‘It is in the realm of cosmopolitanism that Bombay has such symbolic importance to India’


Chaupati Beach during Ganesh Visarjan

From The Book:

Unlike New Delhi, India’s capital, Bombay is not a city rich with history. Unlike Calcutta, whose cultural icons include Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, Bombay houses (in ostentatious bungalows) the stars of barely-watchable Bollywood melodramas. Bombay makes news when terrorists attack the city (as they did most recently in November 2008), or when Mukesh Ambani, the wealthiest man in India, spends a billion dollars to erect a skyscraper for himself, or when the symbol of its squalor, the slum, provides the backdrop for an Academy Award-winning film. But Bombay is India’s most populous city, and it remains the most attractive destination for Indians from outside the metropolitan area.

Bombay is also India’s face to the world—the star of the East with its face to the West. It is the energetic port where people come to seek their fortune: the girl who wants to be a Bollywood star, the couple that wants to escape the social pressures of caste, the boy who wants to get on a ship and see the world, the trader who wants to prosper. It is India’s Manhattan: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. It has glamour, glitter, and money—lots of money. And it is now under siege from people both inside and outside the country who wish to see India’s multicultural democracy fail.

Gyan Prakash chronicles Bombay with verve and panache in his new book. Prakash was not born in the city; his interest and affection developed later. He approaches Bombay like a cultural anthropologist. He looks at the city’s familiar landmarks—the Gateway of India, the docks, the Marine Drive—and sweeps away the layers of accumulated dust. At first his narrative seems disjointed: he pieces together scraps of information from tabloids, century-old novels, popular history, poetry, billboards, advertising posters, and serious academic works—with the enthusiasm of an eclectic collector. Each episode he details provides a glimpse into the city’s past and its essence. And just when you question if there is a coherent narrative, he brings you to the beach by the waterfront, asking you to trust him, and makes you look through the hole in a box. And then he gives the box—the bioscope—a shake, and it becomes a kaleidoscope, the images find their place, and a mesmerizing maximum city emerges.

“Why Bombay Matters”, Salil Tripathi, The Book