Tuesday 22 March 2011

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan!

Mumbai Fables, by Gyan Prakash (Princeton University Press 2010)

Western observers with no particular knowledge of Indian politics and society tend to assume the renaming of Indian cities in the 1990s was simply a belated anti-colonialist gesture. Some might even wrongly assume as I once did that ‘Mumbai’ had been an established Indian city before its takeover and mispronunciation by the British. Gyan Prakash’s book is meant as a challenge to more sophisticated misunderstandings than these, but it is equally valuable as an introduction to many of the issues facing modern India, through the story (or rather stories) of its most glamorous city.

The renaming of Bombay in particular was not so much anti-colonialist as anti-cosmopolitan. In 1995, the sectarian Shiv Sena party had just come to power in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, which incorporates the city. In rejecting the name ‘Bombay’, the Sena was not only shrugging off the colonial legacy of British India, but also disavowing a particular ‘fable’ of the city itself, as a glittering monument to twentieth century Modernism and its promise of secular, ‘Western-style’ progress. The party slogan ‘Mumbai for Marathis’ makes clear that, for some, Mumbai is not only an Indian city rather than a colonial one, but a city primarily for Marathi-speaking natives of Maharashtra, rather than migrants from the south, or indeed Hindi-speaking north India (let alone Muslims from anywhere).

Nonetheless, Prakash is at pains to avoid endorsing a simplistic narrative, whereby a modern, universalising Bombay has been supplanted by postmodern, ethnically-particularist Mumbai. Instead, both ‘fables’ coexist in the city itself, in its very architecture as well as its culture and institutions, and insistently plural languages: Marathi, Gujarati, Parsi, English, Hindi, often merged into Bambaiya, or Bombay Hindi. Also lingering in the architecture is what Prakash calls the ‘Colonial Gothic’, exemplified by the famous Victoria Terminus – now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, though ‘VT’ will still get you there in a taxi. Chhatrapati Shivaji was a 17th-century Maratha leader celebrated for driving out the region’s Muslim overlords and establishing an independent kingdom. But Shivaji didn’t found ‘Mumbai’, and his association with the city is no less a fable than any other. The city’s future remains contestable, but the origins of Mumbai indisputably lie in European colonialism.

The colonial city

The city dangles from the Western coast of India on what were originally seven separate islets in the Arabian Sea, populated by fishermen and farmers. Portuguese explorers and missionaries began raiding the area in the sixteenth century, hoping to acquire ‘Christians and spices’, and eventually won the territory from its Gujarati sultan. By the seventeenth century, English and Dutch traders were vying with the Portuguese, and the territory was eventually given as a dowry to Charles II when he married Catherine of Braganza, and soon after leased to the East India Company. Slowly, commerce, militarism, immigration and industry transformed the geography of the area, and Bombay became a bustling, urban centre of the British Empire. Prakash observes:

‘In a country with settlements going back several millennia, Mumbai boasts of no ancient monument – no fort, palace, temple, or mosque – from the deep past. The monuments from the era of European trade and conquest are another matter; they bear testimony to Mumbai’s doubly colonial history, pointing out that the seizure of lands from the sea for the urban settlement went hand in hand with the conquest of the territory and the people by European colonialism.’ (p27)

Prakash may have a point when he takes issue in the same passage with the use of the term ‘reclaimed’ to describe the transformation of sea into land, but his preference for ‘stolen’ is equally daft. And his equation of humanity’s ‘conquest’ of nature with the colonial domination of one people by another betrays a cultural pessimism, an unease with modernity itself, that haunts the book as a whole. Nonetheless, this ambivalence cannot dampen the author’s palpable enthusiasm for Mumbai and what it represents. Prakash, a history professor at Princeton, is not a native of Mumbai, but describes how the city held an allure for youngsters like him growing up in the north-eastern Indian city of Patna – and doubtless others throughout India and beyond – largely because of its Hindi film industry.

