AS one for whom Mumbai was home from 1939 onwards to 2005 – a period of sixty five years – Gyan Prakash’s study of Mumbai brings back nostalgic memories. First as a chemist (1941-46) then as a reporter, assistant editor, feature-writer, columnist and finally as editor of the now long defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India, familiarity with the city did not breed contempt. There was hardly anyone of any stature one did not know. One covered police courts, cricket matches, political speeches, sessions of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and the Bombay Legislature, not to speak of film releases, almost routinely, down the years.
There was no way one could forget a slum like Dharavi (where once I taught!), or maidans like Shivaji Park in Dadar, Nappoo Garden (in Matunga), Kamgar Maidan in Parel or Chowpatty in South Bombay by the sea. That is why reading of Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables leaves one slightly disappointed. Not that Gyan Prakash has not done a good job. He has all too obviously done massive research and it becomes evident in page after page. And he has equally obviously done a lot of reading, interviewing and looking into ancient documents for which much credit is due. But something seems to be missing from the text. Heart. Ask any old Mumbai Hand and surely he’ll certify that the song sung by playback singer Mohammad Rafi: ai dil hi aasaan jeena yahan, suno Mister, suno bandhu, yeh hi Bombay meri jaan!
The author covers Mumbai’s history literally from the days when the kohlis ruled over the seven islands in rural harmony. Prakash traces the transformation of the islands but more importantly the transfer of those islands from Portuguese to British hands. There is no question but that he covered Bombay’s history decade by decade from late 17th century onwards to this day. But alas! So much seems missing! Bombay once was the living home of cricket. That is ignored. Mumbai and Bollywood are synonymous, but the latter’s coverage leaves much to be desired. One can write not one, but a series of books on the film world but Prakash does the job in less than six disappointing pages. He is aware of Kamatipura (he has spelled the word wrongly) but has little to say of the human side of female destitution. There are references to The Bombay Chronicle, Free Press Journal and The Times of India but there is not a word about their editors who were national figures in their own right, like Syed Abdullah Brelvi, S Sadanand and even Stalin Srinivasan. Prakash refers to The Illustrated Weekly of India, has nothing to say about its century-old role in the enlightenment of the public nation-wide.
Prakash writes extensively on Art Deco but while he expresses his admiration for all the apartment buildings along Marine Drive and the “center-pieces of the Art Deco glorification of Modernity”, namely Regal, Eros and Metro cinema theatres, there is no study made on the impact of western films on Indian audiences. Bombay has been the home of some of the most daring industrial entrepreneurs, but few are identified, much less written about. Much the same can be said of the neglect to write about the media and especially the Indian language newspapers. Benjamin Horniman is mentioned but not for his own substantial contribution to India’s freedom struggle. He gets mentioned in the context of KF Nariman’s sensational rise in the politics of the day. But his sad downfall and explusion from the Congress Party gets no mention, nor is there a word about BG Kher who literally supplanted him as a candidate to the ‘Prime Ministership’ of Bombay State. Bombay’s many politicians hardly get any mention, considering their impact on the city’s political activities.
There is a chapter on “The Lawless City and the Comic Book Superhero” and while Doga gets extensive coverage, Uncle Pai’s Amar Chitra Katha which began publication in 1967 does not. Pai is not even mentioned and this is a man who educated three generations of children. Just as surprising is failure to mention two institutions, one practically dead, the other very much alive. The first is the Mahalaxmi Race Course, the other is the Bombay Stock Exchange or Dalal Street. Prakash was not either informed of the role of both in Bombay’s life, or, like the Cricket Club of India, he does not think they are worthy of attention. In any case his failure stands out glaringly, as his indifference to private colleges and schools. Having said that we must still thank Prakash for his contribution to the understanding of what Suketu Mehta called ‘Maximum city’. Even that is a poor estimate of Mumbai. -MVK
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