Review of Patel/Thorner, Bombay:Mosaic of Modern Culture (long)

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CHRISTOPHER ROLLASON

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May 4, 1997, 3:00:00 AM5/4/97
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Review of: Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner (eds.), 'Bombay: Mosaic of
Modern Culture', Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1995, xxxiii + 235
pp., hard covers, Rs 495, ISBN 0-19-563689-9; publisher's address:
Oxford University Press, Oxford House, Apollo Bunder, Bombay 400 001

****

'Apollo Bunder, Colaba Causeway, Flora Fountain, Churchgate, Nariman
Point, Civil Lines, Malabar Hill, Kemp's Corner, Warden Road,
Mahalaxmi, Hornby Vellard, Juhu, Sahar, Santa Cruz. O blessed mantra
of my lost city!'
(Salman Rushdie, 'The Moor's Last Sigh', London: Jonathan Cape, 1995,
p. 260)

****

Cities have their souls, and their auras created over time. Bombay, a
megapolis conjured ex nihilo out of a fishing village and a swampy
island after 1661, when the Portuguese gave it to Charles II of
England as a wedding present, is today typically perceived as India's
most dynamic city, making up with seething ebullience and business
acumen for what it lacks in ancientness. It is not the historic
capital of its region, Maharashtra: that honour belongs to Poona
(Pune), four hours' journey into the interior. However, since 1911
Bombay's famous seaboard arch, the Gateway of India, has marked it as
a symbolic entry-point to India for the outside world. Its
heterogeneous population, 'cosmopolitan' in the subcontinental sense
of pan-Indian, brings together Indians of the most diverse ethnic,
religious and linguistic origins. Its extremes of wealth and poverty,
with both some of the highest property prices and rents in the world
and the sad distinction of being home to Asia's largest slum, embody
the contradictions of modern India in particularly acute form. Its
monumental British-era constructions, from the Taj Mahal Hotel to the
Prince of Wales Museum and the Victoria Terminus railway station,
recall the ambivalent splendours of the Raj; it is home to the
national Mahatma Gandhi museum, ironically housed in an Art Nouveau
villa in a street answering to the ultra-English name of Laburnum
Road. It symbolizes post-independence Indian modernity, with auto- and
cycle-rickshaws banished from the city centre in favour of
international-style taxis, while Calcutta has famously clung on to the
archaic hand-pulled rickshaw. It has also become the capital of a
quintessentially Indian form of popular culture, as the seat of the
planet's most prolific film industry. In recent years, Bombay has
played a prominent role in the opening-up of the national economy to
global markets, while its cultural profile has been raised through
literary evocations, not least in Salman Rushdie's novels 'Midnight's
Children' (1981) and 'The Moor's Last Sigh' (1995). At the same time,
however, darker elements have come to the fore, with the capture of
the municipal and state governments by Hindu-particularist forces, the
1992 Hindu-Muslim riots in the wake of the Ayodhya mosque affair, and
the savage bomb-blasts of 1993. Since 1995, Bombay has, courtesy of
the new rulers at city hall, officially been known as 'Mumbai', the
name it bears in the local language, Marathi; the new appellation has,
however, not been generally accepted at world level, and remains
controversial in a city large numbers of whose inhabitants are not of
Marathi origin.

The volume under review, made up of thirteen contributions by various
hands, most, though not all, Indian (the introduction, eleven essays
and an anthology of poems) consists of the proceedings of a conference
held in December 1992 at Bombay's SNDT Women's University. The title
boldly expresses the Bombayites' pride in their city and its status as
an Indian cultural icon, and the front dust-jacket reproduces a
colourful painting - 'Street Corner, Bombay' by Sudhir Patwardhan,
1995 - that encapsulates the city's lively dynamism; the collection
is, however, as the preface makes clear, shadowed by the disturbing
events that coincided with the book's preparation. In the editors'
words: 'The successive waves of brutality shocked not only the city's
residents but the whole of India since Bombay had enjoyed a reputation
of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and effective local government. To what
extent was this reputation warranted?' (pp. vii-viii). The book has
thus, whatever the original intention of the conference, become a
contribution to the 'intensive self-questioning' (p. viii) that
inevitably followed on the heels of the traumatic events of the early
1990s.

