Friday, April 30, 2010

[...and mumbai] mehta: alice in bhuleshwar

#42 Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood, Kaiwan Mehta

I won't, and you will see why, but I could hug this book for a number of reasons. Its passion for its subject, the old 'native' neighbourhood of Bhuleshwar in South Bombay, practically runs off the page. Its ideas are subtle. Its presentation of modern-day challenges is clear-eyed but not prescriptive or hectoring. Its research is astounding: from the backstories of individual wadis [compounds, or colonies, or co-ops, as we might understand them], to the popular art and literature in a multitude of languages that originated from Bhuleshwar, it packs in so many little facets, so many illuminating histories of the neighbourhood, that anyone interested in Bombay could perhaps only wish for a series of similar books about other neighbourhoods in the city: ones with longer or shorter histories, with different immigrant cultures, and with different histories of labour and land relations - yet so clearly bound by some of the same glue that has stuck Bhuleshwar together.

Bhuleshwar is an amorphous area - it represents the small but stunningly diverse edge of what was once Bombay's white neighbourhood, the old commercial and government district at the southernmost tip of the island, running off left on the north-west to include the residential districts of Malabar Hill and Napean Sea Road. Across and beyond these lay the native town of the labourers, the tradesmen, and the shopkeepers, starting uncertainly from the green fringe of what is today called Azad Maidan, and hemmed in between Marine Lines and Charni Road stations [a distance that is covered in three minutes by a train on the Western line]. In Mehta's walk through this area, he employs a variety of different disciplines to try and uncover its logic - a difficult and limiting term, he warns us at the very outset. Can it be explained by its architecture? Its economics? Its history? Its art? The oral testimonies of its residents? He says,

At this point I would wish to discuss the 'experience' of a city...This is not for documentation or descriptive purposes, but to understand the structure of experiences, the forms in which this experience is structures, the articulations of this experience, for it is the images of this experience - the one we experience and the one we imagine and fantasise about - that is the structure of urbanity and city-ness essentially.

And sadly, this is how the book becomes unreadable, except as an intelligent but somewhat unintelligble jumble. Mehta clearly has ideas and stories coming out of his ears, and he has hypotheses and flights of fancy to lighten up virtually every single page of this little book. But it is about as coherent as a map of Bandra West, which as everyone knows is a rabbit warren masquerading as a neighbourhood. This is obviously what Mehta wants to indicate, as evident in his title: that even the a-ha! moment of identification we experience, whether as tourists or as inhabitants, is solipsistic. But in this case, 'show not tell' is a mistaken strategy. I come away with no lasting impressions of the book, except perhaps that an editor with a gimlet eye and a red pen might have done something truly wonderful with this material. Perhaps I need to tackle it again, with a highlighter and a bunch of post-its this time, just to see what is in it. Damn it, Bombay, THIS IS LIKE LIVED CRITICISM OR SOMETHING.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Human Voices
Heir to the Glimmering World
Chasing the Sun: Stories from Africa
Fire Sale
The Leopard

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