Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gyan Prakash's "Mumbai Fables"

Gyan Prakash is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University. He is the author of Bonded Histories and Another Reason (Princeton University Press) and the editor of Noir Urbanisms.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mumbai Fables, and reported the following:
Cities are not just bricks and mortar, and demography and statistics, but also myths and imaginations, dreams and nightmares. This is all the more so in the case of Mumbai where fables and fantasies abound. Its very being as an Island City, forged out of seven islets on the Arabian Sea, is told as an epic tale of human artifice, of culture’s triumph over nature. Fascinated by the force of imagination in Mumbai’s past and the present, I set out to explore the fabulous stories the city has told about itself – and the backstories – through the course of its history as a modern metropolis. Mumbai Fables is a result of this quest.

The book presents the contrasting worlds of colonial administrators and nationalist muckrakers, of radical writers and artists and right-wing political activists. It brings into view the cinematic vision of cosmopolitan life. The scandalous city unearthed by tabloids, and the actions of a comic book hero to save the crisis-ridden urban society offer yet other facets of Mumbai’s mythic life.

So do the dreams of urban planners and architects. Page 99 of Mumbai Fables captures their fable of the city. The page deals with the construction of the panoramic Marine Drive. Running along the arcing shoreline, the promenade calls to mind the visual drama of the city by the sea. It stands as an iconic expression of the desire to create the city as a society of immense openness – open to the sea, to the outside world, a dream city of cosmopolitan desire. According to received history, the promenade stands on reclaimed lands, as if there was a prior claim on them. In fact, the lands were stolen from the sea. On theft fictionalized as reclamation stands Marine Drive. With its Art Deco buildings expressing a stylish and technologically advanced modern life, the fable of the city on the sea presents itself before us. As I write on Page 99:
By 1940 the construction of Marine Drive was complete. It was, the Indian Concrete Journal proclaimed, the “Finest promenade in the East, built in concrete.” Lining the Drive were Art Deco apartment blocks, looking out to the Arabian Sea. Behind them, on Queens Road, were also modern buildings of steel and concrete, staring across the Oval Maidan at the medievalism of the Gothic Revival buildings. The new built form represented an architectural shift from Victorianism to modernity.
Read an excerpt from Mumbai Fables, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Gyan Prakash's faculty webpage.

Writers Read: Gyan Prakash.

--Marshal Zeringue