There is room for a certain ambivalence, of course. If the dazzling spectacle of Bollywood cinema appeals to the aspirations of millions, the city that gave birth to it was itself weaned on the sweat and blood of the less fortunate masses who toiled under colonial rule. Chroniclers of Victorian Bombay saw more grit than glamour. To add insult to injury, there was a tendency among British observers to see the squalor of the city as a an aspect of its exotic Indianness.

‘Their imperial blinders prevented the recognition that the hellish landscape was produced by the colonial economy; they could not see that the economic relations that British power imposed rendered the precarious mill industry critically dependent on the exploitation of cheap labor. To them, the workers’ appalling living conditions had nothing to do with British rule; it was simply a matter of civic facilities’ lagging behind industrial growth or simply a result of Indian unsanitary habits.’ (p65)

An outbreak of bubonic plague in 1896-97 led to the establishment of the Bombay City Improvement Trust, which oversaw improvements to infrastructure and public health laws. As Prakash notes, however, this posited colonial administration – demolishing homes, forced removal of plague victims etc - as the solution to a problem whose underlying cause was colonial rule itself: ‘The unsanitary and disease-prone living conditions, after all, were the result of the industrialization-on-the-cheap [demanded by] colonialism’ (p71).

Prakash explains that Bombay’s cotton mills owed their origins to the subordinate role of Indian capital in a global market dominated by sophisticated and well-financed European speculators. Drawing on the work of historian Raj Chandavarkar, he argues that when Bombay’s ‘nimble Parsi merchants’ established their own mills, ‘this was not a case of linear progression from trade to industry, but a defensive reaction to their subordination to the larger and more resourceful expatriate capital’ (p40). The development of capitalism in India was not simply a case of Bombay emulating Manchester a century later: international market conditions were as unequal as the political relationship between India and its imperial master. Bombay’s capitalists could at least take advantage of the cheap pool of labour streaming in from the countryside, but, ‘The use of casual labour on such a scale was not conducive to developing a skilled and stable workforce’ (p43). Indian workers, in and out of work depending on global market fluctuations, and therefore lacking organisation, suffered most from the subordinate role of Indian capital.

Even after Independence, the promise of the city remained elusive. Capitalist modernity (even as mediated by the Congress party’s socialism) neither brought prosperity even to most Indians, nor fully overcame backward aspects of colonial-Indian culture such as the caste system. Prakash cites the writer Daya Pawar as someone who captured a more widespread ambivalence about post-Independence Bombay. As a Dalit (‘untouchable’), he was perhaps especially sensitive both to the promise of the modern city and its disappointments: ‘It dazzles me, beckons me. But I can never escape the realisation that this dazzling ruby has always eluded me’. As Prakash observes,

‘This is not the traditional romantic critique of the city. There is no nostalgia for the imagined warmth and solidarity of the village. The perspective is entirely urban, and it springs from a history of the city whose promise has been built upon conquest’ (p73).

Nevertheless, the promise of the city, like that of Independence, was real – and perhaps still is. There is a tragic quality to Prakash’s account, but the gradual demise of the Modernist dream in the second half of the twentieth century should not be seen as inevitable or even, perhaps, final.

The city of the future

Prakash devotes a long chapter to the colonial-era Backbay reclamation debacle – a protracted story of hubris, incompetence and corruption, involving a series of plans (going back to the 1860s and gathering pace in the early 20th century) to reclaim more land for development on the Backbay, the western side of south Bombay on the Arabian Sea, now dominated by the iconic Marine Drive. And this is the first time in the book we are introduced to an influential Indian protagonist in the colonial city, in the shape of nationalist lawyer and congressman Khurshed Framji Nariman. Beginning in 1925, Nariman wrote a series of bombastic articles in the nationalist Bombay Chronicle exposing the repeated misuse of public funds, payoffs to high officials and resulting coverups associated with the Backbay scheme. British officials decided to prosecute him for defamation, leading to a long and theatrical court case which ended with Nariman’s spectacular vindication in 1928.

