Inside Story

The burden of numbers

Mumbai is a big city getting bigger, writes Jim Masselos, but amid the crowds the quest for freedom goes on

Jim Masselos 19 January 2011 1568 words

Thane railway station in Mumbai. Prasad Kholkute/Flickr

Mumbai Fables
By Gyan Prakash | Princeton University Press | $49.95

Mumbai Human Development Report
Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai | Oxford University Press | Rs980

Does size matter? Over the years Mumbai has steadily moved up the league of world cities and is currently, with a population of just over eighteen million, pegged equal second after Tokyo by the UN Development Program. The Washington-based Population Institute forecasts the city will grow to more than twenty-eight million over the next two decades; by that time it will have surpassed the Japanese capital. The Mumbai Human Development Report, which defines the city boundaries more narrowly, sees a city of between fifteen and twenty-one million by 2031, depending on how the relativities of births, deaths and migration work out.

But does it really matter whether Mumbai is or becomes the second, third, first or whatever sized city? It’s already a very big city and, whatever the scenario, it is going to get bigger. It’s already a place where too many people cram into a tight north–south axis of space, the heritage of a colonial past that melded a clutch of marshy islands into a jutting peninsula between a large harbour and the Arabian Sea. What compounds the urgency of the sheer mass of numbers is the density of their togetherness. Again the Mumbai Report is informative – and distressing. Greater Mumbai has around 27,366 people per square kilometre and Mumbai City (the space of the conjoined Bombay Island) a massive 48,581 people per square kilometre, with one municipal ward reaching what might be the highest concentration anywhere: 114,001 people living in an area of just 1.8 square kilometres.

Such figures highlight a paradox of contemporary city life. People still come to Mumbai or to its feeder dormitories despite its numbers, its clogging densities and such extreme lack of housing that poorer migrants have little choice but to squat on pavements or move into shanties and slums. (There were over 1,331,984 slum households in 2001 and an estimated slum population of just under seven million.) Yet they keep coming. The city has something attractive above and beyond the push factor of rural impoverishment or the pull of urban jobs – all implied in the title Gillian Tindall used for her 1982 biography of Bombay, The City of Gold. Re-named in the mid 1990s in response to right-wing fundamentalist populism, Bombay/Mumbai contained the idea of a utopia, the place of wealth and success – or at least where a living could be secured and perhaps even greater rewards attained. But Mumbai had, and has, something else, a presence, and a quality that permeates the imagination and turns it into not merely a big but a great city.

It is this character that intrigues Gyan Prakash. In Mumbai Fables he presents us with a personal narrative of how he has perceived the city, and his encounters are both emotional and intellectual, distant and up close. They begin with his youthful fancies of the city from the perspective of the distant and very different “backward state” of Bihar to the north, and continue with his later experiences in the city. They end with the magisterial viewpoint of the author as Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University.

Prakash presents the city as the place of fable, of many and different fables for people throughout India. Hence the title of the book, and the frequent use of the word myth to describe the city. He uses the word both as noun and adjective – as in the mythic city or the city of myth – but also in the contradictory meanings of a chimera, or a false and exaggerated belief, on the one hand, and of the legendary and renowned on the other. The tension between the two meanings enables him to hang on his theme discussions about film, writing, songs, building styles, painting and how the city has developed its own imagined corpus of what it is.

His examples range from Bollywood films and songs through to the exceptional short story writer, Manto, and other progressive left-wing authors – with, of course, a reference to Rushdie, some of whose novels are sited in the city’s elite suburbs. (Does this make Rushdie a suburban writer?) There is an account, too, of the Progressive Artists Group of the 1940s and 1950s who, in their contemporary world art praxis, reshaped modes of seeing and painting in the recently independent nation. More recent artists with their searing critiques of urban living, and local Hindi comic books featuring superhero Doga fighting the evils of contemporary life in Batmanesque gloaming become integral to Prakash’s discussion about the destruction of urban values. By bringing such creative responses together to suit his critiques of what city life in Mumbai has become, Prakash nevertheless reinforces the larger-than-life character of the city. It is larger imagined than it is in reality – larger because it is mediated through sites of creativity and culture, which generate images that become super-real.

Much of this matches the author’s journey into a Bombay that changes with the stages in his life and his own experiences. In his youthful days in Patna, the capital of Bihar, and later in Delhi, Mumbai satisfied his student desire for modernity; but later, when he is confronted by the overpowering reality of urban inequality and disintegration, Prakash can only see the city as “a wasteland of broken modernist dreams,” though much of his material, in fact, presents a contrary interpretation. His accounts of Mumbai’s recent history of communal riots, crime gang warfare, police killings, terrorist attacks, fundamentalist street politics, corrupt urban developments, natural disasters, oppression and exploitation lead to further revision of his stance and a critique of all gigantic cities. The idea of cities as the space for rational discourse and civil society, the image of the cosmopolitan city and the notion of an internally coherent urban entity segue into incoherence and fragmentation. “To some extent all modern cities are patched-up societies composed of strangers,” he tells us, and he agrees with the Dalit (untouchable) contemporary poet, Namdeo Dhasal, when he calls Mumbai “my dear slut.” For Dhasal, though, Mumbai is still his, whatever dehumanising experiences it provides – and, perhaps more than just a patched-up aggregation of bodies crammed into minimal space, it is a place of freedom.

Prakash provides a fine overview account of the city from its period as a colonial port city – “the muck of colonial despotism,” as he reflexively and not quite plausibly puts it – through the paternalism of the early years of Nehruvian independence after 1947, and on to the troubles of recent years. He brings together much interesting material in what is a dual narrative, that of the city and that of his personal journey of changing readings of the city. He presents the varieties of city life, the multiplicities and inequalities, but overall he sees the city in terms of fragmentation and dissolution – not a view most Mumbai people would necessarily agree with. The massive waves of popular support and concern for the city as a wounded organism following the multiple train bombings of 2006 suggest, despite some limited and minimal vigilante responsive action, that the notion of city unity is not chimera but is a real, if not always evident, fact of city living. City people necessarily live and function in a co-existent mode and the mass of numbers brings them together just as much as it might set up the conditions for anomie.

MUCH the same concerns– about population and density, economic underpinnings, slums, equity, gender issues, health, education, quality of life and human development – inform the Mumbai Development Report. But its main concern is to formulate policies with practical effect and beneficial outcomes rather than engage in self-analysis. Its insights are based on hard detail presented in tables of statistics that are remarkably clear and accessible – and the conclusions are measured, humane and eminently sensible. As a report from and for the municipality, it may well have inbuilt biases but they are not evident. It shows a deep understanding of conditions and problems and the concluding chapters point to possible solutions – none of which seem impractical.

There is common sense in the report’s view that as a mega-city the municipality is constantly managing crises, the biggest being the very size of the issues it is confronted with. This raises the question of the role of local government: are the issues still local enough for local government to deal with? As an administration it is faced by a population increasing “to the extent of being unmanageable” and at the cost of imposing dysfunctionalities on the city. There is only so much any municipality can do, the report contends.

Perhaps the solution is to put disincentives in place, such that “the lure of Mumbai should diminish and provide counter-magnets which provide increased pulls.” In the meantime, the report recommends more infrastructure, more satellite cities and more concern to use migrants – not only slum dwellers but other more skilled people who also flock to the city – as a resource base. Should these and other more detailed conclusions be implemented, and if they work, then in the future there may well be no role or any need for future Mumbai Fables. Or if there is need, it will be surrounding another place, in another space with other priorities and compulsions. •