Monday, November 22, 2010

gyan prakash: mumbai fables

I would have loved to write a more detailed review of this book, which I recommend unreservedly. Instead, this is a piece I wrote for Mint Lounge earlier this month on the writing of the book itself. You can read it in newspaper version here.

Publishers often invite Bollywood celebrities to the Mumbai launches of their books, perhaps assuming that people in the city are more likely to come to literary events for movie glamour than out of bookish interest. But Anurag Kashyap was not exactly providing showbiz gloss to the book reception for Gyan Prakash's 'Mumbai Fables,' held late last month in Churchgate's storied old Astoria Hotel: he was there to celebrate a friend and collaborator. Prakash also happens to be the scriptwriter of Kashyap's own mysterious but oddly well-known future project, the film 'Bombay Velvet.' The Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University may seem like an unlikely fount of creativity for Kashyap's famously punk sensibilities. But then his new book, even with its impeccable [meticulousness] and impressive depth of research, is an unlikely book for a historian to write.

Its nine chapters each deal with an element of Mumbai's history through the prism of the texts and myths they have created and sustained. This high literary approach relies on everything from long-buried archival records of land scams and back issues of Bal Thackeray's early mouthpiece, Marmik, to 19th century Parsi detective novels and Hindi comic books. Perhaps it was easier than it seems, given the sheer drama of this multitude of sources, for Prakash to unearth a Bollywood script in the material as a serious academic work.

"To write the history of Mumbai at this level required, in my view, strong story telling without dumbing it all down," Prakash explains in an email conversation. "Indeed, my critique of Bollywood is that they don't take their storytelling seriously. Plots are often full of holes, the characters lack compelling motivations, and the context lacks richness. In my case, strong storytelling in Mumbai Fables and writing Bombay Velvet came naturally since I took both to be serious ventures."

Bombay Velvet, as Kashyap and Prakash said at the book reception, draws from material from 'several chapters in the book.' "I was able to go back and forth," says Prakash, "making the script rich with actual details from Mumbai's history, and turning the book cinematic." It is set in a nightclub: an inspiration drawn from a chapter of history that doesn't make it into Mumbai Fables, but is part of another collaboration: between Prakash and Mumbai journalist and author Naresh Fernandes, who has written extensively on Mumbai's 'Jazz Age' between the 1930s and '60's, when a local jazz culture flourished in Mumbai's nightclubs thanks to talented musicians, many of Goan Catholic origin, and an enthusiastic audience. Many of these musicians doubled up as Bollywood sessions players, or Konkani pop stars. Fernandes' essay about them in the [2002] anthology of Mumbai writing, 'Bombay, Meri Jaan,' caught Prakash's attention, and subsequently inspired him to write, in 2005, 'A Bombay Story.' "Anurag immediately liked its noir quality. I went to Anurag because I had seen his unreleased film "Paanch," and thought that he had the sensibility and the visual imagination to turn this into a film." Along the way, the title changed to Bombay Velvet, and finally, Prakash wrote the first draft of the script in early 2009 while also writing Mumbai Fables."

A double-pronged creative feat of that scope cannot be easy, but it reflects Prakash's own interest in the multiplicity of narratives, and the way they inform the the grand narrative of Mumbai's development as India's city of dreams. 'My goal,’ he writes in an early chapter, ‘is not to strip fact from fiction…I am interested in uncovering the backstories of Mumbai’s history bercause they reveal its experience as a modern city, as a society built up from scratch.’ Along the way, he unearths the counternarrative of that experience, the inseparable other half of Mumbai's self-image: that of a cruel, corrupt city, full of despair and destruction. Perhaps nowhere is this aspect of Mumbai's narrative more starkly realised than in Prakash's chapter on Doga, the Hindi comic-book superhero who protects the city's marginalised and helpless by ruthlessly eliminating criminals. His vigilantism is so angry and bloody that it can make Batman seem like a flower child. But this raw, wish-fulfilling hero who seems to have fought every major city problem over the last two decades is not a Mumbai creation: he was been imagined being by a team at Delhi-based Raj Comics, a large and extremely popular publisher of Hindi-language comics and paperbacks.

"I found it fascinating that the people who came up with the idea were located in Delhi, not Mumbai," Prakash explains. "There are many reasons for it, including the fact that Mumbai doesn't have a strong comic book publisher. But also important is the fact that Doga himself is an outsider in two senses. He is an outsider who comes to Mumbai from the Chambal Valley. But as a masked superhero, he is also an outsider, an estranged, angst-ridden character, outside society and its norms."