The introductory essay, 'Bombay: Diversity and Exchange' by co-editor
Alice Thorner, offers a lucid summary of the various contributions,
which those pressed for time could usefully read to gain a fair
overview of the volume. Thorner stresses the city's long tradition of
diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism: 'Distinctly different
languages, religions, caste hierarchies, kinship structures, naming
patterns, festival calendars, domestic rituals, forms of public
worship, modes of dress and cuisine coexist separately, yet in close
proximity. Awareness of this diversity informs the consciousness of
Bombayites' (p. xi). The result has been 'a relative freedom of
experimentation and innovation and a constant influx of individuals
ready to take their chances with new jobs, new enterprises, new ways
of thought and expression' (p. xii); at the same time, no single
community (the British included) has been able to exert absolute
economic or cultural domination. Equally, it is impossible to forget
that, in a city which did not exist a few hundred years ago, its
dwellers are 'without exception, immigrants and descendants of
immigrants' (p. xv): paradoxically, in a country as ancient as India,
Bombay is a city with no 'original' inhabitants.

Thorner summarizes numerous aspects of the city's contribution to
modern India: it saw the building of India's first railway line (from
the centre to nearby Thane, in 1853); its school of art, founded in
1857, at one point had Rudyard Kipling's father as its director;
Bombay hosted the founding session of the Indian National Congress in
1885, which initiated the independence movement; it is the cradle of
the national cinema, having witnessed the first film-show on the
subcontinent (a projection of works by the Lumière brothers, in 1896),
and then the making of India's first-ever feature film, in 1913. She
stresses the city's 'openness to influences from all corners of India
and, in fact, from the whole world' (p. xxxii), as well as its
'liberating aspect', with its visible diversity and sheer size tending
to encourage 'freedom for non-traditional behaviour', especially for
women, and, therefore, the flowering of social reform movements (p.
xv). The co-editor reaches the provocative conclusion that 'the city
has as good a claim as the often romanticized village to represent
India' (p. xxi).

The twelve essays that follow explore a wide range of aspects of the
megapolis. All are presented with complete professionalism, and the
English style of the Indian contributors is, as is to be expected of
intellectuals from the subcontinent, uniformly impeccable. One or two
of the texts might be thought to suffer from a slight excess of
sociologese, but nowhere does the writing slip into impenetrable
jargon. Some of the topics (nineteenth-century Gujarati social
reformers, or Marathi-language theatre), will be mainly of interest to
the specialist, but the studies of architecture, painting, film and
literature, in particular, should merit the attention of anyone
concerned with India.

In 'An Architectural Hybrid', Norma Evenson, a historian of
architecture from the US, traces the evolution of building styles in a
city where, from the beginning, 'land has ... been scarce and
expensive' (p. 165), and even in the 1920s 'rents were ... reportedly
as high as those of London and Paris' (p. 176). We learn that
nineteenth-century Bombay still had traditional wooden houses of high
decorative quality; a plate of an 1885 photo shows such a street, but
virtually none of those buildings survives today. Evenson takes the
reader through the successive styles that prevailed in Bombay under
the Raj - 'High Victorian Gothic', 'Indo-Saracenic', Art Deco and
concrete modernism - and offers descriptions, and, in some cases,
plates of the principal monuments. She also stresses Bombay's
reliance, unusual in India, on multi-storey buildings - a pattern
explained by lack of building space, and made technically possible by
the introduction in the 1890s of the electric ceiling fan, which,
replacing the hand-operated punkah fan which had 'required a lofty
space', meant rooms could be smaller and multiple storeys could be
erected on a single site (p. 176). Some British readers may be
surprised at her conclusion that Bombay may be 'the most thoroughly
Victorian metropolis extant' (p. 180).

Twentieth-century Indian painting, an area of art little-known in the
West, is illuminated by Yashodhara Dalmia's contribution, 'From
Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy to the Progressive Painters'. The article
recounts the foundation of the Bombay School of Art by Jeejeebhoy, a
Parsi (Zoroastrian) industrialist, and traces the evolution of
painting in the city, from slavish imitation of European models to a
new synthesis of modernism and Indian themes in the post-independence
work of the 'Progressive Artists' Group'. Half-a-dozen colour plates
initiate the outsider into the different styles; the subject of Bombay
art may be of special interest to readers of Rushdie's 'The Moor's
Last Sigh', whose pivotal character, Aurora Zogoiby, is an imaginary
Bombay-based artist who exhibits at the (real) Prince of Wales Museum.