In many respects the Backbay plan itself was impressive, and it was presented as a means of dealing with Bombay’s undoubted housing shortage, but even disregarding the corruption and incompetence that doomed the scheme, the more fundamental problem was that it was the imposition of a colonial elite, based on elite fantasies about mesmerising modern luxury rather than the needs of the people of Bombay. ‘Nariman exposed official highhandedness and corruption only to place colonialism on trial. According to him, the underlying cause of graft and incompetence was the arbitrary exercise of British power. The real scandal, the muckraker charged, was colonialism.’ (p94)

Nevertheless, Prakash’s own suspicions about the ambitions of urban planners extend into the Independence era, and not entirely without reason. In name, independent India was born democratic, but the inevitable difficulties of realising the full potential of democracy in such a vast and underdeveloped country meant modernity remained to a large degree an elite enterprise, albeit that of an Indian elite. ‘The nationalists assumed power claiming that the nation, not alien rulers, must exercise authority over India. But once India was independent, the power to decide India’s future was ceded to the technocrats, bypassing the citizens.’ (p258)

Given the bigger historical picture, Prakash is hard on the planners – ‘dreamers’ – around MARG (the Modern Architectural Research Group) and the JIIA (Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects), who sought to plan Bombay as a space for industrial capitalism, built around efficiency, need, function and order rather than a sense of home, cultural meaning and the experience of everyday living. For Prakash, such a vision was not culturally neutral: ‘The planners’ dreamscape may appear rational and cold,’ he writes, ‘but their emotional energy is clear in the plan. Exclamation points punctuate their proposals, and the language pulsates with calls to transform the messy and muddled city into a metropolis that would function like a well-oiled machine to power India’s modern nationhood’ (p262).

There is a clear echo of the hubris of the Backbay reclamation plan in the planners’ grand vision of New Bombay, a conjoined twin for the island city, across the harbour on the mainland (today’s ‘bedroom community’, Navi Mumbai, is a mere shadow of that dream). But as with the Backbay scheme itself, Prakash is perhaps too quick to dismiss the dream itself in describing the unjust circumstances in which it was played out and which doomed it to failure. The emotional energy of the planners, their ambition and imagination as well as their technical prowess, might have been embraced with even more enthusiasm by a more fully democratic polity. Futuristic ambition is hardly the preserve of elites, any more than the messy, serendipitous urbanity favoured by Prakash is necessarily popular. Nobody wants to be a cog in a machine, but we do like our cities to function effectively. Moreover, even naked capitalist exploitation is preferable to colonial oppression – or oppression by tradition. The pity is surely that the poor had to make do with modest improvements in their living conditions, and only the rich were able to indulge in dreams, whether ultimately fulfilled or otherwise.

Their Art Deco apartments on Marine Drive were not only an aesthetic break from the Colonial Gothic of British Bombay, but reflected changing aspirations among upper-class young Indians (which were equally at odds with the anti-modern ascetism of Gandhian nationalism). Prakash explains, ‘The apartment buildings were not lifeless buildings but projections of desire – a desire for a bourgeois life. They envisioned single-unit families – relieved of the burden of the traditional household and its retinue of servants – living independently and freely.’ (p101) But he goes on to remind us, ‘the secret of this polished surface of the metropolis could be found in the dimly lit and densely packed chawls’ (p113). The workers’ tenements were modern housing all right, but without the space, light and Art Deco flourishes.

