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

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

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.

A sudden turn off Crawford Market gives you a whole new perspective on that bazaar. {{name}}

However, Mumbai seems to be particularly afflicted. Few metropolitan cities in contemporary India – the world even – reveal similar levels of anxieties, unleash as much passion, demand such unstinting loyalty, or threaten straying citizens with ultimatums of excommunication the way Mumbai does. Present-day Mumbai urges you to forget that it was once Bombay. It is as much about giving up colonial symbols as dealing with the constant fear of remembering – even by accident or a slip of the tongue. The cost of breaching memory can be serious, as Karan Johar recently found out when his scriptwriter forgot that Mumbai should not be called Bombay, even on the screen.

And yet no matter to what extent Mumbaikars like to think of themselves as being distinct, either in terms of identity or character, their lives are a familiar amalgamation of several histories and accidents. Mumbai is as much a case of multiple-personality syndrome as the other great urban conglomerations.

The denial of this manifold character generates crazier notions – the idea that the city belongs to just one language or community, for instance, which is simply not true. Not because Mumbai is especially cosmopolitan relative to other Indian cities but because in denying its own diversity it also tacitly denies the multiplicities inherent in every urban space – whether it is Nasik or Kolhapur or Shillong or Delhi. Mumbai’s cosmopolitan self-image was often derived from a larger urban mythology, which pretended that other cities were cultural monoliths. This may have retroactively distorted its own past and now tragically affected its future.

When a part of Mumbai denies its connections to Surat, Sangli, Goa or Kanpur – connections that are historically configured – then this denial creates fertile ground for the rise of hysterically nativist ideologies. When it glosses over the realities that have shaped its histories, when its official or popular imagination doesn’t allow for inherent multiplicities to be expressed – both in the form of a varied vernacular or a cosmopolitan sensibility – it’s easy to construct an extreme identity.

Never in their colonial history were Calcutta, Madras or Bombay anything but urban centres with continuous inflows of people from Karachi, Goa, Patna, Cochin or Surat. And these populations always saw their presence in those cities as extensions of their past identities. Goan clubs in Kalbadevi and Dhobi Talao were named after the particular villages that their members came from. Slices of Surat were reproduced in the alleyways of Bhuleshwar, as Mehta points out.

Neither were cities like Delhi or Lucknow, in a pre-colonial context, confined to the boundaries of their own modern-day geographies. This is even truer of Bhopal and Hyderabad. As bazaars and trading centres, cities – as any urban historian will confirm – are intrinsically diverse places that tend to reach out into the hinterland. And yet, when considered with a nationalist gaze, they harden. No wonder Calcutta became ‘Bengali’ and Bombay had to become Mumbai after the vast urban systems they were part of were reorganised according to newer boundaries, and the states of West Bengal and Maharashtra caged them in the name of providing distinct, stable, sub-nationalist identities.

The effortless way in which Mumbai used to absorb its multiple selves – local railway stations would be simultaneously named in the Gujarati, Devnagiri and English scripts, for instance – soon broke down, like any other nervous personality made to feel abnormal for no fault of its own. The multiple scripts on Mumbai’s railway stations eventually faded away before being painted over permanently—with tremendous sharpness and clear omissions. The Gujarati heritage of the city started to fall apart, a heritage inextricably intertwined with the Maharashtrian ethos that flowed through the city’s native-colonial past. And one that is most vivid and alive in Bhuleshwar.

Bhuleshwar defies the nationalist logic overlying Mumbai’s official gaze. It is a labyrinthine network of markets, shrines and closely-built homes that emerges from the eighteenth-century docks lining the city’s eastern waterfront. It is special to the memory of middle-class political Mumbai – at once Gujarati, Marathi, Goan, Jain – each multiplied many times over by clan, village and lineage. This is where social reformation, internal dialogue with colonial history, coming to terms with modernity – in short everything that shaped Mumbai’s contemporary sensibilities began. From publishing houses to Irani cafes, from businesses to artisanal manufacture, all that paved the way for the emergence of a modern-day Mumbaikar are part of this neighbourhood’s colourful story. It emerged through wave upon wave of migration into colonial Mumbai from different parts of the subcontinent – all migrants stamping on its streets their individual dreams, eccentric personalities and unimaginable ambitions.