In 'Films from the City of Dreams', Amrit Gangar, a local film critic,
unfolds the history of the 'Bombay talkies' or 'masala movies', today
a multi-million-rupee industry. The article stresses the crucial role
of music and popular hit songs in what is essentially a song-and-dance
genre, and underlines the importance of language in the Bombay
studios' rise to domination of Indian cinema: the cinematic lingua
franca chosen was not Marathi or English, but a special brand of
'bazar Hindi' (p. 223), comprehensible across the nation. The cinema
is also seen, in the wake of Walter Benjamin, as a means of
democratization: 'Like the railway stations ..., cinema halls were the
first spaces that could be shared by various strata of society on an
equal footing' (p. 219). A number of directors and individual films
are considered in some detail, the best-known outside India being Mira
Nair and her acclaimed piece of street realism 'Salaam Bombay'; colour
plates offer stills from various productions. The author goes beyond
the conventional antithesis between Bombay's 'Bollywood' and Satyajit
Ray's Calcutta (commercial movies versus art films), stressing that
many popular Bombay productions have nonetheless tackled serious
subjects, such as - in a 1983 film, 'Let it go, my friends' by Kundan
Shah - 'the criminal manipulations of the city's politicians,
builders, developers and goons' (p. 213). As far as current
developments are concerned, the prospect is seen as not totally
encouraging: Bollywood is still standing firm against Hollywood, but
the content of the masala movies 'has become more and more
violence-oriented' (p. 224) - a phenomenon which the author links
partly to outside forces: 'It is generally known that over the years
the Bombay film industry has been increasingly infiltrated by people
who owe nothing to anyone or anything except money, and get it by any
means' (ibid.). An account written today would, however, no doubt
mention recent productions which have, reportedly, taken up new
subjects in progressive ways, such as the controversial film,
significantly titled just 'Bombay', which dramatized love across the
Hindu-Muslim barrier.

Among the arts, literature takes pride of place in this volume,
meriting three articles. In 'Polyphonous Voices in the City: Bombay's
Indian-English Fiction', Roshan G. Shahani, a Bombay literary scholar,
examines the work of a number of contemporary writers who have 'chosen
Bombay as locale for their works of fiction' (p. 99n). These include,
of course, Salman Rushdie, who is represented by well-chosen
quotations from 'Midnight's Children' and his essay collection
'Imaginary Homelands', as well as Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and
others. The author deals typically with Indian or hyphenated-Indian
writers who were born in, or lived in, Bombay, but now view the
subcontinent from the distance of exile or foreign residence, and who
write in English. In Bombay, English has been of particular importance
as a lingua franca - more so than in Madras or Calcutta - thanks to
the extreme linguistic diversity of the city's population: 'Bombay's
very mixed population has further entrenched the use of English, not
only as a cultural tool, but as an everyday functional means of
communication, especially among the middle-classes who form the bulk
of the reading public' (p. 101). Shahani considers that 'English today
is as Indian a language as any other spoken in the subcontinent'
(ibid.), quoting Aijaz Ahmad, who argued in 1992 that 'one cannot
reject English now on the basis of its initially colonial insertion,
any more than one can boycott the railways for the same reason' (pp.
101-102) (and, it may be added, implicitly endorsing Rushdie's defence
of the same position in his 1983 article '" Commonwealth Literature "
does not exist'). The reader is further informed of the perhaps
surprising fact that 'India boasts the second largest English reading
public in the world', of which a 'sizeable fraction ... is to be found
in Bombay' (p. 102); today's 'Indo-Anglian' writer, whether or not
resident in the subcontinent, increasingly writes with that
English-reading Indian public in view, and, therefore, 'less and less
with a Western reader in mind' (ibid.).