Nevertheless, there was always more to Bombay’s modern promise than the architectural Modernism of planners. More than in their shortcomings and failures, the modernist tragedy that was to unfold lay in the culture and most of all in the politics of Bombay. That culture is perhaps best captured for posterity in Bollywood cinema, and Prakash draws heavily on films to illustrate his account of the modern city’s changing but always vibrant atmosphere. In one scene in Raj Khosla’s CID (1956), the comedian Johnny Walker wanders the streets and parades along Marine Drive, singing about how tough and heartless the city is, but finally his girlfriend responds with a defiant note of hope: ‘In place of “Ai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan” (It is hard to survive here), she sings “Ai dil hai aasaan jeena yahan, suno Mister, suno Bandhu, Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan” (O gentlemen, o my brothers, living here is easy, it’s Bombay darling).’ (p9)


What made Bombay Bombay, and gave hope to its people, was not just the often dubious promise of prosperity, but the freedom of city life, and the sense of a future opening up. This optimistic aspect of Bombay went back to the colonial era, and indeed had its origins in the struggle for Independence. Crucially, nationalist politics brought together the modernity of Art Deco theatres and jazz clubs with the modernity of the chawls and factories. The city’s culture was shaped not only by the struggle for independence, but also by the possibility of more radical change.

‘While the Congress activists mobilized working-class neighborhoods for nationalist agitations, the Communists organized the mill hands for militant industrial actions. Politically energised by anticolonialism and Marxism, many middle-class intellectuals found stimulation in the modern metropolitan milieu of Bombay. Writers and artists from North India flocked to the city, seeking opportunities to practice their craft in newspapers, literary journals, and the growing film industry.’ (p119)

Among the writers discussed by Prakash is Saadat Hasan Manto, who arrived in Bombay from Punjab in 1936. His short stories, written in his native Urdu, captured the everyday details of urban life and its sparkling diversity long before anyone had thought to celebrate ‘multiculturalism’: ‘Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Jews interact without any prior philosophy of cosmopolitanism, Rather, it is the vortex of money, occupation, friendship, and desire that brings them together without diluting their religious identities.’ (p125) Sadly, Manto moved ‘back’ to what was now Pakistan to escape the communal tensions that came with Partition when India finally gained its independence in 1947. That was the first great shock for those who had believed in the ideal of Independence, as the logic of separation tore through the fabric of urban society and thousands were killed. Manto went on to drink himself to death, but not before powerfully documenting the Partition violence in further short stories.

Even after the trauma of Partition, however, Prakash sees the socially-conscious lyrics and stories of Hindi cinema in the 1950s as continuing in the spirit of Manto, with politically progressive writers seeking to imagine a brighter future for independent India. But they did so within the terms of what Prakash calls ‘the nonrevolutionary ideology of Nehru’s India’.

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’ Shree 420 (1955), stars the legendary Raj Kapoor as a young migrant to Bombay, seemingly corrupted by the city when he becomes a cardsharp, but finally redeeming himself by foiling a crooked politician’s plans to embezzle money collected from the poor on the pretext of building them homes. For Prakash, the film ‘provides a progressive critique of social inequality and capitalist power while presenting humanist reform as the path forward, using a deeply moral tone’ (p154). He argues that the film’s conclusion, the hero pointing towards a planned housing scheme, symbolises the urban radicals’ embrace of the nation state and effectively capitalist modernity. Perhaps, but given that when the hero arrives in the city someone tries to charge him for the privilege of sleeping on an already crowded pavement, planned housing doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Moreover, film-makers were hardly alone in lacking a more radical critique of capitalism. The Communist Party of India was in thrall to the Soviet Union, by now a thoroughly conservative influence on working-class movements internationally. The intellectual initiative lay with those who had thrown in their lot with radical nationalism.

One such figure was Russi K Karanjia, a ‘dapper and dynamic Clark Gable look-alike’ and founder-editor of the English-language Bombay tabloid Blitz. Prakash gives a detailed account of a celebrated murder case of 1959-60, during which Blitz championed the cause of the accused, one Commander Nanavati of the Indian Navy, who had shot and killed his wife’s lover, a wealthy businessman. The paper presented the case as a morality tale in which an upright and patriotic naval officer had gone to confront the louche, liquor-drinking playboy who had taken advantage of his wife, and shot him only by accident in the course of a struggle.

