With exceptional style and panache, the Reader captures in one place the many voices and stories of a city that refuses to die.
Mumbai matters. How can it not? The sixth most populous city and one of the largest urban regions on the planet, it is home to over 20 million people. It’s a city that speaks over a dozen different languages, each one uniquely filtered, adapted and adopted: only here will you hear an irate bus conductor bellowing at a passenger “aage chal, khaali-peeli bichme khada hain khamba ke mafak” — an absolutely delicious phrase that melds Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Mumbai into one unmistakable linguistic bhel-puri that still gets the message across.
Like every big city, Mumbai too has its stories, and these narratives are shaped by the city itself. There are stories from the small microcosms — Matunga, the Dadar colonies, the Parsi baugs — where, often, time slows and older traditions are still fiercely guarded. There are stories of upheaval and disruption, of fractured lives, of unexpected successes, stories of grit and determination in the face of inhuman odds, of shocking violence and overwhelming kindness, of grotesque ugliness and ethereal beauty. There is no one thread that unifies these stories except the city itself.
Standing at the intersection at Churchgate station in pouring rain — just about where Naipaul famously “lost his identity in a sea of humanity” — you understand that it is this humanity that gives the city and every one in it a unique identity, one that enables survival. Let the right-wingers keep bleating about reclaiming the city for this or that group; the city will have none of it. We do not succeed despite our differences. We succeed because of them, all speaking the same, peculiar, Bombay/Mumbai argot. Seamus Heaney’s phrase, in a completely different context, lends itself to Mumbai as to no other Indian city: it is here that we have the government of the tongue. Over the usual blare of loudspeakers and motor horns there is a babble of voices, a cacophony of individual and collective stories all being told at the same time.
It’s a city that demands to be anthologized. In the summer of 2004, Akashic Books, an independent Brooklyn-based publisher released the first of its City Noir series, Brooklyn Noir. It was an instant success, hitting the bestseller lists and winning awards, and it was the first of a series of original noir anthologies. There are several dozen titles covering cities and towns as widely different as Cape Cod and Lagos. Some have more than volume (Manhattan, LA, San Francisco and DC have two, Brooklyn has three). Each book has new stories and each story is set in a distinct location or area of the city of the book. Even Delhi got its own, a somewhat patchy collection which in parts felt like it was trying to out-Adiga Arvind. Mumbai’s is said to be forthcoming.
That, when it comes, will be fiction — imaginary tales in imaginary voices placed in the many realities of Mumbai. The annual Mumbai Reader, from the Urban Design Research Institute, is an anthology of just such realities. It brings together many different perspectives and stories from the city, the many languages and voices. It compiles photographs, first person accounts, analyses, real experiences of engagement with city issues all in one volume. It is put together by Pankaj Joshi and Isaac Matthew of the UDRI and its guiding spirit is Rahul Mehrotra, a man with the energy of a nuclear reactor. This year’s volume, released on 13 October, is supported by the Navajbai Ratan Tata Trust and the Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation.
The 2008 Reader opened with the text of an open letter to the Chief Minister protesting the government’s ‘Caretaker’ policy — handing over the city’s open spaces to private clubs. The letter was signed by, among others, two former judges of the Supreme Court, two former Municipal Commissioners, a former Police Commissioner, heads of business houses and various NGOs. Its 400 odd pages included contributions from Darryl D’Monte, Jamshyd Kanga, Gyan Prakash, Nauzer Bharucha and others.
This year’s volume is even larger, and the spectrum of issues it covers even wider: from the effects of communal riots on life in chawls to slum rehabilitation, issues of licensing and morality, facilities for pedestrians, transport, education and environment. (A disclaimer: it includes the text of an address I delivered at an UDRI seminar in February 2011; but that can be safely ignored). Sharit Bhowmik, of TISS, makes a set of compelling arguments to revisit the policies on street vendors (“hawkers”). Sonal Makhija’s article on Bar Dancers, Morality and the Law, reprinted from its original publication in the Economic & Political Weekly, is a grim reminder of the way the city’s governors attempt to refashion the city to their own hidebound views.
Like the city, the Mumbai Reader has no unifying, single focus other than the city itself, and an abiding concern for its future. With exceptional style and panache, the Reader captures in one place the many voices and stories of a city that refuses to die.
This article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on Friday, 14 October 2011. Ahmedabad, Pune and Bangalore refused to carry it because they felt it was “too Mumbai-centric”. Well, that’s just too bad. Mumbai is the centre of the universe. After New York. Suck it up, you other cities.
A Manifesto For Mumbai
Mumbai matters. How can it not? The sixth most populous city and one of the largest urban regions on the planet, it is home to over 20 million people. It's a city that speaks over a dozen different languages, each one uniquely filtered, adapted and adopted: only here will you hear an irate bus conductor bellowing at a passenger "*aage chal, khaali-peeli bichme khada hain khamba ke mafak*" -- an absolutely delicious phrase that melds Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Mumbai into one unmistakable linguistic bhel-puri that still gets the message across.