Parsis, Englishmen, Baghdadi Jews, Jains, Marwaris, Bohras, Memons, and Khojas, among others, were bankers and traders each pursuing their own wealth.
Throughout this period, the seven islands were merged into one modern city through reclamations of the sea and other feats of infrastructure development, which Prakash calls “Mumbai’s doubly colonial history,” that is, the seizure of land from the seas for the growing urban society itself initiated by European conquest (p. 27). The growth of mills by the end of the nineteenth century signaled a particularly colonial industrialization, where cheap labor funded the conquest of space, leaving behind poor tenements and the devastating plague in 1896–1897. Nationalist agitation against such conditions was fueled by the infamous Back Bay reclamation project, which Prakash follows from 1918 onward as it purportedly attempted to solve the city’s housing shortage...