By Shayan Rajani
Gyan Prakash is a professor of history at PrincetonUniversity. His first book, Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labor Servitude in Colonial India (1990), was on the history of bonded labour in southern Bihar. His second book, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (1999), investigated the cultural authority of science in India, whereas his latest work, Mumbai Fables, is an exploration of the shifting imaginations of Mumbai over its colonial and postcolonial careers. Of late, Prakash has also penned a screenplay for a movie titled Bombay Velvet, to be directed by Anurag Kashyap.
Let me start with a question that you must get asked a lot. How did you arrive upon Mumbai as the topic of your book?
Growing up not in Bombay, but in Patna, which is 1,000 miles to the east, Bombay was a figure of my childhood imagination. There was Bombay cinema everywhere. You used to hear stories that so and so bhaag gaya Mumbai! Bombay sustained the myth of a discovery of a place out there. And then around 2000 I became interested in working on cities, partly because it seemed to me that cities were interesting because that’s where society is kind of patched together. You have people who are immigrants, who come from elsewhere, and unlike a village where people’s ties are often based on family, clan, caste or religion, in the city you have to create a society from scratch. And so the creativity attracted me. These two came together: my interest in the city and Bombay that I had on my mind.
Initially I went to Bombay for around three months just to see whether I could do something with it. What happens usually is that you have a myth of the place and once you go there that myth unravels. In my case, it became even richer. I spent three months over there and started exploring materials and various kinds of stories that people told about the place. And that really got me interested. Initially it started with trying to understand what lay behind those stories. One of the stories that people told a lot at that time was of decline — that Bombay was once a great kind of cosmopolitan city and then because of the Shiv Sena and the 1992-93 riots the city declined and lost its cosmopolitan spirit. Of course, I knew that change had occurred but I was also interested in the way that that change was told in terms of the decline of cosmopolitanism. And so I began to explore what lay behind the stories.
The common theme from Bonded Histories to Mumbai Fables has been your interest in investigating modernity. Why has this been such a significant project for you?
You’re right that modernity has been a common theme. I was here interested in the modern city as society. I wanted to see how the modern city becomes a way in which a modern society is constructed and so that was the connection. If earlier modernity was identified in my first work with freedom, then with science, here I wanted to see modernity in a kind of a more material form. In the earlier work, maybe the emphasis was much more on the discursive level. And here I wanted to see how modernity is materialised in the space of the city. That was the connection with the previous work.
I noticed that in Mumbai Fables you use terms like imagining, images and representations, which seems to be a shift from your earlier focus on discourse. There is a family resemblance between these terms. Was it a conscious decision? What went into it?
No, it wasn’t conscious. The materials I was encountering — let’s say cultural materials, representations — seemed to in some way capture the experience of being in the city. They were not imagination in the sense of being separated from the material but really part of the everyday experience of the city. So I’ll give you an example. I had always been fascinated by the image of Marine Drive as a kind of iconic postcard image of Bombay. And I would ask people about Marine Drive and they would even pronounce it as if all their worries of the moment have been pushed aside and that this was another space. So I thought, well it’s a figure of imagination but this is how they live and that imagination is the way in which they experience the city.
Imagination provided me with a kind of a mediating term that spoke both of cultural representation but also the experience of the city. I wasn’t so focused on something like discourse, which has a slightly more formal definition to it. Imagination seemed a little more free-flowing and going back and forth.
You were looking at the relationship between city and image or representation but then there was also city and event. How did those three come together for you?
There is this wonderful book by Jonathan Raban called SoftCity. It’s largely a study of 1970s London. And he says in the book that the soft city of myths, illusions, aspirations, dreams and nightmares is as real, if not more real, than the hard city of demography and statistics. I read this book just before I started working on Bombay and I was very taken up by the idea that through the soft city you can access the way in which people even act in the city. So events that happen are in some ways theatrical events where people act out a certain role for themselves, which is of course affected by what’s going on in politics, culture and so on.
You also push the connection with the communists and the Shiv and the continuities there…
Yes, this idea of linguistic identity being almost a substitute for class identity that the communists advocated in the 50s and that kind of played into the idea of the Shiv Sena as the Marathi manoos being the people.