Considering the various novelists' work, Shahani stresses that
'Bombay's infinite variety, its paradoxes and contradictions, defy any
easy definition' (pp. 104-105). If in the work of Anita Desai
('Baumgartner's Bombay', 1988) the megapolis is viewed through an
'Eliotian nihilism of the Unreal City' (p. 105), in 'Midnight's
Children', by contrast, Rushdie's narrator Saleem revels in the
'rainbow riot of the city' (quoted p. 108): in his 1990 essay on
Satyajit Ray, quoted by Shahani (p. 103), Rushdie praises Bombay for
its 'culture of high vitality, linguistic verve, and a kind of
metropolitan excitement that European cities have for the most part
forgotten' - this despite the admitted abundance of 'fakery and
gaudiness and superficiality and failed imaginations'. The Bombay
novelists are seen as mappers of their city, revelling in its
street-names and its familiar details; at the same time, Shahani
reminds us, their works offer the reader 'maps of the mind', not
'tourist guidebooks' (p. 105); the irate reader who wrote to Rushdie
complaining that the bus-routes in 'Midnight's Children' were not the
right ones (see his essay 1983 'Errata', quoted by Shahani, p. 104)
had certainly got the wrong end of the stick! The author concludes:
'By writing about Bombay, writers like Rushdie have charted anew the
cultural map of the world' (p. 112). It is certainly true that the
worldwide success of 'Midnight's Children', which, indeed, opens with
the words 'I was born in the city of Bombay', can only have raised the
city's international profile, while Rushdie has since returned to
evoke it again, with all the nostalgia of exile, in 'The Moor's Last
Sigh'. Within India itself, a further significant contribution is
being made by the Bombay-based best-selling novelist Shobha De, whose
'Starry Nights' (1991) plunges the reader into the glitz and
corruption of the Bollywood film world, and who has recently claimed
('Asia Week', 28 Feb 97) that her novels, with their feisty women
protagonists, have helped advance the cause of female emancipation in
India.

Vidyut Bhagvat's contribution, 'Bombay in Dalit Literature', examines
a very different kind of writing: the productions - mainly poetry -
that give voice to the millennially oppressed and downtrodden
community of the Dalits (the term used today in preference to
'untouchables' or the Gandhian 'Harijans'). Bhagvat shows how Dalit
writers have both denounced crushing social injustice and, refusing
negativity, called for a new 'universal humanism' (p. 112). This
essay is followed by what must be this volume's true hidden treasure,
'Poetry and the City': an anthology, over thirty pages long (edited by
Shirin Kudchedkar) of contemporary Bombay poetry, in several cases
written by Dalits. The poems are, variously, translated from Gujarati
or Marathi, or in some cases written directly in English. A multitude
of individual voices emerge from the cacophony of the city: in Nissim
Ezekiel's 'The Railway Clerk', a dramatic monologue worthy of Tagore's
character-studies, a humble employee declares: 'It isn't my fault./I
do what I'm told/but still I am blamed ... Once a week, I see film/And
then I am happy, but not otherwise' (p. 134); in 'From Bombay
Central', Gieve Patel transplants the reader to the confusion of the
station: 'Shafts of sunlight, a eternal/Station odour, amalgam of
diesel oil, hot steel, cool rails,/Light and shadow, human sweat ...'
(p. 139); in 'Usman Ali', by the Dalit Marathi-language poet Narayan
Surve, we meet a labourer with two wives and eleven children, who
survives with dignity ('My eldest son sells kites and string/At the
Chowpatty/and after my work, in the evenings/I teach the Urdu primer
to adults'), until his family is decimated in the intercommunal riots
(p. 153). Usman Ali concludes, stoically: 'Did not really lose/but it
also amounted to losing'; the whole anthology is a remarkable
testimony to the resilience of the ordinary people of Bombay, and of
India, and confirms Alice Thorner's claim that the city can be as
representative of a nation as the oft-idealized rural world.

***

A number of facets of Bombay are missing from the volume. It would
have been interesting to learn more about the city's diverse
communities, especially the non-Hindu ones - the Muslims, the Goan
Christians, and, especially, the Zoroastrians, who have made a
particular economic and cultural contribution, evoked in passing
across the volume but not discussed in detail. The linguistic mosaic
of the megapolis could also have been examined more closely: the
presence of two lingua francas, English (adopted by the novelists) and
Hindi (preferred by the cinema), as well as the 'indigenous' Marathi
and the multiple tongues of the internal migrants, must surely be a
happy hunting-ground for sociolinguists. Music gets little mention,
apart from the role of popular song in the cinema, although Bombay is
in fact a geographical meeting-place for the two great schools of
Indian classical music, Hindustani (northern) and Karnatic (southern).
Also worthy of closer mention would have been the city's diverse
newspaper and magazine press in the various languages, not to mention
the whole gastronomic and culinary dimension (we do learn that many of
Bombay's restaurants are run by Iranians, who seem to have anticipated
the role of the Bangladeshis in London).