Nanavati became a cause célèbre, and he was duly acquitted by the jury, but the verdict was overturned by the higher courts, and jury trials were subsequently abolished throughout India on the grounds that media influence was too powerful. But that was the point: Blitz was all about shaping and mobilising popular opinion as a social force, and Karanjia’s wider agenda was a radical nationalist one, unashamedly populist.

‘In line with Third World radicalism, Blitz frequently denounced capitalists and championed socialism, but it regarded class as an element, not the whole of the political division. The battle lines were clear. The “people”, a homogenous category constructed out of a socially heterogeneous population, stood on one side. Socialism and anti-imperialism were seen to serve the “people”, and the cause was entrusted with the leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. On the other side were the corrupt, the profiteers, big business, their right-wing political patrons, and the communal politicians who divided the “people” along religious lines. Blitz saw its mission as one of carrying the battle of the people into the English-dominated public sphere.’ (p165)

The populism of Blitz was broadly left-wing and progressive, but the ambiguities of ‘the people’ as a political agent made populism an unstable force in the politics of Bombay. Prakash persuasively argues that Karanjia unwittingly set the stage for an explicitly anti-cosmopolitan politics to emerge.

The end of a dream?

Prakash opens his chapter on the Shiv Sena with the murder in 1970 of Communist union leader Krishna Desai by members of the Marathi nativist party founded by Bal Thackeray in 1966. Nevertheless, while the Shiv Sena is generally regarded as right-wing and is aligned with the broader, ‘saffron’, Hindu nationalist movement beyond Maharashtra, like most far-right parties it could hardly be described as ‘pro-capitalist’. The reason the Shiv Sena was effectively at war with the Communists in 1970 was that it represented an alternative kind of popular, anti-establishment mobilisation. Instead of challenging the status quo in the interests of the working class, it championed the ‘Marathi manoos’, the Marathi-speaking man on the street, who was supposedly oppressed and downtrodden by outsiders, whether these were Gujarati bosses or South Indian migrants.

Prakash stresses that the Shiv Sena cannot be understood in conventional political terms. ‘No socioeconomic reality, no cultural tradition, sufficiently explains the emergence of the Marathi manoos. It was Thackeray’s political creation, despite his claim that the Sena was nonpolitical’ (p232). Prakash draws here on the political theorist Ernesto Laclau’s book On Populist Reason, arguing that the ‘Marathi manoos’ was invented as a political subject independently of any particular grievances. Various genuine injustices and forms of oppression, as well as imagined ones, were irrationally distilled into the suffering of the Marathi-speaking population, and they became became the only legitimate “people”. ‘Saffron replaced red not just by crushing radical thought but also by fashioning and entrenching an urban culture of populism… the Sena installed the crowd as a forceful political actor and unleashed it on the streets to slay the “enemies” of the “people”.’ (p206)

Nevertheless, the success of Thackeray’s political creation was dependent on the wider political context. The Communist Party was already in decline for a variety of reasons, and had perhaps made a grave mistake in the late 1950s when it backed the formation of states based on language, insisting Bombay should be part of Marathi-speaking Maharashtra. Certainly, it was disastrous to allow the class struggle between workers and capitalists to be reposed as one between Marathi manoos and Gujarati bosses. Prakash shows that the popularity the party gained by backing the creation of Maharashtra was at the expense of political clarity and independence, while their championing of the historical icon Shivaji, albeit ostensibly as an anti-feudal and secular figure, only paved the way for the Shiv Sena. (pp219-228)

On a national level, the late 1960s also saw the first serious challenges to the Congress party, which had governed India since Independence. A number of tensions that had been masked by popular enthusiasm for Independence were now coming to the surface, and the very ideal of modern India - united, secular, and forward-looking - was beginning to lose its grip on the popular imagination. This process would accelerate in the following decades. As Sadhvi Sharma has previously argued on Culture Wars, it was as Nehru’s ideal of Indian modernity gradually faded that identity politics came to the fore, most notably in the guise of the Hindu nationalist BJP, (Fractured narratives, 14 January 2010). And as Prakash notes of the Shiv Sena, ‘No self-respecting right-wing populist movement in India can succeed without targetting the Muslims as alien to the nation’ (p236). Accordingly, anti-Muslim rhetoric became increasingly prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, and there were bloody communal riots in Bombay as recently as 1992-93.

