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Tales From a Dystopic Camelot

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by Katrina Gulliver


Crawford Market, Mumbai. (Photo by Greg Younger, used under Wikimedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License)

In this book, Gyan Prakash offers not a traditional history of a city, but rather a portrait of the city’s culture and image. By using its popular culture, he reflects the kaleidoscope of this multiethnic community. From the grand colonial architecture to more recent land reclamation projects, he traces the spatial dimensions of the city and their cultural meanings. In so doing, he emphasises the ways in which history, particularly urban history of a still-changing community, is made up of the myths we choose to remember, or the fables of his title. Like all great cities, Mumbai has more than one fable in its story. As he describes:

“The nostalgic ‘tropical Camelot’ and the dystopic city of slums appear as compelling bookends of Mumbai’s story because they seem to have the force of historical truth. In fact, it is a trick of history, inviting us to believe its Bombay-to-Mumbai tale as an objective reading of the past when it is a fable.” (p. 23)


The Bombay Chronicle, January 26th, 1931. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/public domain)

Prakash links the real city to its many depictions in popular culture. Bombay’s rapid growth in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and diversity of religion and language, meant it developed a multiplicity of communities within the city. Prakash argues that the act of reading the newspaper served as the secular version of morning prayer, and in this multicultural society, newspapers could serve to link readers together. However, as he points out, this world — in the mid twentieth century — was still largely limited to those who could read English. Nonetheless, popular culture in the form of tabloid press, such as Blitz newspaper, which offered a downmarket popular option in the English-language press. Through such media, celebrity scandals and other tales of the city were promulgated. As Prakash describes, the cues Blitz offered about the lives of the rich and (in)famous informed the residents of the rest of the city about how the other half lived, and bound many readers in fascination with their lurid stories.

Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University, is particularly drawn to the creators (writers and film makers) who made Bombay their home in the twentieth century and the ways they presented the city’s many layers in their work. In demonstrating this, he expends many pages summarising the plots of short stories and films created in or about Bombay – the creation of these “fables” becoming part of the city’s narrative.


Eros Movie Theatre, Mumbai. Opened in 1938, exemplifying the late Art deco style. (Photo: Colin Rose. Used under Wikimedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License)

From the creative to the theoretical, Prakash uses the analyses of Henri Lefebvre and other urban theorists to discuss the use of space, and the ways that urban planning, with its focus on abstract “efficiency” failed. He also acknowledges the effect of political corruption, with the assignment of land and contracts for new development schemes. He also discusses at length the architectural style of Art Deco, which flourished in Bombay in the interwar period. Its acquistive, eclectic nature — taking on motifs from other styles — meant it offered a bridge to modernity in the machine age. The glamour of this period is clearly part of Mumbai’s visual heritage, as well as being the point — before independence and partition — when the city shone for many of its nostalgic fans.

But for all the glitz of the Marine Drive denizens, the situation of shanty-town dwellers is not overlooked here. As he describes the cycle, poor people arrive in the city, and build their own makeshift housing. Although the settlement is illegal, the municipal authorities are forced to provide some civic facilities. But once the land has thus become habitable, it is valuable, and the residents will be evicted so the land can be sold for development. (p. 310) Prakash draws on the plot of the comic book Doga, a hero of the slums, to illustrate these issues and their popular presentation. (While this is interesting, spending over 30 pages on the plotline of a comic book seems perhaps a little indulgent.)

The book contains some unfortunate repetitive phrasing (which looks like some cut and paste) and some rather infelicitous colloquialisms — people “get on like a house on fire”, noses are “thrown out of joint” — which are somewhat jarring in the context. There is also a small glitch in his passing account of the Sassoon family tree (p. 41), as part of his discussion of David Sassoon, one of a number of merchants who were influential in the city’s industrial development.

Mumbai Fables is an engaging narrative, and offers a different way for urban historians to write the biography of a city. But it will have more to offer for those familiar with the city, for whom the gleam of recognition will be a benefit.

Gyan Prakash: Mumbai Fables. A History of an Enchanted City
Princeton University Press, Princeton 2010.
ISBN-13: 9780691153179
Paper, 424 pages, US$19.95

Katrina Gulliver is a cultural historian and postdoctoral research fellow based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. Her current project examines the development of four colonial port cities, Malacca, Havana, Pondicherry and New Orleans, from the early sixteenth century to 1900.