KARACHI, Dec 30: “I am walking, talking Bombay... I loved that city then and I love it today.” So said Manto about the city where he came in 1936 and found fame and yet was forced to leave after communal riots threatened life and sanity alike, as told in Gyan Prakash’s book ‘Mumbai fables’.
Thriving on part nostalgia, part pop culture, Prakash’s book is a heady account of history, ups and downs, seedy and desirable sides of the cosmopolitan city called ‘Bombay/Bumbayee/Mumbai’ and makes for a riveting read.
On Sunday evening, a diverse audience had the pleasure of becoming part of ‘Mumbai meri jaan: in conversation with Gyan Prakash’, an almost two-hour-long session with Indian author and professor of history at Princeton.
An erudite Kamran Asdar introduced the audience (most of whom had not read the book but were drawn by the ‘cinema and scandal’ bits) to Prakash’s writing, setting the mood for the evening.
“If you look at the history of the subcontinent, it has always been presented with a trajectory. Be it the accounts of the 1800s, or the 1900s, the focus was always on ‘How did it lead to 1947’ or ‘Why did India not turn into England or modernise?’” said Prakash as he explained his motivation.
In his first book ‘Bonded histories: genealogies of labor servitude in colonial India’ revolved around the peasants and bonded labourers in Bihar.
Narrating how the Brahmins in these sheltered communities ostracised the downtrodden and often told him that he ‘mustn’t hang out with the Dalits as they have no knowledge’, he was all the more tempted to hear the untold stories of the poor.
And this further drew Prakash towards the labourers.
“You will not see any documentation on ‘ghosts’ in the British archives and yet the very same ‘bhoot’ is an important part of life in these communities. If someone committed a crime and a few days later some misery befell him, he’d blame it on the ghost saying that ‘the system has been upset because I have offended the malik/seth’s bhoot’,” he summed up much to the audience’s amusement.
Villages, cities and alienation
“In villages, you are related by caste and creed and religion. In cities, you are strangers. A city is a place of social experiments and it is the dynamism of the cities that attracts me,” he said as he dwelled upon how mutual bonding and dependence resulted in people from different backgrounds and ethnicities coming together and giving life to a city.
Though inclusive and exclusive at the same time depending on factors that are in control of the inhabitants and at times not, he added: “But cities are also alienating places. Bombay was never just a city to me. It was an idea, a myth,” says the Patna native.
Thankfully for him the myth never shattered but rather ‘became richer’.
Everybody loves a scandal
Moving on to Mumbai fables and sharing one of the most interesting chapters called ‘The tabloid and the city’, Prakash had the undivided attention of all.
Based on ‘K. M. Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra’, a 1959 court case (and the last case in Indian courts where a jury presided), it narrates the ordeal of Naval Commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati who was tried for the murder of his British wife Sylvia’s lover Prem Ahuja.
“The Nanavati Scandal was an ‘OJ Simpson trial’ of its time. With infidelity and honour thrown in the mix, ‘Blitz’, a tabloid owned by Russi Karanjia, back then exploited it to the max.”
Banking on middle class values, Blitz gave the trial a spin of its own, with the ensuing narrative turning out to be of Nanavati as a man trying to save the family values against Ahuja's Casanova that was an epitome of sleaze and lacked morality, Prakash said.
“It was one of those time when a man was successfully able to entangle nation, people and a cosmopolitan city,” says Prakash, summing up the story that set tongues wagging and provided the perfect tabloid fodder and set the agenda long before the cacophony unleashed by the breaking news madness of TV channels.
From Bombay To Bollywood
“You cannot work on Bombay and overlook cinema,” his one sentence summed up the city and the term ‘Bollywood’ that has become synonymous with India all over the world.
Given that most of the audience was unfamiliar with Prakash’s Mumbai fables but had an interest in hearing from him about Bollywood, the author shared some anecdotes including how the story of three brothers who dressed up like their matinee idol and were called ‘Dev Anand brothers’. “One of them went on to become the advocate general of Bihar,” said Prakash.
The effect of Bollywood is so huge that it’s impossible not to give into its allure and hence it has become an important part of the city’s fabric. “People’s everyday language is interlaced with cinematic reference,” said Prakash as he went to describe how the dreams and aspirations of millions are captured on celluloid.
While many in the audience drew parallels between Karachi and Mumbai, yet the closest was how the two cities can be taken hostage.
Explaining the phenomenon of how Shiv Sena could bring Mumbai to a standstill in an hour, he said: “Shiv Sena was able to penetrate the everyday life of the city, something which the communists and progressives were unable to do so. It gave the young virile males a sense of power of action all the while hammering the notion that they were closing the city for Mirathi Manos (people of Mirathi origins).”
This misplaced sense of nationalism was often a boon for the citizens who did not fit the definition set by Shiv Sena, he said, while quickly pointing out that no matter how hard the shutdown was, ‘Mumbai always bounces back’.