It might also have been useful to add a comparative dimension to the
study. Bombay could, for instance, be considered in its relation to
its neighbour Poona: the smaller (two-million strong) city, though
often seen as provincial beside Bombay, is the historic capital of
Maharashtra and has retained its ancient fortress and traditional
bazaars in the old quarter while acquiring a second, modern city
centre. Poona, once the region's summer capital to which the British
decamped for the monsoon, remains umbilically linked to Bombay, and
also necessary to it, thanks to the relative availability and
cheapness of housing there: professionals commute every day by train
from Poona to Bombay for this reason, despite the 200 km journey. The
metropolis/hinterland relation is thus one of some complexity. It is
also possible that Bombay's status as India's most modern city, now
under threat from communalism and mafia practices, is today being
upstaged by Bangalore, which, with its 'Silicon Plateau', has
enshrined itself as India's hi-tech capital and computer outsourcing
centre.

This volume is, despite the various omissions, an eloquent testimony
to the depth and diversity of Bombay's cultural life. It will
certainly interest both specialists and non-specialists, Indians and
non-Indians; to read it does, however, presuppose some degree of
knowledge of India, and it is, alas, unlikely to be taken up by those
in the West who know nothing of the country of Tagore and Satyajit Ray
beyond the usual stereotypes of starving children and saffron-clad
saints - even if it might usefully enlighten such readers. In the
shadow of recent unpleasant events in Bombay, the contributors are not
all too sanguine about the city's future. Norma Evenson is unhappy
about the functional and aesthetic quality of recent Bombay
architecture: 'there is evidence that in Bombay building, even the
rich are getting very poor value for their money' (p. 181); Amrit
Gangar deplores the growing 'lumpenism of the masala film', fearing
that 'the good old days of the Bombay film seem to be over' (p. 224);
Alice Thorner concludes, rather ominously: 'It is by no means clear in
what direction Bombay is now moving' (p. xxxiii). One of the most
disturbing tendencies is the growing influence of the Hindu-extremist
Shiv Sena party, whose leader, Bal Thackray, has been memorably
satirized by Rushdie in 'The Moor's Last Sigh' - a book which, though
legal in India as a whole, appears to be unavailable in the author's
own beloved Bombay. The rise to power of particularist factions in a
city famed for its cosmopolitanism may confirm the view of an India
falling into fragments, as described by V.S. Naipaul in 1990 in his
'India: A Million Mutinies Now'. But then again, the centuries-old
resilience and capacity for survival of the Indian people may triumph
over all. The rave reviews recently accoladed, throughout the
English-speaking world, to Vikram Chandra's story collection 'Love and
Longing in Bombay' suggest that literary Bombay remains alive and
kicking. Indeed, the present volume, with the superb anthology of city
poets flowering lotus-like at its core, actually suggests it is
literature that will point the way forward - through the creative
vitality that overspills in a poem such as 'Public Works' (p. 146), in
which Gieve Patel brings the reader face to face with the crazy,
fertilizing chaos of the monsoon, itself a potential symbol of his
city:

'Then today at peak traffic hour
The double-decker bus that turned over
Releasing such torrents from stab wounds, water
Virginal from what
Conduits no one knew, as a crowd
Gathered, wading through slush
Around the wrecked, mangled monster'.

****

Christopher Rollason


Christopher Rollason, M.A. (Cantab.), D. Phil (York), UK national,
resident in France, former lecturer in English at Univ. of Coimbra,
Portugal, currently international official and translator; spent 3
months in India, 1991; interests: fiction, non-fiction (history,
travel), fine arts, music, criticism.

Review for the following Internet newsgroups:
rec.arts.books.reviews,soc.culture.indian

The reviewer will willingly discuss the book and review with anyone
wishing to email him at: roll...@dialup.francenet.fr

Christopher Rollason
Metz, France
roll...@dialup.francenet.fr

'Everybody does that way, Huck'
'Tom, it don't make no difference. I ain't everybody and I can't stand it'.
(Mark Twain, 'Tom Sawyer')


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