Reviewed title: Prakash, G. 2010. Mumbai Fables: A History of an Enchanted City, Princeton University Press, ISBN 9781283088817
Reviewed by Anup Kumar Das
Mumbai is better known as the financial, commercial and entertainment capital of India, as several financial institutions and corporate houses maintain their respective national headquarters in this city. Mumbai is also famous worldwide for its Bollywood film industry – the dream makers for many generations in the Indian subcontinent. Major industrialization started in India during the colonial period with the establishment of different mills or factories, starting from cotton mills, jute mills to flour mills. Bombay demonstrated entrepreneurship capabilities and capacities of many swadeshi or home-grown industrialists. Their skills in accumulation of business capitals, strategic planning and foresights are well recognized. Thus, they became key drivers in rapid industrialization in the country, even during the pre-liberalization period, where capital resources were very limited. On the other hand, recent exposures of crony capitalism also have found roots in Mumbai soil. Formation of venture capitalists as well as other entrepreneurial institutions in Bombay led the city a key driver to institutionalize a western industrial corridor of India.
In Mumbai Fables author Gyan Prakash, who is a professor at Princeton University, recounts the making of the multi-layered multifaceted Mumbai metropolitan city during the postcolonial period, from a humble industrial town.Bombay became Mumbai in 1996, which went beyond a name change. We see a city shifting several layers of socio-cultural fabrics alongside changing morale of city dwellers, particularly those belonging to below the margin.
Unputdownable Mumbai City
Due to its close proximity to financial power of India, Mumbai sustained several targeted attacks from the frictional forces including the terrorists and the underworld. Most recent ones were 1993 serial blasts, and 2008 and 2011 terror attacks. However, the city resisted and revived after these attacks at a considerable speed. Prakash has delved into this phenomenon in chapter eight, particularly which is related to the 1993 serial blasts. Recently a Bollywood thriller movie titled “Bombay Velvet” is being made directed by filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, which is based on embedded crime stories of this book, viz. Commander K.M. Nanavathi and few others. This can be noted here that religious fanatics attacked several theatres in the city on several occasions in last few decades, particularly while screening cinemas critical to religious dogmas and superstitions. Liberal rational minds of filmmakers and documentary makers have crafted films of contemporary socio-political relevance, which become a part of the parallel cinemas inIndia. The city is also politically situated to initiate or lead several mass political movements across the lengths and breadths of the nation, due to existence of its close network of working class and slum dwellers. City’s Dharavi is the largest urban slum in the South Asia. Consequently, Prakash observes a number of small scale entrepreneurs are based at Dharavi, facilitating socio-economic empowerment of urban poor. He describes: “Dharavi is an economic success story. It has developed without any public state subsidy or assistance… Dharavi is a zone of booming free enterprise and a tribute to the ingenuity and hard work of migrants, who come from everywhere inIndia. Tanners from Tamil Nadu, leather workers and artisans from Uttar Pradesh, potters from Gujarat, and migrants from Maharashtra, Rajasthan and elsewhere work in Dharavi’s amazing variety of trades, legal and illegal. Every religion is represented. Hindus, Muslims and Christians coexist despite bouts of communal violence.” (p. 338-339).
In several chapters Prakash depicts background fables of the making of a global entertainment industry Bollywood, which not only transforms city’s cultural landscapes but also nurtures striving Marathi cinemas with comprehensible contents. City also has a sustained culture of performing theatre, playing dramas in English, Marathi or Hindustani languages. Many of these theatrical groups run house-full shows due to a steady and engaging audience. Prakash explores cultural connection of the city in this book in great details. He delves into formation of All India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1936 and 1942 respectively. Many artists and writers associated with Bombay film industry in its early days were members of PWA and IPTA. He narrates influence of PWA writers on Bollywood in great details, which marked by creation of many blockbuster movies. Indian progressives had great interests in working class movement. Many of the PWA writers created some notable fictions narrating stories of people’s movements and aspirations of the working class.
In chapter “From Red to Saffron” Prakash narrates labour movements in several mills and factories of Bombay, which obviously had influence of the communist parties. Since, the emergence of Shiv Sena as a decisive political force in 1960s, influence of communists started declining. Shiv Sena took the anti-communist, anti-Muslim and nativist stand. In turn it became settling ground for the saffronization of state machineries. Sena took populist view of Marathi speaking natives to protect power and livelihoods of certain communities, while restricting others particularly ‘outsiders’ in participating in the democratic processes.
Prakash finally accepts that middle-class and working class aspirations helped the city in transforming into a cosmopolitan city despite its contrasts and contradictions. Commoners of Mumbai city have embraced a new modernity and cosmopolitanism hitherto unseen in other metro cities of India. This book helps us understanding the undercurrents of a ‘soft’ city as well as its transformative features.
Dr. Anup Kumar Das, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India (http://anupkumardas.blogspot.in)