The Lord of Forgetting

Take a trip to native-colonial Bhuleshwar to appreciate the tussles between remembering and forgetting that have inflected Bombay’s cosmopolitan soul

01 February 2010
Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood Kaiwan Mehta, Yoda Press, Delhi, 2009 Rs 295, Pp 188

KAIWAN MEHTA’S EXPLORATION of Mumbai’s colonial heart plays with the idea of location. He deliberately chooses to link the name of the city’s oldest cluster of habitats, Bhuleshwar, with the word bhoolna, or forgetting your way. He proceeds to let the evocation permeate all the surrounding localities so that the essence of both the name and the place become diffused. He urges you to forget that Bhuleshwar could be confined by a fixed address, and places his commentary in the world of fantasy by alluding to the imagery of a wonderland.

The source of that fantasy is the colonial moment. Bhuleshwar becomes a way of reaching out imaginatively to the nineteenth and early-twentieth century past of Mumbai and seeing it refracted many times over in our contemporary lives. It is a touch of small-town India, complete with temples, shrines, narrow streets, caste-inflected enterprises and both the freedom from one’s roots as well as the abrupt tightening of tradition’s stranglehold should you stray too far. A glimpse of Surat here, a touch of Goa there, an entire lane of Konkan-style coastal homes turning into a small street that could well have existed in colonial, equally cosmopolitan Karachi. The neighbourhood becomes a means to understanding Mumbai as a whole through a process of both forgetting and remembering.

Walking through the streets of Kolkata/Calcutta, we quickly pull the Bengali carpet over the thick layer of Bihari undergrowth in its dusty bylanes. We develop blind spots in our vision when confronted with a touch of Malayalam in Chennai/Madras or Tamil in Bengaluru/Bangalore. We may celebrate the simulated memories of Lahore in the streets of Old Delhi, but the city’s modern self-image has little to do with that past. Cities often suffer from an identity crisis linked to remembering and forgetting. Naming and re-naming is only a mild expression of this. Wholesale battles in neighbourhoods, fiery debates in Parliament and scuffles on the streets are other spin-offs, which no city in the world is really free from.

Keywords: Mumbai Bombay postcolonialism colonial Bombay Bhuleshwar Kalbadevi urban neighbourhoods cartography Kaiwan Mehta Alice in Bhuleshwar Rahul Srivastava