Book Review: ‘Bombay Novels: Some Insights in Spatial Criticism’ by Rohan Shivkumar

The city of Bombay/Mumbai is the archetypal city of the 20th century in South Asia. It seems to represent the metropolitan realities and desires in the minds of us living in the subcontinent. It houses both the dreams and the nightmares of urbanity. Its spaces have become the landscape for the mythologies of modernity.

Filmmakers, artists, poets and novelists have all tried in their work to try and make sense of this city. As a space from where these artists worked and as the muse that shaped their work, the city has loomed large in the stories that we told each other over the last 175 years. In each of these through the characters we created and read about, we vicariously lived all those lives. The city was not only the spaces we inhabited in our everyday lives, but also this city that we lived, loved and died in, in our imagination. But what is this city that emerged between the real and the imaginary. What are its contours? Over the past few years there has been an increasing interest in trying to understand and analyze this city. Academics and cultural theorists have tried to, through their disciplines, attempted to come to terms with the city. However, in this attempt the city has often slipped out of their grasp. Disciplinary boundaries and strictures seem to constrain the understanding of the turbulent landscape of the metropolis. The city challenges the discipline and refuses to be tamed. Disciplines themselves have had to break open and embrace other ways of seeing.

Mamta Mantri’s book ‘Bombay Novels: Some Insights in Spatial Criticism’ is a brave and pioneering attempt to splice together urban history, urban theory and literary analysis to speak of the city of Bombay, hoping that, in collapsing these boundaries, new knowledge might emerge. This, it is hoped will allow us to evolve new frameworks through which we can understand what it means to be an urban citizen in the globalized metropolis. In the book, Mamta chooses four novels on the city of Bombay/Mumbai for analysis. They are Kiran Nagarkar’s ‘Ravan and Eddie’ (1995), a story of a friendship set in the archetypical industrial housing or the chawls of the city, Daya Pawar’s semi-autobiographical ‘Baluta’ (written in Marathi in 1978 and translated into English by Jerry Pinto in 2015) a tale of a Dalit man finding freedom and repression in the city, Anita Desai’s ‘Baumgartner’s Bombay’ (1988), the story of a German Jew who flees the Holocaust by coming to India, and ‘Shantaram’ (2003) by Gregory David Roberts, another story of an outsider coming to the city to find himself. All the stories are largely located in the island city, or the historic core of the city and characters inhabit very particular geographies and go through incidents that are typical of those landscapes. In a very informative chapter, Mamta places these texts within the history of writings on the city of Bombay/Mumbai, that begin with early colonial impressions of the city, to writings in vernacular languages, to poetry that emerged from and coincided with political movements.

Mamta uses the twin discourses of urban history and urban theory to analyze the novels. By sketching out the history of Mumbai, she describes the larger changes that have shaped the spaces within which these stories are to take place. These include the monuments of the colonial core, the lanes and neighbourhoods of the inner city, the industrial and port lands with their housing colonies and the colonial suburbs. By historicising these spaces, she is able to pull these texts out of the contexts within which they reside, and inhabit them through the journeys of the characters in the novels. The novels become a way for us to read a history of the city through inhabitation, through the subjective experiences of the characters in the book.

To be able to make sense of this inhabitation, she turns to urban philosophers like Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault who provide her with theoretical frameworks and tools. These include Lefebvre’s propositions on the production of spaces, Benjamin’s figure of the flaneur and Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia. She uses these tools to tease out the themes of modernity and urbanity as represented by the authors in the text. With this move, she analyses not the experience of the ‘real’ city (whatever that might be) but the fictional city as real. This allows us to see the city as a constantly shifting site of imaginations and subjectivities, as a series of four distinctly disparate journeys in which the same space mutates into another.

In collapsing different natures of text upon one another, the city as a historic and spatial text, the novel as the journey of a character within the landscape of the city, literary analysis and urban theory, Mamta presents us with an argument that emerges in kaleidoscopic mirrorings, within overlaps and interstices.

Rohan Shivkumar

Architect and Film maker

Dean, Research and Academic Development

Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies, Mumbai

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