For a citizen living in any part of Mumbai/Bombay, even if miles away from the uncertain boundaries of Bhuleshwar, this neighbourhood feels special. You know that this is where the fountainhead of energy that is replicated everywhere else lies. Anyone who has a historical connection with the city needs to return to these bylanes to reconnect. Not as a nostalgic memory-lane detour, but one that is tangibly connected to real needs – bazaars and markets. The streets remain the best places to bargain.

Mehta’s book invites every reader to become an Alice in an urban dreamscape and he thoughtfully provides a few extra blank pages in which to inscribe your own notes. In fact, the book has many blanks, unfinished agendas and pages in progress. Its prose takes the form of sketches and jottings that meander and flow quite unpredictably. Mehta takes all the liberties that contemporary theory has given us regarding texts at large and puts them into practice unselfconsciously. This makes the book a bit difficult to navigate – notwithstanding Mehta’s own successful navigations of the streets that he lovingly describes. Nevertheless, it encourages you to make several interpretations and digressions on your own and leaves you to decide how to deal with them. Mehta invites the reader to use the book as a springboard for reflections on the city as a whole rather than as a walking guide to a specific neighbourhood.

He begins by introducing the geography of Bhuleshwar from the vantage point of the everyday resident. It is a personalised introduction that then flies off into theoretical excursions about the nature of cities at large. He analyses the intricacies of documenting oral histories, the process of understanding images and artefacts, and offers the simple pleasure of walking through streets as a valid methodology. His imagination rides on past travels to other places. His own life as a teacher of architecture allows him to harness years and years of mapping and documenting neighbourhoods with his students – only to scrutinise those very acts as fiercely as possible. He asks: “But what maps do we work with every day? Are our daily maps sheets of coloured paper in our hands? Does our map have textures and smells? Does our map tell us what was rough and hard and where the noise levels plummet? Do we navigate streets in a way similar to a blind person reading and seeing the most animated stories through a bunch of pages punched with holes?”

The JJ flyover runs from the Crawford Market all the way to Byculla, spanning some of Mumbai’s densest neighbourhoods. The JJ flyover runs from the Crawford Market all the way to Byculla, spanning some of Mumbai’s densest neighbourhoods. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS © URBZOO

These questions provide clues to what lies ahead: a complex tour through several overlaid segments of life in a difficult to categorise locality. Oral history and archival records, visual readings and architectural interpretations coalesce. He examines, while walking past a Parsi Panchayat, the conservative notions that trapped women in prefabricated roles in the nineteenth century, then pauses abruptly in front of Bhangwadi – which literally translates into ‘whole crushed marijuana hamlet’ and pontificates, quite surprisingly, on the role of opium in Mumbai’s colonial history. He then draws your attention to sculptures on buildings you may have walked past every day for several decades without noticing and uses them to relate unknown vignettes about the city’s cultural heritage. As we move from the University of Mumbai, with its industrial-age tower, he points out frozen bits of the city’s ethnic histories in the form of eight traditionally-attired stony men bearing silent witness to the churning landscape around them. They have the best vantage point from which to see the morphing city below: hawkers and booksellers getting thrown off Churchgate’s streets in a civic move to clear up public space or the maidans caged with moulded iron railings.

MEHTA PROVIDES US with forgotten tales that may have circulated in old gazetteers, unleashed as startlingly as the sudden appearance of a bull’s soulful eyes in the middle of a noisy street in Kalbadevi. We hear in some detail about the tragic incident concerning two women – one Parsi – who jumped to their death in 1891 from that very same university tower described in an earlier passage. They were taking a stroll in the Oval Maidan to escape the crowded bylanes of the native town, only to be chased by a suspicious-looking man. To save their honour they decided, rather drastically, to end their lives. One longs to know more. But, in the very manner that a sudden turn off Crawford Market gives you a whole new perspective on that bazaar, this tantalising tale gives way to – of all the things – a detailed description of new urban policy. This is repeated quite often through the book and had I not been so used to the actual world of Bhuleshwar, navigating the book would have been even harder. Not all readers will be able to take the sudden twists and turns with as much patience.

