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COVER STORY: Interview - Gyan Prakash

January 13, 2013

Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

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.

I asked a person in Bombay who used to be a police officer, “Deepak, how did this happen? Here were these mill areas where communists were dominant and then five years later the children of those communists became members of the Shiv Sena.” First of course he abused the communists as traitors and so on. Then he said, “yehjo communist log they, ye utopian baatein kar rahein they, socialism ho ga, Delhi pe qabza kareingai. Shiv Sena, woh logo ko quick tonic diya.” And what he meant was that there was a sense of masculine virility that the Shiv Sena proposed and it also promised direct action. So not having to go through the elaborate procedures of elections and then changing policies in government but achieving something directly. In fact, they don’t achieve anything directly. In that sense the Shiv Sena is important that while they invoke people’s grievances — unemployment and so on — they actually don’t do anything about it. The purpose of raising those grievances was to really situate the Marathi manoos as a legitimate and universal political subject. But what they achieved at the level of everyday life was that they were able to mobilise people. Whereas the communists were saying, “Yes, we mobilise now but for something tomorrow.”

I would love to hear about the Doga comics that you write about in Mumbai Fables. How did you discover them? And the hope for a cosmopolitan and safe city that it embodies, do you think that is still possible for Mumbai?

I was always interested in comics and graphic novels. And these comic books were sold at these suburban railway stations. So I bought a few to begin with and started reading them. Eventually, there were 200 of them.

They were very interesting. Firstly, their themes were ripped from the headlines. Whatever was happening in the city was turned into a story in the comic books, whether it was political corruption, or the nexus between the politicians and the builders, or the nexus between the underworld and the builders. Everything that was appearing in the newspapers found its way into the comic books. I found it a unique way of representing what’s going on.

What I also found interesting in the Doga comics was that on the one hand they were showing us that the actual agents of liberal democracy are corrupt — judges, policemen, politicians — that liberal democracy is based on the separation of powers but actually they are all in cahoots and acting against the interests of liberal democracy. But Doga believes in the ideals of liberal democracy. And so it is for him to really bridge that gap and act against the corrupt agents in order to uphold the ideals of secular liberal democracy.

Are you hopeful that this ideal can be salvaged for the city?

I think so. Although a lot has changed. Particularly the Shiv Sena and Hindu nationalism now enjoys a power it never did before. But there is a significant blowback too. I’m not saying that the comic books can achieve this but they are an expression of a widespread sentiment.

There are some striking similarities between Mumbai and Karachi’s trajectories, at least till the 1980s — a shift from visions of a cosmopolitan city to one dominated by ethnic populism. Do you think that your research on Bombay is generalisable to other colonial cities?

Obviously, their history also diverges. But the idea of a major metropolis is of a place where the challenge is to see how different communities can live together. That I think is a common challenge for both Karachi and Mumbai. In Karachi, it has obviously taken a very violent turn. And I suppose the difference over there may well be that Bombay has had now over 60 years of a certain experience in democratic negotiation of these differences, even though you have Shiv Sena and so on which routinely violates that. But still, there is a kind of mechanism and an institution that has been established. Whereas that is not the case with Karachi. So if one were to think of some comparative insights from this, it would be that if those democratic institutions and the practice of democratic negotiation of differences were to take hold, that would be the only way in which the city would be able to negotiate these violent conflicts.

Let me shift gears a little bit and go into your past. You were a part of the Subaltern Studies Collective which has been hugely influential across a whole host of disciplines. Looking back, what would you identify as one or two most significant contributions of the collective?

I think when the collective started — and initially I wasn’t part of it — its major purpose was to situate the subaltern as an actor in history. Much of the history that had been written up until then would read various historical events as part of a trajectory, whether it was a trajectory leading up to 1947 or it was a trajectory of modernisation. So when people looked at 1857, they read 1947 into it. Or when people looked at colonial society in the 19th century, the questions they asked were whether India was becoming modern, which was again part of that trajectory.

So I think what Subaltern Studies did was, in a very basic sense, disrupt that trajectory and say that these events that took place could not be organised around some narrative that already had some declared goal and that each of these events have their own specific character and that subaltern groups and subaltern ideas were crucial in them and they should be given their due in understanding those events. So I think that was the most basic general purpose. And what it accomplished was that, to begin with, it dislodged a certain nationalist reading of history. It also dislodged a colonialist reading of South Asian history. Those were the major aims and that’s why once those were accomplished by the end of 1990s, when we met, people’s interests had diverged. I was working on the city; Dipesh [Charabarty] was interested in postcolonial thought. And we didn’t have a common project anymore. In a way, that project had already accomplished its goal. That is why we decided to dissolve.

What’s next for you?

There are a couple of things I am working on. The most immediate thing I want to do is a history of the emergency in India in the 1970s. The narrative that we are told is that Indian democracy starts in 1950 and then there is a slight hiccup in 1975 and then the train is back on the rails. I don’t think that’s the case. My hunch is in fact something very basic happens and that subsequent politics does change in some fundamental way.

You’ve also written a script for a movie Bombay Velvet. What is the movie about? And do you also work in this concern about the cosmopolitan city in the script?

Yes. In a way. The film is film noir or retro noir, you might call it. It’s set in the 1960s. It’s evoking a Bombay of this kind of cosmopolitan city. But also a city where news-papers have a certain prominence. What I wanted to do in the film was to show how the transition occurs, not just from a cosmopolitan city, but from an industrial city to a post-industrial, real estate-finance-oriented city, which occurs over a long period of time. But I would say the crucial moments are somewhere between 1968 and 1970-something. I wanted to tell that story of transition but I tell it through the story of a murder. As you uncover the murder you also uncover how the city is changing.

The interviewer is a PhD student in history