I have a bit of a strange relationship with Bombay. On the one hand, I am not really fond of the pace of life there, or the sense of collective superiority its citizens (sometimes) seem to exude. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the very idea of the city, and its uniqueness. That is the reason why a lot of Bombay-based books exist on my bookshelf. On hindsight, it does seem strange that Mumbai Fables took this long to find its way there.
This idea of Bombay and the possibilities and promise is what led people from many parts of the country to make the city their home. This, I think, is what fascinates the author too, and this book attempts to understand what makes the city special. It is a historic journey of the city across various domains – geography, art and literature, culture, politics, journalism and business. The narrative is largely linear, with some overlap to cover ground when a new aspect is brought to the discussion.
From a timeline perspective, the book begins with the conquest of the seven islands by the Portugese in the 16th century, but before he gets there, the author introduces the reader to the distinctive ‘myth’ that is Mumbai. The Colonial era, the post colonial years immediately following independence, the beginning of the reclamation, the rise of tabloid journalism, the rise and fall of the mills and communism, Shiv Sena and to a certain extent, the underworld, all find a place in this book, just as it should. There is a lot of ground covered, and the research that has been done, going by the ‘Notes’ is huge!
While events, people and places are all chronicled faithfully, what this book actually gives – by covering centuries of history – is context. Everything that I mentioned above is linked to each other in some way. The author uses a range of phenomena – from Art Deco to Doga comics and the Nanavati case to Fearless Nadia and Dev Anand movies – to show how and why Bombay is the city it is, and its influence on its citizens. Once you finish the book, you get a sense of the layers that make up today’s Mumbai. People, culture, lifestyles and the city itself carry the past with them, sometimes conspicuously, and sometimes in subtle, unconscious ways.
It is amazing to see how the things we see as the unique challenges of this age, have occurred in some or the other form before too. Perspective, that’s this book’s gift. A fantastic read!
P.S. Some amazing tidbits too, like the fact Bal Thackeray’s father publicly called him a donkey, the irony of Nariman point’s name, and so on.