Book Review: Mumbai Fables

  “Bombay, it has been said, is not a city, it is a state of mind. It is the state of a young man’s mind, exciting and excitable, exuberant and effervescent, dynamic and dramatic”, writes Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, recording the excitement of his first journey to the city in 1934. A city that ‘he had read about in novels and short stories’. A city that still remains a fantasy for many!
  Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables registers this ever vibrant, dreamy, cosmopolitan and modern spirit of Bombay and its ironical transformation to a communal and terror gripped Mumbai through an array of literary, cinematic, architectural and industrial accounts. And it is indeed the blend of these different mediums to portray the colourful image of India’s foremost metropolis that distinguishes this book from the countless others written on it. What’s even more interesting is the manner in which all the information is presented, i.e. with the help of pictures that include maps, photographs of various city landmarks, stills from films, clippings from newspapers, comic strips and paintings, making this read a visual journey through the lives and times of Bombay. You will never be able to see the city in the same light again.
  A worthy compilation of Bombay’s major historical events, Mumbai Fables is a systematic narration of everything that you ever wanted to know about the island city. Right from its origin from seven islets, its hand over to the British from the Portuguese (Bombay was Vasco da Gama’s discovery during his search for Christians and spices on the southwestern coast of India) up till today. Christened as the “island of good life” by the latter, it was gifted to the English as dowry when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1661. The book unearths a lot of such never-heard-before facts about the city along with acquainting the reader with the life of some of its iconic personalities about whom one has only known through names of famous city schools, hospitals and streets coined after them.
   For instance, it narrates the rags-to-riches story of Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, a successful opium trader whose name graces J J School of Art and J J Hospital. Similarly, it recounts the powerpacked and relentless campaign of Khurshed Framji Nariman against the British government, in opposition to their reclamation project of Backbay that earned Nariman an area on the Backbay named after him, known to us as Nariman Point. The book also records some of the defining incidents like the 1959’s Nanavati murder trial that shook the cultural edifice of the city and the bloodshed of the Hindu-Muslim riots that left a stain on Bombay’s cosmopolitanism forever.
  Every chapter out of the nine covers a significant aspect of the city but the most intriguing is the one which explores the literary, film and theatre scene during partition and after that. It features the life and work of popular writers and filmmakers and how their work contributed immensely towards the city’s progress and social evolution.
  In his depiction of Bombay, Prakash (a History professor of Princeton University) draws a sharp contradiction in its nature too. It brings out its sophisticated and glamourous side on one hand through the visual drama of the sea and the Art Deco at Marine Drive and various British and Indian figures of the elite circle (earlier the Indian elites mainly comprised of Parsis who were more at ease and entwined with the western culture and industries than other communities) whereas it also highlights pathetic living conditions in chawls housing the mill workers on the other. But it is clear that Prakash, like every outsider, is enchanted with the city’s grandness and that refrains him from delving much into the smelly, crammed up and poverty-ridden side of the metropolis.
  Also, each chapter, barring the one on films, has a certain repetitiveness with the author stressing too much on some info. Nevertheless Mumbai Fables is relevant in context to a place which we criticise, crib about, even loathe at times but can never stop loving all the same. 


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