While in the middle of a detailed historical description of the wadis (settlements/hamlets/homesteads/orchards) of Girgaum, we are introduced to a resident living there today. This becomes an opportunity to provide an interior perspective on the life of typical middle-class residents, who have a special place in Mumbai’s distinctive region-flavoured, vernacular cosmopolitanism. Such moves, focusing on biography, are particularly rewarding in Mehta’s excellently written chapter on ‘Maps and Masks – The Heritage of Dirt’ where he introduces us to the dark, dank alleys of Bhuleshwar through the eyes of the city’s municipal sweepers. His meditations on garbage become a fertile starting point to re-examine caste and urban history and could easily have become a tool for analysis at multiple levels all through the book.

As an ethnographic style that uses history, conversations, biography and simple descriptions, this is the most successful chapter. This is where Mehta’s multiple skills as an architect with an eye for detail, a theoretically astute pedagogue with an evangelist’s zeal for field visits, and a longtime resident of the streets of old Bombay – Parsi and all – come to be used in their full measure. He brings to life scenes from the past – tramways thundering through congested roads, trusts that run and manage wells that provide water to many, the way clocks and watches slowly became part of everyday life, and the collective bathing and washing tanks that have only left behind names attached to pin codes. He has a good eye for detail and manages to provide interesting close-ups of symbols that appear on buildings and structures. The ubiquitous cow head, the Judaic star, the elephants on doorways that were only part of the background of one’s consciousness start staring at you with greater intensity now that he has brought them to your attention.

Bazaar architecture: Mumbai’s Carwford Market. {{name}}

The last chapter, ‘Purdah,’ works very well in this regard and Mehta uses the considerably extensive archive of literary and theatrical history to recount the most fascinating details of creative life in Bhuleshwar. The Bombay Parsi Theatre came into its own thanks to its proximity with the neighbourhood with its chain of performing spaces and theatres that lit up the city in the late-nineteenth century. Architectural details of performing spaces are brought into focus along with reflections on texts performed or written about. Once again, there is no apparent order in how this history is presented and the reader has to negotiate between time periods compressed between short paragraphs. You could be introduced to a text about a performance from the late-nineteenth century and subsequently be informed about a building that was a shrine to theatre in the mid-eighteenth century. This only happens because there is no other way to tell these stories if you are using existing geography as a starting point and have such a rich historical imagination. Such travelling to and fro between the past and the present may be the only possible way to chronicle a place such as Bhuleshwar.

In literary terms you have to reveal this complexity through a massive investment in form and style so that time and space synchronise in special ways. Neighbourhoods such as Bhuleshwar cannot be represented textually with any ease. You need a range of skills to be able to do justice to your subject matter – especially when you take on the task of navigating its streets using multiple perspectives. The strength of the book is that it manages to do a very commendable job without compromising the complexity of its subject matter, but the limitation is that it does not adequately use the entire arsenal at its disposal. Using theory about textuality to justify modes of communication is a shortcut. Using the haziness of a wonderland is a device that must be given up at some point. It is only a gateway, an invitation. And graphics and photographs – which an architect handles with ease and Mehta has been generous and exuberant on this count – must be used with a lot more thought given to their location within the text.

Mehta could have stepped back a little, moved away from the networked maze and made more of an attempt to historicise the neighbourhood. Not in the sense of providing more datelines but actually connecting to the past through the fantasies evoked. It is vital to make connections beyond geography so that one does truly get lost – not just forgetting which street you are on but also which city you are in.

The docks lining the city’s eastern waterfront {{name}}

For many of us who mine Mumbai for insight into urban worlds, one neighbourhood takes us to another and then another until we finally reach a new city altogether. Just as there are no real divisions between villages in Worli, along Alibaug, in Dharavi or Gorai, there are no real divisions between an enclave of shops off a street in Kalbadevi and those that exist around a corner in Pune, except those divisions official narratives insist upon. The worlds of cities are all about underground connections which become visible through a historical eye.

All said and done, though, Mehta’s book makes for a fine read and is the perfect invitation for anyone interested in going on a date with the ‘Lord of Forgetting.’ The real fun starts when you stop trying to remember where you are.

(This review-essay emerged from conversations with Matias Echanove with whom I work closely in Mumbai. RS.)