In effect, Indian politics steadily became divorced from any progressive vision of the future. Along with scapegoating and ethnic chauvinism, it was the cynical politics of ‘vote banks’ that came to dominate, with politicians shepherding voters on the basis of religion, language and caste rather than offering anything that might transcend such categories. India is the world’s largest democracy, but politics now has a dirty name there, and is widely associated with communalism and corruption rather than genuine self-government or the possibility of social change. If there was always a tendency even at the birth of independent India for the social elites to prefer technocracy to democracy, recent history has only reinforced it.

The 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai led to a major backlash against politicians in the city, particularly among the South Mumbai elites, who tend to disdain electoral politics anyway: ‘They loudly proclaimed that the people had had enough of vote banks and slogan mongering; the need of the hour was accountability for security failures.’ (p19) Prakash argues that this frustration with the messiness of democracy found resonance with the wider public; after all the masses who make up the vote banks get scant reward for their loyalty. And he includes a lengthy description of popular comic books featuring heroes like Doga, a masked urban crime-fighter who takes on crooked politicians and communal rioters alike, stepping outside the law to maintain order without undermining the legitimacy of the state.

But while the people can dream about superheroes, the elites get on as best they can amid the chaos of Indian democracy with administering what Prakash calls ‘urbanism without urbanity’. The technocratic spirit of the post-Independence planners lives on, but without their utopian ambition, so that parts of Mumbai now resemble what has been called ‘the generic city’, with shopping malls and so on in a style that can be found almost anywhere. Unsurprisingly, Prakash objects to proposals to redevelop Mumbai’s remaining unplanned districts, such as the famous Dharavi, often described as Asia’s biggest slum.

‘Seen through the jaundiced eyes of the middle-class reformer, the city is full of only claustrophobic density, fetid drains, garbage and ugliness. But if you open yourself to observing the drive, the enterprise, and the spirit of survival amid the incredibly wretched physical conditions, you cannot help but be uplifted. Rarely do you see idleness and despair associated with this “slum”.’ (p338)

While there is an inverse danger of romanticising slum life and small-scale capitalism, Prakash’s point is an important reminder that what really drives a city is its people and culture in the broadest sense. Just as a technologically advanced and carefully planned city can be soulless and culturally stale, a relatively underdeveloped and chaotic one can be rich in urbanity. For Prakash, this remains the true strength of Mumbai. ‘On the streets and in everday life, you can observe the living presence of the city’s history as a place of interactions between different communities, languages, and religions, even if this practice does not ascend to an Olympian philosophy of life.’ (p348)

Prakash’s suspicion of Olympian plans for the city is understandable, especially given the role of lofty elitism in provoking reactionary populism; each indeed has historically reinforced the other. But a truly vibrant city cannot be content with diversity as an end in itself. The generation of writers and intellectuals inspired to gather in Bombay in the 1940s aspired to far more than that, and while they argued about what kind of future was desirable, they shared a basic belief in social progress that would bring people together rather than keeping them apart. The real and rapid development currently taking place in India offers new hope, but it will take dreamers as well as business leaders to fashion a new modernity for the masses rather than just the elites. Mumbai Fables points to one good place to start. Yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan.

A song from Chetan Anand’s film Taxi Driver (1954), with diverse characters mixing in a workers’ club, Doston ka Adda (Friends’ hangout).

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