Sanjay Gupta, studio head at Raj Comics, explains that they wanted a particular setting for the superhero they created in 1989 - a time when larger-than-life gang wars and balletic violence seemed to be Mumbai's sole preserve. "We have superheroes set in other cities too, and Mumbai was fascinating in this respect. We keep up with newspapers and TV news for fresh news of the city, and while we sell all over India, readers in Mumbai do have a particular attachment to Doga." And it isn't just the young adults who buy out new Doga issues at railway stations the minute they are out. Doga piqued Kashyap's own interest when Prakash introduced him to the comic, and the Doga film, written and directed by Kashyap, is due to go on the floors early next year.

Fernandes, who has himself written about another Raj Comics hero - the Goan musician-turned-zombie Anthony Gonsalves - in connection with Mumbai and Goa's musical history, was the other guest of honour at Prakash's reception. His work is one of Bombay Velvet’s underpinnings: a rare instance of a Hindi film consciously informed by a specific historical narrative. Indeed, conscious evocations of city history are relatively rare in most forms of Mumbai’s popular culture.

"There is no dearth of cultural histories or Mumbai books at all," he says, when I ask him about whether Prakash's book is a rare phenomenon. "We've always produced a lot of material examining and questioning ourselves. But we're not always concerned with the results.” While Mumbai has a long history of citizens thinking it gets worse all the time, he says, “there really has been a rupture of the cultural continuum since the ‘90s: the new economy seems to blow up the old sense of what it means to be a Bombayite.”

In the Mumbai of the imagination that Prakash writes of, contradictions are part of how the Mumbai story continues to tell itself: it holds out both love and indifference, despair and promise. By bringing history to an often stubbornly ahistorical city, Prakash seems to indicate that Mumbai's past is still connected with its future.

anuja chauhan: battle for bittora

A version of this review appeared in Mint Lounge on November 20, here.

Two of India’s youngest candidates for election to Parliament are fighting it out in their home constituency of Bittora in ‘Pavit Pradesh.’ Zain Altaf Khan has a number of posh degrees and a ticket as token Muslim from rightwing hardliners IJP. Our protagonist, Sarojini Pande, is contesting her seat on behalf of the Pragati Party, the ‘politically correct Noah’s Ark,’ and her grandmother, a corrupt old veteran politician fighting one last poll battle. From her cosy, low-profile urban yuppie lifestyle, Jinni (‘Mohammedan sa name hai,’ her grandmother frostily dismisses the nickname) must overcome opposition schemes, a generation gap the size of Pavit Pradesh with her grandmother, the byzantine inner workings of the Party, and her own attitude to the whole deal, which is two parts skepticism and one part well-intentioned naivété. The gorgeous Zain, of course, happens to be just another hurdle.

With its thinly-veiled grounding in real-life Indian politics, popular culture references that will almost certainly age badly and its flippancy about some of India’s electoral diseases, Anuja Chauhan’s Battle for Bittora really shouldn’t be so amusing. In fact, it is not only funny, but also warm-hearted, well-paced and a little sexy. Literary quirks that would be annoying in less capable hands – a relaxed attitude to Hinglish, an overreliance on italics – become inconsequential quirks in her writing, easier to brush aside than ‘mosquitoes bhinn bhinnaoeing,’ to quote just one of Jinni’s improbable feats of multilingual verbing. What often grates on the ear in you-go-girl novels set in Delhi’s party circuit or Mumbai’s media studios seems perfectly in keeping with the tribulations of a character trying hard to balance her roles as genuine Pavit Pradeshi and hip world citizen at once.

Chauhan is able to strike the urbane, confessional-blogger tone of chick lit effortlessly. Indeed, we make much of Indian publishing trends towards genre-based reading, but Battle for Bittora makes it clear how far ahead of her field she is. Dialogue is effortless in the classic romantic comedy style, sentiment is sharply controlled, and characters with deep, real flaws turn out nonetheless to be likeable, and more importantly, relatable.

The world she creates for Jinni and Zain is key to this experience. The book plays out on a large canvas, but Chauhan paints it deftly. She describes the nitty-gritties of electoral drama in rural India with the aplomb of someone who really has her ear to the ground (Chauhan’s mother-in-law, Margaret Alva, is a senior Congress politician and five-time MP). As Jinni is dragged into vote-bank politics, graft accepting and thoroughly unparliamentary practices, her disgust with the system is matched only by her glee at stepping out of an air-conditioned Mumbai office and finding herself immersed in the most reality-soaked bits of the Real India. If Jinni’s inner monologue is the sort manages to encompass anxieties about the itchiness of a khadi blouse and her constituency’s water supply at once, how can her readers judge her? Self-absorbed, flawed, but ultimately charming: the stuff electoral candidates are made of.